Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan was the youngest commander of the Army of the Potomac when he was given command by Abraham Lincoln after the First Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run). The Army of the Potomac was his creation. He trained it and led it in to a number of battles on the Peninsula and in front of Richmond in 1862. He commanded this large army at the Battle of Antietam.
McClellan was born on December 3, 1826 in Philadelphia, the son of a prominent surgical ophthalmologist, Dr. George McClellan (1796–1847), the founder of Jefferson Medical College. 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”.
He graduated from West Point in 1846, second in his class of 59 cadets and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. He served in the Mexican War and received brevet promotions twice during the war.
After the Mexican War, McClellan spent several years on various assignments but by January 1857 he resigned his commission to return to civilian life. He 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.
At the start of the war, George McClellan was offered the position of major general of volunteers and command of the Ohio militia on April 23, 1861. On May 3 McClellan re-entered federal service by being named commander of the Department of the Ohio, responsible for the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and, later, western Pennsylvania, western Virginia, and Missouri. On May 14, he was commissioned a major general in the regular army. At age 34 he now outranked everyone in the Army other than Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief.
McClellan began his wartime service in western Virginia where the residents were anxious to remain in the Union. After several victories in what are considered today as minor battles, McClellan began to be referred to as the Young Napoleon.
After the Union defeat at First Manassas, McClellan was brought East by the Lincoln administration. 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.
George McClellan may have a reputation as a cautious battlefield and rightly so but he was a superb logistics officer. He incorporated new recruits into his ever-expanding army. At the same time, he supervised the building of the massive Washington defenses. Under McClellan’s command Washington became the most heavily fortified capital in the world, with 48 forts, 480 guns and 7,200 troops.
Meanwhile the Army of the Potomac grew from 50,000 men to 168,000 by November. But that not enough for George McClellan. He proposed an army of 273,000 men and 600 guns that would crush the Confederates in one battle.
McClellan had developed an irrational belief that the Confederate army that was facing him had 150,000 men. But at First Manassas they had only 35,000. He never explained where they had gotten all of those other troops. This mistaken belief was helped along by the imperfect intelligence-gathering of Allan Pinkerton.
By November 1, 1861, McClellan was appointed general-in-chief with the retirement of Gen. Winfield Scott. Lincoln expressed his concern about the “vast labor” involved in the dual role of army commander and general-in-chief, but McClellan responded, “I can do it all.”
Meanwhile, the civilian leadership began to fret that McClellan would never move. Lincoln complained that his commanding general had a case of the “slows”. On January 10, Lincoln met with top generals without McClellan and directed them to formulate a plan of attack, expressing his exasperation with General McClellan with the following remark: “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
After months of exasperation, Lincoln removed McClellan as general-in-chief on March 11, 1862. With this, McClellan proposed his plan to land his army at Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula and attack the Confederate capital of Richmond from the east.
The Union expedition was massive. It was a vast armada that dwarfed all previous American military expeditions, transporting 121,500 men, 44 artillery batteries, 1,150 wagons, over 15,000 horses, and tons of equipment and supplies. They left Alexandria on March 17th and arrived off Fortress Monroe shortly thereafter in stages.
The Union advance up the narrow Peninsula was slow and methodical, befitting McClellan’s reputation as a cautious commander. Starting on April 4th at Yorktown, the Army of the Potomac fought up the Peninsula for nearly two months. The Peninsula was a narrow battlefield that allowed the numerically inferior Confederate force to fight a drawn-out delaying action. The campaign culminated in the Union victory at Seven Pines or Fair Oaks where the Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, was seriously wounded.
Johnston’s replacement was Robert E. Lee who proceeded to engage the Union forces in seven battles over seven days. The Union Army was driven south, away from Richmond and retreated to the James River.
Lincoln, meanwhile, had named Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck as the new general-in-chief. Troops from the Army of the Potomac were transferred to the Army of Virginia under the command of John Pope. The Army of Virginia was decisively defeated at Second Manassas on August 30, 1862.
McClellan was recalled to Washington and on September 2, 1862, Lincoln named McClellan to command “the fortifications of Washington, and all the troops for the defense of the capital.” McClellan was counted upon to reorganize and combine the Army of the Potomac with the shattered Army of Virginia. Within two weeks, they were engaged in combat with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
On the road to Sharpsburg, Maryland, George McClellan was presented with an opportunity that few generals ever receive: a complete set of the enemy’s plans. An Indiana corporal discovered the written instructions from Robert E. Lee to his subordinate commanders: Special Order 191. With this plan, McClellan was given the golden opportunity to defeat the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in detail and surely end the war.
But an army is very hard to move nimbly and McClellan was not used to quick movements. Instead, they gave Lee the opportunity to slip out of the Union trap. The two armies met in a straight forward battle of attrition along Antietam Creek that resulted in a total of almost 23,000 killed and wounded on both sides.
Rather than follow up the Confederate retreat, McClellan did almost nothing, allowing Lee’s battered army to retreat to the safety of Virginia. Although McClellan had achieved a tactical victory by holding the field, President Lincoln and the Washington authorities viewed it as a disappoint. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was allowed to live and fight another day. On November 7, 1862, Lincoln relieved McClellan of command and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.
George McClellan was ordered to return to Trenton, New Jersey to await further orders. They never came. 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). He was defeated handily by Lincoln, receiving only 21 electoral votes to Lincoln’s 212.
In 1877, McClellan was nominated by the Democrats for Governor of New Jersey, an action that took him by surprise because he had not expressed an interest in the position. He accepted the nomination, was elected, and served a single term from 1878 to 1881, a tenure marked by careful, conservative executive management and minimal political rancor.
McClellan died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 58 at Orange, New Jersey, after having suffered from chest pains for a few weeks. His final words, at 3 a.m., October 29, 1885, were, “I feel easy now. Thank you.” He was buried at Riverview Cemetery, Trenton, New Jersey. He was survived by his wife Ellen and two children George Jr. (known as Max) and Mary (known as May).