Academic

George McClellan’s Fall from Grace

Written by Amy Hendrie. The course of the American Civil War is well tracked, and yet the contributions of George McClellan both helped and hindered progress throughout the endeavour. Dispatched by Abraham Lincoln, what caused such a fall from grace?

George McClellan, born 1826, was an American Army Engineer, railroad president and politician. He is most famous, however, for his time serving as major general during the American Civil War. Praised for his organisational skills, McClellan transformed the Union Army from a disjointed, ineffective force into a ready and raring force to be reckoned with. But McClellan was famously hesitant to use his newly trained troops. So nervous, in fact, that his lack of action may have prolonged the Civil War. This article will highlight both McClellan’s successes and failures and will consider how he ultimately deserves to be remembered in history. 

McClellan, while not a supporter of the abolition of slavery, commanded the volunteer army of the state of Ohio in 1861 to fight to preserve the union. Entrusted with creating a professional force from the Ohio volunteers, McClellan’s training regimen was so impressive and effective that he garnered favour in Washington. The Union Army was badly defeated at the Battle of Bull Run, which marked the first major land battle of the American Civil war in 1861 and resulted in 3,000 Union casualties in comparison to 1,750 Confederate casualties. Thus, Lincoln decided that the Union army was in need of new leadership and McClellan was appointed Commander in Chief of the Union Army. Once again, McClellan demonstrated his keen training and organisational skills. Declaring the Union Army to be in “perfect pandemonium”, McClellan demanded that he fully and thoroughly train his new troops before they saw battle.  He retrained the troops defending Washington, who became known as the disciplined Army of the Potomac. Replacing inept officers with regulars, he set up camps around Washington to accommodate the 10,000 new volunteers arriving per week, and troops were drilled eight hours a day. Clearly, McClellan was an asset for the previously disjointed Union Army as he was skilful in his recrafting of the troops. Furthermore, McClellan bettered morale throughout the Union Army by staging grand reviews; he was admired by his troops for having made them capable and proud and served to dispel the disenchantment which was plaguing the force. Troops even nicknamed him ‘Little Mac’ because of his short stature. Shelby Foote suggests that “whatever the Army of the Potomac did in the after years was largely due to the training McClellan gave them in that first year”. McClellan, it seems, was off to a promising start. 

Promoted to general-in-chief in 1861 by Lincoln, McClellan declared he could “do it all”. However, as succinctly put by Ken Burns in The Civil War, “he did nothing”. The months following McClellan’s training of the Army of the Potomac yielded no advancements or offensives against the Confederates. McClellan had created his army, but it became clear that he had no immediate intentions to use it. He is even described in one article as “sluggish and paranoid”. A key example of his timidity occurred in 1862 when McClellan led his army to the James Peninsula to face the Confederate army commanded by Robert E. Lee. During the so-called Seven Days Battles, McClellan consistently retreated when attacked by Lee’s forces, despite being poised so near to the Confederate capital of Richmond. Furthermore, McClellan’s paranoia clearly got the best of him, as he was firmly convinced Lee outnumbered him when in fact the very opposite was true. It is therefore clear that McClellan was a nervous, paranoid leader, refusing to use the army he had helped to forge. 

McClellan’s shortcomings were so stark they sparked conflict between himself and President Lincoln. Such is highlighted in Lincoln’s own correspondence with McClellan, claiming that ‘you and I have distinct and different plans for the movement of the Army of the Potomac’. Lincoln was frustrated with McClellan’s paranoia, specifically that McClellan was convinced he lacked the proper resources and men to be a capable force, when in fact the Army of the Potomac was mighty in numbers. Lincoln wrote to McClellan stating that “your dispatches, claiming that you are not properly sustained …. do pain me very much”. Furthermore, Lincoln urged McClellan to make a decisive move: 

“and once more let me tell you it is indispensable that you strike a blow …. the country will not fail to note – is noting now – that the present hesitation to move upon an entrenched enemy is but the story of Manassas repeated. .… You must act.”

It is therefore clear that McClellan was incapable of wielding the force he had created, proving himself to be a hesitant, timid commander. All of this resulted in Lincoln discharging McClellan in 1862, as he was convinced that McClellan would never be able to defeat Lee’s formidable army. One worker for the New York Tribune, Henry Villard, stresses that the reason for McClellan’s expulsion was ‘his military shortcomings.’ 

McClellan, then, was a man who displayed both extreme success and extreme failure. Without McClellan, the Union Army would likely have remained disjointed and undisciplined, an ineffective and weak fighting force. However, McClellan proved to be a hindrance to the Union’s war effort, lacking the courage to move his troops to the extent that President Lincoln was forced to plead with him on multiple occasions to ‘strike a blow’. It has been argued that McClellan’s paranoia and timidity prolonged the war. There were many opportunities in which the mighty Army of the Potomac could have overwhelmed and defeated Confederate forces. However, McClellan chose not to take advantage of such opportunities. It is put best by Ken Burns in The Civil War: ‘McClellan brought superior forces to Sharpsburg, but also brought himself.’ 

By Amy Hendrie  

Bibliography 

Burns, Ken. The Civil War. PBS, 1990. 

Coates, Ta-Neshi. “The Enduring Villainy of Little Napoleon.” The Atlantic, 6 August 2012. 

Simkin, John. “George McClellan.” Spartacus Educational, 1997. 

https://spartacus-educational.com/USACWmcclellan.html.

Woods, Brett F. Abraham Lincoln: Letters to His Generals, 1861-1865. New York: Algora Publishing, 2013. 

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