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George McClellan, the son of a surgeon, he was born in Philadelphia on 3rd December, 1826. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where in 1846 he graduated second in his class.
McClellan was appointed to the staff of General Winfield Scott during the Mexican War (1846-48) and won three brevets for gallant conduct. He taught military engineering at West Point (1848-51) and in 1855 was sent to observe the Crimean War in order to obtain the latest information on European warfare.
McClellan left the United States Army in 1857 to become chief of engineering for the Illinois Central Railroad where he became acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, the company's attorney. In 1860 McClellan became president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad.
Although McClellan was a member of the Democratic Party he offered his services to President Abraham Lincoln on the outbreak of the American Civil War. He was placed in command of the Department of the Ohio with responsibility for holding the western area of Virginia. He did this successfully and after the Union Army was defeated by the Confederate Army at Bull Run, Lincoln appointed McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan insisted that his army should undertake any new offensives until his new troops were fully trained.
In November, 1861 McClellan, who was only 34 years old, was made commander in chief of the Union Army. He developed a strategy to defeat the Confederate Army that included an army of 273,000 men. His plan was to invade Virginia from the sea and to seize Richmond and the other major cities in the South. McClellan believed that to keep resistance to a minimum, it should be made clear that the Union forces would not interfere with slavery and would help put down any slave insurrections.
McClellan appointed Allan Pinkerton to employ his agents to spy on the Confederate Army. His reports exaggerated the size of the enemy and McClellan was unwilling to launch an attack until he had more soldiers available. Under pressure from Radical Republicans in Congress, Abraham Lincoln decided in January, 1862, to appoint Edwin M. Stanton as his new Secretary of War.
Soon after this appointment Abraham Lincoln ordered McClellan to appear before a committee investigating the way the war was being fought. On 15th January, 1862, McClellan had to face the hostile questioning of Benjamin Wade and Zachariah Chandler. Wade asked McClellan why he was refusing to attack the Confederate Army. He replied that he had to prepare the proper routes of retreat. Chandler then said: "General McClellan, if I understand you correctly, before you strike at the rebels you want to be sure of plenty of room so that you can run in case they strike back." Wade added "Or in case you get scared". After McClellan left the room, Wade and Chandler came to the conclusion that McClellan was guilty of "infernal, unmitigated cowardice".
As a result of this meeting Abraham Lincoln decided he must find a way to force McClellan into action. On 31st January he issued General War Order Number One. This ordered McClellan to begin the offensive against the enemy before the 22nd February. Lincoln also insisted on being consulted about McClellan's military plans. Lincoln disagreed with McClellan's desire to attack Richmond from the east. Lincoln only gave in when the division commanders voted 8 to 4 in favour of McClellan's strategy. However, Lincoln no longer had confidence in McClellan and removed him from supreme command of the Union Army. He also insisted that McClellan left 30,000 men behind to defend Washington.
During the summer of 1862, McClellan and the Army of the Potomac, took part in what became known as the Peninsular Campaign. The main objective was to capture Richmond, the base of the Confederate government. McClellan and his 115,000 troops encountered the Confederate Army at Williamsburg on 5th May. After a brief battle the Confederate forces retreated South.
McClellan moved his troops into the Shenandoah Valley and along with John C. Fremont, Irvin McDowell and Nathaniel Banks surrounded Thomas Stonewall Jackson and his 17,000 man army. First Jackson attacked John C. Fremont at Cross Keys before turning on Irvin McDowell at Port Republic. Jackson then rushed his troops east to join up with Joseph E. Johnston and the Confederate forces fighting McClellan in the suburbs the city.
General Joseph E. Johnston with some 41,800 men counter-attacked McClellan's slightly larger army at Fair Oaks. The Union Army lost 5,031 men and the Confederate Army 6,134. Johnson was badly wounded during the battle and General Robert E. Lee now took command of the Confederate forces.
Major General John Pope, the commander of the new Army of Virginia, was instructed to move east to Blue Ridge Mountains towards Charlottesville. It was hoped that this move would help McClellan by drawing Robert E. Lee away from defending Richmond. Lee's 80,000 troops were now faced with the prospect of fighting two large armies: McClellan (90,000) and Pope (50,000)
Joined by Thomas Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate troops constantly attacked McClellan and on 27th June they broke through at Gaines Mill. Convinced he was outnumbered, McClellan retreated to James River. Abraham Lincoln, frustrated by McClellan's lack of success, sent in Major General John Pope, but he was easily beaten back by Jackson.
McClellan wrote to Abraham Lincoln complaining that a lack of resources was making it impossible to defeat the Confederate forces. He also made it clear that he was unwilling to employ tactics that would result in heavy casualties. He claimed that "ever poor fellow that is killed or wounded almost haunts me!" On 1st July, 1862, McClellan and Lincoln met at Harrison Landing. McClellan once again insisted that the war should be waged against the Confederate Army and not slavery.
Salmon Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War) and vice president Hannibal Hamlin, who were all strong opponents of slavery, led the campaign to have McClellan sacked. Unwilling to do this, Abraham Lincoln decided to put McClellan in charge of all forces in the Washington area.
After the second battle of Bull Run, General Robert E. Lee decided to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania. On 10th September, 1862, he sent Thomas Stonewall Jackson to capture the Union Army garrison at Harper's Ferry and moved the rest of his troops to Antietam Creek. When McClellan heard that the Confederate Army had been divided, he decided to attack Lee. However, the Harper's Ferry garrison surrendered on 15th September and some of the men were able to rejoin Lee.
On the morning of 17th September, 1862, McClellan and Major General Ambrose Burnside attacked Robert E. Lee at Antietam. The Union Army had over 75,300 troops against 37,330 Confederate soldiers. Lee held out until Ambrose Hill and reinforcements arrived from Harper's Ferry. The following day Lee and his army crossed the Potomac into Virginia unhindered.
It was the most costly day of the war with the Union Army having 2,108 killed, 9,549 wounded and 753 missing. The Confederate Army had 2,700 killed, 9,024 wounded and 2,000 missing. As a result of being unable to achieve a decisive victory at Antietam, Abraham Lincoln postponed the attempt to capture Richmond. Lincoln was also angry that McClellan with his superior forces had not pursued Robert E. Lee across the Potomac
Abraham Lincoln now wanted McClellan to go on the offensive against the Confederate Army. However, McClellan refused to move, complaining that he needed fresh horses. Radical Republicans now began to openly question McClellan's loyalty. "Could the commander be loyal who had opposed all previous forward movements, and only made this advance after the enemy had been evacuated" wrote George W. Julian. Whereas William P. Fessenden came to the conclusion that McClellan was "utterly unfit for his position".
Frustrated by McClellan unwillingness to attack, Abraham Lincoln recalled him to to Washington with the words: "My dear McClellan: If you don't want to use the Army I should like to borrow it for a while." On 7th November Lincoln removed McClellan from all commands and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside.
In 1864 stories began to circulate that McClellan was seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Worried by the prospect of competing with the former head of the Union Army, it is claimed that Lincoln offered McClellan a new command in Virginia. McClellan refused and accepted the nomination. In an attempt to obtain unity, Lincoln named a Southern Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, as his running mate.
During the campaign McClellan declared the war a "failure" and urged "immediate efforts for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the states, or other peaceable means, to the end that peace may be restored on the basis of the federal Union of the States". However, McClellan added that this could happen when "our adversaries are willing to negotiate upon the basis of reunion." McClellan made it clear that he disliked slavery because it weakened the country but he opposed "forcible abolition as an object of the war or a necessary condition of peace and reunion."
The victories of Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, George Meade, Philip Sheridan and George H. Thomas in the summer of 1864 reinforced the idea that the Union Army was close to bringing the war to an end. This helped Lincoln's presidential campaign and with 2,216,067 votes, comfortably beat McClellan (1,808,725) in the election. McClellan carried only Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey.
After the war McClellan he spent time in Europe before returning to serve as chief engineer of the New York Department of Docks (1870-72) and in 1872 became president of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. He also served as governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881. George McClellan died on 29th October, 1885, in Orange, New Jersey.
My first sight of McClellan was in 1850, when I was a cadet at West Point. He had then but recently returned from Mexico, where he had gained two brevets of honor. He was popular and handsome and a captain of engineers, and if there was one commissioned officer more than another who had universal notice among the young gentlemen of the academy it was he, himself a young man, a staff officer of a scientific turn who had been in several battles and had played everywhere a distinguished part.
