American Civil War: Major General George McClellan

"Little Mac"

George B. McClellan
Major General George B. McClellan. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

George Brinton McClellan was born December 23, 1826 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The third child of Dr. George McClellan and Elizabeth Brinton, McClellan briefly attended the University of Pennsylvania in 1840 before leaving to pursue legal studies. Bored with the law, McClellan elected to seek a military career two years later. With the aid of President John Tyler, McClellan received an appointment to West Point in 1842 despite being a year younger than the typical entry age of sixteen.

In school, many of McClellan's close friends, including A.P. Hill and Cadmus Wilcox, were from the South and would later become his adversaries during the Civil War. His classmates included future notable generals in Jesse L. Reno, Darius N. Couch, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, George Stoneman, and George Pickett. An ambitious student while at the academy, he developed a great interest in the military theories of Antoine-Henri Jomini and Dennis Hart Mahan. Graduating second in his class in 1846, he was assigned to the Corps of Engineers and ordered to remain at West Point.

Mexican-American War

This duty was brief as he was soon dispatched to the Rio Grande for service in the Mexican-American War. Arriving off the Rio Grande too late to take part in Major General Zachary Taylor's campaign against Monterrey, he fell ill for a month with dysentery and malaria. Recovering, he shifted south to join General Winfield Scott for the advance on Mexico City.

Preforming reconnaissance missions for Scott, McClellan gained invaluable experience and earned a brevet promotion to first lieutenant for his performance at Contreras and Churubusco. This was followed by a brevet to captain for his actions at the Battle of Chapultepec. As the war was brought to a successful conclusion, McClellan also learned the value of balancing political and military affairs as well as maintaining relations with civilian populations.

Interwar Years

McClellan returned to a training role at West Point after the war and oversaw a company of engineers. Settling into a series of peacetime assignments, he wrote several training manuals, aided in the construction of Fort Delaware, and took part in an expedition up the Red River led by his future father-in-law Captain Randolph B. Marcy. A skilled engineer, McClellan was later assigned to survey routes for the transcontinental railroad by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Becoming a favorite of Davis, he conducted an intelligence mission to Santo Domingo in 1854, before being promoted to captain the following year and posted to the 1st Cavalry Regiment.

Due to his language skills and political connections, this assignment was brief and later that year he was dispatched as an observer to the Crimean War. Returning in 1856, he wrote of his experiences and developed training manuals based on European practices. Also during this time, he designed the McClellan Saddle for use by the US Army. Electing to capitalize on his railroad knowledge, he resigned his commission on January 16, 1857 and became the chief engineer and vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1860, he also became the president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad.

Tensions Rise

Though a gifted railroad man, McClellan's primary interest remained the military and he considered returning the US Army and becoming a mercenary in support of Benito Juárez. Marrying Mary Ellen Marcy on May 22, 1860 in New York City, McClellan was an avid supporter of Democrat Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential election. With the election of Abraham Lincoln and the resulting Secession Crisis, McClellan was eagerly sought by several states, including Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio, to lead their militia. An opponent of federal interference with enslavement, he was also quietly approached by the South but refused citing his rejection of the concept of secession.

Building an Army

Accepting Ohio's offer, McClellan was commissioned a major general of volunteers on April 23, 1861. In place four days, he wrote a detailed letter to Scott, now general-in-chief, outlining two plans for winning the war. Both were dismissed by Scott as unfeasible which led to tensions between the two men. McClellan re-entered federal service on May 3 and was named commander of the Department of the Ohio. On May 14, he received a commission as a major general in the regular army making him second in seniority to Scott. Moving to occupy western Virginia to protect the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, he courted controversy by announcing that he would not interfere with enslavement in the area.

Pushing through Grafton, McClellan won a series of small battles, including Philippi, but began to display the cautious nature and unwillingness to fully commit his command to battle that would dog him later in the war. The only Union successes to date, McClellan was ordered to Washington by President Lincoln after Brigadier General Irvin McDowell's defeat at First Bull Run. Reaching the city on July 26, he was made commander of the Military District of the Potomac and immediately began assembling an army out of the units in the area. An adept organizer, he worked tirelessly to create the Army of the Potomac and cared deeply for the welfare of his men.

In addition, McClellan ordered an extensive series of fortifications constructed to protect the city from Confederate attack. Frequently butting heads with Scott regarding strategy, McClellan's favored fighting a grand battle rather than implementing Scott's Anaconda Plan. Also, his insistence on not interfering with enslavement drew ire from Congress and the White House. As the army grew, he became increasingly convinced that the Confederate forces opposing him in northern Virginia badly outnumbered him. By mid-August, he believed that enemy strength numbered around 150,000 when in fact it seldom exceeded 60,000. Additionally, McClellan became highly secretive and refused to share strategy or basic army information with Scott and Lincoln's cabinet.

