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Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Union Military
Other names: Little Mac, Great American Tortoise
When he graduated from West Point in 1846 (2nd in a class of 54), many of the men with who he served and fought against also earned a their lieutenant's bars: Jesse Reno [US], George Stoneman [US], George Pickett (last in the class) and (Thomas) Stonewall Jackson. To the young graduate, talk of war with Mexico was exciting. President James Polk, however, drew his ire, mostly for his giving commands to political generals like Gideon Pillow.
At Vera Cruz under Winfield Scott, McClellan served in the elite Corps of Engineers under the command of Col. Joseph G. Totten and Capt. Robert E. Lee. He met Joseph E. Johnston and became good friends with P. G. T. Beauregard while building mortar batteries around Vera Cruz. Once the town surrendered, Scott began to head inland along the National Highway. Assigned to Gideon Pillow during the battle of Cerra Gordo, McClellan witnessed first-hand the ineptness of this future Confederate who ignored his orders and attacked the main Mexican line. "...puerile imbecility" is what George McClellan called it. McClellan continued with Scott to the surrender at Mexico City.
While on assignment to Texas he renewed his friendship with Major Beauregard and began a personal friendship with Don Carlos Buell. Both he and Buell strongly believed in the Union and were not abolitionists. Some of McClellan's writing during this period, specifically about the Fugitive Slave Law, could be considered pro-slavery. Leaving Texas, he was given an assignment at Fort Vancouver in 1853 to find the best way to run a railroad from the East. His quartermaster, Ulysses S. Grant, went on a drinking spree, an act George McClellan never forgot. McClellan himself did not do a good job on this outing, completely missing two good routes through the Cascade Mountains to the West Coast.
Following the foray to the West, he fell in love with Randolph Marcy's daughter Ellen ("Nelly"). In June, 1854, he proposed marriage, a proposal that Nelly rejected. Over the next year he worked directly for Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, scouting the fortifications at Santa Domingo, Dominican Republic. He received his first captaincy, as commander of the 1st Cavalry. Before he was 30, he was studying the tactics of Europeans in the Crimea War, and he returned to Philadelphia to prepare his report in the Spring of 1856. He did not return to active duty, probably because the 1st Cavalry was involved in trying to control the pro-slavery and abolitionist settlers in Bleeding Kansas, although he never discussed the reason.
In January, 1857, George McClellan moved to Chicago to work with a friend on forging a link between the Ohio and Mississippi and the Illinois Central. In 1858 he journeyed to Washington to lobby for a colonelcy, returning to the Illinois Central after failing to gain the promotion. It wasn't much of a problem because the railroad loved the work McClellan was doing - he expanded the Central's reach by contracting with a steamship line to carry passengers from Cairo to New Orleans.
Ambrose Powell Hill began courting Nelly Marcy when he was assigned duty in Washington D. C. in 1855. He, though, was unacceptable to Nelly's mother, so in 1859 Randolph Marcy once again arranged a meeting for his daughter and McClellan. This time when George proposed, Nelly Marcy accepted. The were married on May 22, 1860 in New York. His job with the railroad was taking a backseat to the sectional conflict brewing in the United States. With his experience in both the Army and the railroad, almost everyone believed that McClellan was an obvious leader in the coming conflict.
Governor William Dennison of Ohio appointed McClellan Major General of Ohio volunteers on April 23, 1861, and by evening had the necessary legislation passed. McClellan had been on his way to Pennsylvania to discuss a position in that state's militia. New York wanted him as well, but he was named Major General, commanding the federal Department of Ohio. With him at first were Jacob Cox, Orlando Poe and William S. Rosecrans. He ignored Ulysses S. Grant's request to join his evolving force.
Almost immediately communications with Washington were severed by Maryland secessionists, but he laid out camps and began basic training. He visited the men often, riding a beautiful bay named Dan Webster. With McClellan amassing forces along the Ohio to the north and Gideon Pillow amassing forces on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the Governor of Kentucky declared neutrality on May 20, 1861.
