George McClellan: An Essay, Part 1

by James Durney on April 15, 2009 · 2 comments

Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a three-part essay on George B. McClellan.

McClellan has come down to us as a poor general, a vain man with possibly Pro Southern leanings.  An Illustration of the contradictions in the man is in his running as the Democratic candidate for President in 1864.  A platform plank states “after four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment of war . . . [we] demand immediate cessation of hostilities, to the end that at the earliest possible moment peace may be restored”.  He answered in a letter saying, “I could not look into the face of my gallant comrades of the army and navy who have survived so many bloody battles and tell them that their labors . . . were in vain; that we have abandoned the Union for which we have so often paroled our lives.”  Who was the man that could accept a nomination while rejecting the party’s major issue?

George McClellan was born in 1826 in Philadelphia, of a well to do family.  A brilliant student, at 15 he had completed the first two years at the University of Pennsylvania.  Based on his record, the age requirement for West Point being waived he entered the academy.  He was “thought to be the ablest man in the class” and all “expected him to make a great record”.  As the star of the class of 1846 at age 20, he graduated ranking second.  Other graduates of this class are Thomas Jackson, 17th, and George Pickett, last.

In the War with Mexico, McClellan trained an engineering company and is cited for “gallant and meritorious conduct”.   After the War with Mexico, he serves in a variety of positions all with success.  For three years, he teaches at West Point while translating and adapting a French paper on bayonet exercises for American use.  He is a member of expeditions looking for a transcontinental railroad route.  The Sectary of War, Jefferson Davis, selects McClellan as the junior member of the American team to observe the Crimean War.  His design of a saddle remains standard equipment until the army no longer needed saddles.

A promotion to Captain in 1855, nine years after graduation, coupled with a posting to the first Cavalry marks him as one of the young army officers that great things are in store for.  In 1857, he resigns his commission becoming the chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad.  By April 1861, he was married and president of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad.  Governor Dennison appoints McClellan a major general of Ohio Volunteers.  Three weeks later, President Lincoln appoints him a major general in the regular army.  Only the General-in-Chief Winfield Scott out ranks him.  In mid 1861, George B. McClellan is an unqualified success, married to a beautiful woman, enjoys a record of success as a businessman and just received appointment to high military command.  His area of responsibility includes Kentucky and the western counties of Virginia.

Taking command of an army of 20,000, he quickly moves to Grafton Virginia.  Units under his command win the “Phillippi Races” on June 3, 1861.  His army bolstered the residents into holding the Wheeling Convention that elects a “restored government”.  This is the first step on the road that leads West Virginia to statehood.  At Rich Mountain on July 11, McClellan’s army defeats a small Confederate force.  A performance now questioned with Rosecrans credited with stiffing him and leading the flank attack, which wins the battle.  However, at the time McClellan receives the adulation of the Northern Press and moves to the forefront of Union Generals.  A good trivia point, this army is the first to kill a Confederate General.  Brigadier General Robert Selden Garnett is killed on July 13 in rear guard action in the Cheat River Valley.  An army, under McClellan, has won battles, freed a pro union area from Confederate control and kept the vital B&O Railroad in Union hands.

In the East, McDowell is defeated and the army routed at First Manassas.  Lincoln, after forcing McDowell into the battle with his famous “all green together” statement, starts a search for a new commander of the Army of the Potomac.  It did not require a great deal of thought to select George B. McClellan, for all of the above reasons.  On November 1, 1861, General-in-Chief Scott resigned, helped some say by his replacement and at 35, George B. McClellan was in charge of the greatest military establishment the United States had ever assembled.

McClellan takes over a disaster; an ill-trained army tried to execute a complicated battle plan and failed.  Many enlistments were almost up and the press that had cried “On to Richmond” was just crying.  Overlooked was how close the men on the line had come to victory.  McClellan understood how these men felt and started to provide what they needed.  He instituted the “School of the Soldier” for all levels, no detail was too small and he was always on the job, being seen and seeing to the welfare of his command.  Under his sure hand civilians turned into soldiers and a real army was born.

