The Gorilla and the Snub, Research Paper Example

For this paper I have chosen McPherson’s treatment of General George B. McClellan in regards to two specific incidents, both of which first appear in the same page and paragraph of his book Ordeal by Fire (McPherson J. M., 1982). They appear to be rather minor, at least at first, and I will have to justify discussing them. They deal with the general’s personal relationship with President Lincoln and that publicly seen relationship and that relationship as seen by historians. However, I would argue that the two seemingly minor matters I have selected are actually as important as any other point of history, as they touch upon the matter of what I will call “the assumption of accuracy” in historical texts. By this I mean the assumed accuracy of reported facts and conclusions drawn from those facts. Interpretation, being subjective, changes over time, and with the discovery of new facts and documentary sources, history books themselves become obsolete, requiring new editions dealing with well-known events and subjects. It seems the only saving grace for a history book’s relevance is how long its accuracy holds out along with its literary quality. McPherson’s book has survived in classrooms and probably will continue to do so as long as he is writing and teaching.

General McClellan had a major role in the initial preparatory phase of the war, in politics as well as in battle. Given the extent of his involvement, I have followed this assignment’s instructions to “be selective in determining how far you would take the subject.” My two topics are specific and limited, and my thesis is simple: that in regard to the two matters at hand, McPherson treated McClellan badly. The question is whether this treatment was deliberate, or simply a matter of being guilty of a momentary lapse of attention. I think it was both. I will finish this paper with a reason for this conclusion, along with some words regarding historiography on the Web.

The Gorilla

On page 213 of McPherson’s book,[1] there is a picture of McClellan and his wife Ellen, with whom he corresponded at great length while he was away from her. Of one such letter, dated November of 1861, McPherson writes “Privately, he described [Lincoln’s] cabinet as ‘geese’ and the President as ‘the original gorilla.’” [2] A single footnote supports the paragraph in question, which in turn leads to three references. The first cites pages 141–42 of a secondary source (Foote, 1986). But in that place Foote states as fact that it was Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who had employed the insulting phrase first, and that it was picked up and used by McClelllen in letters to his wife (which is true). But it should be noted that in whatever instances McClellan used the phrase “original gorilla”, he retained the quotation marks around it, indicating to his wife that he was quoting someone else, specifically Stanton.

On p.245 of the same book, Foote writes that Lincoln knew all along that Stanton had been employing other “circus epithets” towards him, calling Lincoln “a low, cunning clown”, and “that giraffe”. Regarding McClellan’s letters, we move on to the second source given in McPherson’s book (McClellan & Prime, 1887), a primary source.[3] Being McClellan’s own book and consisting of the text of many of his letters and journal notes, we find corroboration of Foote’s comment ithat Stanton used the term “original gorilla” first in conversations with McClellan, whom Stanton originally supported (Rafuse, 2013). We find it on page 152, when McClellan writes of Stanton:

The most disagreeable thing about him was was the extreme virulence with with he abused the President, the administration, and the Republican party. He carried this to such an extent I was often shocked by it. He never spoke of the President in any other way than as the “original gorilla,” and often said that Du Chaillu[4] was a fool to wander all the way to Africa in search of what he could so easily have found in Springfield, Illinois.

In citing McClellan’s book, McPherson refers the reader to p.176. Reading from the same edition, we find no references to gorillas there, but we do find McClellan writing rather surprisingly (given what we have come to expect of McClellan, not only from McPherson, but from history in general) of Lincoln:

The President is honest and means well. As I parted from him on Seward’s[5] steps, he said that it had been suggested to him that it was no more safe for me than for him to walk out at night without some attendant. I told him I had no fear; that no one would take the trouble to interfere with me. On which he deigned to remark that they would probably give more for my scalp at Richmond than for his.

The third and final source given by McPherson is a primary one, along the lines of McClellan’s book, being a book of diary entries and letters by John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary (Dennett, 1939).[6] McPherson cites p.34. No reference to gorillas can be found there either, nor throughout the rest of the book. Instead, we see that this reference refers to the second incident to be discussed, which I call The Snub.

The Snub

Hay’s book refers to a rather famous incident (at least among Civil War scholars) that is said to have occurred between Lincoln and McClellan. I will let Hays himself describe it:

November 13 [1861]. I wish here to record what I consider to be a portent of evil to come. The President, Governor[7] Seward, and I, went over to McClelland’s house tonight. The servant at the door said the General was at the wedding of Colonel Wheaton[8] at General Buell’s[9], and would soon return. We went in, and after we had waited about an hour, McC. came in and without paying any particular attention to the porter, who told him the President was waiting to see him, went upstairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about a half-an-hour, and once more and sent once more a servant to tell the General they were there, and the answer coolly came back that the General had gone to bed.