Following the federal victory at Philippi, Simon Bolivar Buckner, then in charge of Kentucky's militia visited McClellan and explained his state's neutrality position. With the threat across the Ohio temporarily stayed, McClellan headed east towards the Appalachian Mountains in western Virginia to personally take over command. Against him was an old friend, Robert E. Lee, but when the Battle of Bull Run was lost to the South, Washington quickly called on McClellan: "Circumstances make your presence here necessary. Charge Rosecrans or some other general with your present department and come hither without delay." The Operations in Western Virginia gave McClellan the boost he needed to become commander of the Army of the Potomac following the loss at Bull Run in July and General-in-Chief of the U. S. Army that November. It was during this time that the nickname "Little Mac," a reference to his short stature, came into popular use. Other names included Young Napoleon or America's Napoleon.
By October, the hope of some had turned into frustration when word came of the defeat of Union forces under Colonel Edward D. Baker at the Battle of Ball's Bluff. Baker, a U. S. Senator and friend of Abraham Lincoln had exceeded his orders, crossed the Potomac, fought an ill-conceived battle, lost his life and lost hundreds of men during the retreat. McClellan blamed Baker for the disaster, but politicians demanded Winfield Scott's retirement. On October 31, 1861, George B. McClellan found he would be named General-in-Chief the following day. That was fine with McClellan, who had developed a great dislike for "Old Fuss."
McClellan continued to train troops, assured by President Lincoln that the battles would be controlled by military leaders. Politicians, though, had to pay the expense of training an army, and they continued to grumble. Even Lincoln began to see the problem: McClellan liked to talk more than act. With McClellan ill on January 10, 1862, Lincoln asked a group of generals and cabinet members "If McClellan is not going to use the Army, I would like to borrow it." McClellan visited President Lincoln two days later, and Lincoln called another council. Once again, a sullen McClellan refused to reveal his plans, claiming Lincoln even told military secrets to his 8-year old son Tad.
MCClellan claimed he was waiting for Buell to advance in Kentucky, but at that very moment James Garfield had won a victory in East Kentucky at Middle Creek, George Thomas was on his way to the Battle of Mill Springs and in just over a month, Buell would be in Nashville, Tennessee. An exasperated Lincoln finally set a date for the Army of the Potomac to begin movement (March 18, 1862). While he was preparing for the Peninsula Campaign, Lincoln relieved him as General-in-Chief on March 11. McClellan began his movement on March 17, one day before Lincoln's deadline.
The Union armada carrying troops to the Peninsula represented the largest amphibious operation in the history of the United States Army. 121,500 men, 44 artillery batteries, and 15,600 horses and mules. On April 4, 1862, George McClellan began movement with 53,000 effectives towards Yorktown from Fortress Monroe, where he ran up against John Bankhead Magruder's 11,000 Rebels. Magruder wanted to delay McClellan, so he made his small force seem larger by marching them almost continuously. The ruse worked. McClellan ordered the siege guns to be brought up and invested Yorktown. Within 4 days Magruder's force had swollen to 31,000 and more where coming. McClellan clearly lost his advantage.
When Magruder withdrew from Yorktown on May 4, McClellan was unprepared for the evacuation. The Union commander dispatched some cavalry and 5 divisions of men (including 3 corps commanders), while he remained behind to prepare a force to attack the city of West Point, Virginia. When fighting broke out the following day, McClellan waited until afternoon to advance to Williamsburg, although his men had been battling James Longstreet all day. According to McClellan, he could have gained a victory had his commanders called him to the battle. When he finally arrived after 5:00pm, he called off the pursuit because of treacherous roads.
On May 15 federal gunboats attempted to follow the James River to Richmond in hopes of bombarding it. They found their way blocked by forces on Drewey's Bluff and debris in the river. McClellan refused to support the attack by taking out the artillery batteries on the bluff. Then his forces reached the Chickahominy River and began to secure its crossings.
