God’s Chosen Instrument


A triumph resting on the boast that Maryland and Pennsylvania were now safe only revealed the extent of McClellan’s delusion. “The hearts of 10 million people sunk within them when McClellan raised that shout,” Lincoln remarked. In fact, the general’s failures in Maryland were manifest. At South Mountain he wasted the opportunity presented by the lost order—the discovery by a Federal soldier of a lost copy of Lee’s entire operational plan—in settling for a minor victory instead of seizing the chance to destroy half of Lee’s widely scattered forces. At Antietam, three days later, his outmanned opponent was vulnerable to total defeat to a degree not matched again until the last doomed hours at Appomattox. Ezra A. Carman, a Northern veteran of Antietam and author of the definitive tactical study of the battle, wrote that on September 17, 1862, “more errors were committed by the Union commander than in any other battle of the war....” The real consequence of the battle was not the survival of the Army of the Potomac but the escape of the Army of Northern Virginia.

After the war, in a sympathetic evaluation of General McClellan, U. S. Grant suggested that his undoing had been his too-rapid rise to high command. Had he instead “fought his way along and up,” like Sherman and Thomas and Meade (and Grant himself), perhaps in the end he would have won “as high distinction as any of us.” This kind assessment supposed that McClellan possessed the trait so marked in these successful generals: the capacity to grow as a commander. Nothing was farther from the truth, however. George McClellan was as good a general on his first campaigns as he ever became. On every battlefield from western Virginia to Maryland, he demonstrated the same fundamental fault in his military character: He could never force himself to fight, to press relentlessly for victory, to accept the losses necessary for winning. “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded!” he wrote his wife from the Peninsula. “Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.” It was the same at Antietam, his last battle, where he still found the cost of a true victory too high to pay.


Lincoln had sensed this lack in his general even before the fighting on the Peninsula. McClellan, he told a friend then, “had the capacity to make arrangements properly for a great conflict, but as the hour for action approached he became nervous and oppressed with the responsibility and hesitated to meet the crisis.” He detected no real change in McClellan even after his claim of victory at Antietam. Despite having defeated Lee “so utterly,” he was soon crediting his opponent with one hundred fifty thousand men and with being just as dangerous as ever. Through the fall of 1862 he raised every imaginable opposition to renewing the contest until finally Lincoln, his patience exhausted, relieved the general of command. In reporting the news to his wife, McClellan cloaked his record in one final illusion: “we have tried to do what was right—if we have failed it was not our fault....”

The military legacy that McClellan left behind was crippling. The Potomac army inherited from him an army-sized inferiority complex, a view that in its fighting against the Army of Northern Virginia the best that could be hoped for was survival against great adversity and overwhelming numbers.

McClellan’s deliberate efforts to link army morale with the personal popularity of the general commanding had consequences that were equally unfortunate. His successor, Ambrose Burnside, was picked not so much for his military abilities as for the fact that he was well liked by the men; the government had to hope they would follow him as faithfully as they had followed McClellan. Hardly a month later, however, Burnside suffered a crushing defeat at Fredericksburg, and the army’s morale collapsed alone with Burnside’s reputation. That winter would be remembered as the Army of the Potomac’s Valley Forge, with widespread demoralization and a desertion rate that averaged two hundred men a day. Burnside was replaced by “Fighting Joe” Hooker, whose personal popularity was a decisive factor in his selection. He was successful in restoring morale, but his shortcomings as a commander were cruelly exploited by Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863.

In the 1868 election Democrats felt it unwise to run “the man who didn’t take Richmond against the man who did.”

Once deprived of command, McClellan saw in politics an alternate route to his goal of preserving the Union. He accepted the Democrats’ presidential nomination in 1864 in the belief that he was called to it, just as earlier he had been called to high command. The Republic, he was convinced, was in as much danger from radical Republicans as from Confederate armies. In late August, when the Democratic Convention opened in Chicago, it was widely believed that he would win the November election. That was how the President and his chief advisers saw it, and Lincoln wrote privately, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.”