George Brinton McClellan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 3, 1826, to Dr. George McClellan and Elizabeth Steinmetz Brinton. He studied law at the University of Pennsylvania for two years, beginning when he was just thirteen years old. His father, a distinguished ophthalmologist who had founded Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1824, had good connections in the Whig Party. When young McClellan decided to abandon the law for the military, his father used those connections to earn his son an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. In 1846, McClellan finished second in a class of fifty-nine that included future Confederate generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (who finished seventeenth) and George E. Pickett (who finished last).
During the Mexican War (1846–1848), McClellan was posted to the staff of General Winfield Scott—a Whig Party friend of his father’s—and he served alongside Robert E. Lee and Pierre G. T. Beauregard. After the war, he commanded an engineering company at West Point, translated a French bayonet manual into English, and worked as a surveyor on the Red River in Texas. In 1855, he was promoted to captain and traveled to Europe to observe the Crimean War (1853–1856). When he returned to the United States, he wrote a cavalry manual and designed the so-called McClellan saddle that remained in use until the twentieth century.
In 1855 McClellan began to court Ellen Marcy, whose other suitors included McClellan’s old West Point friend A. P. Hill. Her father, Randolph Marcy, an Army officer, had for a time been McClellan’s commander in the West. Having rejected his daughter’s plan to marry Hill, Marcy acquiesced to this match, encouraged by McClellan’s pursuit of a civil career. In 1857, McClellan became chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, and by January 1858 was promoted to its vice president. That same year he opened his Chicago home to another West Point friend, Ambrose E. Burnside, who had been left destitute by a business failure; McClellan arranged a job for him with the railroad.
McClellan supported the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in his successful 1858 U.S. Senate race against Republican Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was the Illinois Central’s lawyer, and McClellan remembered him fondly from those days, despite assertions from biographers that personal hostility between the two men began at this time. McClellan married Ellen Marcy in May 1860 (with Joseph E. Johnston in attendance), took an executive position at the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad a month later, and in the November presidential election again supported Douglas over Lincoln. When Lincoln was elected, secession and civil war followed.
Beginning of the War
Following the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, McClellan reentered the military and advanced quickly. On April 23, he accepted command of Ohio’s militia. On May 3, he took charge of the U.S. Army’s Department of Ohio, and on May 14, he was commissioned a major general in the Regular Army, second in rank only to his former Mexican War commander, Winfield Scott. McClellan organized one of the war’s first offensives, securing the western, Unionist section of Virginia in a campaign marked by rugged terrain and inexperienced soldiers on both sides. In the Rich Mountain Campaign (June–July 1861), conceived to secure the vital Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and Parkersburg Turnpike, Union forces defeated a smaller Confederate army under Robert S. Garnett (who was killed in the fighting).
Credit for the victory at Rich Mountain rightfully belongs to William S. Rosecrans. Still, battlefield success put McClellan’s name in the papers, especially after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21. Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington, D.C., to take command of the defeated Union troops there on July 26. His train from western Virginia attracted enthusiastic crowds of well-wishers who already considered him to be a national hero and potentially a military savior. McClellan’s meteoric rise, fueled by political connections and an early battlefield victory, may have been intoxicating for a man not yet forty years old, but it also marked a high point in his life that, arguably, would never be equaled.
The Army of the Potomac
McClellan viewed the disaster at Manassas as proof that the president’s war strategy—which involved an immediate march on the Confederate capital at Richmond—was flawed. As troops poured into Washington over the summer and autumn, he convinced Lincoln to allow him time to properly train and equip them. On August 20, he created the new Army of the Potomac with himself as its commander, and during the subsequent months he nurtured an unusually close relationship with his men. He trained them, drilled them, equipped them, and showed them (and himself) off in large military pageants. He built tidy and disciplined camps and strengthened the capital’s fortifications. In fact, McClellan’s ability to organize and inspire the troops was almost unrivaled, but historians have long accused him of being too reluctant to send them into a fight. “I am to watch over you as a parent over his children,” he told them in a proclamation, “and you know that your General loves you from the depths of his heart.”
In the meantime, a rift developed between McClellan and Scott. “Old Fuss and Feathers,” as the now-elderly Virginian was called, was furious with McClellan for ignoring the chain of command—which he did only with Lincoln’s acquiescence—and for communicating directly with members of the president’s cabinet. McClellan became convinced that he could win a contest of wills with Scott and began undermining him in the cabinet. On November 1, less than two weeks after the Union defeat at Ball’s Bluff, Scott resigned. McClellan was immediately appointed commanding general of the U.S. Army and he assured the president, “I can do it all.”