Eleven years later, after his arrival in Washington, July 23, 1861, an occasion brought me, while standing amid a vast multitude of other observers, a fresh glimpse of McClellan. He was now a major general and fittingly mounted. His record, from a brilliant campaign in West Virginia, and the urgent demand of the Administration for the ablest military man to lift us up from the valley of our existing humiliation, instantly brought this officer to the knowledge and scrutiny of the Government and the people.
As far as military necessity will permit, religiously respect the constitutional rights of all. Be careful so to treat the unarmed inhabitants as to contract, not widen, the breach existing between us and the rebels. It should be out constant aim to make it apparent to all that their property, their comfort, and their personal safety will be best preserved by adhering to the cause of the Union.
Mr. Lincoln evidently had begun to distrust McClellan. There was growing opposition to him everywhere for political reasons. Think of the antislavery views of Stanton and Chase; of the growing antislavery sentiments of the congressional committee on the conduct of war; think of the number of generals like Fremont, Butler, Banks, Hunter, and others in everyday correspondence with the Cabinet, whose convictions were already strong that the slaves should be set free; think, too, of the Republican press constantly becoming more and more of the same opinion and the masses of the people really leading the press. McClellan's friends in the army had often offended the Northern press. In his name radical antislavery correspondents had been expelled from the army.
I have lost this battle because my force was too small. I have seen too many dead and wounded comrades to feel otherwise than this government has not sustained this army. If you not do so now the game is lost. If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other person in Washington. You have done the best to sacrifice this army.
The rebellion has assumed the character of a war; as such it should be regarded, and it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian civilization. It should not be a war looking to the subjugation of the people of any state. It should not be a war upon population but against armed forces and political organization of states, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.
In carrying out any system of policy which you may form, you will require a commander in chief of the Army, one who possesses your confidence, understands your views, and who is competent to execute your orders by directing the military forces of the nation to the accomplishment of the objects by you proposed. I do not ask that place for myself. I am willing to serve you in such position as you may assign me, and I will do so as faithfully as ever subordinate served superior.
Of course the action of the President in placing General McClellan in command was not prompted by me. I thought that there were brave, capable and loyal officers, such as Hooker, Sumner, Burnside and many more who might be named, to whom the command of armies might be more safely and much more properly entrusted. The President thought otherwise, and I must do all I can to make his decision useful to the country.
On the 17th of September, the battle of Antietam was fought, in which McClellan might have made a victory of immense consequence, had he not, with his usual indecision and procrastination, let slip the moments when he could easily have beaten the divided enemy in detail. As it was, General Lee came near being justified in calling Antietam a "drawn battle". He withdrew almost unmolested from the presence of our army across the Potomac.
All my former opinions of McClellan are confirmed. His late campaign in Maryland has been most shameful. He has lain perfectly idle 27 days since the last battle with a force almost twice the number of the rebel army and has been constantly been asking for reinforcements. All three (Edwin Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Halleck) desire to get rid of McClellan and two or three times have been at the point of removing him, but have lacked the courage. Stanton would have done it but was not allowed - the President would have done it, but feared the Border States and the army - Halleck would have done it, but claimed the responsibility should not be placed on his shoulders. It is still being agitated and I think it is to be done soon, but I believe they are waiting for the elections to be over - lest it may strengthen the Peace Democrats who will praise McClellan to the skies.
The President's proclamation of the abolition of slavery of September 22 had met with strong opposition in the border States and among the Democrats of the free States, especially in New York, Ohio, and Indiana. It was known that McClellan, and the generals nearest to him, were also opposed to this portentous act. It was proclaimed by the Democratic press that his relief from active command was due to his hostility to it, and a concession to the Abolitionists, who then, as I could personally confirm, still seemed to many Union generals no better than rebels. General McClellan did nothing to disclaim this pseudo-political martyrdom, which was certainly a convenient cloak for the real cause of his dismissal - his military shortcomings.
Whom do you consider the ablest General on the Federal side?" "McClellan, by all odds. I think he is the only man on the Federal side who could have organized the army as it was. Grant had, of course, more successes in the field in the latter part of the war, but Grant only came in to reap the benefits of McClellan's previous efforts. At the same time, I do not wish to disparage General Grant, for he has many abilities, but if Grant had commanded during the first years of the war, we would have gained our independence. Grant's policy of attacking would have been a blessing to us, for we lost more by inaction than we would have lost in battle. After the first Manassas the army took a sort of 'dry rot', and we lost more men by camp diseases than we would have by fighting."
Had I been successful in my first campaign, the rebellion would perhaps have been terminated without the immediate abolition of slavery. I believe that the leaders of the radical branch of the Republican Party preferred political control of one section of a divided country to being in the minority in a restored Union. Not only did these people desire the abolition of slavery, but its abolition in such a manner and under such circumstances that the slaves would at once be endowed with the electoral franchise and permanent control thus be secured through the votes of the ignorant slaves.
Of all the men whom I have encountered in high position Halleck was the most hopelessly stupid. It was more difficult to get an idea through his head than can be conceived by any one who never made the attempt. I do not think he ever had a correct military idea from beginning to end.
A day or two before Halleck arrived in Washington Stanton came to caution me against trusting Halleck, who was, he said, probably the greatest scoundrel and most barefaced villain in America; he said that he was totally destitute of principle, and that in the Almaden Quicksilver case he had convicted Halleck of perjury in open court. When Halleck arrived he came to caution me against Stanton, repeating almost precisely the same words that Stanton had employed.
I kept McClellan in command after I had expected that he would win victories, simply because I knew that his dismissal would provoke popular indignation and shake the faith of the people in the final success of the war.
I do not, as some do, regard McClellan either as a traitor or an officer without capacity. He sometimes has bad counselors, but he is loyal, and he has some fine military qualities. I adhered to him after nearly all my constitutional advisers lost faith in him. But do you want to know when I gave him up? It was after the battle of Antietam. The Blue Ridge was then between our army and Lee's. I directed McClellan peremptorily to move on Richmond. It was eleven days before he crossed his first man over the Potomac; it was eleven days after that before he crossed the last man. Thus he was twenty-two days in passing the river at a much easier and more practicable ford than that where Lee crossed his entire army between dark one night and daylight the next morning. That was the last grain of sand which broke the camel's back. I relieved McClellan at once.
George B. McClellan
George B. McClellan was a prominent nineteenth-century American military and political leader.
George Brinton McClellan was born into an elite Philadelphia family on December 3, 1826. He attended the University of Pennsylvania but did not graduate. McClellan was admitted into West Point Academy in 1842, before his sixteenth birthday. He graduated in 1846, second in his class.
McClellan’s first combat experiences came during the Mexican-American War, in which he was enlisted as a lieutenant of engineers under General Winfield Scott. Described as fearless and gallant under fire, McClellan was awarded brevets to first lieutenant in Contreras-Churubusco, followed by a promotion to Captain at Chapultepec. After the Mexican-American War, McClellan returned to West Point as an assistant instructor until his reassignment to explore the western frontier, including Oregon and the Southwest. In 1855 then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis sent McClellan to travel throughout Europe to study the tactics being utilized in the Crimean War. Upon his return, McClellan released his military report, Armies of Europe, which detailed his analysis of what he saw while traveling.
In 1857 McClellan retired from the military and became chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. Following his term as chief engineer he was promoted to president of the Ohio and Mississippi River Railroad, the headquarters of which was located in Cincinnati.
McClellan returned to the military because of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. While he was opposed to the outright abolition of slavery, his allegiance ultimately resided with the preservation of the Union. McClellan accepted the position of commander of the volunteer army of Ohio in 1861. Governor of Ohio William Dennison dispatched McClellan and Jacob Cox to the state arsenal in Columbus to investigate the guns and other supplies that Ohio had on hand to help equip the state's militia units. The two men discovered a few crates of rusted smoothbore muskets, mildewed harness for horses, and some six-pound cannons that could not be fired. Despite the lack of equipment, Dennison encouraged Ohio communities to revive the militia system and to form units that they would send to Columbus, the state capital. Dennison entrusted McClellan with command of these units and asked him to create a professional force from the volunteers.
The exceptional training regimen McClellan demanded of these new recruits garnered him esteem in Washington and he soon became a Major General in the United States Army. He was placed in charge of the department of Ohio. McClellan’s first course of action was to disperse small units across the Ohio River into western Virginia to fragment Confederate divisions. Due to constant, successful support provided by his troops to the greater Union Army, McClellan was nicknamed “the Young Napoleon.” After the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln replaced General Irvin McDowell as commander of the Army of the Potomac with McClellan. McClellan spent the remainder of 1861 recruiting volunteers and training them to be professional soldiers.
