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God’s Chosen Instrument
In the Republic’s direst hour, he took command. In the black days after Bull Run, he won West Virginia for the Union. He raised a magnificent army and led it forth to meet his “cautious & weak” opponent, Robert E. Lee. Why hasn’t history been kinder to George B. McClellan?
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
His war service spanned something more than eighteen months and was marked by volatile swings from glorious success to miserable failure. In mid-1861, campaigning in western Virginia, he gained notice as the North’s first military hero. Promoted rapidly to high command—including, for four months, command of all the Union armies—he gained further reputation for organizing the Army of the Potomac, only to lose much of it for his seeming reluctance to commit that army to battle. His Peninsular campaign against Richmond in the spring of 1862, the largest military operation of the war, ended in repulse and defeat. The Army of the Potomac was subsequently turned over to John Pope, but soon McClellan was back at center stage, recalled to meet Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland in September.
At Antietam McClellan produced a failure of a different sort—a missed opportunity of unique dimension to destroy the Confederate army and set the North on the road to final victory. Seven weeks later, in November 1862, he was relieved of command, and his military career was over. The controversies surrounding nearly all these events centered on the question of who was responsible for them. Perhaps McClellan’s greatest delusion was that none of what happened was really his fault.
To contemporaries his failings seemed all the greater because initially so much was expected of him. In 1861 no general, North or South, was prepared by training and experience for the kind of war he would have to fight, but McClellan came closer than anyone else. He had served in the Mexican War, in which he had been promoted to lieutenant and then to captain. His remaining experience of command had been limited to an engineer company on garrison duty and a Western exploration party, but he was regarded throughout the army as a brilliant student of military history and theory. In the mid-1850s he had been the protégé of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who sent him to Europe to observe the war in the Crimea and to evaluate the armies of the major powers. To this experience he added four years of civilian employment as a railroad executive, highly useful training for managing military logistics. As an army friend said of him, he was well known to be “chock full of big war science.”
This reputation made him, after the firing on Fort Sumter, the most sought-after former army officer in the North. Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York all offered him command of their troops. On April 23, ten days after Sumter’s surrender, the former captain of cavalry was named major general of volunteers and commander of Ohio’s forces; ten days after that he was heading the Department of the Ohio and the main Federal forces west of the Alleghenies. For this role he was commissioned major general in the regular Army, ranking him second only to the general-in-chief, Winfield Scott.
Nothing so suited McClellan’s temperament as the role of military executive, and at his headquarters in Cincinnati he set about organizing and drilling the thousands of volunteers who had rushed to the colors. His energy was formidable. Just four days after assuming command, he sent Washington a plan for defeating the rebellion and “tending to bring the war to a speedy close,” the first such scheme by a Northern general. Acting on his own, he engaged in delicate political maneuvering to keep the border state of Kentucky from seceding. When Virginia sent troops into the western reaches of the state to seize that strategically important area, he countered with an expeditionary force of his own. Again acting without consulting Washington, he issued a proclamation assuring Virginians that there would be no interference with their slaves: “not only will we abstain from all such interference,” he promised, “but we will on the contrary with an iron hand, crush any attempt at insurrection on their part.”
McClellan assumed the role of underdog, never facing a foe that he believed was less than a hundred thousand strong.
If he had misjudged the case, he wrote Lincoln afterward, “a terrible mistake has been made, for the proclamation is regarded as expressing the views of the Presdt, & I have not intimated that it was prepared without authority.” His action was not, in fact, contrary to the government’s policy at the time. Its real significance was that a general in the field had publicly committed the Union army to the protection of Southern slavery, and a powerful and very vocal antislavery minority would forget neither the proclamation nor its author.
He took the field in western Virginia at the head of an 11,000-man army, and in less than a month he could telegraph Washington, “Our success is complete & secession is killed in this country.” His operation had involved him in one battle, engaging hardly 1,850 of his men, but the claim was a fair one. In 1863 the region entered the Union as the new state of West Virginia. His timing was also fortunate, for just a week after he sent his telegram, the Federal army at Washington was defeated at Bull Run. On July 22, 1861, General McClellan was summoned to the capital to take command of what he shortly christened the Army of the Potomac.
The wisdom of placing a thirty-four-year-old former captain in charge of the North’s largest army was later questioned, but at the time it was a logical enough decision. He had demonstrated real skill in military administration in the Department of the Ohio. Most important, he had conducted—and won—a military campaign, and just then that was a unique qualification.