The Crucible of Failure

General George B. McClellan
If anyone was going to save the Union from the calamity of the Civil War it was George B. McClellan. Admitted into West Point two years before the age of eligibility and graduating second in his class, the “Savior of the Union” was the cream of the crop. McClellan became one of the most powerful men in the world as he was given the second highest rank of general in the United States Army, at the ripe age of 34. He was a supreme military organizer and an incredibly gifted administrator. And he knew it.
McClellan did not lack in training, nor did he lack in self belief. There was almost a divine destiny about him as McClellan wrote His wife “God has placed a great work in my hands…I was called to it, my previous life seems to have been unwittingly directed to this great end.” Desperate times called for a “man of destiny,” and the stars seemed to align for George McClellan. The papers loved him, his own troops adored him, and the President himself said that he would “hold McClellan’s horse” if it would give the Union a victory.
General Ulysses S. Grant
But McClellan was not the man to save the Union. That honor fell to a shabby drunkard who had lived on poverty level in the years preceding the great war. Cursed with bad luck, every financial venture Ulysses S. Grant touched had failed. Before the war the General Grant could be found peddling fire wood on the street corner—trying to keep his family fed. Not quite the resume builder that I would deem helpful for the most important job of the century.
Yet maybe it was.
Because McClellan, qualified and gifted as he was, had a perfectionistic paranoia about himself. Not only was he narcissistic and arrogant, but he was cursed with the nasty habit of over estimating the Confederate numbers. Time and time again he refrained from committing his men to advance when he clearly had the numerical advantage. His troops never seemed to be quite ready, and he made excuses: he needed more time; He needed more reinforcements. It was never his fault. Historians roll their eyes in frustration at the opportunities missed because McClellan simply lacked the will to do what was required. He never went for it!
McClellan’s pristine success of his youth paralyzed him from risking what was necessary for victory. McPherson writes in his excellent book Battle Cry of Freedom:
“Military success could be achieved only by taking risks; McClellan seemed to shrink from the prospect. He lacked the mental and moral courage required of great generals—the will to act, to confront the terrible moment of truth on the battlefield. Having experienced nothing but success in his career, he was afraid to risk failure.”

Grant had no such qualms of taking risks or fighting to the death. When you know failure as intimately as he did you have nowhere to go but up. Instead of Grant’s prewar difficulties ruining him (as they very well could have), they formed him into the general that was necessary for the Union to win the war. Only a man who was acquainted with defeat could have the resolve of Unconditional Surrender Grant—one that would not break after day 1 of Shiloh and would not give up in the Wilderness. He was not the strategist that Lee was, nor was he as organized as his counterpart McClellan; It did not matter. Grant was a fighter.

I wonder if too much success can be a sort of curse that breeds a lethargic caution? Could defeat conversely be a sort of "blessing in disguise" because of the end product it manufactures? McPherson suggests so:
“Perhaps McClellan’s career had been too successful. He had never known, as Grant had, the despair of defeat or the humiliation of failure. He had never learned the lessons of adversity and humility.”

No one wants to learn the brutal lessons of “adversity and humility.” No one enjoys losing. But it is only in the crucible of failure that we are molded from our formlessness and given a shape. The lesson of McClellan and Grant shows us that the most precious silver is procured only after intense heat, and the greatest victories are only made possible with loss.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: Oxford UP, 2003. Kindle.


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