George Brinton McClellan (December 3, 1826 – October 29, 1885) was a major general for the Union during the American Civil War and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1864, who later served as Governor of New Jersey.
He organized the famous Army of the Potomac and served briefly (November 1861 to March 1862) as the general-in-chief of the Union Army. Early in the war, McClellan played an important role in raising a well-trained and organized army for the Union.
Although McClellan was meticulous in his planning and preparations, these very characteristics hampered his ability to challenge aggressive opponents in a fast-moving battlefield environment. He chronically overestimated the strength of enemy units and was reluctant to apply principles of mass, frequently leaving large portions of his army unengaged at decisive points.
McClellan organized and led the Union’s Peninsula Campaign (also known as the Peninsular Campaign) in southeastern Virginia from March through July 1862.
It was the first large-scale offensive in the Eastern Theater. Making an amphibious clockwise turning movement around the Confederate States Army in northern Virginia, McClellan’s forces turned west to move up the Virginia Peninsula, with the Confederate capital, Richmond, as their objective.
McClellan was initially successful against the equally cautious General Joseph E. Johnston, but the emergence of the aggressive General Robert E. Lee turned the subsequent Seven Days Battles into a humiliating Union defeat.
General McClellan failed to maintain the trust of President Abraham Lincoln, was insubordinate to his commander-in-chief and privately derisive of him. After he was relieved of command, McClellan went on to become the unsuccessful Democratic Party nominee opposed to Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.
The effectiveness of his campaign was damaged when he repudiated his party’s anti-war platform, which promised to end the war and negotiate with the Confederacy. He served as the 24th Governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881. He eventually became a writer, defending his conduct of the Peninsula Campaign and in other Civil War engagements.
Most modern authorities have assessed McClellan as a poor battlefield general. A few historians view him as a highly capable commander whose reputation suffered unfairly at the hands of pro-Lincoln partisans who made him a scapegoat for the Union’s military setbacks. After the war, Ulysses S. Grant was asked for his opinion of McClellan as a general. He replied, “McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war.”
McClellan was born in Philadelphia, the son of a prominent surgeon, Dr. George McClellan , the founder of Jefferson Medical College.His father’s family was of Ulster Scots heritage. His mother was Elizabeth Sophia Steinmetz Brinton McClellan (1800–1889), daughter of a leading Pennsylvania family, a woman noted for her “considerable grace and refinement”.
The couple ultimately had five children: a daughter, Frederica; then three sons, John, George, and Arthur; and finally a second daughter, Mary. McClellan was the great-grandson of Revolutionary War general Samuel McClellan of Woodstock, Connecticut. He first attended the University of Pennsylvania in 1840 at age 13, resigning himself to the study of law.
After two years, he changed his goal to military service. With the assistance of his father’s letter to President John Tyler, young George was accepted at the United States Military Academy in 1842, the academy having waived its normal minimum age of 16.
At West Point, he was an energetic and ambitious cadet, deeply interested in the teachings of Dennis Hart Mahan and the theoretical strategic principles of Antoine-Henri Jomini.
His closest friends were aristocratic Southerners such as James Stuart, Dabney Maury, Cadmus Wilcox, and A. P. Hill. These associations gave McClellan what he considered to be an appreciation of the Southern mind and an understanding of the political and military implications of the sectional differences in the United States that led to the Civil War.
He graduated in 1846, second in his class of 59 cadets, losing the top position (to Charles Seaforth Stewart) only because of poor drawing skills. He was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
McClellan’s first assignment was with a company of engineers formed at West Point, but he quickly received orders to sail for the Mexican–American War. He arrived near the mouth of the Rio Grande in October 1846, well prepared for action with a double-barreled shotgun, two pistols, a saber, a dress sword, and a Bowie knife.
He complained that he had arrived too late to take any part in the American victory at Monterrey in September. During a temporary armistice in which the forces of Gen. Zachary Taylor awaited action, McClellan was stricken with dysentery and malaria, which kept him in the hospital for nearly a month. The malaria would recur in later years—he called it his “Mexican disease.”
