The Civil War's 'Young Napoleon': An Interview with Richard Slotkin

Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, Richard Slotkin, interviews, American West, George B. McClellan

Richard Slotkin is one of the most well-known historians of American history and culture. His writings on the frontier, the Old West, Hollywood Westerns, the Civil War, and World War I, among other topics, have played a significant role in shaping the field of American Studies.

In 1973, Slotkin published Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, the first of his trilogy on the mythology of the American West. The book remains a cornerstone in American Studies in its examination of how the colonization of the frontier and the violence used against Native Americans defined certain attitudes and prejudices that influenced American culture for years to come. The subsequent books of the trilogy, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890, and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, further explore these themes of American mythmaking....

What drew you first to General George McClellan, or “The Young Napolean”, as he’s often been called? What is it about him that makes him so compelling not only as a notable figure from history but as a character that stands out on the page?

What drew me to the Lincoln/McClellan conflict was the combination of the clash of principles and the conflict of personalities. Lincoln clearly represents a progressive, forward-looking view of race relations and the whole concept of American nationality and democracy. McClellan is a reactionary on these matters, determined to preserve White Supremacy and for that reason willing to tolerate the perpetuation and even the expansion of slavery.

Then there is the contrast of character. On the one side is Lincoln, pragmatic, his sense of the tragic and the comic, his grasp and profound commitment to understanding the human consequences of slavery and of the war for the union; focused on the task at hand and willing to set personal pride aside to get the job done. Then you have McClellan, the “Young Napoleon”, who is a world-class narcissist, thinks of himself as the only man who can save the union, and is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone—mentors, colleagues, his own men—to further his ambition....

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