Part II: Young Napoleon Builds an Army
When Abraham Lincoln placed George McClellan in charge of the Army of the Potomac in the summer of 1861, Lincoln and others at the seat of power in Washington believed that McClellan had scored victories over the Confederate forces at several engagements in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Those parties also believed McClellan to be the man for the job of marching the Federal army into Richmond. In truth, McClellan was neither the victor they believed him to be, nor the man who would eventually put down the rebellion. McClellan was the right choice, however, to assemble the mightiest army ever to march in the Western Hemisphere.
In the early days of the war, it is generally agreed that McClellan received battlefield credit for victories he did not administer or engineer. Still, in his reports to General Winfield Scott, the ancient soldier in charge of all Union armies, McClellan served himself quite favorably, so much so that he was summoned to Washington to replace Irwin McDowell after the flawed efforts at Manassas.
Military historian Edward H. Bonekemper III writes, “The dearth of Union victories elsewhere and McClellan’s successful claim of credit for the victories at Philippi, Rich Mountain, and Corrick’s Ford catapulted him to senior command in the East.”
So George McClellan came east. On July 26, 1861, he noted that when he entered the city to take command, “Not a regiment was properly encamped, not a single avenue of approach guarded. All was chaos, and the streets, hotels, and barrooms were filled with drunken officers and men absent from their regiments without leave—a perfect pandemonium.”
He formally took over the Division of the Potomac on July 27, 1861, and, again, in his own words, “I assumed command and lost no time in acquainting myself with the situation and applying the proper remedies.”
By early November 1861, McClellan had assumed command of all the Union armies by order of President Lincoln. Less than one month later, as Stephen Sears records in George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, he paraded the army he had built, drilled, and outfit in the four months since he had taken command:
The grandest of the grand reviews was held on November 20. Seven divisions, some 65,000 men, wheeled through their maneuvers in a scene that Harper’s Weekly called “brilliant beyond description.” It was the review of the French Imperial Guard McClellan had seen in the Crimea, multiplied many times over. Bands played and fifteen batteries of artillery crashed out salutes and massed cavalry thundered past. President Lincoln, Cabinet secretaries, and the diplomatic corps headed the dignitaries in attendance. Newsmen estimated the spectators at 30,000.
The Union now had an army; the question that was asked often in President Abraham Lincoln’s office was, “When will George McClellan go to war?”
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits
Next week: Part III: McClellan at War with the South, and with Lincoln
George Brinton McClellan / Currier & Ives Lithography Company / Hand-colored lithograph on paper, c. 1861-1865 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
George Brinton McClellan,/ Unidentified artist / Painted wood relief, c. 1862 / 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).