MG George B. McClellan

Cmdr. Army of the Potomac, 1861 to Nov 1862

George Brinton McClellan, one of the most controversial figures in American military history, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 3, 1826, of distinguished Connecticut ancestry. His first cousin was Major Henry B. McClellan, chief of staff to Confederate General Jeb Stuart. George McClellan attended local preparatory schools and, for a time, the University of Pennsylvania, leaving the university in 1842 in order to enter West Point. He was graduated in 1846, ranking second in a class of fifty-nine—a class which contributed twenty full-rank general officers to the Union and Confederate armies.  McClellan was appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. During the Mexican War, while attached to General Winfield Scott's forces, he excited much favorable mention in reports for his zeal, gallantry, and ability for constructing roads and bridges along the route over which the army made its way, and won the brevets of first lieutenant and captain. In the course of the next decade his duties were varied and his accomplishments many. For three years he was an instructor at West Point, meanwhile translating into English and adapting to American usage a French treatise on bayonet exercises. He then served on engineering duty at Fort Delaware; in the expedition under Captain Randolph B. Marcy (his future father-in-law) to explore the sources of the Red River; in various surveys of possible transcontinental railroad routes; and as a member of a board of officers sent abroad to study the armies of Europe and the Crimean War. The "McClellan saddle," adapted by McClellan from the Hungarian, was a direct result of this European trip and remained standard equipment in the army until mechanization eliminated horses. In 1857 he resigned his commission of captain in the 1st Cavalry, to which he had been appointed in 1855, to become chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was living in Cincinnati and was president of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad. On April 23, 1861, he became major general of Ohio Volunteers, with command of all the forces of the state, by appointment of Governor William Dennison. Three weeks later, such was his elan, efficiency in organization, capability, and personal magnetism, that President Lincoln, who had never seen him, was impelled to appoint him major general in the Regular Army, where he was outranked only by the aged and infirm General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, whose commission dated from the time McClellan was a boy of fourteen. At the beginning of hostilities two of the main prizes contended for by the two governments were Kentucky and the western counties of Virginia. McClellan, whose authority embraced both areas, refused to acknowledge the so-called "neutrality" of Kentucky, thus doing much to hold the state to the Union; in what is now West Virginia he acted swiftly to insure the allegiance of its people by personally commanding the Rich Mountain campaign— a victory for the Federal arms which maintained control of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and most of transmontane Virginia for the balance of the war. This success, minor as it may seem in retrospect, coupled with Irvin McDowell's disaster at First Manassas (Bull Run), precipitated McClellan into command of the Army of the Potomac in August and into the office of General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States on November 1, 1861, upon the retirement of General Scott. In two bounds a resigned subaltern, who was only thirty-five years old, took charge of the greatest military establishment ever assembled by the nation up to that time. Reaching Washington five days after the Bull Run debacle, he brought order out of chaos, reduced the several dissident commands to a state of discipline, and won for himself a regard by his men which would not soon be equaled. The description of McClellan's subsequent military operations amounts to lost opportunities and frustration. Greatly against his own judgment, but on orders of the administration, he moved against the Confederates via the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862. Against his strenuous protests, a part of his army was retained for the defense of Washington. He vastly overestimated the forces opposing him led by Joseph E. Johnston, who was wounded at Seven Pines and replaced by Robert E. Lee for the subsequent battles of the Seven Days, and when McClellan retired to Harrison's Landing on the James River after a campaign magnificent in conception but undistinguished in execution, he laid himself open to the charge made by Confederate Colonel William Allan: "[He] was not conspicuous for his energy and skill in handling large bodies of troops. He directed . .,. strategy . . . , but left . . . tactics . . . almost entirely to his subordinates." Insisting that his failure lay in lack of support from Washington, and, as usual, greatly overestimating the enemy's forces, McClellan refused to reassume the offensive until given reinforcements which the administration and Henry W. Halleek, now general-in-chief, were unwilling to provide. As a result the Army of the Potomac was ordered north by water, and as its units arrived at Alexandria, they were assigned to General John Pope's Army of Virginia—a force organized to attempt the capture of Richmond via the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. This expedition soon foundered on the rock of Pope's bombast and ineptness as a tactician, and McClellan was once again called upon to reorganize the weary and dispirited forces in the eastern theater. Some gauge of his popularity with the troops may be appreciated by the veritable tempest of cheers, echoing over the Manassas plains, which greeted the news that "Little Mac" had been restored to command. Again he was at his best —doing the job he knew best—and in short order hope revived in the ranks, in the halls of Congress, and at northern firesides. As Lee moved toward and crossed the upper fords of the Potomac, McClellan protected Washington on a line between Frederick and the river. A few days later on September 17, 1862, the battle of Antietam Creek (Sharpsburg) occurred—-the bloodiest one day fight of the war— where McClellan fought Lee's numerically inferior Confederates in a drawn battle which elicited few laurels on either side. The great Lee had no business being where he was, having left a large portion of his footsore and ragged troops as stragglers in Virginia; and the great organizer McClellan permitted the battle to be fought in detail by subordinates. Subsequently McClellan could not be induced to move against Lee again until what he deemed serious shortages of equipment and horses could be made good which exasperated the administration, although there is some evidence that certain items were deliberately withheld by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. In any event on November 7, 1862, he was handed an order by the War Department messenger General C. P. Buckingham directing him to turn the army over to his good friend Ambrose E. Burnside and to proceed to his home in Trenton, New Jersey, to await orders which never came. Nominated for President by the Democratic party on a "peace at any price" platform in 1864, he attempted, without success, to reconcile the party line with his own oft-stated conviction that the war should be vigorously prosecuted and won the electoral votes of only three states. He resigned his army commission on election day. His postbellum career was marked chiefly by the three years, 1878-81, during which he served as governor of New Jersey. He died on October 29, 1885, at Orange, New Jersey, and was buried in Riverview Cemetery, Trenton. Although McClellan unquestionably possessed military talents of a high order and the unbounded confidence of his subordinates, there were deficiencies in his makeup which prevented him from becoming one of history's great commanders. However, it has been observed in perhaps his greatest testimonial that "the effect of this man's presence upon the Army of the Potomac—in sunshine or in rain, in darkness or in daylight, in victory or defeat—was electrical, and too wonderful to make it worthwhile attempting to give a reason for it."

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.