I grew up in a neighborhood of Davenport, Iowa, called McClellan Heights. I delivered papers along McClellan Boulevard. George B. McClellan, in his day, was the man, and I’m sure that neighborhoods and streets across the country still bear his name. (Just as there is a Pershing Street in Davenport and an Eisenhower Elementary School.) Our new entry on the Civil War general suggests that he peaked early:
Still, battlefield success put McClellan’s name in the papers, especially after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21[, 1861]. 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.
In fact, McClellan went on to become one of the war’s most controversial figures. He was a determined foe on the battlefield and conservative; his view of the war was that it should be waged with restraint lest the breach with the South become irreconcilable. But his critics, including Abraham Lincoln, saw him as slow, arrogant, unwilling to take casualties, messianic. He was at times politically clumsy and his legacy has suffered from comparisons to Robert E. 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.”
Such are the complications of George McClellan. He was not from Virginia, of course, any more than he was from Iowa. But to understand the war in Virginia, one must understand McClellan, and our entry helps you do just that.
IMAGE: George B. McClellan, Major General Commanding, U.S. Army, lithograph by J. H. Bufford, c. 1862 (Library of Congress)