George Brinton McClellan
By John T. Marck
One of the most famous of the Union's generals, and one of the worst, George Brinton McClellan was born on December 3, 1826 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Raised in a distinguished family, George entered the University of Pennsylvania, but left before graduating to attend West Point. Quite intelligent, he finished second in his class in 1846.
After graduation he became an engineer officer, winning two brevets for outstanding service during the Mexican War. McClellan possessed many other talents. While in the army, he built forts, revamped harbors, mapped out railroad routes, taught at West Point, and observed military tactics during the Crimean War. Additionally, desiring a more comfortable saddle, he designed one that bore his name. Although he had attained the rank of captain, he resigned to accept a position as the chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad in 1857, rising to become its vice-president. Three years later he accepted a position as president of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad.
When the Civil War began, McClellan was living in Cincinnati. Consequently, the governor of Ohio, Williamson Dennison appointed him a major general in the Ohio volunteers. Early in the war, McClellan took the credit for the Union victories at Rich Mountain and Corrick's Ford, and thus, national attention was thrust upon him. As a result, President Abraham Lincoln placed him in command of the Union army, however, he was defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run. In spite of this, he managed to turn the Army of the Potomac into a capable lot, who, as it was said, could hold their own with the Confederacy's best armies. In the process, McClellan won the respect and dedication of his men.
Politically, McClellan, being a Democrat, often quarreled with Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. And to make matters worse, the quarreling came from both sides. Additionally, he did not get along with Union General Winfield Scott, whom McClellan replaced as general-in-chief.
McClellan's worst habit was his malingering, whereby he generally refused to begin his battle campaigns until directed to do so by Lincoln, having no real initiative. Lincoln finally commanded him to take action in his President's General War Order No. 1.
Taking McClellan until March 1862, he finally advanced by water to Fort Monroe, after which he led his army up the peninsula toward Virginia. In the weeks that followed, McClellan, again through his dawdling, permitted considerably smaller Confederate forces to slow him down. Disinclined to take any offensive action, and constantly requesting reinforcements, as well as a weak strategist, McClellan was forced to move his headquarters of operations in midstream. For these reasons, McClellan decided to retreat to the James River, abandoning his offensive, in spite of the fact that he had won almost every battle his army was in from Williamsburg to Malvern Hill, between May 5 and July 1. Totally frustrated by this, Lincoln, in August, replaced McClellan with Major General John Pope. Although Pope did not procrastinate, he did not fare well, losing a decisive battle at Second Bull Run. As a result, Lincoln believed he had no choice but to replace Pope, giving command once again to McClellan.
As a good administrator, McClellan as he had done before, restored order within the Army of the Potomac. On September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam, McClellan's tactical draw against General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was the last straw for Lincoln. Although McClellan did force Lee back into Virginia, thus ending his invasion of Maryland, he also once again showed his inefficiency in battle. President Lincoln replaced McClellan again, this time for good.
McClellan, now on inactive duty, decided to dabble in politics, and found it more and more to his liking. In 1864, he opposed Lincoln as the Democratic presidential candidate. Although he spoke of ending the war, in doing so, his undercurrent attitude of defeatism led to his lack of success at the polls.
After the war ended, McClellan traveled often, and worked in civil-engineering and other business endeavors. In 1887, he published his memoirs titled: McClellan's Own Story, which was more an ego-satisfying chronicle, than noteworthy. He did have a short political career from 1878 to 1881, when he served as the governor of New Jersey.
George McClellan died on October 29, 1885 at Orange, New Jersey.
Copyright ©1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.