When General Winfield Scott retired from his duties in 1861, McClellan was promoted to general-in-chief of the Union Army. However, McClellan quickly began to differentiate in tactical opinion from his commanding leaders, including President Lincoln. McClellan fell under the belief that the Confederate Army was superior to the Union Army and he therefore concluded that a massive offensive against the South would be inadvisable. Both President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were concerned by McClellan’s hesitation to launch an invasion. As a result, they removed McClellan as general-in-chief and instructed him to focus on a southern advance.
McClellan and the Army of the Potomac set out to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, in early 1862. Hoping to flank the defending Confederate armies and march into Richmond unopposed, McClellan transported his army by ship to Fortress Monroe, located on the Virginia Peninsula, beginning the Peninsula Campaign. McClellan, though initially successful in landing and moving his army toward Richmond, allowed the heavily-outnumbered Confederate defenders, under General Joseph E. Johnston, to withdraw into the city defenses and buy time for reinforcements to arrive. After minor encounters, Johnston was wounded and the Confederate army was placed under the command of General Robert E. Lee. McClellan, convinced that the Confederates outnumbered his soldiers, stalled his advance on the city to await reinforcements. The Army of the Potomac was then attacked by General Lee in a series of engagements known as the Seven Days Battles. President Lincoln refused to send more reinforcements and ordered the Army of the Potomac to return to Washington.
McClellan was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, but was reinstated after the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run. McClellan was ordered to halt Confederate advances into the North during Lee’s Maryland Campaign in September, 1862. The two armies met at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Prior to the battle, Union soldiers discovered copies of the Confederate battle plans, which were then relayed to McClellan. Despite this, the Battle of Antietam, as it is now known, ended in a draw. Though outnumbered, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was allowed to escape. While the battle blunted Lee’s first invasion of the North, President Lincoln believed McClellan had passed up an opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced with General Ambrose Burnside. McClellan would never receive another military command.
McClellan became one of Lincoln’s chief critics, and was nominated by the Democratic Party to run against Lincoln in the Presidential election of 1864. McClellan, a War Democrat, was not only battling against the Republican Party, but also against fellow Democrats who wanted to condemn the war effort, something McClellan was not willing to do. Thanks in part to Union successes on the battlefield, McClellan lost the election by some 400,000 popular votes and suffered a 212-21 vote defeat in the Electoral College. McClellan resigned his commission in the United States Army on the day of the election.
McClellan relocated to Europe for several years before returning to the United States in 1870. He settled in New York where he supervised the construction of a floating battery before being appointed the chief of New York’s department of docks as well as the President of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. In 1878 McClellan was elected to a term as Governor of New Jersey, his final place of residence, where he reformed the administration of the state and developed military programs. He died on October 29, 1885.
Commanders of Chaos: The 5 Worst Generals in U.S. History
These American commanders have lost the battle for history.
It would be nice if all American generals were great. How might Vietnam or Iraq have turned out if a George Washington, a Ulysses Grant or a George Patton had been in command?
Alas, call it the laws of probability or just cosmic karma, but every nation produces bad generals as well as good ones—and America is no exception.
What is a bad general? Defining that is like defining a bad meal. Some would say that failure on the battlefield warrants censure. Others would say that it is not victory, but success in fulfilling a mission that counts.
But for whatever reason, some American commanders have lost the battle for history. Here are five of America's worst generals:
Great generals have great talents, and usually egos and ambitions to match. Yet backstabbing your commander-in-chief in the middle of a war is taking ambition a little too far. A former British officer, Gates rose to fame as Continental Army commander during the momentous American defeat of a British army at Saratoga in 1777.
Many historians credit Benedict Arnold and others with being the real victors of Saratoga. Gates thought otherwise, and fancied himself a better commander than George Washington. It's not the first time that someone thought he was smarter than his boss. But Gates could have doomed the American Revolution.
During the darkest days of the rebellion, when Washington's army had been kicked out of New York and King George's star seemed ascendant, the "Conway cabal" of disgruntled officers and politicians unsuccessfully schemed to out Washington and appoint Gates.
How well that would have worked can be seen when Gates was sent to command American troops in the South. His poor tactical decisions resulted in his army being routed by a smaller force of Redcoats and Loyalists at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780.
Washington also suffered his share of defeats. But his persistence and inspiration kept the Continental Army in the field through the worst of times, which is why his face is on the one-dollar bill. If Gates had been in command, we might be paying for our groceries with shillings and pence.
The American Civil War was a factory for producing bad generals such as Braxton Bragg and Ambrose Burnside.
But the worst of all was McClellan, the so-called "Young Napoleon" from whom Lincoln and the Union expected great things. McClellan was a superb organizer, a West Point-trained engineer who did much to build the Union army almost from scratch.
But he was overly cautious by nature. Despite Lincoln's pleas for aggressive action, his Army of the Potomac moved hesitantly, its commander McClellan convinced himself that the Southern armies vastly outnumbered him when logic should have told him that it was the North that enjoyed an abundance of resources.
Men and material the Union could provide its armies. But there was something that not even the factories of New York and Chicago could produce, and that was time. As Lincoln well knew, the only way the Union could lose the war was if the North eventually grew tired and agreed to allow the South to secede. Haste risked casualties and defeats at the hands of a formidable opponent like Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The alternative was to split the United States asunder.
Ulysses S. Grant, who replaced McClellan, understood this. He gritted his teeth and wore down the Confederacy with incessant attacks until the South could take no more. McClellan was a proto-Douglas MacArthur who bad-mouthed his president and commander-in-chief. Grant left politics to the politicians and did what had to be done.
Had Lincoln retained McClellan in command of the Union armies, many former Americans might still be whistling "Dixie."
Not that Fredendall didn't have real issues that would have tried any commander. Woefully inexperienced U.S. soldiers found themselves against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps veterans. The Americans lacked sufficient troops, supplies and air cover (when was the last time an American general had to fight a battle while being pounded by enemy bombers?)
Yet Fredendall's solution was to order an Army engineer company to build a giant bunker a hundred miles from the front lines. He also issued orders to his troops in a personal code that no one else understood, such as this gem of command clarity:
Move your command, i. e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker's outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker's outfit and the big fellows to M, which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with J at a place which begins with D which is five grid squares to the left of M.
The Kasserine disaster had repercussions. It was a humiliating baptism of fire for the U.S. Army in Europe, and more important, caused British commanders to dismiss their Yank allies as amateur soldiers for the rest of the war.
Listing MacArthur as one of America's worst generals will be controversial. But then MacArthur thrived on controversy like bread thrives on yeast.
He was indeed a capable warrior, as shown by the South Pacific campaign and the Inchon landing in Korea. But he also displayed remarkably bad judgment, as when he was commander in the Philippines in 1941. Informed that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and were certain to attack the Philippines next, MacArthur failed to disperse his aircraft—the only force that could disrupt the Japanese offensive in the absence of the American fleet—and to attack Japanese airfields before the enemy wiped out his air force.
But his crowning achievement was bad generalship in Korea. Yes, the landing at Inchon unhinged the initial North Korean offensive. But the rash advance into North Korea was a blunder of strategic proportions. Advancing in dispersed columns across the northern half of the peninsula was an invitation to be destroyed piecemeal. Advancing to the North Korean border with China also was a red flag for Mao-Tse Tung, who feared that American troops on his border were a prelude to U.S. invasion.
Perhaps Mao would have intervened anyway. But MacArthur's strategy certainly helped unleash 300,000 Chinese "volunteers" who inflicted significant casualties on United Nations forces. Instead of holding a natural defense line around Pyongyang, which would have given the United Nations control of most of the peninsula, the UN troops retreated all the way back into South Korea in a humiliating reverse for U.S. power after the crushing victory of World War II.
Finally, there was MacArthur's insubordination. He called for bombing China, as if liberating Korea was worth risking 550 million Chinese and possibly war with Russia as well. Whatever its military wisdom or lack thereof, it was a decision that should not have been made by generals under the American political system. When he made public his disagreements with President Truman, Truman rightfully fired him.
The early days of the 2003 Iraq War were bound to be a graveyard for military and political reputations, given the misperceptions and misjudgments behind America's ill-fated adventure in regime change and nation-building. But Franks, who commanded the invasion, made a bad situation worse.
Critics say that Franks and senior officials, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, concocted an invasion plan that used too few troops. It wouldn't take a large force to slice through the ramshackle Iraqi army and topple Saddam Hussein, but securing a country the size of Iraq required a larger force.