He served bravely as an engineering officer during the war, was frequently subject to enemy fire, and was appointed a brevet first lieutenant for Contreras and Churubusco and to captain for Chapultepec, He performed reconnaissance missions for Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, a close friend of McClellan’s father.
McClellan’s experiences in the war shaped his later military and political life. He learned to appreciate the value of flanking movements over frontal assaults (used by Scott at Cerro Gordo) and the value of siege operations (Veracruz).
He witnessed Scott’s success in balancing political with military affairs, and his good relations with the civil population as he invaded, enforcing strict discipline on his soldiers to minimize damage to property. McClellan also developed a disdain for volunteer soldiers and officers, particularly politicians who cared nothing for discipline and training.
McClellan resigned his commission January 16, 1857, and, capitalizing on his experience with railroad assessment, became chief engineer and vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad and also president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad in 1860. He performed well in both jobs, expanding the Illinois Central toward New Orleans and helping the Ohio and Mississippi recover from the Panic of 1857.
But despite his successes and lucrative salary ($10,000 per year), he was frustrated with civilian employment and continued to study classical military strategy assiduously. During the Utah War against the Mormons, he considered rejoining the Army. He also considered service as a filibuster in support of Benito Juárez in Mexico.
Before the outbreak of the Civil War, McClellan became active in politics, supporting the presidential campaign of Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 election. He claimed to have defeated an attempt at vote fraud by Republicans by ordering the delay of a train that was carrying men to vote illegally in another county, enabling Douglas to win the county.
In October 1859 McClellan was able to resume his courtship of Mary Ellen, and they were married in Calvary Church, New York City, on May 22, 1860.
After the defeat of the Union forces at Bull Run on July 21, 1861, Lincoln summoned McClellan from western Virginia, where McClellan had given the North the only engagements bearing a semblance of victory.
He traveled by special train on the main Pennsylvania line from Wheeling through Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and on to Washington, D.C., and was greeted by enthusiastic crowds that met his train along the way.
Carl Sandburg wrote, “McClellan was the man of the hour, pointed to by events, and chosen by an overwhelming weight of public and private opinion.”
On July 26, the day he reached the capital, McClellan was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington. On August 20, several military units in Virginia were consolidated into his department and he immediately formed the Army of the Potomac, with himself as its first commander. He reveled in his newly acquired power and influence:
During the summer and fall, McClellan brought a high degree of organization to his new army, and greatly improved its morale with frequent trips to review and encourage his units. It was a remarkable achievement, in which he came to personify the Army of the Potomac and reaped the adulation of his men.
He created defenses for Washington that were almost impregnable, consisting of 48 forts and strong points, with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists. The Army of the Potomac grew in number from 50,000 in July to 168,000 in November, becoming the largest military force the United States had raised until that time.
But this was also a time of tension in the high command, as he continued to quarrel frequently with the government and the general-in-chief, Lt. Gen. Scott, on matters of strategy. McClellan rejected the tenets of Scott’s Anaconda Plan, favoring instead an overwhelming grand battle, in the Napoleonic style.
He proposed that his army should be expanded to 273,000 men and 600 guns and “crush the rebels in one campaign.” He favored a war that would impose little impact on civilian populations and require no emancipation of slaves.
McClellan’s antipathy to emancipation added to the pressure on him, as he received bitter criticism from Radical Republicans in the government. He viewed slavery as an institution recognized in the Constitution, and entitled to federal protection wherever it existed (Lincoln held the same public position until August 1862). McClellan’s writings after the war were typical of many Northerners: “I confess to a prejudice in favor of my own race, & can’t learn to like the odor of either Billy goats or niggers.”
But in November 1861, he wrote to his wife, “I will, if successful, throw my sword onto the scale to force an improvement in the condition of those poor blacks.” He later wrote that had it been his place to arrange the terms of peace, he would have insisted on gradual emancipation, guarding the rights of both slaves and masters, as part of any settlement. But he made no secret of his opposition to the radical Republicans.
