George B. McClellan
George B. McClellan, portrait by Mathew Brady, 1861. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
George B. McClellan was a prominent nineteenth century American military and political leader.
George Brinton McClellan was born on December 3, 1826, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He attended the University of Pennsylvania but did not graduate. In 1842, McClellan received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1846, ranking second in his class. After his graduation, McClellan participated in the U.S.-Mexican War. He also traveled extensively in Europe and studied European military tactics. McClellan resigned his army commission in 1857.
During the next several years, McClellan became involved in the railroad industry. Using his training at West Point in engineering, McClellan served as an engineer for the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad and the Illinois Central Railroad. During this time, he lived primarily in Cincinnati, Ohio. With the beginning of the American Civil War in April 1861, McClellan reenlisted in the United States Army.
McClellan played an important role in Ohio's early defense. In April 1861, Governor 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.
In the fall of 1861, General McClellan led a Union army into western Virginia (modern-day West Virginia) to hold this territory for the North. In this campaign, McClellan successfully defeated two Confederate forces. He secured the region for the Union and enhanced his reputation as a skillful military commander. After the Union loss 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.
In early 1862, McClellan took the offensive against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Rather than marching overland from Washington, DC, McClellan decided to transport the Army of the Potomac by ship to Fortress Monroe on the Atlantic coastline. This maneuver was planned to flank the Confederates and allow the Union force to march unopposed into Richmond. President Lincoln was happy that McClellan had finally taken the offensive. He nevertheless was concerned that Washington, DC, would be vulnerable to a Confederate attack and forced McClellan to leave behind thousands of men with General Irvin McDowell.
McClellan's assault on Richmond became known as the Peninsula Campaign. It was unsuccessful. McClellan believed reports that the Confederates had two to three times the number of men that they actually had. He believed that his force was outnumbered. The Army of the Potomac advanced within sight of Richmond, but Confederate General Robert E. Lee conducted a strong defense. McClellan retreated to the vicinity of Fortress Monroe and began to send his troops via water back to Washington, DC.
Lee's Army of Northern Virginia attacked in the late summer of 1862. General John Pope and the Army of Virginia stood in Lee's way. Lincoln created this army to defend Washington from Confederate attack. He took thousands of men from McClellan's command and gave them to Pope. In late August, Pope lost the Second Battle of Bull Run. A few weeks later the Army of Northern Virginia launched its first invasion of the North. Union authorities dissolved the Army of Virginia and placed its men with McClellan's Army of the Potomac. McClellan's task was to pursue the Confederates and to drive them back into the South.
McClellan found Lee's army at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Union soldiers found misplaced copies of orders sent by Lee to his commanders and gave them to McClellan, Now the Union general knew the exact location of Lee's men and the size of the Army of Northern Virginia. On September 17, the Battle of Antietam began on the outskirts of Sharpsburg. Although McClellan's army outnumbered Lee's force, the battle ended in a draw. The Confederates retreated back into Virginia and ended the Army of Northern Virginia's first invasion of the North.
President Lincoln believed that McClellan had a chance to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan, however, moved slowly. Due to McClellan's cautious approach, Lincoln decided to remove him from command of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862. Lincoln replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside. McClellan never received another military command.
McClellan became one of Lincoln's chief critics. In 1864, the Democratic Party selected McClellan as its presidential candidate and George Pendleton, a resident of Cincinnati, as its vice presidential candidate. The party wanted to adopt a platform condemning the war effort and demanding an immediate end to the conflict. While McClellan wanted an immediate end to the war, he was unwilling to condemn the war effort as a complete failure. Thanks to Northern battlefield victories at Atlanta, Georgia, Mobile, Alabama, and in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Lincoln won the election. He won the popular vote by more than 400,000 votes and the Electoral vote was 212 to 21. McClellan resigned his commission in the United States Army on the day of the election.
McClellan spent the last years of his life in New Jersey. He was elected governor of the state and served from 1878 to 1881. He died on October 29, 1885.
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- Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon. New York, NY: Ticknor & Fields, 1988.