And what then? There appeared to be little serious planning for what would happen the day after Saddam was gone. Like it or not, the U.S. military would become the governing authority. If it couldn't or wouldn't govern the country, who would? America, the Middle East and the rest of the world are still reaping the consequences of those omissions.
Finally, when it comes to bad generals, let us remember Truman's immortal words about firing MacArthur:
I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for War Is Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.
McClellan Routed At Bull Run
After the rout at Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas, the Union’s Army of Northern Virginia was in a chaotic state. McClellan, a superb organizer, quickly organized and drilled it, winning the hearts of his men in the process. The army was renamed the Army of the Potomac.
While highly skilled in matter demanding organization, the Young Napoleon proved overly cautious and slow-moving as a field commander. He accepted at face value greatly inflated estimates of Confederate strength that were provided to him by Allan Pinkerton’s detective agency, and so he always thought he was outnumbered. Removed as general-in-chief in the spring of 1862, he was finally pressured by Lincoln and the War Department to do something with his army. He embarked upon the Peninsula Campaign, landing his forces near Fortress Monroe in the Virginia peninsula and advancing on Richmond. Had he moved rapidly, he might have captured the Confederate capital at Richmond—the army got close enough to hear its church bells—but his fear of his 100,000-man army being overwhelmed by the Confederate forces that he thought outnumbered him led to a snail-like advance. On June 26, General Robert E. Lee, who had replaced the wounded Joseph Johnston as commander of the army at Richmond, struck McClellan’s troops near Beaver Dam Creek. In a campaign that became known as the Battle of the Seven Days, Lee’s men forced McClellan back down the peninsula.The disappointed Lincoln replaced McClellan as general in chief of the armies with Henry Halleck, and the Army of the Potomac was placed under Maj. Gen. John Pope, until the latter met with disaster on the old Manassas battlefield in the Second Battle of Bull Run.
Lee, believing the Union forces would be disorganized and demoralized for some time after that battle decided to carry the war into the North for the first time. The return of their beloved Little Mac to lead them again, however, buoyed the Union troops’ spirits, and McClellan’s organization skills once again served that army well. After a copy of Lee’s marching orders fell into his hands, he marched to intercept the Southern army at Sharpsburg, Maryland. There, on the banks of Antietam Creek, the two armies fought the bloodiest single day in America’s history, resulting in over 22,000 casualties. The Battle of Antietam, in which Lee’s army might have been crushed with its back to the Potomac, ended as a crimson stalemate. The battered Southern army was permitted to withdraw without serious pursuit.
Although McClellan wrote to his wife that his officers “tell me I fought the battle splendidly,” in fact he never provided his corps commanders with a coordinated battle plan, and he kept an entire corps in reserve throughout the battle, fearing a counterattack by Lee. Had those thousands of fresh troops been committed against the weakened defenders, Little Mac might well have destroyed Lee’s army then and there, shortening the war considerably.
Toward a Better Understanding of George McClellan
Shortly after George B. McClellan’s death on October 29, 1885, one admirer predicted that “History will do him justice.” If what he meant by “justice” was that any mention of the general’s name during a battlefield tour or discussion of the war would prompt scorn and ridicule, then his augury has been vindicated. Scholarship on Little Mac has been overwhelmingly dominated by critics, from Lincoln secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay to modern historians Kenneth P. Williams, T. Harry Williams, Stephen Sears and James McPherson, all of whom have portrayed McClellan as a badly flawed commander.
In 1973, however, Joseph L. Harsh, author of a highly regarded series of books on the 1862 Maryland Campaign, pointed out in an article titled “The McClellan-Go-Round” that there has always been a segment of the Civil War community which has refused to accept the conventional wisdom regarding McClellan. But while the past few years have seen a push for a more balanced perspective on the general, it seems unlikely that recent works by Harsh and others will actually bring about a change in mainstream sentiment.
It’s true that some of the general’s battlefield actions are the greatest obstacles to redeeming his reputation. On July 11, 1861, in his first major engagement as a commander, at Rich Mountain in western Virginia, he failed to carry out his role in his battle plan, and it is clear that at that battle and in subsequent campaigns he tended to give too much weight to assumptions and evidence, especially regarding Confederate manpower, which confirmed his predilection toward caution and restraint.
He claimed as a triumph the move to the James River that carried his army away from the gates of Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and was actually aboard a steamboat while fighting raged at Glendale during the Seven Days’. And the tone of his correspondence regarding Maj. Gen. John Pope during the Second Bull Run Campaign was absolutely reprehensible. McClellan was on the wrong side, too, of the debate over whether a resolution of the sectional conflict required the North to destroy slavery. He also was clearly wrong to believe he could maintain close friendships with prominent Democrats without arousing suspicion by members of the powerful Republican Party. And he was famously unwilling to accord sufficient respect to his commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln.
But there are many positives about McClellan’s Civil War career. His creation of the Army of the Potomac has attracted praise from all but his most die-hard critics. What’s more, McClellan was an insightful and sophisticated strategist whose blueprint for ending the rebellion was probably the only one that had a chance of doing so quickly—if indeed such a victory for the Union was possible.
He was also a superb operational commander, who came close in the early spring of 1862 to achieving a truly decisive victory against a Confederacy that was in the prime of its military life. His amalgamation of the beaten remnants of the Army of Virginia into the Army of the Potomac in early September 1862, just days after the Union rout at Second Bull Run, was remarkable, too. That this new force, in less than three weeks, proved capable not only of thwarting the first major Confederate invasion north of the Potomac River but also of nearly destroying the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam was an extraordinary triumph of personal and military leadership that has few parallels in the history of the war.
A balanced understanding of who McClellan was and the forces that made him is sorely lacking in today’s historiography, however. Two authors who have made notable contributions to scholarship on these points are Edward Hagerman and Philip Shaw Paludan, who presented the general as a man caught in a time of transition in Western warfare. In the years preceding the war, they have argued, the officer corps of the antebellum U.S. Army, including McClellan, had embraced a professional mind-set. Those modern notions of war, however, conflicted with the values of a society that clung to a romanticized image of warfare and idealized citizen-soldiers over professional troops. McClellan was a modern general who tried to wage modern warfare in conflict with a society and political leadership that did not appreciate his vision of how the Civil War should be conducted.
But one must go back even earlier in McClellan’s life and look at his involvement with the Whig Party to understand his wartime actions.
The Role of the Whigs McClellan’s adherence to Whig policies merits significant attention. His affiliation with the Democrats during and after the war inspired his son and the editor of his memoir McClellan’s Own Story to ignore the general’s earlier loyalties. Yet dedicated Whig party leaders such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster had significant influence on McClellan, and the general’s professional role model was Winfield Scott, a military hero who became the last Whig candidate for president.
McClellan was a loyal supporter of the party’s presidential candidates through the 1840s, and in an early draft of his memoir proclaimed that in his youth, “traditions and associations…were all on the side of the old Whig Party.” In fact, McClellan remained a Whig in spirit all his life. The adherence to Whig values and principles explains a lot about McClellan’s behavior during the Civil War. In the Philadelphia of the 1820s and 1830s where McClellan was raised, the Whig Party took up the mantle of the failed and dismantled Federalist and National Republican parties as the champions of the political, economic and cultural interests and values of the emerging up wardly mobile Northern middle class to which the McClellans belonged.
The future general socialized with Philadelphia Whigs and learned to view the world as a place where the forces of enlightened moderation battled those of narrow-minded passion and extremism. Politically, this meant building strong private and public institutions and using them to impose order, discipline and rational direction on human activity to encourage economic and cultural modernization.
McClellan’s Whig outlook was reinforced by his experiences at the U.S. Military Academy and the subculture of the antebellum Army officer corps. Its professional mind-set, characterized by elitism and a hierarchical view of society, was the result of a West Point education.
During Little Mac’s formative years in the 1830s and 1840s the Whigs, as historian Joel Silbey has noted, waged vigorous campaigns against the Jacksonian Democrats even as three distinct segments of their party emerged in the North. After the Mexican War, when slavery became the defining issue in American politics, the differences between these segments would help tear the party apart.
Many Whigs, McClellan among them, shared an aversion to the “mob rule” of what they saw as excess democracy ushered in by the election of Andrew Jackson. Known as Statesmen Whigs, this group was uncomfortable with the country’s increasingly democratic and partisan political culture.
