Black and white photo of the young generalMajor General George Brinton McClellan was the second general-in-chief of the Union Army (and the reason General Scott resigned, although the official reason is health issues).  Most historians consider General McClellan one of the worst generals in the American Civil War, but others consider him in a much kinder light.
General McClellan was known for being overly cautious in giving orders as well as attacking.  He believed that nothing should be started in a war before it was fully supplied and supplying the grand tactics he thought would win the war took a long time.  President Abraham Lincoln had problems with General McClellan’s slow movements (the Peninsular Campaign was in planning from before January 10, when he sent a written summary to the President, until March 17 when they set out and the general hesitated a number of times to wait for supplies or plan before striking what could have been a major hit).  General McClellan also got into trouble because he didn’t trust that his careful plans wouldn’t get into Confederate hands due to sympathizers in Washington, DC (which was a valid thought as his fear happened right before the Battle of South Mountain).  Because of that fear, McClellan didn’t tell his subordinates anything beyond what their job was.  It cost him lives in battle as the commanders didn’t know how to support each other and it cost him political points in the capital when the President and Congress tried to find out what their general-in-chief’s war strategy was.
Another thing that made the public believe in General McClellan’s incompetence as a general was that he was too far away or absent from most of his major battles and refused to name a second in command until he was certain the officer was perfect for the job.  The fact that he was on a gunboat miles down the river from the Battle of Malvern Hill came back to hurt him in the Presidential election in 1864 which he lost to Lincoln.  Newspapers printed pictures of him safely watching the battle from afar while soldiers died.  Lesser known but surprise attack (the Battle of Seven Pines ) was done while he was sick with malaria (which he picked up during the Mexican-American War) and unable to command his troops while the Battle of Glendale caught him miles away with no communication with his troops.  Even at the Battle of Antietam, where he got his first major victory, General McClellan had stationed his headquarters too far away from the fighting to accurately command the battlefield.
Stephan Sears wrote that one of the reasons General McClellan was such a horrible battlefield commander was that he put a great deal of importance on the lives of the soldiers below him.  This may seem callous, but a commander of a huge war needs to be able to see a chance and take it.  To paraphrase Spock from Star Trek: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few in war.  There were a number of places in the American Civil War that speedy action caused deaths that supplies may have spared, but a swift attack after Antietam or attacking General Johnston’s forces while they waited near the country’s capital could have destroyed a large Confederate army and shortened the war by weeks or months.  However, General McClellan seemed to put great value on his soldier’s lives (which helped make him one of the best loved generals by their soldiers if not other politicians) and he believed his faulty intelligence network.  Not only did he always believe that the Confederate force was at least twice what it actually was (if not higher) but the general often had to change plans due to surprises his network hadn’t informed him of.
General McClellan was general-in-chief of the Union Army for less than five months and was removed from any command by the end of 1862 but he did have his strengths.  President Lincoln said of him when the Army of the Potomac needed reorganization to protect the capital: “We must use the tools we have.  There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he.  If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”  That was the beginning of September, 1862.  By the end of November he was “awaiting orders” in Trenton, New Jersey and working on a book that explained his actions in the war and how the politics in Washington, DC harmed his grand plans for victory.
General McClellan was a complex man with weaknesses and strengths.  Many historians claim him a horrible general, others claim he was a scapegoat for early military failures from the president to the general while others claim that politicians saw the general’s well connected family and his national hero position after minor victories in the war and the previous Mexican-American War as a threat and sought to discredit him.  I realize that there is much more to learn about this man and his reasoning but am proud to call this man a (very distant) relative.   He may not have been the most productive general-in-chief during the American Civil War but I think General McClellan did the best he could with his resources and the intelligence he received.

Filed under: American Civil War factsMen of the WarUnion Men

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