It was not long, however, before he and Lincoln clashed over war strategy. The president, under intense pressure from the newly formed Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, called for an immediate advance on Joseph E. Johnston’s entrenched forces at Manassas. McClellan urged caution, giving credence to intelligence reports that grossly inflated Johnston’s numbers. He also preferred secrecy, worrying that sharing war plans with Lincoln and his cabinet would compromise security. In December 1861 McClellan contracted typhoid fever and Lincoln, frustrated by McClellan’s inaction, held strategy meetings with the general’s subordinates. This end-around may have finally spurred McClellan to submit plans for capturing Richmond. Although still pale and weak from illness, he, too, was facing pressure to end, in the biting words of secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton, “the champagne and oysters on the Potomac.”
The Battles for Richmond
McClellan intended to sail the Army of the Potomac from Washington down the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rappahannock River and thereby outflank Johnston at Manassas. But before he could do so, Johnston retreated, and in his absence revealed that the Confederate position had not been so strong after all. Another political uproar ensued, and McClellan decided to remove his army all the way to Union-held Fort Monroe. From there it would march seventy-five miles up the Peninsula, between the York and the James rivers, and take Richmond from the southeast. Lincoln reluctantly approved the operation, but on March 11, 1862, stripped McClellan of his status as general-in-chief so that he and Stanton could run the war from Washington.
Lincoln was especially nervous about the capital’s defense—McClellan’s plan put Johnston between Washington and the bulk of Union forces—and after some initial confusion about troop numbers, the president held back a third of McClellan’s men. The general lost even more troops when Lee, in a successful attempt to divert attention away from Richmond, dispatched Stonewall Jackson to the Shenandoah Valley. All of this, combined with McClellan’s concern over a split command, led to his increasingly acrimonious relationship with Lincoln.
The Peninsula Campaign, as it took shape, did nothing to improve those relations. The springtime march toward the Confederate capital was methodical and plagued by bad weather and inaccurate maps. As he did at Manassas, McClellan was tempted to see before him stiffer resistance than actually existed (a truth exploited at Yorktown by the theatrically inclined John B. Magruder). His belief in a limited war also made him hesitant to fight bloody battles of attrition. While Lincoln urged his general to move more quickly and act more decisively, McClellan bemoaned to his wife of “traitors” in Washington. Speculation began to circulate that McClellan’s case of “the slows,” to quote Lincoln, was because he was a Democrat. Although McClellan was no more supportive of secession than he was of abolition, some suggested he was too sympathetic to the South.
The Confederates attacked at Seven Pines on May 31, and only stubborn fighting and timely reinforcements allowed McClellan to avoid disaster. After Johnston was severely wounded, Lee took command and went on the offensive. The resulting Seven Days’ Battles (June 25–July 1) were fiercely fought but, for Union forces, a bitter defeat. By then, McClellan blamed the Republicans in Washington for everything. “You have done your best to sacrifice this army,” he telegrammed Stanton. (Stanton, however, never read that sentence; an alarmed telegraph operator deleted it.)
Historians have long echoed Lincoln’s critique of McClellan—that he was too slow, too arrogant, too unwilling to take casualties, and too willing to claim himself directed by God. Historian Stephen W. Sears is perhaps the harshest of these critics, arguing that McClellan’s “deep concern for his men, his fixation with avoiding casualties, revealed a sensitivity of nature admirable in most of life’s pursuits but crippling when making war.” Ethan S. Rafuse has sought to revise that judgment, suggesting that McClellan’s conservative Whig background accounted for his reasonable “emphasis on logistics, sieges, and carefully executed maneuvers whose costs and risks could be rationally calculated.”
McClellan believed that killing men—his own or the enemy’s—in bloody battles only hindered efforts to reconcile North and South. In a civil war, attrition as a strategy would only prolong the bitterness and ill feeling. In addition, he saw the Union defeat at Manassas as evidence that Lincoln’s case of “the fasts” had not served the nation well. Of course, it hasn’t helped McClellan’s legacy that he took the field against Lee, whose romance and daring—polished and shined by the Lost Cause view of the war—seem to have distracted many from his ultimate defeat.
