“I went to the White House shortly after tea where I found ‘the original gorilla,’ about as intelligent as ever. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now!”
– Gen. George B. McClellan
This evening, after a glass of wine, with a miserable chest cold keeping me aware of my mortality and unable to work out, I saw my fifteen year old son, Gabriel, taking in Ken Burns Civil War documentary. This film is woven into our family life, because we have hosted Civil War living history for 30 years here on Riley’s Farm. Some of our children’s earliest memories include walking past the tents of Union and Civil War re-enactors, sitting around campfires, arguing history and telling rum-cheered stories of valor and romance. Some of our staff found their lifelong sweethearts at these events. Even living historians die, and are born, and I just can’t watch this film without thinking of my family and friends — some who have gone on, and some who arrive every year, dressed up in impossibly adorable little uniforms and hoop skirts. I can’t hear “Ashoken Farewell” without thinking of the scores of fiddlers, from 8 years old to 80, who have sawed it out here over the years, over a sunset, making me turn my head away to grind my teeth.
America, you bittersweet beautiful girl, with your drama and your courage and your faith. Where are you? Young hipsters have turned you — “merica” — into a byword. High school football teams turn their back on your anthem. Reformed pastors have called you an idol. The pledge of allegiance has actually been compared to a Nazi Zieg Heil salute. Young Bernie voters at the Democratic National Convention worry about patriotism, color guards, and flags.
Even our nation’s bedrock — our baptist, evangelical, free will and reformed faith leaders — they seem intent on arranging for your funeral. “Donald Trump,” they proclaim, as though the man’s very name were a curse, “with his garish, money-grubbing schemes and his un-yoked tongue and his beauty pageants… how can this be anything else than a sign of judgment?”
Before you go down that road any further, let me take you back to another great crisis in American history, brought home to me tonight by my son Gabriel, who wants to be a great living historian. He’s watching documentaries. His interest touches me. He wants to share history with children. It’s our family trade, and when I saw U.S. Grant up there on the screen, and I saw Gabriel watching his story, I was just touched. All of my children actually absorbed something from this place, and the American story, and my interest in the story. If you’re a dad, you know what that means: you haven’t failed entirely.
The commander of the Union Army in the early years of the Civil War was George B. McClellan. He was immaculately credentialed, an expert by the estimation of his peers, and by every account the man who could train and lead the Union Army to victory. He was also ambitious. Abraham Lincoln had been warned McClellan thought he could run even the country better than Lincoln, and that he was considering a run for president. He was also the soul of caution, unwilling to engage the enemy even when he had them vastly outnumbered. As Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton declared, if McClellan had “..a million men, he would swear the enemy has two millions, and then would sit down in the mud and yell for three.” His caution was so profound, it inspired Lincoln’s famous lament: “General McClellan, if you’re not going to use the army, may I borrow it for a time?”
In the western theater of the war, meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant–a man who after retiring from his military career was struggling financially in civilian life–re-joined the war effort and began aggressively engaging the enemy. His victories inspired the jealousy of his superiors. He had a friend, William Sherman, who battled depression as Grant battled with whiskey. However flawed they may have been, they knew how to win battles. In the emerging folklore of the era, the “U.S.” in Grant’s name came to be known as “Unconditional Surrender.”
At this time in our history, when we are doubting ourselves, when many of our young people want to join some great global collective, when Barack Obama appears to hate our power so much he appears willing to give Iran nuclear weapons, is it possible that this tale of “expert caution” and “rude success,” this tale of “global cooperation” and “America first” is once again being played out?
Think about it. Doesn’t McClellan seem something like the expert gentlemanly failures of Mitt Romney and John McCain and Lindsey Graham? Doesn’t the brash, flawed faith of Donald Trump seem something like U.S. Grant?
On November 17, 1861 General McClellan wrote home to his wife about a meeting he had with President Lincoln: “I went to the White House shortly after tea where I found ‘the original gorilla,’ about as intelligent as ever. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now!”
You have heard the lamentations of the elite about Donald Trump: He is “Cheeto.” He is a vile buffoon. A carnival barker. A clown. According to Megyn Kelly, he is a “sexual predator.” According to George Will, (originally wrong about Reagan), Trump’s followers are “star struck acolytes.” Russell Moore has called him a “racist” for encouraging border security. Glen Beck is downright hilarious in his fulminations. You know the drill. Cher will leave the country and Robert De Niro wants to sucker punch him.
The George McClellans of our era have spoken.
Will they win?
Or do we get to go on celebrating the American story?
For Gabriel’s sake, I’d like to know.