Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was greeted as the savior of the Union when he was promoted to General-in-chief on November 1, 1861. He replaced Winfield Scott who was 75 to McClellan’s almost 35. When 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.”
His life up to now was an unbroken success. McClellan was a brilliant engineer who had graduated second in his class from West Point. He served bravely in the Mexican War, receiving two brevet promotions to captain. During the war he learned the value of flanking operations and how to conduct siege warfare.
After the excitement of the war McClellan returned to the more sedate life of a peacetime military officer. In his case he served on an expedition to discover the source of the Red River. He was on a survey team that explored for passages through the Rocky Mountains. Returning to the East he courted and married Mary Ellen Marcy. McClellan’s was one of nine proposals that she received.
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sent McClellan on a secret mission to scout the Dominican Republic. After that assignment he was dispatched to the Crimea as an official observer of the Crimean War. He observed the Siege of Sevastopol in 1856. Returning to the United States, McClellan wrote a lengthy report on the war but like most of the observers failed to highlight the importance of the new rifled musket.
He also wrote a manual on cavalry tactics based on his observations. He also proposed the adoption of a new saddle design that came to be know as the McClellan saddle. It is still in use today.
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.
At the start of the war the governors of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, the three largest states of the Union, actively pursued him to command their states’ militia. The Governor of Ohio, William Dennison, was the most persistent and McClellan accepted a commission as major general of volunteers on April 23, 1861.
On May 3rd he re-entered federal service as the commander of the Department of Ohio, responsible for Union forces in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Later, western Pennsylvania, western Virginia and Missouri were added to the department. On May 14th, he was commissioned a major general of the Regular Army. McClellan now outranked everyone except Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott.
McClellan began the war with two objectives. The first was to build and train an army. The volunteers needed to clothed, fed, equipped and trained. His second objective was the occupation of western Virginia, an area that wanted to remain in the Union. After two minor victories, the Northern newspapers, hungry for a hero, christened him “Gen. McClellan, the Napoleon of the Present War.”
After the Union defeat at First Manassas (Bull Run) on July 21, 1861, Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington to be the commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, the main Union force responsible for the defense of Washington. 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 August 20th he formed the Army of the Potomac and began to train troops and integrate units into it. 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 and was considered by far the most colossal military unit the world had seen in modern historical times.
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.
It was during this time that two overriding issues began to impact his conduct of the war. The first was his conflict with the Radical Republicans. McClellan was not an abolitionist. He believed that slavery was embedded in the Constitution and that the war was not being fought to free the slaves.
The second issue was his constant fear that the Confederate Army was far larger than it actually was. In August, he believed that they had 100,000 troops facing him despite their having only 35,000 at Manassas several weeks before. McClellan in fact rarely had less than a two-to-one advantage over his opponents 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.
After his appointment as General-in-Chief, McClellan and Lincoln began to be at odds with each other. McClellan treated the President with little deference. He privately referred to Lincoln, whom he had known before the war as a lawyer for the Illinois Central, as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon”, a “gorilla”, and “ever unworthy of … his high position.” On November 13, he snubbed the president, visiting at McClellan’s house, by making him wait for 30 minutes, only to be told that the general had gone to bed and could not see him.
By January, Lincoln and his Cabinet were losing patience with the general. Lincoln expressed his exasperation with McClellan and was reputed to have said, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
On January 12th 1862, McClellan was summoned to the White House and revealed his strategy to Lincoln and his cabinet. He revealed his intentions to transport the Army of the Potomac by ship to Urbanna, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River, outflanking the Confederate forces near Washington, and proceeding 50 miles overland to capture Richmond. This would have left Washington without a proper defensive force and Lincoln would have none of it.
On January 27th, Lincoln ordered the Army of the Potomac to begin offensive operations by February 22nd. On January 31, he issued a supplementary order for the Army of the Potomac to move overland to attack the Confederates at Manassas Junction and Centreville. McClellan immediately replied with a 22-page letter objecting in detail to the president’s plan and advocating instead his Urbanna plan, which was the first written instance of the plan’s details being presented to the president.
Lincoln continued to interfere in McClellan’s planning and operation of the army. He reluctantly agreed to McClellan’s plan but on March 8th called McClellan’s subordinates to the White House where he questioned them on their confidence in the plan. They expressed their confidence to varying degrees.
After the meeting, Lincoln issued another order, naming specific officers as corps commanders to report to McClellan. He had been reluctant to do so prior to assessing his division commanders’ effectiveness in combat, even though this would have meant his direct supervision of twelve divisions in the field.
Then Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston withdrew from positions in front of Washington and moved south of the Rappahannock River, nullifying the Urbanna strategy. McClellan came under extreme criticism from the press and the Congress when it was found that Johnston’s forces had not only slipped away unnoticed, but had for months fooled the Union Army through the use of logs painted black to appear as cannons, nicknamed Quaker Guns.
The Radical Republicans were outraged and demanded McClellan’s dismissal but a vote in Congress was defeated by a parliamentary maneuver. Meanwhile, McClellan had adjusted his strategy. He proposed moving his troops by water to Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. From there they would move up the narrow peninsula and take Richmond from the east.
On March 11, 1862 McClellan was relieved as general-in-chief, ostensibly to devote his entire energies to commanding the Army of the Potomac. However, he was not replaced and the civilian leadership of Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and a group of officers called the “War Board” directed the strategic actions of the Union armies that spring. In time McClellan saw the change of command very differently, describing it as a part of an intrigue “to secure the failure of the approaching campaign.”