The soldier on the line understood they had a commander interested in their welfare.  That he who would not waste their lives and they came to love him for this.  The army cheered McClellan wherever he went.  Some of the cheering was on command, some was by habit but:

1.     After Second Manassas on hearing that “Little Mac” was in command again, the men cheered.  No order is given; none is needed as the cheers came from the hearts of men who knew they had been badly lead and used.  The other case of spontaneous cheering is after the Wilderness when the men realize Grant is turning south and they were going to continue fighting until they win.

2.     After Chancellorsville, many men express the hope that McClellan will command the army again.

3.     McClellan was always welcome at reunions of The Army of the Potomac.  These veterans never said harsh words to or about him.

In time training had to end and the army needed to fight the war.  Completion of the training became a question between McClellan and Lincoln.  McClellan wanting to avoid the trap that McDowell had gotten into.  He understood that marching and attacking cause additional strains that waiting and defending do not.  This started to create an impression that there was always one more thing “to do” before the army could move.  Politics entered into the discussion as the radicals in congress start to question the reasons for the delays.  The “War Democrat” McClellan may have been more vocal than was proper for his position.  He seems less committed to total war than the Republicans and radicals are.  His position was not unusual in many circles in the United States.  Accepting the idea of a total war to end slavery and destroy the South’s social structure is months away for the majority of Americans.  Many feel the war will end with a negotiated settlement preserving the pre war status quo.  The only major changes will be a constitutional amendment protecting slavery in the South, coupled with an agreement that slavery will not spread into the western territories.   McClellan holds these views and considers the Radical Republicans dangerous.  There is considerable tension between McClellan, Lincoln and the Republicans.  Rumors abound in Washington.  McClellan is pro-southern.  McClellan is pro-slavery; possible the Democrats were not friends of the free black population in the north.  When he falls ill, Lincoln has no one to turn to for advice on the army.  All of these problems results in the McClellan’s demotion from general-in chief to commander of the Army of the Potomac.

A plan was approved that would bypass an overland campaign by taking advantage of the Navy that would transport the army to the Virginia Peninsula.  With rivers protecting the flanks, they could advance up the peninsula and take Richmond.  While a sound plan, several problems developed, were caused or were overlooked in the execution.

First and foremost is the question of numbers, we know that McClellan has up to a 13 to 1 advantage in total numbers during the campaign.  In critical battles, he enjoys about a 5 to 4 advantage.  McClellan using Pinkerton’s reports and his experience is convinced he is out numbered about 4 to 3.  The question about Pinkerton’s intelligence estimates and McClellan’s modifications remain open to this day.  In some early reports, Pinkerton is close to actual strengths.  As the campaign progresses, the estimate rise showing, the army badly outnumbered.  It is suggested McClellan’s influence caused Pinkerton to inflate the estimates, supporting McClellan’s argument with the administration.

The War Department, in June, “lost” Jackson’ army.  They cannot deny the rumor that Beauregard is moving his army into the Richmond area from the Deep South.  An operation to cut the rail lines in the Carolinas and prevent Beauregard’s movement is ordered.  Jackson is “found” when some of his “captured” troopers tell of the great numbers in his army.  The War Department has no real idea of how many men were under arms in the Richmond area or in the Confederate States of America.  Intelligence in the Army of the Potomac will not improve until Hooker is commanding in 1863.  Reports have J.E.B Stuart leading 50,000 men advancing on White House.  At this time, Stuart commands about 3,500 men.  Over estimation is endemic acceptance of these estimates is not as ridiculous as it now sounds.

Look for part two on Wednesday, April 22!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike Griffith April 8, 2017 at 6:06 pm

I enjoyed your comments on McClellan. You might find this article on McClellan to be of interest:

Answering Some Criticisms of General George B. McClellan


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