Statesmen Whigs feared that the “Age of Jackson” would endanger the political, cultural and economic institutions that fostered social harmony and gave statesmen the ability to provide rational order and direction to national development. These Whigs continued to celebrate the virtues of broad-minded, moderate statesmanship in which educated leaders of character rose above local, partisan and parochial interest and pursued consensus through compromise.
Reform Whigs, the second group, saw politics and government as a force that should be put to specific uses. They felt it should be employed, for example, to eliminate such evils as alcohol and slavery from American life.
Finally there were the Practical Whigs, who accepted and embraced the rules and practices of partisan politics pioneered by Jackson and the Democrats. Believing that a tightly disciplined and well-organized party was essential to attaining success at the polls, they shaped their actions to serve party interests, made sure patronage was distributed in such a way as to reward the loyal and punish the disloyal, and reveled in using divisive rhetoric that simplified complex issues for the public and characterized political opponents as subverters of republican government.
McClellan remained true to the Statesmen Whig ideology during his formative years in Philadelphia, at West Point and as a young officer. By 1852, however, his attachment to the party of his youth had been shattered by profound changes in American politics. By the time McClellan left the Army in 1857 to work for the railroads, the Whig Party was dead and the Republican Party had taken its place in the North. McClellan and many other Whigs shifted their political loyalties to the Northern Democratic Party, which, led by Stephen A. Douglas, seemed the best hope for preventing extremists in both sections from tearing the country apart.
Understanding McClellan’s attachment to Statesmen Whig philosophy makes it possible to better understand his Civil War conduct. It also offers the opportunity to reevaluate and better understand one of the most important topics in Civil War military and political history—McClellan’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln.
Little Mac and Old Abe Unlike McClellan, Lincoln had raised himself up from humble beginnings in the egalitarian, rough-and-tumble world of the Western frontier, and he never lost his sense of connection with the common man. And while Lincoln also became a Whig, few members of the party came to exemplify the worldview of the Practical Whigs more than Lincoln, who embraced its highly partisan democratic spirit.
For the most part, historians have attributed the problematic relationship between Lincoln and McClellan to the general’s loyalty to the Democratic Party. But the notion that the two men could never have worked together politically must be reconsidered, for the Whig Party played a central role in Lincoln’s intellectual and political development as well. Like McClellan, Lincoln was a member of the upwardly mobile middle class— concerned with self-improvement, discipline and consciously arranged order—that was the backbone of the Whig Party in the North. Before 1850, the two men would have been on the same side of the political fence, unified by their antipathy toward the values of the Democratic Party.
McClellan and Lincoln actually got an opportunity to take each other’s measure before the war. During the late 1850s, McClellan spent a few years in Illinois as an engineer and executive with the Illinois Central Railroad, which often used Lincoln’s legal services. McClellan could not have missed that Lincoln was a Whig, and it’s clear from his memoir that the general looked back on his early interactions with Lincoln with some degree of warmth.
In fact, during the 1850s, Lincoln was one of the most tenacious of a rapidly dwindling band of devotees to the traditional Whig Party. Although he was always repulsed by the institution of slavery, he avoided using moralistic terminology when speaking of the conflict with the South. He rarely missed an opportunity to affirm his fidelity to Henry Clay’s moderate views, appealed to the tradition of sectional compromise and initially sought to revive his political career by attacking Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas’ claim to the mantle of Clay by pointing out that the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which had been proposed by Douglas, overturned some of the compromises over slavery ironed out in the 1820 Missouri Compromise.
While Lincoln clearly aligned himself with those who wished to prevent the expansion of slavery, he ex pressed toleration for the institution where it existed. In a speech in October 1854 Lincoln said, “Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved.” Such a stance, however, proved untenable in 1850s Illinois politics because of a series of outrages perpetrated by the national government on behalf of the slaveocracy. The most critical of those was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
An unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1855 made Lincoln realize that anyone who adopted a moderate approach to the slavery issue was open to charges of cooperation with slaveholders. It had become clear that as a Whig he could not hope to gain the support of the anti-Douglas forces in Illinois, which were abandoning the Whigs in favor of the new Republican Party. Lincoln reluctantly saw that the only course available to him at that point was to abandon the Whigs and join the Republicans as well. The leaders of this new party considered the struggle to preserve the territories for free labor and redeem the republic from influential slaveowners as a moral imperative, one in which the Statesmen Whig ideals of moderation, compromise and statesmanship did not apply.
One reason that Lincoln never considered the course followed by McClellan—joining the Democratic Party after leaving the Whigs—was because his political career for many years had been defined by his opposition to Douglas, and Lincoln had consistently been on the losing end in that relationship. It was clear to Lincoln he had to define himself by joining a party that was clearly antagonistic to the slave owners in Washington.
After joining the Republican Party, Lincoln’s rhetoric became increasingly strident on the issue of slavery due to his justifiable fury over proslavery outrages committed throughout Democrat Franklin Pierce’s presidential administration and during the first year of the Buchanan administration. Lincoln also indulged in harsher rhetoric regarding the South and slavery. From McClellan’s viewpoint, these changes could only have occurred because Lincoln needed to draw a clear line between himself and Douglas on the issue of slavery in order to unify the Republicans behind his personal ambitions.
Lincoln’s tough stance toward the South and slavery did in fact unify Illinois Republicans behind his candidacy and establish him as a national figure. But for McClellan, Lincoln’s new views would certainly have raised troubling questions. Little Mac must have asked himself how a man so eminently reasonable in his professional life, and who was clearly not a fanatic, could be so divisive, sectionalist and unstatesmanlike politically.
McClellan’s view of Lincoln must necessarily have been colored at that point by memories of the tensions between the Statesmen and Practical Whigs. For someone with roots in the former faction, the only explanation for the opinions on slavery adopted by an otherwise rational Lincoln would be crass political calculation.
In McClellan’s eyes, Lincoln could not possibly have adopted a “no compromise” position on slavery’s expansion and used the moralistic rhetoric of Reformer Whigs that endangered the Union because he truly believed in it. Thus the only explanation was that out of cynicism, selfish ambition, weakness or a combination of all three, Lincoln must have decided it was more important to place the interests of party and self above the Union.
That view of Lincoln would have serious consequences in terms of McClellan’s ability to work with the 16th president during the Civil War. If Lincoln were to take the moderate position of a statesman in the future, Little Mac must have wondered, did he have the character to maintain it if it did not serve party interests?
When the fate of the nation was in President Lincoln’s hands three years later, the general could not have had much reason for optimism based on his earlier observations in Illinois. Indeed, in early 1861 an associate from the Illinois Central wrote to McClellan to remind him of Abe’s shifting views: “You and I both know…L[incoln] is not a bold man. Has not nerve to differ with his party…and we do know that he can not face the opposition which would arise if he were to take the right stand.”
McClellan and the War To McClellan, the war was a product of what Statesmen Whigs had always feared: The forces of passion and extremism—i.e., secessionists in the South and antislavery radicals in the North—had gained control of the nation’s councils. To restore reason and moderation to ascendancy, McClellan believed the North needed to adopt a policy of taking the time to raise and thoroughly prepare massive armies capable of persuading Southerners that resistance to the Union was illogical by demonstrating that it was impossible. At the same time, he believed, a paternalistic spirit of conciliation must animate the hearts and minds of the North in its approach to the Southern people, manifest in a rigid respect for their property and constitutional rights.
For this approach to succeed, McClellan believed the nation needed a Statesmen Whig as commander in chief, one who could put aside partisan and sectional interest to let reason and moderation guide his actions. McClellan was undoubtedly pleased that Lincoln initially seemed to be a man who could do this, since the new president generally adopted the political and military program McClellan advocated after he arrived in Washington in July 1861.
Over time, though, Lincoln would alter his views in a manner that put him more in line with what the more partisan and radical members of his party were advocating—paralleling the course he had followed in Illinois.
Whether President Lincoln was right to do so continues to inspire debate even today, but after what McClellan had seen in Illinois, it is not surprising the general could envision only dark motives behind the change.
The consequences of Little Mac’s jaundiced view of Lincoln were manifold. His problematic relationship with the president would undermine the general’s military efforts, ultimately lead to his removal from command, and provide much of the fuel for the fierce debate over him and his role in the war that continues to this day.
Ethan S. Rafuse taught Civil War history at West Point, and is currently on the faculty at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Turn to “Re – sources,” on P. 70, for books on George McClellan.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.
George B. McClellan
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George B. McClellan, in full George Brinton McClellan, (born December 3, 1826, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.—died October 29, 1885, Orange, New Jersey), general who skillfully reorganized Union forces in the first year of the American Civil War (1861–65) but drew wide criticism for repeatedly failing to press his advantage over Confederate troops.