No reference to this incident can be found in McPherson’s second reference — McClellan’s own book — but the Foote reference corroborates the snub.

            Following this assignment’s instruction to briefly examine how depictions of the subject have changed or been modified through time or location, we will take a look at two other secondary sources, published years after McPherson (Rowland, 1998) (Sears, 1999). Rowland discusses the credibility of the story itself, pointing out that “not one of the principals corroborated it in any way.” Lincoln is known to have visited the General the next day, and one more time, on the evening of November 18. He makes another point[10] as well, namely that “historians have accepted at face value the integrity of the story . . . No one prefaces any narration of the story by relating that this is the ‘way Hay saw it,” or ‘according to Hay,’ or even ‘Hay reported.’[11] This leads us to the Sears book, which reports that the snub was “not an isolated incident”:

A month or so earlier [from November 13, 1861], William Howard Russell of the Times of London noted in his diary a scene at headquarters when the president was sent away by the announcement that General McCellan had gone to bed and would see no one. Lincoln took no apparent offense, and indeed returned the next evening for a discussion of future operations.[12]

There are two noteworthy points here. First, in the sources that McPherson provides, Lincoln is also reported not to have taken offense by McClellan’s apparent snub. Ditto for the Russell account. Second, Hay’s and Russell’s descriptions sound very much like the same incident, yet Russell’s version is alleged to have happened “a month or so earlier” than the Hays version. This duplication immediately made this reader wonder if Russell was passing along what we know of today as an urban legend — a kind of rumor that is believed by the teller not to be speculative, but rather a bona fide fact, and so taken to be by the hearer of the tale. Was Russell reporting the same story that Hay wrote himself into after hearing it himself?  McPherson may be forgiven for not spotting the possibility of the incident being an urban legend, since in pre-Internet 1982 such myths were not as popularized as they have become today. Also, such snubs to presidents continued[13] after Lincoln and to this day (News, 2012). But even if the story were true, leaders who are constant contact with one another are bound to treat each other with a level of familiarity that would shock outside observers, historians included. An in-group has its own rules of behavior. If the story is true, it could have been trivial.

For McPherson, there is the question of whether he even knew (as Lincoln is said to have known) that Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, had used the term “original gorilla” before McClellan ever did. It is surely likely that McPherson did know (it would be strange if he did not). But in so knowing, it would have been difficult for him to include that information in his book, because to include one such contrary view would require him to chose many such contrary views — history is full of them, especially histories of war, where the first casualty in war reporting is truth (Knightely, 1976). And remember that John Hay, as Lincoln’s private secretary, was in a capacity to act as a kind of journalist. With this “new” information one could rewrite McPherson’s offending paragraph.[14] But that would rob the book of its authoritative tone, its endorsement of our traditional glorified and romanticized view of the Civil War (as exemplified by filmmaker Ken Burns’ The Civil War) and bring to the reader an increasingly uncomfortable line of thought: could it be that McClellan was right? Were Lincoln and his crew “wretched politicians”? Maybe Seward was a “meddling, officious, incompetent little puppy” who “has done more than any one man to bring all this misery upon the country. . .” (McClellan G. B., 1989). McClellan was slow to fight in politicians’ eyes, yet Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby (the “Grey Ghost”) said that McClellan was the Federals’ most able general “by all odds.” Mosby reasoned:

I think he [McClellan] is the only man on the Federal side who could have organized the army as it was. Grant . . . only came in to reap the benefits of McClellan’s previous efforts . . . if Grant had commanded during the first years of the war, we would have gained our independence. Grant’s policy of attacking would have been a blessing for us, for we lost more by inaction [camp diseases] than we would have lost in battle (Mosby, 1917).

