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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
Gen. George B. McClellan possessed a particular talent for dramatic gesture, and on the afternoon of September 14, 1862, at South Mountain in western Maryland, he surpassed himself. Before him on the smoke-wreathed mountaintop, his army was locked in combat with the Confederate enemy. Nearby artillery batteries added their thunder to the roar of musketry, and columns of reinforcements in Federal blue could be seen winding their way up the mountainside. At stage center, posed against the spectacular backdrop of battle, General McClellan sat motionless on his great war horse with his arm extended, pointing his passing troops toward the fighting. They cheered him until they were hoarse, one of them recalled, and some broke ranks to swarm around the martial figure and indulge in the “most extravagant demonstrations.” All the scene lacked was a painter to celebrate the general in his moment of triumph.
The tableau, however, was not all that it seemed. “God has seldom given an army a greater victory than this,” McClellan announced, but in fact, South Mountain was a battle fought in the wrong place at the wrong time and with an outcome far less decisive than he believed. Everything about it was perfectly characteristic of George McClellan.
It was his habit to generate illusions. People found it easy to see in him what they wanted to see. To his admirers he was the unstained hero who would crush the rebellion and restore the Union. To his detractors he was the failed hero, responsible for prolonging a war growing more terrible each day. Admirers and detractors alike were certain in their opinions, and throughout the Civil War McClellan labored under a burden of controversy as heavy as Pilgrim’s bundle. In the end only Grant and Sherman among Northern generals would match his impact on the Union’s wartime course.
McClellan seemed to be a strong, decisive commander, but in battle he was all but paralyzed by a loss of will and a fear of defeat. He was portrayed as the innocent victim of political partisanship, when in fact he deliberately involved himself in the political issues of the war. He was accused of being secretly in sympathy with the South and secession, yet there was no one who believed more strongly in perpetual Union. In 1864 he ran for President as a war candidate on a peace platform and in that anomalous pose gained the backing of 45 percent of the voters in his opposition to Abraham Lincoln’s wartime leadership. McClellan saw a special significance in this outcome. Certain that he had been chosen by God to lead the Union in war, he explained his electoral defeat as “a part of the grand plan of the Almighty, who designed that the cup should be drained even to the bitter dregs, that the people might be made worthy of being saved.”
It is not surprising that a figure of such contradictions would be a challenge to historians as well as to contemporaries. Scarcely anyone, in his day or afterward, had a neutral opinion about him. “McClellan still possesses a rare power to inspire either admiration or contempt,” Richard N. Current wrote in 1958. McClellan biographies bear such subtitles as “Shield of the Union” and “The Man Who Saved the Union,” yet in a study of Northern commanders Kenneth P. Williams dismissed him as “merely an attractive but vain and unstable man, with considerable military knowledge, who sat a horse well and wanted to be President.” Two distinguished historians of the Civil War era, James G. Randall and Allan Nevins, judged him very differently. “Nothing worth while in the East was done on the Northern side in 1862 except under McClellan,” Randall wrote in his detailed defense of the general. Nevins, by contrast, considered him psychologically unfit for his role, timid and overcautious and lacking the “central quality of a great commander,” the will to fight. He excelled only in not taking risks, Nevins concluded. “This spirit would save the army and lose the nation.”
The first and perhaps the ablest of McClellan’s defenders was McClellan himself, and his Report on his wartime service, published in 1864, was the most elaborate official report of its kind and lengthy enough to be issued in book form. Filled with letters and dispatches and other documents, McClellan’s Report “makes affidavit in one volume octavo that he is a great military genius, after all,” according to James Russell Lowell. The case was reiterated in a posthumously published memoir, McClellan’s Own Story, although that book is marred as a historical source by the fact, concealed at the time, that fully half the story was assembled not by McClellan but by his literary executor. McClellan’s newly available private papers, however, make it possible to see this contradictory figure a good deal more clearly.
To begin with, the general was an exceedingly dogmatic man. More than any other Civil War general, he brought with him to the battlefield fixed notions about the object of the war and how it should be fought, as well as a vastly distorted mental image of the enemy. In his certitude he tolerated no departure from these views nor any dissent about them. He was God’s chosen instrument to save the Union, his path was the chosen path, and those who raised objections—whether President or Secretary of War or editor or fellow general—were at best ignorant and misguided or at worst traitors. It was inevitable that McClellan soon detected as many enemies behind him as he found in front of him.