McClellan had been waiting for additional forces under the command of Irvin McDowell since he left for the Peninsula in March, 1862. Lincoln had been unhappy with number of forces left to defend Washington and refused to let McDowell go. Joe Johnston realized that with McDowell's 40,000 men, McClellan's army would be tough to stop. Johnston appealed to Richmond and Lee order Stonewall Jackson to begin attacking federal forces in the Shenandoah Valley. On May 27 McClellan sent Fitz John Porter [US] north to Hanover Court House to rid it of some Rebels so that McDowell could advance, but even more concerned about Washington, Lincoln refused to allow McDowell to move.
George McClellan felt that McDowell somehow orchestrated this move and intended to challenge him for command of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan also felt the Confederates could have 200,000 men (they had 60,000), and that his corps commanders (Edwin Sumner, Erasmus Keyes and Samuel Heintzelman) were plotting against him. Now the Army of the Potomac was ready to make their move on Richmond.
The next obstacle in George McClellan's path was the Chickahominy River, a tributary of the James. McClellan began crossing the river. On May 30, when a spring storm forced the river over its banks, the Chickahominy became uncrossable. Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston saw his chance and attacked at Fair Oaks. Over two days 5,000 federals and 6,100 Confederates were casualties. One of the more serious was Joe Johnston.
After three weeks of weather related delays, George McClellan was outside Richmond and ready to advance on June 24, 1862, but he was uneasy over word that Stonewall Jackson had left the Shenandoah Valley to join the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee, its new commander. Lee, who opposed McClellan in West Virginia in 1861, had noted the Union commander's caution. Lee decided to throw most of his force of 65,000 men against Fitz-John Porter north of the Chickahominy while Prince John Magruder, who completely baffled McClellan at Yorktown, razzle-dazzled the Union commander to the south of the river.
The attack convinced McClellan he was facing a foe of overwhelming superiority and at the end of the day Porter withdrew to Gaines Mill, where the Rebels attacked again. McClellan realized his base of operations was threatened, so he moved it from the White House to Harrison's Landing. That evening George McClellan wired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that he was being attack by a superior force on both sides of the Chickahominy. McClellan's "strategic withdrawal" turned into a "great skedaddle."
Finally, on July 1, federal troops entrenched near the top of Malvern Hill. Lee felt the Union Army had been demoralized by the success of the Army of Northern Virginia, but it hadn't; only its commander, George B. McClellan was. At Malvern Hill Confederate troops concentrated on a salient in the Yankee line, trying to break through although the line was strongly enforce, with good artillery coverage and the attack was uphill. Daniel Harvey Hill [CS] would write of the battle. "It was not war, it was murder."
The Seven Days had seriously hurt the Rebels as well as George McClellan's forces, so no one was really surprised on the morning of July 2, 1862 when the fighting ceased. McClellan toured the men, then ordered a celebration on July 4. On July 8 President Lincoln journeyed to Harrison's Landing to discuss McClellan's plans, and as usual, the General was tight-lipped about what he would do. "Honest Abe" was incredibly popular and he reviewed each of the corps.
After Lincoln came Henry Halleck, McClellan's replacement as General-in-Chief. As much as McClellan disliked Halleck, he did reveal his plan for action - cross the James and move on Petersburg. Halleck gave Little Mac a choice, 20,000 fresh troops or withdraw from Harrison's Landing. Halleck was afraid that with his army divided between McClellan at Harrison's Landing and Pope at Fredricksburg that Lee could attack and eliminate one, then destroy the other. Lee, of the same mind, had already begun removing his men north to deal with Pope's Army of Virginia first-it was significantly smaller. Early in August, McClellan decided to recapture Malvern Hill, which he did with a relatively small detachment of 7,000 troops under Joe Hooker. Hooker withdrew the next day when Lee sent 3 divisions in response, further proving to Lee that McClellan was too cautious. Now Little Mac decided to withdraw from Harrison's Landing. In McClellan's mind he had been overpowered by a superior force, and was quick to blame Washington for his problems.
