McClellan at War with the South, and with Lincoln
George Brinton McClellan ascended to the command of the Union army partially as a result of his own self-promotion, but mostly due to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s trust in his former protégé. McClellan biographer Stephen Sears notes, "It was . . . no surprise that with the firing on Fort Sumter George McClellan quickly became the most sought-after former officer in the North. By the time the war was a month old he was . . . outranked in the United States service only by the general in chief himself."
Winfield Scott’s service to the United States was meritorious, and his judgment was widely respected. McClellan had served under Scott during the Mexican-American War, wherein—as C. J. Prime writes in the introduction to McClellan’s autobiography, McClellan’s Own Story—“he was brevetted first lieutenant for gallantry at Contreras and Churubusco, captain for Chapultepec.”
McClellan was a young star arcing toward the zenith when he served in Mexico; he then served the army by instructing at West Point (1848–51), working on a survey team in the far western United States (1852–54), and monitoring and recording the status of several European armies while on the Delafield Commission (1855–56).
As an observer on that venture, McClellan and two other soldiers witnessed action in the Crimean War. Upon their return, they provided the United States Army with information on the behaviors of those European armies. One of McClellan’s more impressive academic feats took place in the assembly of his report. Stephen Sears records:
His colleagues were to focus on their specialties . . . while he dealt more generally with the organization of Europe’s principal armies, paying particular attention to engineer troops and cavalry. He had brought back with him from Europe nearly a hundred books and manuals on topics ranging from field rations to veterinary medicine. With his facility for languages, those in French and German posed no problems; for those in Russian he simply set out to teach himself the language. . . . Less than three months after embarking on his study, he had translated on 300-page Russian volume and was starting on a second. As a result, his description of the Russian army was the most comprehensive available to American readers.
George B. McClellan was a smart man.
In the years just before the war, he had left the army to become a railroad executive, but then the call to duty brought him back to serve his country. It was only a matter of time before he would rise to supplant his old boss.
McClellan was young—thirty-four at the war’s onset—as well as talented and ambitious. Scott (right) was much older—seventy-four when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter—and was, as accounts say, too fat to ride a horse. Winfield Scott had had his day. Actually, he had had many days, as he had served in the United States military since Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.
McClellan’s thinking seemed to be that if ever it was time for the young to put the old under a shawl and into a porch chair, this was it. Scott retired on November 1, 1861; McClellan then became general-in-chief of all federal armies.
McClellan then went to war on two fronts. First, and less effectively, he was the agent responsible for conducting the Civil War against the Confederate army. Second, and more bizarrely, he fought against the powers of state in Washington. He treated President Lincoln with unmitigated scorn. Military historian Edward H. Bonekemper III writes:
All too soon, McClellan began openly showing disrespect for the president. When Lincoln arranged a conference with Governor Dennison of Ohio, a Union general, and McClellan, the commanding general chose not to appear. . . . That event was followed in mid-November by an even more blatant snub of the president. On the evening of November 13, the president, [Secretary of State William] Seward, and John Hay came to McClellan’s home to confer with him. After they had waited an hour because McClellan was out, the general returned, went straight upstairs to his room and ignored their presence. When, a half hour later, the three visitors asked the servant to tell him they were waiting, the servant responded that the general had gone to bed.
George B. McClellan chose to answer to no one.
However, he was not unaware of the personalities running the rest of the American government. Bonekemper notes that McClellan’s senior intelligence officer, Allan Pinkerton, kept the general informed of political upheavals inside the capital, “using his lead spy to track events in Washington,” although “a better use of Pinkerton would have been to adequately scout the enemy.”
Time and time again, when Lincoln (right) urged him to attack, McClellan would hesitate or fail altogether to act under the excuse that Confederate numbers were greatly superior or that the time and conditions were not right for an offensive.
Bonekemper’s summary of McClellan’s character is damning, noting simply, “There is nothing in McClellan’s Civil War record to demonstrate that he had the intestinal fortitude to undertake an all-out offensive with his available troops.”
On March 11, 1862, he was relieved of command of the entire Union effort and reduced to the command—no small task—of the Army of the Potomac. Still, the need to prosecute an aggressive war was lost on McClellan.
McClellan’s failure to reinforce in a timely way the Union efforts at Second Bull Run in August 1862, and his failure to strike down Robert E. Lee’s staggering army after the bloody fighting at Antietam in September 1862, paved the way for his dismissal on November 5, 1862.
One year and four days elapsed between McClellan’s assumption of the entire command of the Union army and his complete dismissal. Stephen Sears notes, “Lincoln was straightforward and consistent in stating the military failings for which he dismissed George McClellan, and frequently considered dismissing him earlier: he was the general . . . who would not fight.”
McClellan, for all his education and experience and his efforts at assembling a war machine, would prove to be a nemesis to Abraham Lincoln, not just during the tenure of McClellan’s commands, but also as the opposing candidate for president of the United States in the 1864 election.
—Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery, Catalog of American Portraits
George Brinton McClellan / Mathew Brady Studio, undated / Modern albumen print from wet plate collodion negative / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Winfield Scott / Mathew Brady Studio, 1861 / Albumen silver print/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Abraham Lincoln/Alexander Gardner, 1861/Albumen silver print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Edward H Bonekemper III, McClellan and Failure (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2007).
George B. McClellan, McClellan’s Own Story (New York: H. J. Hewitt, 1886).
Stephen W. Sears, George McClellan: The Young Napoleon (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1988).