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.
Almost immediately McClellan revealed the flaw in his military character that would become increasingly troublesome. He formed a picture of the enemy that existed—and continued to exist for as long as he led the Army of the Potomac—only in his mind’s eye. Two weeks after assuming command, he raised the alarm that Washington was in “imminent danger” of assault by one hundred thousand rebels. From that day on he assumed the role of underdog in every campaign, never facing a Confederate army that he estimated to number fewer than one hundred thousand men.
This count was entirely McClellan’s invention, and it set the precedent for all those that followed. When Winfield Scott rejected his extraordinary arithmetic and insisted the capital was in no danger, McClellan declared war on him. How could he save the country, he asked, as long as General Scott refused to recognize the crisis and was ever in his way? “I do not know whether he is a dotard or a traitor!…he is a perfect imbecile.” Under pressure from McClellan and his allies, the President finally accepted the removal of the aged Scott. On November 1, 1861, McClellan took his place as head of the army.
Once he had created this initial estimate of the enemy, all later estimates could be based on it. If the Confederates could threaten him with 100,000 men in August 1861, then it was to be expected that by November they could field 150,000. During the first days of the Peninsula campaign in 1862 he reported he was facing 100,000 enemy troops at Yorktown, a figure that had grown to 200,000 by the time he reached the outskirts of Richmond three months later. When Lee subsequently struck out northward against Pope, McClellan gave the Rebels 120,000 men; when Lee invaded Maryland after defeating Pope, McClellan continued to estimate his numbers at 120,000.
That these counts were two or three or sometimes four times greater than the Confederates’ actual numbers, that from the first day of his command to the last day he very substantially outnumbered his foe (at Antietam, for example, by almost two to one), was a reality beyond McClellan’s grasp. To be sure, he was abetted by incompetent collectors of intelligence, notably Allan Pinkerton and Alfred Pleasonton, his cavalry chief, yet these men supplied him only with what he expected: confirmation of his own convictions. There is nothing to suggest that he deliberately fabricated these figures to gain reinforcements or to excuse reverses. On the contrary, as his letters to his wife make clear, he was totally convinced.
One of McClellan’s men wrote after the Peninsula, “Either we have made an inglorious skedaddle or a brilliant retreat.”
In a like manner he attributed remarkable abilities to his enemies. Anything theoretically possible—transferring whole armies from one theater of war to another to oppose him, moving columns of reinforcements to the battlefield with lightning speed, or supplying without difficulty forces greatly superior to his own—became a fact. He imagined Southern soldiers to be better trained and faster marching and to have higher morale than his own men, and he expressed the greatest respect for Southern generals. (Curiously enough, the one Confederate general McClellan disparaged was Robert E. Lee. During the Peninsular campaign he told Lincoln that he considered Lee “too cautious & weak under grave responsibility…likely to be timid & irresolute in action.”) For George McClellan, every case was the worst case, and every prophecy self-fulfilling.
Nevertheless, he was determined to direct the conflict to the military and political ends he sought. In the strategy he evolved as general-in-chief, all operations in all theaters of war would be geared to the support of the Army of the Potomac; it would advance like a juggernaut to crush the rebellion in one Napoleonic stroke. Even his conviction that he was outnumbered did not deter him from this idea of a single grand campaign. If he had to give up his hope of winning an American Waterloo by sheer force of numbers in favor of pounding the enemy at Richmond into submission by siege operations, the result would be the same. He viewed secession as simply a political aberration; once defeated in a major test of arms, the Confederacy’s leaders would come to the peace table willing to trade secession for reunion. If in the process Southern civilians and their property (including their slaves) were carefully protected, the Union might be restored without social upheaval.
By conviction George McClellan was a conservative Democrat, and the strongest of his convictions was that revolutionary political objectives—abolishing slavery and confiscating property—would only embitter the South and force the Rebels to fight to the last ditch. He viewed with infinite dread, he wrote in 1862, “any policy which tends to render impossible the reconstruction of the Union and to make this contest simply a useless effusion of blood....” Unconditional surrender must not be a war objective.