McClellan withdrew from Harrison Landing via Fort Monroe in late August. Almost 25% of his men were sick from the humid conditions on the peninsula. Diseases like typhoid, dysentery and malaria were rampant. Moving north by boat to Aquia Landing (on the opposite side of the Potomac from Washington, D. C.) most of McClellan's forces were to be combined with the Army of Virginia. Arriving on August 24, McClellan was called to Alexandria, Virginia and given the unwelcome task of "managing reinforcements and supplies," but was not relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac. He breathed a sigh of relief. Surprisingly, McClellan continued in his role and began to develop a relationship with Henry Halleck.
Still, when orders came to advance men in response to Lee's attack on Pope, McClellan had excuses not to. Little Mac had said he could send 25,000 troops to support Pope, but when the call came McClellan used the excuse that there weren't enough wagons and some artillery for support had not yet arrived at the landing. Finally, McClellan dispatched two corps, those of Sumner and William B. Franklin, but they arrived only in time to pick up Union stragglers who told of a massive defeat. The disaster that befell John Pope's Army of Virginia at Second Bull Run would give McClellan one final chance at command. The next morning George McClellan found out his status in the morning paper (Washington Chronicle). He was in command of the Army of the Potomac, which now consisted of three corps instead of five...removed from his command were the forces he sent forward to support John Pope.
More bad news was coming from the front. The Army of Virginia's woes were continuing and they were withdrawing to the outskirts of Washington. Suddenly it seemed that George McClellan would be useful and was put in command of the Washington defenses. Then Robert E. Lee surprised everybody, moving into Maryland. McClellan shifted his headquarters west to Rockville, Maryland. Little Mac went to Halleck, telling him to withdraw the men in Harper's Ferry. Halleck refused, creating the situation that led to the battle of Antietam.
Having advanced to Frederick, Maryland, Lee realized he had a problem. Relying on the bridges over the Potomac for supplies would be tricky, but if he could secure a route from the Shenandoah Valley it would be much easier. Lee had expected the Union troops in Harper's Ferry to withdraw, but when they didn't he had to attack. Lee issued Special Orders No. 191, which detailed Confederate troop movements for the Harper's Ferry operations.
On September 13, 1862 McClellan rode into Frederick to the cheers of the Marylanders whom had been occupied by the Confederate Army. In order to attack Harper's Ferry, Lee had pulled back to South Mountain. The Yankees moved forward, taking up positions along the Monocacy River. On September 13 these troops found a copy of Lee's Special Orders. McClellan had been handed Lee's blueprint for the Battle of Harper's Ferry.
George McClellan's men advanced to South Mountain and after a day's battle controlled Fox's Gap, Crampton's Gap and high ground near Turner's Gap. Observable from South Mountain, there was bad news for the Army of the Potomac. Lee's men regrouped at Sharpsburg, Maryland near Antietam Creek, and the usefulness of the famous Lost Order was at an end. As the sun set in Maryland mountains on September 16 guns roared just north of the Potomac River. Joe Hooker's 1st Corps brushed up against the Army of Northern Virginia flank.
Antietam, or Sharpsburg as the Rebels would call it, illustrated some of McClellan's shortcomings. He did not issue overall orders - in fact, he issued no orders at all before the battle. As Joe Hooker engaged the enemy, he moved divisions and corps forward thinking more about defense than offense, in spite of the fact that Lee had a river behind him.
After staying up late the night before, the roar of Hooker's guns did not waken George McClellan that morning. Even at headquarters the din of battle was growing to a roar unlike any the men had heard before McClellan arose around 7:00 am. Soon, Sumner's 12th Corps joined the battle and word went to Burnside to prepare for action. Just after 9:00 am word came that Hooker had been wounded (in the foot) and General Mansfield was dead. Aggressive Joe Hooker was replaced with George Meade who decided to withdraw to regroup. Edwin Sumner, whose rash decision to advance in spite of warnings from Meade and others, rushed forward a division under John Sedgwick. Fresh Confederate troops outflanked the Union advance, nearly destroying Sumner's men.