McPherson’s given primary source corroborated neither his version of the gorilla story nor the snub story at all. But he was aware of McClellan’s other correspondence, so what we may have here is an example of a forgivable inattention to detail and an inability to include views contrary to the accepted one of McClellan’s “arrogance”, especially as contrasted with Grant’s well-noted calm and matter-of-fact demeanor.[15]

What is also interesting is that McClellan’s Wikipedia[16] article, using the Sears book as a secondary source, echos McPherson’s view. The additional information about Russell of the Times of an earlier and all but identical incident is unaddressed — so far. The official-history version of the gorilla is stated as fact as well, with no mention of Stanton, nor of McClellan’s own comment, from his own book, that “The President is honest and means well.” Instead, we are told additionally that McClellan described Lincoln as a “well-meaning baboon.” The Wikipedia source for the gorilla and baboon quote is Battle Cry (McPherson, 1988), but their (unstated) primary source is the collection of McClellan’s correspondence cited above (McClellan G. B., 1989)).[17] In books and on the Web, major and minor lapses abound, but the Web can change.

Historiography and the Web

All this leads us to the matter of what historiography is today. The problem can be seen in a news story that highlights the challenge facing history books in the Internet era (Smith, 2013). The author, Doug Smith, contacted a bookstore and tried to sell a copy of his 1950 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He discovered that printed encyclopedias are one of the things the bookstore will not take, and was told by the store’s buyer the reason: “A reference source locked in time is of little purpose.” [18] There are probably many who would disagree with that statement because it ignores both the literary and research value of an old encyclopedia, which, after all, will become over time a primary source in its own right, just like any unique document or book whose content becomes of special interest. But one can see the problem, both with an old encyclopedia and an old history book: they don’t change.

I conclude that McPherson had to have more or less deliberately omitted the references that would have at least partially excused McClellan and raised questions about why a host of other dubious facts were not commented on as well. Such changes would have subtracted from the book’s official posture and changed its overall purpose.

We are left with the “assumption of accuracy” of McPherson’s book. It is no doubt very high, but my two points are not necessarily accidental errors. That leaves user-supplemented history, as seen in Wikipedia discussion-pages and Amazon book-comments and star-ratings, to gradually rectify inaccuracies and so prevent history books from becoming “reference source[s] locked in time.” They will increasingly live in real time, right along with their readers, ever-altering the landscape of the past.


Dennett, T. (Ed.). (1939). Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay. New York: Dodd, Mead.

Foote, S. (1986). Fort Sumpter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books.

Knightely, P. (1976). The First Casualty. Boston: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

McClellan, G. B. (1989). The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865. (S. W. Sears, Ed.) New York: Ticknor & Fields.

McClellan, G. B., & Prime, W. C. (1887). McClellan’s Own Story. New York: Charles W. Webster and Company.

McPherson, J. M. (1982). Ordeal by Fire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

McPherson, J. M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Mosby, J. S. (1971). The Memoirs of John S. Mosby. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.

News. (2012, September 6). Retrieved from Mail Online:

Rafuse, E. S. (2013). Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan. Retrieved from Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom:

Rowland, T. J. (1998). George B. McClellan and Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman. Kent: The Kent State University Press.

Sears, S. W. (1999). George B. Mcclellan: The Young Napoleon. Cambridge: De Capo Press.

Smith, D. (2013, May 30). Perspective. Retrieved from Los Angeles Times:


[1] Thanks should be given to the editors of that book for organizing the Notes section in a way to make it easy for researchers to locate them.

[2] Likely a reference to Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species, published in 1859, which ignited the controversy of evolution and popularized the concept of an early apelike common ancestor of man.

[3] Primary sources need not be the actual artifact itself, but can be published excerpts, microfilm, etc.

[4] Paul Belloni du Chaillu (d.1903), an explorer credited with first discovering gorillas.

[5] William Henry Seward (1801–1872), Lincolns’ Secretary of State.

[6] Hay went on to become Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and T.R. Roosevelt.

[7] Seward had been governor of New York from 1839 to 1842. He was now Lincoln’s Secretary of State.

[8] Probably then-Colonel Frank Wheaton (1833–1903).

[9] General Don Carlos Buell (1818–1898).

[10] Probably aimed at McPherson.

[11] P.48

[12] P.133

[13] For example, General Douglas MacArthur’s conduct toward President Harry S Truman, which led Truman to fire him.

[14] Limited space prevents me from doing so here.

[15] Also well-noted was Grant’s willingness to slaughter his own men to achieve victory at all costs.

[16] In conformity with instructions, I am not using Wikipedia as a main source for this paper.

[17] Baboon did not appear in quotation marks in the letter, while gorilla did. The former was McClellan’s own word, the latter was Stanton’s. My final point: both insulted Lincoln, but McClellan only in private.

[18] To add insult to injury, Smith was finally told that his encyclopedia would be accepted on a “donation basis” for 50 cents, and that the collection would probably be sold for $1.