McClellan, George B.
When the Civil War broke out, McClellan received an appointment as major‐general and commanded Union forces that drove the Confederates out of western Virginia in July 1861. After the Union disaster at the First Battle of Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln brought him east to reorganize and command the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was greeted with widespread public enthusiasm as “the Young Napoleon” who would produce a swift and decisive victory over the Confederacy. Unfortunately, these expectations—partly of his own making but mostly a reflection of a conviction early in the war that “hard fighting” would lead to a quick and relatively painless victory—would haunt McClellan's tenure as a Union general as well as his historical reputation.
In the late summer and fall of 1861, McClellan set out methodically to rebuild the Army of the Potomac. Despite public pressure for an immediate attack, McClellan prepared for an assault in the spring of 1862. His meticulous plans for one big offensive to seize Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, resulted in the Peninsula Campaign from March to July 1862, in which the Army of the Potomac came within five miles of the city, but was thrown back by a determined counter‐attack by Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days' Battle (25 June–1 July 1862). Disillusioned by McClellan's apparent lack of progress and demands for additional manpower, Lincoln withdrew McClellan and his army from the peninsula, and placed John Pope in charge of Union forces in northern Virginia.
However, after humiliating Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lee invaded Maryland, and Lincoln recalled McClellan to lead the Army of the Potomac once again. “Little Mac” brought together the disorganized and dispirited Union army, and after Union troops discovered the “lost” plans to Lee's invasion, he moved rapidly to track Lee down. McClellan cornered Lee's forces near Sharpsburg in western Maryland: at the Battle of Antietam (17 September 1862), the two armies fought the bloodiest one‐day conflict of the war. Lee was forced to retreat back into Virginia. The battle has been described as a tactical draw, but a strategic victory. McClellan has been criticized by some historians for failure to commit his reserves at the end of the day to destroy the Rebels. Under substantial pressure himself, Lincoln once again relieved McClellan of command in November 1862.
Although he understood that the Confederacy had to be defeated, McClellan, a member of the Democratic Party, advocated military conduct under “the highest principles known to Christian civilization” and was generally conservative on slavery. Hence, he was never in favor with Radical Republicans, who demanded the immediate abolition of slavery and regarded McClellan as “soft” on military measures. McClellan's supposed moderation became a central issue when he ran for president in 1864. Although he strongly advocated continuing the war until victory was achieved, some historians have suggested that if McClellan had defeated the Republican Lincoln, the peace faction within the Democratic Party would have insisted that the war effort be suspended, and the Confederacy would thereby have achieved independence. Such assessments, however, are speculative.
McClellan was a brilliant organizer, who inspired devotion from the common infantryman. He could also be contemptuous of politicians, which has led some historians to describe him as vain, arrogant, and paranoid. A tragic failure, he had a Cassandra‐like quality in correctly warning that it would take substantial resources and repeated attempts to capture Richmond. For the first two years of the war, each time Lincoln replaced McClellan, the Union army, in less capable hands, went on humiliating debacles. George B. McClellan proved, and will probably remain, one of the most controversial generals of the American Civil War.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Civil War: Changing Interpretations.]
Warren W. Hassler, Jr. , General George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union, 1957.
Joseph L. Harsh , On the McClellan‐Go‐Round, Civil War History, 19 (1973), pp. 101–18.
Stephen W. Sears , George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, 1988.
Eric T. Dean, Jr. , “Rethinking the Civil War: Beyond‘Revolutions,’ ‘Reconstructions,’ and the ‘New Social History,’ Southern Historian, 15 (Spring 1994), pp. 28–50.
Thomas J. Rowland , In the Shadows of Grant and Sherman: George B. McClellan Revisited, Civil War History, 40(3) (September 1994), pp. 202–25.
Eric T. Dean, Jr.