On this day in 1861, George B. McClellan was commissioned a major general in the U.S. Army, second in rank only to his former Mexican War commander, Winfield Scott. Scott, you’ll recall, was the crusty old Virginian who was made a brevet, or honorary, lieutenant general by Congress, the promotion backdated to one of his great victories in Mexico—only to immediately demand his full back pay. He had little patience for youngsters like McClellan, and McClellan little patience for him. From our entry on Scott:
The ambitious young general soon clashed with the old warhorse, calling him a traitor in private and in public threatened to resign “if he cannot be taken out of my path.” Due to his age and infirmities, Scott became easier to shelve than his rival, and on November 1, 1861, his offer to resign was accepted. McClellan and his staff escorted Scott to the train station early the next morning. “The sight of this morning was a lesson to me which I hope not soon to forget,” McClellan later wrote to his wife.
His wife being A. P. Hill‘s old girlfriend, but you knew that. Anyway, McClellan has not done well by historians over the years, but Brooks Simpson recalls this evaluation of the general by Ulysses S. Grant:
McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war. As a young man he was always a mystery. He had the way of inspiring you with the idea of immense capacity, if he would only have a chance. Then he is a man of unusual accomplishments, a student, and a well-read man. I have never studied his campaigns enough to make up my mind as to his military skill, but all my impressions are in his favor. I have entire confidence in McClellan’s loyalty and patriotism. But the test which was applied to him would be terrible to any man, being made a major-general at the beginning of the war. It has always seemed to me that the critics of McClellan do not consider this vast and cruel responsibility—the war, a new thing to all of us, the army new, everything to do from the outset, with a restless people and Congress. McClellan was a young man when this devolved upon him, and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying. If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman, Thomas, or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us.
IMAGE: A detail from George Brinton McClellan by Alexader Lawrie, oil on canvas, date unknown.