To be sure, General McClellan intended that in any peace settlement he directed the peculiar institution would have to change. “When the day of adjustment comes,” he told his wife, “I will…throw my sword into the scale to force an improvement in the condition of those poor blacks.” He expected the issue of slavery to be resolved in due course by gradual, compensated emancipation, guarding the rights of both slaves and masters. But first the issue of war must be resolved. “Help me to dodge the nigger—we want nothing to do with him,” he wrote a friend a week after becoming general-in-chief. “I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the Govt—on no other issue.”
One of the more common myths surrounding McClellan is that he was a naive victim of political manipulation by his Democratic supporters. It was said—he was one of those to say it—that these friends were his worst enemies. In truth, he had identified his cause with theirs from the first and never hesitated to support it. While in command, he made special efforts to cultivate the politically conservative press, particularly the New York Herald, the nation’s largest newspaper. At one point in 1862 he urged the New York World, the leading Democratic paper, “to open your batteries” on his enemies in the administration.
Nor was he shy about announcing his views in the camp of these enemies. Soon after arriving in Washington, he met with prominent abolitionists, including the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, to make it clear to them “that I was fighting for my country & the Union, not for abolition and the Republican party.” It was in this same spirit that he gave Lincoln his famous Harrison’s Landing Letter on July 8, 1862, telling him exactly how to conduct the war shortly after the end of the Peninsular fighting, when the President visited the army on the James River. His plan envisaged no such radical schemes as the confiscation of property, reorganization of territory, and forcible abolition of slavery, which he felt should not be “contemplated for a moment,” nor was the document intended only for the President. He urged its circulation within the administration as the “policy which ought to govern this contest on our part.” Lincoln read the letter without comment, leaving McClellan little hope of steering the government away from the “radical & inhumane views to which it seemed inclined.” That his own views would save the country he had no doubt, and in 1864 he made the Harrison’s Landing Letter his personal platform for the Presidency.
There is also a good deal of illusion in McClellan’s celebrated connection with the Army of the Potomac. He always described it as “my” army; it “is my army as much as any army ever belonged to the man that created it,” he insisted. No one else, it was said, could have forged enough strength into the Potomac army to enable it to survive the palsied leadership of such generals as John Pope and Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker. Yet this picture, like so many others depicting McClellan, is not quite what it seems.
Certainly the Potomac army was not the only army with inner strength. The Union forces being organized at the same time in the West under U. S. Grant and Henry Halleck and Don Carlos Buell would prove able to withstand such brutal shocks as Shiloh and Stone’s River and Chickamauga. McClellan’s task was the larger one—by the end of 1861 there were 192,000 men with the Army of the Potomac—but the only thing unique about his leadership was his deliberate effort to personify the army in the figure of its commander. He set out to secure the personal loyalty of the men in the ranks by becoming as familiar to them as their company officers. He staged grand reviews and inspected the camps almost daily, and on campaign he constantly rode the lines to show himself to the troops. They called him Little Mac and cheered his every appearance. Newspapers called him the Young Napoleon. He would say with pride, “I don’t believe that Napoleon even ever possessed the love & confidence of his men more fully than I do of mine.”
These displays of loyalty were not entirely spontaneous. On the march he was preceded by an officer shouting, “McClellan’s coming, boys! McClellan’s coming! Three cheers for McClellan.” Still, the affection was both genuine and mutual. “You have no idea how the men brighten up now, when I go among them—I can see every eye glisten,” he told his wife. “Yesterday they nearly pulled me to pieces in one regt. You never heard such yelling.” Addressing his troops on the eve of the Peninsular campaign, he urged that they “ever bear in mind that my fate is linked with yours....I am to watch over you as a parent over his children; and you know that your General loves you from the depths of his heart.” Looking back on these early months of the war, a regimental chaplain wrote, “The truth is, our magnificent army much needed a transcendent leader, and the crisis prompted us both to crave and expect one fit for the occasion—one whom we could afford to idolize.”