Graduating second in his class at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York (1846), McClellan served in the Mexican War (1846–48) and taught military engineering at West Point (1848–51). He was then assigned to conduct a series of surveys for railroad and military installations, concluding with a mission to observe the Crimean War (1855–56) to report on European methods of warfare.
McClellan resigned his commission in 1857 to become chief of engineering for the Illinois Central Railroad and, in 1860, president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. Although a states’ rights Democrat, he was nevertheless a staunch Unionist, and, a month after the outbreak of the American Civil War (April 1861), he was commissioned in the regular army and placed in command of the Department of the Ohio with responsibility for holding western Virginia. By July 13 the Confederate forces there were defeated, and McClellan had established a reputation as the “Young Napoleon of the West.”
After the disastrous Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run the same month, McClellan was placed in command of what was to become the Army of the Potomac. He was charged with the defense of the capital and destruction of the enemy’s forces in northern and eastern Virginia. In November he succeeded General Winfield Scott as general in chief of the army. His organizing abilities and logistical understanding brought order out of the chaos of defeat, and he was brilliantly successful in whipping the army into a fighting unit with high morale, efficient staff, and effective supporting services. Yet he refused to take the offensive against the enemy that fall, claiming that the army was not prepared to move. President Abraham Lincoln was disturbed by McClellan’s inactivity and consequently issued his famous General War Order No. 1 (January 27, 1862), calling for the forward movement of all armies. “Little Mac” was able to convince the president that a postponement of two months was desirable and also that the offensive against Richmond should take the route of the peninsula between the York and James rivers in Virginia.
In the Peninsular Campaign (April 4–July 1, 1862), McClellan was never really defeated and actually achieved several victories. But he was overly cautious and seemed reluctant to pursue the enemy. Coming to within a few miles of Richmond, he consistently overestimated the number of troops opposing him, and, when Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee began an all-out attempt to destroy McClellan’s army in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25–July 1), McClellan retreated. Lincoln’s discouragement over McClellan’s failure to take Richmond or to defeat the enemy decisively led to the withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac from the peninsula.
Returning to Washington as news of the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 29–30) was received, McClellan was asked to take command of the army for the defense of the capital. Again exercising his organizing capability, he was able to rejuvenate Union forces. When Lee moved north into Maryland, McClellan’s army stopped the invasion at the Battle of Antietam (September 17). But he again failed to move rapidly to destroy Lee’s army, and, as a result, the exasperated president removed him from command in November.
In 1864 McClellan was nominated for the presidency by the Democratic Party, though he repudiated its platform, which denounced the war as a failure. On election day he resigned his army commission and later sailed for Europe. Returning in 1868, he served as chief engineer of the New York Department of Docks (1870–72) and in 1872 became president of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. He served one term as governor of New Jersey (elected 1877) and spent his remaining years traveling and writing his memoirs.
McClellan: Did He Have the ‘Slows’ or a Supply Crisis?
Abraham Lincoln and Maj. Gen. George McClellan confer near Sharpsburg, Md., on October 3, 1862. McClellan would be relieved in little more than a month.
Though most historians call him a crybaby, documents show Washington deliberately withheld needed matériel
Major General George B. McClellan—the general with the “slows.” Even among those unfamiliar with Civil War history, that is how McClellan is usually remembered, as the commander President Abraham Lincoln had to prod into action. The aftermath of the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam in the fall of 1862 is often held up as Exhibit A of “Little Mac’s” dithering. McClellan had no plans for another campaign, the common story goes, and more important, he used the excuse that his army was not receiving the necessary supplies to delay launching another campaign across the Potomac River.
The first allegation is easily refuted. McClellan confided to his wife on September 22, 1862, “I look upon the [Maryland] campaign as substantially ended & my present intention is to seize Harper’s Ferry & hold it with strong force. Then go to work to reorganize the army ready for another campaign.”
Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan has gone down in history as timid and a ditherer. It may be that top Lincoln administration officials ruined his reputation unjustly for political reasons. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum)/
McClellan’s concern about supply shortages is another matter. The oft-told story is that Lincoln did everything he could to push the slow general into action, including a visit to Antietam in early October to personally observe the condition of the army. Two days after his visit, Lincoln issued an order for McClellan to move. Day after day of fine autumn weather passed, however, while McClellan stayed put. Throughout much of October, McClellan constantly complained that his requisitions for supplies had not been met consequently, it was impractical, if not impossible, for him to cross over his army’s namesake river and take the war back into Virginia. Many Civil War historians dismiss McClellan’s supply crisis as a manufactured excuse for chronic dawdling. Substantial documentation, however, proves that McClellan had a genuine supply crisis.
In the Eastern Theater, the Peninsula, Seven Days, Second Bull Run, and Maryland campaigns had occurred in fairly quick succession, not to mention the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of May-June 1862. Some of McClellan’s men had been on the march since the spring and were in a ragged state. And there are astonishing indications of conspiracy on the part of the War Department to deliberately create McClellan’s post-Antietam matériel shortfall. Conspiracy is admittedly a harsh allegation, but something is amiss after the Battle of Antietam that bespeaks a deliberate cabal against McClellan. Mystery surrounds the situation to the present, but there can be no debate about the fact the Army of the Potomac needed refitting.
The 27th Indiana Infantry of Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams’ 12th Corps, for example, had previously participated in Maj. Gen. John Pope’s disastrous Second Bull Run Campaign. The regiment’s historian, Corporal Edmond R. Brown, described the men’s condition shortly after Antietam: “Many of the regiment were entirely shoeless, pants were out at the seat and knees and frayed off at the bottoms anywhere from the ankles upward. Numbers had no coats, and the coats of others had holes in the elbows, were ripped at the seams, deficient as to tails, soiled and discolored….Our quartermaster sergeant notes in his diary that the regiment was in the worst plight at this time for clothing and shoes of any in its history.”
The 93rd New York, McClellan’s headquarters guard, in an image taken in October 1862. A number of soldiers in the center of the image wear white gloves, as the regiment was kept better supplied due to its station.
On September 26, Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, newly assigned chief of artillery of the 1st Corps, recorded “a good deal of suffering among our men for want of clothing, especially blankets and shoes.” Wainwright made a special note regarding the condition of these men in light of their participation in the Second Battle of Bull Run. “The losses in the Pope affair have not been made good yet. Many of the men are quite barefooted, and others are without a blanket.”
Four days later Wainwright noted, “I did not expect we should have remained here so long….But they say that our supplies do not come.” He had gone “up to headquarters again to see if something could be done…but could get no further satisfaction than that they were promised from Washington.” Frustrated, he griped, “This corps has now been two months since receiving any supplies to speak of, and I suppose it is the same throughout the army.”
In early October, Lincoln decided to visit the Army of the Potomac. The precise purpose of the president’s visit isn’t clear. Traditional histories maintain that he wanted to thank the army for its service and confer with McClellan. But it also should have been abundantly clear to the president that there was a supply shortage.
Lincoln traveled to the camps in the Sharpsburg region and met with 9th Corps commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Apparently the pair shared the president’s carriage. One of Burnside’s regiments was the 9th New York, and as regimental historian John H.E. Whitney recalled, the men were hungry and restless that autumn. The New Yorkers “had suffered greatly for the want of meat and vegetables, and many of the men for that reason were wholly unfit for duty. They were always assured that there was an abundance somewhere, and that it was coming.”
Another member of the 9th New York, Lieutenant Matthew J. Graham, witnessed and recorded a singular event, a food riot:
It may be interesting to relate an incident which occurred here in the presence of Mr. Lincoln…ever since the manoeuvring and fighting which led up to the battles of South Mountain and Antietam began, food had been so scarce that the men had continued in a state of ravenous hunger….One morning, during the time the President was on his visit to the army, several of the Zouaves found themselves part of a crowd of soldiers surrounding a wagon loaded with bread which was being peddled along the road. Some of the soldiers in the crowd had money and bought, but, alas, some of them had none, and still they wanted the bread. To want and to have are sometimes very closely allied in the army, so a linch-pin was slipped out, a wheel removed, and the whole load upset in the road. A general scramble was made for the scattered loaves and when the tumult was at its height General Burnside’s carriage, in which he was escorting the President on a visit to one of the camps in the vicinity, suddenly appeared in the midst of it…the raiders scattered in every direction, each man, however, clinging tightly to his stolen loaf and endeavoring to put as much ground between himself and the carriage.
The distinguished occupants of the carriage both witnessed the event, and Graham’s last statement about it is noteworthy. “The President neither said or did anything to indicate that he was especially interested in the affair, he simply looked on.”
