While I’ll never insist that George McClellan was a great battlefield commander, I’m equally sure that he wasn’t a bad one either – he was just a warrior out of step with his times. And for this, his memory has paid dearly. McClellan’s life experiences had left him woefully unprepared for the new realities that the American Civil War presented, and he was never able to make the adjustment.
George McClellan was born into a prominent Whig family in Philadelphia. His father, a physician, had campaigned for Henry Clay when Clay ran for president. McClellan was taught the value of moderation and compromise, and to distrust extremists – North and South. As the nation began pulling apart, George McClellan would lay the blame both on abolitionists and Southern fire-eaters.
McClellan was highly intelligent, entering West Point at the age of 15, eventually graduating second in his class. Because of his achievements, he was able to secure a position in the Army Corps of Engineers, where he would learn the value of fixed fortifications. He served in the Mexican War and was decorated for his actions there. Later he was sent overseas to study the Crimean War, and after witnessing the success of the French armies there, he became devoted to tactics of maneuver and siege.
When he returned to the army from private life in 1861, he looked to use his “maneuver and siege” tactics to bring victories at minimal cost to both sides, which he was convinced was the only way to compel Southern leaders to abandon the idea of secession and to become receptive to another Clay-like compromise. True to his Whiggish roots, he distrusted Lincoln and the Republicans, whom he blamed for the slavery agitation that had forced Southerners into overreaction and treason. He looked down on Lincoln, referring to him in letters as “the original gorilla” (although to be fair, he did not invent that epitaph).
For political reasons, he resisted any movement that seemed unnecessarily punitive toward the South and thus might drive them farther from the peace table. For military reasons, he abhorred tactics that forced him to throw his army at an entrenched enemy, exposing it to pointless slaughter. Throughout the war, he remained convinced that the path of caution and moderation would yet restore the harmony of the Union (as it was). He dreamed of being the general who would lead the way to peace and then the president who would keep that peace. He would be disappointed on both counts.
As he practiced his “maneuver and siege” tactics on the Virginia Peninsula, it initially appeared to be successful. Operating in enemy territory, he advanced toward Richmond, finally getting as close a nine miles without serious opposition from the equally cautious rebel commander Joe Johnston. At Yorktown, his cautious approach seemed validated when the Confederates abandoned the town and retreated farther up the peninsula after he laid siege to their works. In June of 1862, it looked like McClellan would have it all, even without the promised support of Nathaniel Banks from western Virginia. And then fate intervened in the form of Robert Edward Lee.
Lee didn’t play by the same kind of rules as McClellan. Lee was a gambler who would recklessly attack even when decisively outnumbered, and he did this repeatedly during the Seven Days Battles, almost always losing more men than McClellan in the process. For Lee, the game was about keeping your opponent off balance and guessing, not about casualty lists. For McClellan, massive losses were unacceptable, both militarily and politically, and he chose to retreat down the peninsula rather than renew the fight. Against Lee, McClellan was the wrong general at the wrong time.
For the rest of 1862, Lincoln was always looking for someone to replace McClellan. John Pope’s adventure at Manassas ended in disaster, as did Ambrose Burnside’s ruinous frontal assault at Fredericksburg. McClellan never would have ordered either of these attacks, both conceived under heavy pressure from Washington. Because of the military technology of the day, defensive warfare held the upper hand in the Civil War, and the war only ended when Grant was able to bleed Lee white in 1864-1865, but even then the costs to the Union were enormous.
I choose not to brand McClellan with overused labels; I find him far more complicated and compelling than that. Had he been a general in 1847 on the march to Mexico City, he would have been hailed as a brilliant tactician. I know this because his mentor, Winfield Scott, used the same tactics to great effect on that march, and came home a conquering hero. McClellan’s main problem was that the times had passed him by. He was a product of another era in American history, when Union meant reasoned compromise and uneasy accommodation, and he yearned to restore it. McClellan never quite saw what Abraham Lincoln did - that “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”
George McClellan’s “stormy present” left him discarded and stranded on the rocky shoals of history, and while others may be content to leave him there, I’m not altogether certain that he deserves it.