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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
The situation changed dramatically between McClellan’s nomination and election day. Northern victories at Atlanta and in the Shenandoah Valley turned the war from an issue favoring the Democrats to one favoring the Republicans. And though McClellan had explained in accepting the nomination that he would discuss peace with the Confederates only on the condition that they accept reunion, there was no disguising the fact that he was seeking election as a war candidate with a peace platform—and with a peace candidate, George H. Pendleton, as a running mate.
Republican orators and pamphlet writers and cartoonists seized on the contradiction. They painted the Democrats of 1864 as the party of disloyalty and treason and tarred McClellan with the brush. He was depicted as an advocate of peace at any price and of surrender to the South, and no segment of the electorate was more affected by this message than military voters. Political strategists had earlier assumed that if General McClellan ran, he would sweep the soldier vote. But the enthusiasm of the ordinary soldier was extinguished by the Democratic peace platform. In the North as a whole, Lincoln captured 55 percent of the vote, but among the soldiers he carried 78 percent. Sherman’s troops in the West gave the President an astonishing 86 percent. Even in the Army of the Potomac, McClellan’s army, just three of ten voters cast ballots for their old commander. In one cartoon the remark of a soldier observing the general with his political allies was prophetic: “Good bye ‘little Mac’—if thats your company, Uncle Abe gets my vote.”
After the election McClellan sailed for Europe and more than three years of self-imposed exile, remaining abroad through the war’s closing scenes and the beginning of the Reconstruction era. There was talk of running him for the Presidency again in 1868, but after the Republicans nominated General Grant, the talk subsided; few Democrats, a newspaper reported, were enthusiastic at the thought of “running the man who didn’t take Richmond against the man who did.” Thereafter, except for a term as governor of New Jersey, McClellan remained out of the limelight, devoting himself to making a comfortable living as an engineering consultant and railroad executive.
In the writing he did on the Civil War in these years, his illusions remained intact. A half-finished manuscript on the events of his wartime command was found on his desk when he died suddenly of heart failure in 1885. His final thoughts had been of his beloved Army of the Potomac. He pictured the scene in July 1862 on the Peninsula, where his dream of victory had been shattered. As he imagined it, his army was “still proud and defiant, and strong in the consciousness of a great feat of arms heroically accomplished.” It was an episode to “dignify a nation’s history,” a fit subject “for the grandest efforts of the poet and the painter.” No sense of failure intruded on the recollection; whatever had happened, it was not his fault.