George B. McClellan
George B. McClellan, portrait by Mathew Brady, 1861. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
George Brinton McClellan was born into an elite Philadelphia family on December 3, 1826. He attended the University of Pennsylvania but did not graduate. McClellan was admitted into West Point Academy in 1842, before his sixteenth birthday. He graduated in 1846, second in his class. McClellan’s first combat experiences came during the Mexican-American War, in which he was enlisted as a lieutenant of engineers under General Winfield Scott. Described as fearless and gallant under fire, McClellan was awarded brevets to first lieutenant in Contreras-Churubusco, followed by a promotion to Captain at Chapultepec. After the Mexican-American War, McClellan returned to West Point as an assistant instructor until his reassignment to explore the western frontier, including Oregon and the Southwest. In 1855 then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sent McClellan to travel throughout Europe to study the tactics being utilized in the Crimean War. Upon his return, McClellan released his military report, Armies of Europe, which detailed his analysis of what he saw while traveling. In 1857 McClellan retired from the military and became chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. Following his term as chief engineer he was promoted to President of the Ohio and Mississippi River Railroad, the headquarters of which was located in Cincinnati.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 led to McClellan’s return to the military. While he was opposed to the outright abolition of slavery, his allegiance ultimately resided with the preservation of the Union. McClellan accepted the position of commander of the volunteer army of Ohio in 1861. Governor of Ohio William Dennison dispatched McClellan and Jacob Cox to the state arsenal in Columbus to investigate the guns and other supplies that Ohio had on hand to help equip the state's militia units. The two men discovered a few crates of rusted smoothbore muskets, mildewed harness for horses, and some six-pound cannons that could not be fired. Despite the lack of equipment, Dennison encouraged Ohio communities to revive the militia system and to form units that they would send to Columbus, the state capital. Dennison entrusted McClellan with command of these units and asked him to create a professional force from the volunteers.
The exceptional training regimen McClellan demanded of these new recruits garnered him esteem in Washington and he soon became a Major General in the United States Army. He was placed in charge of the department of Ohio. McClellan’s first course of action was to disperse small units across the Ohio River into western Virginia to fragment Confederate divisions. Due to constant, successful support provided by his troops to the greater Union Army, McClellan was nicknamed ‘the Young Napoleon.’ After the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln replaced General Irvin McDowell as commander of the Army of the Potomac with McClellan. McClellan spent the remainder of 1861 recruiting volunteers and training them to be professional soldiers.
When General Winfield Scott retired from his duties in 1861, McClellan was promoted to General-in-Chief of the Union Army. However, McClellan quickly began to differentiate in tactical opinion from his commanding leaders, including President Lincoln. McClellan fell under the belief that the Confederate Army was superior to the Union Army and he therefore concluded that a massive offensive against the South would be inadvisable. Both President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were concerned by McClellan’s hesitation to launch an invasion. As a result, they removed McClellan as General-in-Chief and instructed him to focus on a southern advance.
McClellan and the Army of the Potomac set out to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia in early 1862. Hoping to flank the defending Confederate armies and march into Richmond unopposed, McClellan transported his army by ship to Fortress Monroe, located on the Virginia Peninsula, beginning the Peninsula Campaign. McClellan, though initially successful in landing and moving his army toward Richmond, allowed the heavily outnumbered Confederate defenders, under General Joseph E. Johnston, to withdraw into the city defenses and buy time for reinforcements to arrive. After minor encounters, Johnston was wounded and the Confederate army was placed under the command of General Robert E. Lee. McClellan, convinced that the Confederates outnumbered his soldiers, stalled his advance on the city to await reinforcements. The Army of the Potomac was then attacked by General Lee in a series of engagements known as the Seven Days Battles. President Lincoln refused to send more reinforcements and ordered the Army of the Potomac to return to Washington.
McClellan was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, but was reinstated after the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run. McClellan was ordered halt Confederate advances into the North during Lee’s Maryland Campaign in September, 1862. The two armies met at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Prior to the battle, Union soldiers discovered copies of the Confederate battle plans, which were then relayed to McClellan. Despite this, the Battle of Antietam, as it is now known, ended in a draw. Though outnumbered, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was allowed to escape. While the battle blunted Lee’s first invasion of the North, President Lincoln believed McClellan had passed up an opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced with General Ambrose Burnside. McClellan would never receive another military command.
McClellan became one of Lincoln’s chief critics, and was nominated by the Democratic Party to run against Lincoln in the Presidential election of 1864. McClellan, a War-Democrat, was not only battling against the Republican Party, but also against fellow Democrats who wanted to condemn the war effort, something McClellan was not willing to do. Thanks in part to Union successes on the battlefield, McClellan lost the election by some 400,000 popular votes and suffered a 212-21 vote defeat in the Electoral College. McClellan resigned his commission in the United States Army on the day of the election.
McClellan relocated to Europe for several years before returning to the United States in 1870. He settled in New York where he supervised the construction of a floating battery before being appointed the chief of New York’s department of docks as well as the President of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. In 1878 McClellan was elected to a term as Governor of New Jersey, his final place of residence, where he reformed the administration of the state and developed military programs. He died on October 29, 1885.
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