During his early October visit, Lincoln reviewed many of the soldiers on the field of Antietam. Colonel Wainwright observed, “Lincoln…rode along the lines at a quick trot….The men looked well, considering we have yet been unable to get any new clothing.” Another 1st Corps officer, Brig. Gen. Marsena R. Patrick, also remarked on the troops’ condition: “The Officers and men are without clothing…are ragged and filthy. Many of them have vermin upon them & cannot get rid of them.”
Major Rufus R. Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin noted, “Our battle flags were tattered, our clothing worn, and our appearance that of men who had been through the most trying service….Mr. Lincoln was manifestly touched at the worn appearance of our men.” Another reliable witness was 2nd Lt. Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island, who noted the president and McClellan’s review in his diary: “In spite of our old, torn and ragged clothes the troops looked well as the lines stretched over the hills and plains.”
A cursory review of the army should have revealed that the men needed supplies, especially shoes and clothing. Unfortunately, the Northern public knew only what they read in the newspapers. The New York Tribune of October 3 succinctly expressed the prevailing view: “The President is in excellent health and spirits, and is highly pleased with the good condition of the troops.”
When Lincoln departed for Washington, D.C., McClellan remembered the president’s last words: “He told me that he was entirely satisfied with me and with all that I had done that he would stand by me against ‘all comers.’” This was in stark contrast to a message McClellan received from Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on October 6. “I am instructed to telegraph you as follows: The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good.”
McClellan now had a direct written order by the president, endorsed by Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, to move into Virginia.
Throughout much of October, McClellan constantly stated that his requisitions for supplies had not been met. It was impractical therefore, if not impossible, for him to advance into the enemy’s country. As colder weather approached, the men began to suffer even more. Consider the plight of the 20th Maine. “The weather became very cold,” wrote Private Theodore Gerrish, “and the bleak, penetrating winds swept with terrible force down the hillsides and through the valleys of Maryland. We had no tents, and for a number of weeks were without overcoats.”
By October 11, McClellan directly called Halleck’s attention to the situation, and referenced the efforts of his chief quartermaster, Lt. Col. Rufus Ingalls. “We have been making every effort to get supplies of clothing for this army and Colonel Ingalls have received advices that they have been forwarded by railroad, but…they come in very slowly.” Later that day “I am compelled again to call your attention to the great deficiency of shoes and other indispensible articles of clothing that still exists in some of the corps of this army.” McClellan told Halleck he had received assurances from the War Department that clothing would be forwarded. “It did not arrive as promised, and has not arrived yet,” wrote McClellan. “The men cannot march without shoes.”
On October 19, a New York Herald correspondent observed:
“They [the army] have not received their fall clothing, are destitute of blankets, tents and raincoats, in fact of all kinds of Quartermater’s stores. Similar conditions prevailed in the ranks of the 155th Pennsylvania, another new regiment: Although within a comparatively short distance (50 or 60 miles) of Washington City, the headquarters of army supplies, the requisitions of Colonel [Edward] Allen for shelter tents, necessary clothing…received no attention whatever from the department at Washington….The Government at Washington seemed incapable of meeting or unwilling to meet the emergency.”
On October 19, Wainwright noted, “We are still here with orders to be ready to move at any hour, but still we are not ready…still the men are very badly off for shoes and blankets.” He also made an uncanny statement, “It seems almost as if they purposely kept them back at Washington, or else they have not got them.” Wainwright was not far off the mark.
On October 23, the interim commander of the 1st Corps, Brig. Gen. George G. Meade, told his son, John:
We are in hourly expectation of marching orders….We have been detained here by the failure of the Government to push forward reinforcements and supplies. You will hardly believe me when I tell you that as early as the 7th of this month a telegram was sent to
After months of marching, the Army of Potomac’s sartorial splendor was diminished. Overcoats were lacking, a problem as nights grew cold. Even worse, numerous accounts attest to worn-out brogans and even barefoot men.
Washington informing the Clothing Department that my division wanted three thousand pairs of shoes, and that up to this date not a single pair has yet been received (a large number of my men are barefooted) and it is the same thing with blankets, overcoats, etc., also with ammunition and forage. What the cause of this unpardonable delay is I can not say, but certain it is, that some one is to blame, and that it is hard the army should be censured for inaction, when the most necessary supplies for their movement are withheld, or at least not promptly forwarded when called for.
Alpheus Williams, in a letter to his daughter on October 26, complained, “We are lacking much.” Like so many others, Williams couldn’t explain why:
There seems to be an unaccountable delay in forwarding supplies. We want shoes and blankets and overcoats—indeed almost everything. I have sent requisition upon requisition officers to Washington made reports and complaints, and yet we are not half supplied. I see the papers speak of our splendid preparations. Crazy fools! I wish they were obliged to sleep, as my poor devils do tonight, in a cold shivering rain, without overcoat or blankets….I wish these crazy fools were compelled to march over these stony roads barefooted, as hundreds of my men must if we go tomorrow.
Assistant Secretary of War Thomas A. Scott, Edwin Stanton’s No. 2, saw firsthand McClellan’s post-Antietam shortage of supplies.
The clamor over supplies eventually caught Lincoln’s attention, and he sent Colonel Thomas A. Scott, former assistant secretary of war, to evaluate McClellan’s complaint. McClellan, Scott wrote, had a member of his staff “show me the requisitions, and also a statement of the amount received, and that I could draw my own inferences.” Scott could verify a shortage of “shoes, clothing, and other necessaries for the men.” Upon learning the facts, Scott immediately returned to Washington, and reported his findings to Lincoln, Halleck, and Stanton:
Both Stanton and Halleck then repeated their assurances that all McClellan’s requisitions had been met and it was suggested that, as the troops in the forts around Washington constituted a part of the Army of the Potomac, the supplies that were intended for McClellan’s army in the field, instead of having been sent to him at Harpers Ferry, had by some means or other been diverted for use of the troops in the fortifications, and thus had failed to reach him. This proved to be the explanation of the trouble.
Scott wrote his incredible story in 1880, 18 years after the fact, and so it is understandable that McClellan’s critics may find it somewhat suspect. Nevertheless, Scott is a primary source, and he does provide a reason for McClellan’s delay in starting a new campaign.
There are other versions of the story from the leadership of the Union 5th Corps. One of them comes from Regular Army officer William H. Powell of Maj. Gen. George Sykes’ division. “Day after day passed without receiving supplies,” he wrote. “General McClellan wrote, telegraphed, urged, and got into a snarl with the quartermaster’s department, the officers of which insisted that the stores had been shipped.” Technically, Powell noted, they had been, and “[t]hat appears to have been what was considered the end of their [Montgomery Meigs’ quartermasters] duty at the time.” Powell didn’t mention Colonel Scott, but he did note where the supplies had gone. Investigation revealed “train loads of supplies for the army…on the tracks at Washington, where some of the cars had been for weeks.”
Powell’s account confirms that as far as the authorities in Washington were concerned, “technically” the supplies had been shipped to the army.
The destitute condition of the army certainly indicates a supply problem. Numerous primary sources document shoeless men shivering in the Maryland countryside. Is it believable that the Union War Department, with all its logistical advantages, was incapable of moving supplies 60 miles or so on an established railroad? Recall Wainwright’s prescient journal entry of October 19: “It seems almost as if they purposely kept [the supplies] back at Washington.” If Scott’s and Powell’s veracity is trustworthy, that is exactly what happened. Was this misdirection of supplies accidental or intentional?
If it was not an accident that supplies bound for the Army of the Potomac on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad ended up in the forts or depots around Washington, then it was a deliberate act to hamper McClellan and there was a conspiracy against the general. The big problem with this explanation is that the conspirators covered their tracks extremely well. On the other hand, a lack of evidence is just what one would expect with a successful conspiracy. Who had the most to gain from the situation, and who was able to engineer the circumstances? One answer would certainly be Secretary Stanton.
Stanton seems to have created what he needed: documentation he could place in front of the president and release to the national media that proved McClellan untruthful. On November 5, a Cabinet meeting was held to discuss the issue. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair provided an account in a letter dated January 21, 1880. As with Colonel Scott, 18 years separated the incident from memory, but also like Scott, Blair is a primary source. The subject of McClellan was discussed in the Cabinet, Blair wrote, and it “was attended by Halleck” who put Stanton’s paper trail to good use. Halleck stated “that the excuses given by McClellan for not moving were untrue. I recollect that in reference to a supply, I think of shoes, which General McClellan had written were indispensable, and had not been received, Halleck undertook to show, by official statements of shipments made, that McClellan had not stated the truth.” The general-in-chief effectively proved that the supplies had been shipped to the army.
