Church Leaders and the Case of the “Slows”: The Unfortunate Legacy of George B. McClellan

I recently told our student pastor at church that the Civil War can teach us every leadership lesson there is.  (I mean, how often can you bring up Ulysses S. Grant to make a point?  You’ll have to wait until next week for that one.  So much to glean from that dark chapter.)  But let’s look at another (in)famous Union general: George Brinton McClellan (1826-1885). 

If Ulysses S. Grant had been general-in-chief at the beginning of the Civil War rather than George McClellan, the war would have ended much sooner—at least that’s those of us who see their fighting patterns (or lack thereof).  First, General McClellan.

Ah, McClellan—the one who, after a number of minor wins in Western Virginia (before it became West Virginia) was put in charge of the Army of the Potomac.  After Irwin McDowell’s catastrophic loss at Bull Run in the summer of 1861, Lincoln realized that the army needed order and discipline.  Enter McClellan, who expertly organized that titanic army and made them ready for battle.

Except that McClellan seemed rather reluctant to fight—and he never ran out of reasons.  Some estimated he did not have the stomach for the carnage that would ensue.  Others began to wonder if he were treasonous, even a Confederate sympathizer in Union garb.  Lincoln noted once that McClellan had a case of the “slows.”  Another time, he says that, while McClellan was trained as an engineer, it must have been a “stationary engine.”  When visiting the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln looked out over the vast army.  He asked an associate, “What do you see here?”  “Mr. President, I see the Army of the Potomac.”  Lincoln’s response was classic: “You’re wrong—this is McClellan’s bodyguard.” 

McClellan bought his own press at the beginning.  “Savior of the Union.”  “A young Napoleon.”  Being 34 over the largest army in the world at the time would tempt one to believe the hype.  Yet, Lincoln twice relieved him.  Once for not moving, and another time for letting Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia outmaneuver and outfight him with an army significantly smaller than McClellan’s.

(Man, I love studying the Civil War!)

What’s the lesson?  We in churches can train and drill and drill and train.  We can talk about it, look the part, talk the talk.  But what good is the drilling if we’re not ready to engage in the fight. 

  • What good is it to take a class learning how to share your faith if you don’t take it out to share your faith?
  • What good is it to take a class on making hospital visits, if we don’t go visit the sick (Matthew 25:36-37)?
  • What good is it to take notes on a sermon about the sovereignty of God if we don’t apply it when things don’t go our way?

We train and drill for battle.  May God shake us from the “slows.”

(More on Grant next week!)

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