Yet the idol, as the chaplain later bitterly acknowledged, proved to have feet of clay. By the summer of 1862 he had been driven from the gates of Richmond in the Seven Days’ battles by Lee’s relentless attacks, and his grand campaign lay in ruins. To explain to his army what had happened, McClellan conjured up a triumph over adversity, if not a victory. They had not retreated, he insisted, but only executed a change of base “by a flank movement, always regarded as the most hazardous of military expedients.” He invented “vastly superior” enemy forces, against which, “without hope of reinforcements…and under every disadvantage of numbers,” they had bravely survived the week of bloody fighting. “Your conduct ranks you among the celebrated armies of history.”
In further support of this illusion, McClellan attributed all blame to the government. He claimed that the administration had deliberately withheld reinforcements to ensure his defeat at Richmond—to forestall a peace settlement on McClellan’s terms. Republican radicals, he insisted, would never permit the war to end until abolitionism had triumphed. By this “abominable design,” he asserted, his enemies in Washington had “done their best to sacrifice as noble an Army as ever marched to battle.” As he intended, his charges soon reached the newspapers, and the case was made plain to the men of his army. In the eyes of their general, they had fought gallantly against the enemy host, but without the support of their own government they had been doomed to fail.
The abominable design, to be sure, existed only in McClellan’s mind. On the eve of the Seven Days he had more troops available to him than his plans had ever called for. He lacked not men but a will to fight or, as it was called in that day, moral courage. At the beginning of the Confederate offensive he had telegraphed his wife, “I believe we will surely win & that the enemy is falling into a trap. I shall allow the enemy to cut off our communications in order to ensure success.” Clearly he recognized the opportunity for a counterstroke presented him by Lee’s bold but risky flanking attack, but when it actually occurred, he became unnerved and ordered a retreat. Over the next several days, as his army repeatedly fought for its life, McClellan posted himself far from every battlefield and let subordinates direct all the fighting. His army survived not because of him but despite him.
While no doubt a majority in the Army of the Potomac accepted his explanation for the Peninsular failure, there was a strong undercurrent of disillusion. Francis C. Barlow, a regimental commander involved in the bitterest fighting during the Seven Days, wrote home that many officers and men “are disgusted with & have lost confidence in McClellan & are disgusted with attempts of the papers to make him out a victorious hero....The stories of his being everywhere among the men in the fights are all untrue....” Others shared the puzzlement of the soldier who wrote from Harrison’s Landing, “Either we have made an inglorious skedaddle or a brilliant retreat.” In the press, in Congress, and in the army as well the debate over McClellan’s generalship grew heated.
Following the Federal defeat in the Second Bull Run battle in August, the debate intensified. McClellan was charged with deliberately withholding reinforcements from General Pope to ensure his defeat. In a classic example of self-fulfilling prophecy, he argued the case differently. As he wrote his wife, he considered Pope a “villain” who was certain “to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him,” and in that event he was duty-bound to save Washington from capture. Thus he held back sending two army corps under his command into the field; the only aid they rendered Pope was to cover his retreat. To be sure, John Pope might have lost the battle anyway, but having those twenty-five thousand reinforcements twenty-four hours earlier would certainly have improved his chances.
On September 2, 1862, in one of the critical decisions of his Presidency and against the strong opposition of his cabinet, Lincoln turned the Army of the Potomac back to General McClellan. As he judged the case, the army was suffering from a crisis of confidence after the Second Bull Run for which there was only one remedy. “McClellan has the army with him,” Lincoln said. McClellan wrote his wife, “I only consent to take it for my country’s sake & with the humble hope that God has called me to it.” Five days later he took the field to challenge Lee’s army of invasion in Maryland.
The general’s military legacy was crippling: the Army of the Potomac inherited from him an army-sized inferiority complex.
McClellan was to gauge the Maryland campaign as the high point of his military career. For the second time (the first was after the 1861 Bull Run debacle) he acted as God’s instrument for saving the Union. “I feel some little pride,” he told his wife, “in having with a beaten and demoralized army defeated Lee so utterly, & saved the North so completely.” On the day after the climactic struggle at Antietam, he wrote her, “Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art,” and every year for the rest of his life he made a particular point of celebrating September 17, the anniversary of the battle. His claim of a masterpiece of art was the saving of his army from defeat by a foe “greatly superior to us in number.”
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.”
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.