Slowly McClellan's attack on Lee's left had switched to the Rebel center. Lee's strongest defensive point, a line on Sunken Road, gave way. Major General Israel Richardson saw what McClellan did not - Lee's center was now protected only by artillery. A drive would split the Army of Northern Virginia in two, but Richardson joined the casualty list and was replaced by Winfield Scott Hancock whose orders, directly from McClellan, were to defend the position and hold it at any cost.
George McClellan then took a defensive position along his right and center, letting Ambrose Burnside advance towards Sharpsburg. After crossing Burnside's Bridge at a great cost in men, he neared Sharpsburg. Burnside's forces were struck on their unprotected flank by A. P. Hill, ending the bloodiest day in American history. McClellan claimed victory - he held most of the battlefield, but a stunning blow had been dealt the Army of the Potomac and he refused to engage the enemy on the following day.
After the battle Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. McClellan harbored deep concerns over the action for a number of reasons, mostly because he felt the war was to Preserve the Union and altering this might lengthen the conflict. In the end, he issued an order to his men directing them to obey the "acts of government," however, the Proclamation rekindled on-going talk of overthrowing the civilian government.
On October 1, a full two weeks after the battle, President Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac, lingering in the Sharpsburg area. He stayed for 4 days reviewing troops, visiting the battlefields and hospitals and urging McClellan to advance into Virginia. Two days after leaving, General Halleck ordered McClellan to advance, touching off a month-long battle with Washington. He finally began moving in late October, crossing the Potomac in 9 days.
By this time McClellan was a serious problem for the administration, not just militarily but politically as well. He was revealing his beliefs to Democratic newspapers and friends, promoting the idea that Secretary Stanton had it in for him. On November 5, 1862 Lincoln and Stanton had the necessary papers written for McClellan's dismissal. Two days later on November 7, George B. McClellan was removed from command and replaced with Ambrose Burnside. Before leaving on November 11, he reviewed three of corps of the Army of the Potomac.
In 1864, the Democratic Party nominated George B. McClellan for President. The McClellan campaign seemed to have some strength leaving the convention in Chicago on the 1st of September, but General William Tecumseh Sherman dealt him a blow the following day by securing the surrender of Atlanta, Georgia. McClellan, however, would not respond to pleas to campaign, especially in pivotal Pennsylvania, which he lost by 13,000 votes.
When the vote was counted only three states were in McClellan's column - his home state of New Jersey, Kentucky and Delaware. Lincoln had a strong popular vote showing winning 55.0% to 45.0% but a landslide electoral vote, 212 to 21. Lincoln's unexpected support came from the Union Army. From Sherman's Army in Georgia, results were 86% for Lincoln while McClellan's old Army of the Potomac, now under Ulysses S. Grant and George Meade went 78% for Lincoln. The Commander-in-Chief had won over the commander. These were the truly humbling figures for McClellan to accept.
The defeat spelled an end to McClellan's political career until 1877. He toured Europe with Nelly, took the role of chief engineer at New York City's Department of Docks, and became president of Atlantic and Great Western, and rejected an offer to become mayor of New York following the "Boss Tweed" scandals. He organized his own engineering firm and continued to write throughout his later life.
In 1877 bitter fighting marked the Democratic nominating convention for governor. When one faction put McClellan's name for governor, the fighting stopped and most agreed on the choice. McClellan, in Boston at the 15th anniversary of Antietam celebration, suspected he might be nominated, but didn't think it would go anywhere.
George McClellan was elected governor by a "comfortable" margin of 12,000 votes and continued for a total of three terms. He proved to be a capable administrator, paying down New Jersey's debt and eliminating direct taxes on the citizenry. In October, 1885 he began work on an article about Antietam for The Century. He complained about chest pains, which his doctor diagnosed as angina. The pain worsened and early in the morning on October 29 McClellan mumbled "I feel easy now. Thank you" and died.
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George McClellan was last changed on - June 21, 2007
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