In 1862, it was only Lincoln’s opinion that mattered, and the president plucked Henry W. Halleck from command in the West and made him general-in-chief. The Army of the Potomac was withdrawn to Washington and largely disbanded in favor of a new army under John Pope, which was promptly defeated by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Second Battle of Manassas. Lee seized the opportunity to launch his first invasion of the North and, as his troops crossed the Potomac River on September 5, Lincoln and Halleck saw no other alternative but to offer McClellan command of his old army.
How to judge his victory twelve days later at Sharpsburg, Maryland, depends on how one judges McClellan himself. Lee’s strike to the north was typical of the Confederate general in that it was bold and decisive and marked by hair-raising risks, such as dividing his army five ways in order to send Jackson after the armory at Harpers Ferry. McClellan’s pursuit was typical of him in that it was sometimes cautious and driven by the belief that he faced a larger army than he did. When a stray copy of Order 191, which detailed the positions and intentions of Lee’s dispersed army, was picked up by two Indiana enlisted men, McClellan was presented with a rare opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia piecemeal.
He quickly pushed westward and drove Lee from South Mountain on September 14, inflicting defeat upon the Army of Northern Virginia. A day later, Lee established a defensive position across Antietam Creek, urging his generals Jackson and A. P. Hill to join him on the double. That McClellan didn’t attack immediately has been the source of some controversy because it allowed Lee to fully consolidate his force. McClellan’s force, however, was not fully consolidated either, and he was hampered by fog on September 16. That he drove Lee from Maryland when he finally did attack—at dawn on September 17, in what was the bloodiest single day of the war—is itself a significant achievement. Historians have decried McClellan’s caution, but from September 6 until September 19, he marched his army seventy miles, fought offensively in two battles against what he believed to be a numerically superior army, and drove it out of Maryland per Lincoln’s direction. Many generals could have benefited from such caution.
Still, in the end, Lee’s army was not destroyed and Lincoln continued to worry that McClellan’s pursuit was insufficiently aggressive. McClellan, in turn, was disappointed that the president had used Antietam as an excuse to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. In the general’s view—fashioned by his Whig and conservative background and sharpened, perhaps, by his sometimes intemperate dislike of Lincoln—the war was not and should not be about slavery. In the weeks that followed, McClellan resisted his commander-in-chief’s naïve demands to march directly on Richmond, and on November 5, the day after the autumn congressional elections, he was relieved of command. Two days later, Ambrose Burnside—having already turned down the position twice, partly out of loyalty to his old friend—took over the Army of the Potomac. Unlike the politicians, the soldiers in the army he created were still intensely loyal to their “Little Mac.” They were as sorry to see him go as they were skeptical of their new, bushy-cheeked commander.
Approached by the Democrats as a presidential candidate in 1864, McClellan accepted the nomination despite a platform declaring that the “War is a failure,” a view the general did not actually hold. After losing the election to Lincoln, McClellan lived in Europe from 1865 until 1868, for a time occupying a villa he named “Antietam” in Nice, France.
After the war McClellan lived in New Jersey and worked as chief engineer for the New York City Department of Docks. He was elected and served creditably as governor of New Jersey from 1878 until 1881, and then served on the Board of Directors for the National Home for Disabled Soldiers. He died from heart failure on October 29, 1885, in Orange, New Jersey, and was buried in Trenton.
McClellan has always been one of the Civil War’s most controversial figures. While his military caution led to speculation that his political sympathies were not solidly pro-war and pro-Union, it also defined the nature of conflict in Virginia. Until Ulysses S. Grant initiated the so-called hard war in 1864, it would be limited and not directed at the enemy’s civilians or resources. McClellan clashed with Lincoln over war strategy and even challenged him for office, and he has been accused of everything from paranoid delusions to disloyalty. He has not, however, been given enough credit for his successes, the most notable of which was expelling Lee from Maryland.
Not to be ignored, McClellan’s generalship received two important endorsements. The first is by the soldiers who served under him, who almost without exception loved him. His departure from the Army of the Potomac even led to suggestions that he install himself in Washington as a dictator. (McClellan adamantly repudiated such talk.) The other endorsement came after the war, when a relative of Robert E. Lee’s asked the former Confederate general to name his most able opponent during the war. Thumping the table emphatically, Lee replied, “McClellan, by all odds!”