He told Ellen, “I will not fight for the abolitionists.” This put him in opposition with officials of the administration who believed he was attempting to implement the policies of the opposition party.
The immediate problem with McClellan’s war strategy was that he was convinced the Confederates were ready to attack him with overwhelming numbers. On August 8, believing that the Confederacy had over 100,000 troops facing him (in contrast to the 35,000 they actually deployed at Bull Run a few weeks earlier), he declared a state of emergency in the capital.
By August 19, he estimated 150,000 rebel soldiers on his front. McClellan’s subsequent campaigns were strongly influenced by the overblown enemy strength estimates of his secret service chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, but in August 1861, these estimates were entirely McClellan’s own. The result was a level of extreme caution that sapped the initiative of McClellan’s army and dismayed the government.
Historian and biographer Stephen W. Sears observed that McClellan’s actions would have been “essentially sound” for a commander who was as outnumbered as McClellan thought he was, but McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over the armies that opposed him in 1861 and 1862. That fall, for example, Confederate forces ranged from 35,000 to 60,000, whereas the Army of the Potomac in September numbered 122,000 men; in early December 170,000; by year end, 192,000.
The dispute with Scott became increasingly personal. Scott (as well as many in the War Department) was outraged that McClellan refused to divulge any details about his strategic planning, or even such basic information as the strengths and dispositions of his units.
McClellan claimed he could not trust anyone in the administration to keep his plans secret from the press, and thus the enemy. In the course of a disagreement about defensive forces on the Potomac River, McClellan wrote to his wife on August 10: “Genl Scott is the great obstacle—he will not comprehend the danger & is either a traitor, or an incompetent.
I have to fight my way against him.” Scott became so disillusioned with the young general that he offered his resignation to President Lincoln, who initially refused to accept it. Rumors traveled through the capital that McClellan might resign, or instigate a military coup, if Scott were not removed. Lincoln’s Cabinet met on October 18 and agreed to accept Scott’s resignation for “reasons of health.”
Secretary Stanton ordered McClellan to report to Trenton, New Jersey, for further orders, although none were issued. As the war progressed, there were various calls to return Little Mac to an important command, following the Union defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, as Robert E. Lee moved north at the start of the Gettysburg Campaign, and as Jubal Early threatened Washington in 1864.
When Ulysses S. Grant became general-in-chief, he discussed returning McClellan to an unspecified position. But all of these opportunities were impossible, given the opposition within the administration and the knowledge that McClellan posed a potential political threat.
McClellan worked for months on a lengthy report describing his two major campaigns and his successes in organizing the Army, replying to his critics and justifying his actions by accusing the administration of undercutting him and denying him necessary reinforcements. The War Department was reluctant to publish his report because, just after completing it in October 1863, McClellan openly declared his entrance to the political stage as a Democrat.
McClellan was nominated by the Democrats to run against Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 U.S. presidential election. Following the example of Winfield Scott, he ran as a U.S. Army general still on active duty; he did not resign his commission until election day, November 8, 1864. He supported continuation of the war and restoration of the Union (though not the abolition of slavery), but the party platform, written by Copperhead Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, was opposed to this position.
The platform called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. McClellan was forced to repudiate the platform, which made his campaign inconsistent and difficult. He also was not helped by the party’s choice for vice president, George H. Pendleton, a peace candidate from Ohio.
The deep division in the party, the unity of the Republicans (running under the label “National Union Party”), and the military successes by Union forces in the fall of 1864 doomed McClellan’s candidacy.
Lincoln won the election handily, with 212 Electoral College votes to 21 and a popular vote of 2,218,388 to 1,812,807 or 55% to 45%. For all his popularity with the troops, McClellan failed to secure their support and the military vote went to Lincoln nearly 3–1. Lincoln’s share of the vote in the Army of the Potomac was 70%.