President Lincoln’s role remains elusive. Even if not directly involved, he at least exhibits a kind of quiet complicity, if not outright duplicity. His comments to Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning support this claim. Browning noted in his diary that Lincoln confided to him, “He [McClellan] did not follow up his advantages after Antietam.” The president next complained that he had, “coaxed, urged & ordered him but all would not do.” Despite Lincoln’s firsthand observations of the army’s condition and Scott’s discovery of Stanton’s deceitfulness, Lincoln told Browning that McClellan’s greatest defect was, “his excess of caution…he was too slow.”
That refrain of Lincoln’s has been passed down through numerous accounts of McClellan’s career, damning him to the reputation of a commander afraid to wage war. Numerous histories contend that this supply crisis did not exist, and that everything McClellan asked for was supplied, or ignore the issue altogether. The same literature insists that McClellan’s hesitancy to advance after the Battle of Antietam was in consequence of chronic indecision and timidity.
“McClellan’s post-Antietam delay is explainable on military grounds,” wrote noted Lincoln scholar James G. Randall, one of the few who ignored the static and saw the truth. “The delay had resulted from what had been done at Washington over McClellan’s head.” Most likely the true nature of the controversy will never be settled among armchair generals. It cannot be disputed that innocent soldiers suffered in the fall of 1862 as a result of a genuine supply shortage, and that the same shortage frustrated their able commander.
Steven R. Stotelmyer, a native of Hagerstown, Md., first visited Antietam National Battlefield as a child and has been fascinated with the Maryland Campaign ever since. He is a Battlefield Ambassador Volunteer at Antietam and a National Park Service Certified Antietam and South Mountain Tour Guide. This article is culled from his 2019 book, Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign From South Mountain to Antietam (Savas Beatie).
An Army In Name Only
A look at the condition of the Union force during the Maryland Campaign provides a picture of the Army of the Potomac at odds with the generally accepted stereotype of the well-equipped and well-oiled machine of legend. The troops that McClellan began moving out of Washington in early September 1862 belonged to the “Army of the Potomac” in name only. The army was a recently assembled conglomerate.
Troops from Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run composed approximately 30 percent of McClellan’s force. Some of these soldiers were shoeless and without a change of clothing when the Maryland Campaign began. Some of this army consisted of troops McClellan commanded on the Peninsula who did not make it in time to join Pope at Second Bull Run. Major General Ambrose Burnside’s newly expanded 9th Corps had also recently been integrated into the Army of the Potomac. And, approximately 25 percent of McClellan’s troops were new recruits, a fact often ignored when discussing the Maryland Campaign and its aftermath. Although some of the untested regiments had served in garrisons, the urgency of the situation in fall 1862 rushed many green units to the front without proper training.
The condition of the Federal army only worsened after the Battles of South Mountain, Antietam, and Shepherdstown. McClellan expected to have time to rest, refit, and reorganize his army upon the conclusion of the campaign, and time for his fresh regiments to continue their training. The experience of the famous 20th Maine is representative of that. The regiment underwent seemingly endless marching and drill so that by the end of October, Lt. Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain boasted to his wife, “no other New Regt. Will ever have the discipline we have now.” Modern “boot camps” range from between 8 to 12 weeks, however, which means that the Maine men would have had to train to until between mid-November or December to be fully ready. But that was far too late in the season for an impatient President Lincoln.
McClellan found ways to reinforce his beliefs. In his paranoia, he emerged with a perspective distorted far beyond reality. He inflated the estimates of Confederate numbers given to him. He frequently claimed his forces were outnumbered by the Confederates two to one or more when the reverse was true. At one point, his 100,000 troops were held up by 23,000 Confederates, while McClellan claimed the enemy was stronger.
He was supported by information received from Pinkerton’s Private Detective Agency. Many historians have argued that knowing McClellan’s belief in the weakness of his position, the Pinkertons gave him what he wanted – evidence to support his claim. Bias clearly played a part – humans are prone to taking in the information they agree with and disregarding other evidence.
It was a self-justifying view of the situation. As long as he could claim to be outnumbered, McClellan could excuse his inaction while maintaining his proud self-image. So he clung to that belief.
General George McClellan was the Union Armys first commander in the early part of the American Civil War. Because of how the Union army was faring under his leadership, McClellan was regarded as an ineffective general, if not a failure. As a result of how he commanded the Union army and prosecuted the war, he was replaced by President Abraham Lincoln until he found a much more abler leader in General Ulysses S. Grant who carried the Union to total victory which led to the eventual surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the civil war in 1865. This study intends to look if General McClellan has been fairly judged by historians and if his incompetence was valid.
In his book, George B. McClellan and Civil War History, Thomas Rowland attempts to give an impartial view of McClellan. Based on other accounts he has read from other historians who discussed McClellan, history has not been so kind to the hapless general. McClellan had served as one of the benchmarks on how modern-day American generals would take action such as the case of General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert ShieldStorm and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell in response to the troubles in the former Yugoslavia. The reason why McClellan was brought up in comparing him with these two modern-day counterparts was both nearly made the same mistakes he did in being indecisive or vacillating in taking the proper course of action when they were facing a similar situation as he did (Rowland, 1998, p.10). McClellan had a superior army at his disposal compared to the ragtag forces of the Confederacy, yet his issues led them to be mismanaged and what could have been victories for the Union in the early battles ended up in defeat.
Another inference Rowland made was that one of the reasons why McClellan was probably not effective was he had psychological problems that would explain why he was not an effective commander and it was rather unfortunate for him since his counterpart on the opposing side was General Robert E. Lee who was undoubtedly one of the best generals the Confederacy had among its ranks. One historian pointed out that McClellan
Alternating between fits of arrogant confidence and wretched self-abasement, the adult McClellan revealed an indulgent insolence displayed by those who are congenially incapable of acknowledging authority because it would make them feel inferior (cited in Rowland, 1998).
If one were to base McClellans leadership on this case, it would appear that McClellans psychological issues was the root cause for his incomptence. Rowland would go on and enumerate other flaws McClellan had as told by other historians. McClellan had tendencies of being vain, unstable, undisciplined, dishonest and had a messianic complex. Besides being incompetent, he was even said to have problems with authority, particularly with President Lincoln who was his commander-in-chief.
Some even went to the extent of comparing McClellan to Napoleon not in terms of brilliance but in terms of vanity and ego, a trait both commanders appear to possess and this dated way back in his childhood and somehow carried over throught his life from his cadet days at West Point to his various military postings as he rose through the ranks(17-18).
George McClellan - History
McClellan was an interesting man, full of both strengths and weaknesses. A brilliant engineer and a great organizer, McClellan created the Army of the Potomac, the Union's mighty fighting force. He just didn't want to use it.
McClellan was better at organizing than fighting. He was highly intelligent, but couldn't wage a successful campaign. He always had an excuse for not engaging the enemy: his men were outnumbered (actually, they were not) he needed more troops and it wasn't a good time or place or season for a battle. Once, Lincoln was so frustrated at McClellan's failure to act that he sent the general a telegram that read, "If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something."
McClellan graduated second in his class from West Point, the United States Military Academy. He fought under Winfield Scott in Mexico, and after the Mexican War, he studied European armies. He resigned from the army to work as chief engineer for a railroad company, and he was very successful.
When the Civil War broke out, McClellan reentered the military. He held several important military positions, and soon after the disaster at Bull Run, he was second in command under General Winfield Scott. Fiercely ambitious, he worked behind the scenes to force the general to retire. Some people called him "the Young Napoleon" after the French general and emperor. He refused to tell his civilian supervisors in the War Department what he was planning. Once he even refused to see President Lincolnhis commander-in-chief! Don't you think that was rude?
After many delays, McClellan marched his army overland to within a few miles of Richmond, the Confederate capital. But after a week of fierce fighting, he retreated. He thought the enemy had a much larger force. His retreat made Lincoln so mad that he suspended McClellan from command of all the armies, leaving him only the Army of the Potomac. McClellan blamed the War Department, Lincoln, and the Secretary of Defense for his defeats. He managed to defeat Lee at Antietam, but lost many men and squandered a chance to crush the Confederate Army. Finally, the exasperated Lincoln fired him.
McClellan, who remained popular with his men, ran for president against Lincoln in 1864 but was defeated. He resigned from the army and worked in state politics, serving as governor of New Jersey.