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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.