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Civil War General George B. McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln are a study in contrasts in many ways. If ever there were examples of arrogance and humbleness in two men, it’s here.

George B. McClellan

George B. McClellan

The arrogance of McClellan is outstanding. It seems to me that if a man brags about what he has or will do and does what he brags about that we may think him a bit arrogant, but there’s some admiration there too. When Joe Namath predicted the Jets victory in Super Bowl III, he was arrogant. When he lead his team to victory, who didn’t admire him?

On November 1, 1861, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott resigned and Lincoln appointed McClellan, only 34 years old, to be both Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac, but also General-in-Chief of all the Union armies. McClellan’s response? “I can do it all.” Joe Namath, three days before the Super Bowl, “We’re going to win on Sunday. I guarantee it.” The difference? Namath lead his team to victory. McClellan kept his “team” on the practice field for most of his tenure.

When he did take them on the field of play, to continue with the football analogy, McClellan rarely got out of “warm up” mode. For example, McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (transporting his troops to the peninsula between the James and the York Rivers, to march on Richmond) stalled when McClellan, with his 70,000 men faced 17.000 Confederates near Yorktown, Virginia. Instead of attacking, McClellan settled in for a siege. Confederate General Joe Johnston later remarked, “no one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.” (p.259)

In November 1861, Lincoln and Secretary of State (William) Seward called on McClellan and were informed that the general was out but would be home soon. When McClellan returned and learned of his visitors, he ignored them and went upstairs. Lincoln and Seward waited another half-hour until a servant finally deigned to inform them that the general had gone to bed. (p. 235)

Imagine if you will…

  • President Obama (or any other) making a ‘house call’;
  • the “host” ignoring the president and going to bed.
Lincoln statue at the Soldier's Home, Washington, DC (Lincoln's Summer Cottage)

Lincoln statue at the Soldier’s Home, Washington, DC (Lincoln’s Summer Cottage)

Lincoln, in his typical humbleness, when asked about the snub, remarked, “All I want out of General McClellan is a victory, and if to hold his horse will bring it, I will gladly hold his horse.” Such humbleness is extremely rare, almost non-existent, today. I cannot think of a world leader who would call on a subordinate and who would react so humbly to such an obvious snub.

What can we learn from this example? Lincoln was in control. Some would think him slow. Rather than slow, Lincoln was patient. The type of patience Peter described in his second letter, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you…” (2 Peter 3.9a) Lincoln was patient beyond what most men will endure. But he was in control. Eventually, even Lincoln’s patience ran out and McClellan was dismissed. I think Lincoln waited so long because McClellan showed such promise and Lincoln hoped beyond hope that the promise would be fulfilled.

So, perhaps, when dealing with subordinates, we need to take a page from Lincoln and “hold their horse.” Such humbleness and patience may, turn out just like McClellan, or it may produce a Ulysses S. Grant or a William T. Sherman [Lincoln was urged to “can” both men, Grant being accused of drunkenness, to which Lincoln replied, “I can’t spare this man; he fights” (p. 255)] Learning who is worthy of having his horse held and who is not may be one of the most important leadership lessons that managers can learn today.

Quotations, with page numbers are taken from Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction by James M. McPherson.