To the Peninsula

In late October, the conflict between Scott and McClellan came to a head and the elderly general retired. As a result, McClellan was made general-in-chief, despite some misgivings from Lincoln. Increasingly more secretive regarding his plans, McClellan openly disdained the president, referring to him as a "well-mannered baboon," and weakened his position through frequent insubordination. Facing growing anger over his inaction, McClellan was called to the White House on January 12, 1862 to explain his campaign plans. At the meeting, he outlined a plan calling for the army to move down the Chesapeake to Urbanna on the Rappahannock River before marching to Richmond.

After several additional clashes with Lincoln over strategy, McClellan was forced to revise his plans when Confederate forces withdrew to a new line along the Rappahannock. His new plan called for landing at Fortress Monroe and advancing up the Peninsula to Richmond. Following the Confederate withdraw, he came under heavy criticism for allowing their escape and was removed as general-in-chief on March 11, 1862. Embarking six days later, the army began a slow movement to the Peninsula.

Failure on the Peninsula

Advancing west, McClellan moved slowly and again was convinced that he faced a larger opponent. Stalled at Yorktown by Confederate earthworks, he paused to bring up siege guns. These proved unnecessary as the enemy fell back. Crawling forward, he reached a point four miles from Richmond when he was attacked by General Joseph Johnston at Seven Pines on May 31. Though his line held, the high casualties shook his confidence. Pausing for three weeks to await reinforcements, McClellan was again attacked on June 25 by forces under General Robert E. Lee.

Quickly losing his nerve, McClellan began falling back during a series of engagements known as the Seven Days Battles. This saw inconclusive fighting at Oak Grove on June 25 and a tactical Union victory at Beaver Dam Creek the next day. On June 27, Lee resumed his attacks and won a victory at Gaines Mill. Subsequent fighting saw Union forces driven back at Savage's Station and Glendale before finally making at stand at Malvern Hill on July 1. Concentrating his army at Harrison's Landing on the James River, McClellan remained in place protected by the guns of the US Navy.

The Maryland Campaign

While McClellan remained on the Peninsula calling for reinforcements and blaming Lincoln for his failure, the president appointed Major General Henry Halleck as general-in-chief and ordered Major General John Pope to form the Army of Virginia. Lincoln also offered command of the Army of the Potomac to Major General Ambrose Burnside, but he declined. Convinced that the timid McClellan would not make another attempt on Richmond, Lee moved north and crushed Pope at the Second Battle of Manassas on August 28-30. With Pope's force shattered, Lincoln, against the wishes of many Cabinet members, returned McClellan to overall command around Washington on September 2.

Joining Pope's men to the Army of the Potomac, McClellan moved west with his reorganized army in pursuit of Lee who had invaded Maryland. Reaching Frederick, Maryland, McClellan was presented with a copy of Lee's movement orders which had been found by a Union soldier. Despite a boastful telegram to Lincoln, McClellan continued to move slowly allowing Lee to occupy the passes over South Mountain. Attacking on September 14, McClellan's army cleared the Confederates away at the Battle of South Mountain. While Lee fell back to Sharpsburg, McClellan advanced to Antietam Creek east of the town. An intended attack on the 16th was called off allowing Lee to dig in.

Beginning the Battle of Antietam early on the 17th, McClellan established his headquarters far to the rear and was unable to exert personal control over his men. As a result, the Union attacks were not coordinated, allowing the outnumbered Lee to shift men to meet each in turn. Again believing that it was he who was badly outnumbered, McClellan refused to commit two of his corps and held them in reserve when their presence on the field would have been decisive. Though Lee retreated after the battle, McClellan had missed a key opportunity to crush a smaller, weaker army and perhaps end the war in the East.

Relief & 1864 Campaign

In the wake of the battle, McClellan failed to pursue Lee's wounded army. Remaining around Sharpsburg, he was visited by Lincoln. Again angered by McClellan's lack of activity, Lincoln relieved McClellan on November 5, replacing him with Burnside. Though a poor field commander, his departure was mourned by the men who felt that "Little Mac" had always worked to care for them and their morale. Ordered to report to Trenton, New Jersey to await orders by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, McClellan was effectively sidelined. Though public calls for his return were issued after the defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, McClellan was left to write an account of his campaigns.

Nominated as the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1864, McClellan was hamstrung by his personal view that the war should be continued and the Union restored and the party's platform which called for an end to the fighting and a negotiated peace. Facing Lincoln, McClellan was undone by the deep divide in the party and numerous Union battlefield successes which bolstered the National Union (Republican) ticket. On election day, he was defeated by Lincoln who won with 212 electoral votes and 55% of the popular vote. McClellan only garnered 21 electoral votes.

Later Life

In the decade after the war, McClellan enjoyed two long trips to Europe and returned to the world of engineering and railroads. In 1877, he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey. He won the election and served a single term, leaving office in 1881. An avid supporter of Grover Cleveland, he had hoped to be named secretary of war, but political rivals blocked his appointment. McClellan suddenly died on October 29, 1885, after suffering from chest pains for several weeks. He was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George McClellan." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Major General George McClellan. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George McClellan." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).