I will begin this blog entry with a warning to readers: I despise George Brinton McClellan more than any other historical figure of the Civil War era. He represents everything I detest in people, in general, but even more so in a military professional. McClellan was an imperious, obstinate, arrogant, pseudo-intellectual patrician who saw almost everyone as his inferior. He trusted no one, could not delegate authority, had a massive ego, and a messianic complex that allowed him to see himself as the sole savior of the republic. He was also a class-conscious prig, who considered his commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, as his social and intellectual inferior, and clearly unqualified for any national leadership role. He identified with the Southern aristocracy that led the rebellion against the government and, as a result, wanted a war that was limited, that respected property, including slaves, and that sought merely to restore the Union without inflicting emancipation, which he considered equal to inciting servile insurrection. Therefore, if you are seeking an objective opinion of the man, you would be wise to go elsewhere.
From that description, one might think McClellan would make an excellent subject for psychological analysis, and, indeed, he probably would. McClellan had issues with authority figures from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. He clashed with teachers, his West Point instructors, commanding officers, and even his bosses while working in the railroad business. He saw enemies everywhere, and anyone who disagreed with his wisdom was instantly labeled as evil, as a foe to be vanquished. However, McClellan was not without incredible professional talents. He had remarkable energy and focus, and could organize and train an army like no other general during the Civil War. But, of course, that was not enough to achieve military success.
He also possessed a remarkable and powerful intellect, but it was one that was purely linear. As a result, he tended to make snap judgments and refused to adapt when events changed conditions or proved his initial decisions to be erroneous. This characteristic also led him to see dangers everywhere, to become timid in battle, and always overestimate the strength of the enemy. This latter aspect dominated his command of the Army of the Potomac and caused him to be overly cautious, passive, and defensive. Lincoln once characterized McClellan as having a case of the “slows” and that was being kind. This malady was a product of McClellan’s constant obsessive belief in the strength of the Confederate army before him. He would overestimate their numbers by orders of magnitude and insist he could not move forward without more troops and resources. But, what he was actually doing was setting the stage for either a brilliant victory or a defeat that was someone else’s fault.
This can be clearly seen in his reports on the Seven Days Battles in 1862. Before the beginning of the first battle at Fair Oaks, he insisted that his army of 130,000 men was outnumbered almost two to one, when, in fact, he faced only about 50,000 of the enemy. Following a successful battle, he overstated the brilliance of the victory and claimed results that were, frankly, utterly dishonest. However, when the newly appointed Southern commander, Robert E. Lee, counterattacked and took the offensive, McClellan began to blame the Lincoln administration for his defeats—defeats that were only losses because he withdrew in the face of inferior numbers. Worse, as the fighting continued, McClellan withdrew from command as well, letting his subordinates attempt to coordinate the army’s actions on the field. Meanwhile, he focused on making a successful retreat and upon shifting his line of supply from the York to the James River, an act he would later proclaim as one of the most brilliant in the annals of military history. Meanwhile, he failed to defeat the enemy. However, in his mind, that was the result of poor support and a numerically superior enemy.
McClellan also fought a near constant battle with Abraham Lincoln, whom he told his wife, Ellen, was “the original Gorilla.” McClellan considered Lincoln to be a fool, a man ill-suited to lead. His arrogance did not allow him to see that, while his own mind worked on a basis of linear thinking, Lincoln possessed an incredibly multidimensional intellect. As a result, McClellan thought he would always be able to outthink and outmaneuver his commander-in-chief. Instead, Lincoln quickly surpassed him in terms of both strategic thinking and political prowess. Still, as McClellan sat on the banks of the James River, cowering before Lee and his army, he wrote a policy paper on the conduct of the war, which he placed in the President’s hand during a visit by Lincoln to the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan’s policy proposal, which he assured his wife would “save the nation,” called for a polite war, a restricted war, one only intended to defeat the Confederate armies in the field and make the Southern leadership see the errors of their way. There was to be no subjugation of the Southern people, no confiscation of property, and, above all, no emancipation of the slaves. McClellan was particularly pointed on the latter, stating, “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.” In saying this, McClellan was not only demonstrating his sympathies for the Southern aristocracy, he also was showing that he did not recognize the rapidly changing dynamics of the conflict.
Following the disaster on the Virginia Peninsula, McClellan would quickly reorganize the Army of the Potomac and lead it forward in pursuit of Lee as the Confederate general invaded Maryland. Many had called for him to be sacked following the Peninsula Campaign but, with the defeat of John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia at Second Manassas, Lincoln could see that, once again, he badly needed McClellan’s administrative and organizational skills to repair the army and return it to fighting condition. So, he would give him one more chance.
McClellan would fail to deliver once more, although not as painfully as he had at the gates of Richmond. At Antietam, he faced a cornered, desperate Confederate army, badly outnumbered by Federal forces. However, once again, McClellan saw a nonexistent host of enemy forces and certain disaster at every turn. He believed Lee to have better than twice his actual strength and, at a crucial moment of the battle when his plan produced a desired situation, he hesitated. Lee’s entire center was open, utterly vulnerable to an attack that would split his battered forces in two. All McClellan had to do was launch an attack with a fresh reserve corps and Lee would be smashed. However, General John Fitz-Porter, a McClellan disciple, whispered to him that to do so would require committing the last remaining corps in the army to battle. McClellan quickly changed his mind, hoping instead that some other success might come without sending in his last reserves. That success did not manifest itself, as Lee was saved by the last minute arrival of A.P. Hill’s division on the field. McClellan would not renew the battle the next day, and Lee would slip across the Potomac into the safety of Virginia.
Lincoln’s attempts to prod McClellan into a pursuit failed, even weeks after the battle. However, ironically, McClellan’s bloody draw at Antietam allowed the president to issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, an action bitterly opposed by McClellan. It was now clear to everyone that McClellan could no longer be allowed to command the army or, in fact, serve anywhere in it. He was relieved on command and returned to civilian life. His last hurrah was his attempt to unseat Lincoln as President of the United Sates in the elections of 1864. Unfortunately for him, his plank calling for a peaceful reconciliation with the Confederacy did not ring true with either the voters of the North or the men serving in the army he once commanded. He was soundly defeated at the polls and disappeared into history.
But, I will end this essay by adding a few positive notes on the career of George McClellan. First, McClellan cared for his men, fed them and equipped them well. As a result, he was dearly loved by the soldiers he led in the Army of the Potomac, who lovingly referred to him as “Little Mac.” However, he cared for his men too much, perhaps, and could not bring himself to employ what Lincoln later called “the awful arithmetic” of war. Still, McClellan did leave us one truly positive legacy: Through his obstinate, arrogant, and insubordinate nature, he forced Abraham Lincoln to turn his considerable intellect toward the study of war. Almost singlehandedly, George McClellan caused Lincoln to see that war must not only be fought with vigor, with tenacity, and that it must have a moral basis in emancipation and “a new birth of freedom.” He also led Lincoln to see the true role of the Commander-in-Chief, which caused the President to eventually find the kind of general he needed to win the war and restore the nation whole.
So, perhaps, we actually owe him a somewhat perverse debt of gratitude.