To say that George B. McClellan was an enigma is an understatement. In the century and a half since he led the Union army, his personality and actions have inspired both contempt and adoration—though mostly the former. Biographies include hagiographies, ad hominem attacks, and everything in between. Many historians focus on McClellan’s lackluster campaigns on Virginia’s Peninsula in the spring of 1862 and at Antietam a few months later. And certainly their criticisms are well founded: He did not take Richmond during his advance up
the Peninsula and arguably missed a chance to destroy a Confederate army at Antietam.
Within months of the Civil War’s outbreak, the Union’s ‘young Napoleon’ had crafted a viable strategy to deal a deathblow to the Confederacy. What went wrong?
In the early days of the war, however, the 34-year-old McClellan was called upon to be a strategist, to look far beyond tactics or operations to the larger scheme for fighting the war. Just four months into the conflict, even before he became the Union’s general in chief, McClellan conceived a plan to hammer the Confederacy into submission in one grand campaign. His strategy was feasible, even promising. But in the end the young general’s own shortcomings sabotaged him. And when Lincoln himself interfered with the plan, the disarray of the Union war effort was complete.
It is not often a former child prodigy ends up as the top officer of a nation’s army. McClellan matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania at 13; two years later, he entered West Point, skirting its minimum-age requirement. He graduated second in the class of 1846, which included George Pickett and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. During the Mexican War, McClellan won two brevet promotions for bravery. In 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis dispatched him to tour European military installations, a visit that included an inspection of Crimean War battlefields.
McClellan acquired such a good reputation that the Illinois Central Railroad hired him in 1857 as its chief engineer. Within a year, he was vice president of the railroad.
When the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter in April 1861, he was still a civilian. By May, however, he was back in uniform as the commander of the Department of Ohio, and soon led Union forces to victory at Rich Mountain, in what is now West Virginia. After the North’s debacle in Virginia at First Manassas, the young major general was summoned to Washington by Winfield Scott, the Union’s general in chief.
When McClellan arrived in the capital late on July 26, 1861, a rapturous crowd greeted him at the railroad station. After Rich Mountain, a rare early success for the Union, people believed “the young Napoleon,” as newspapers called him, brought the remedy for the North’s military woes. Few men could have resisted the allure of such Olympian hero worship.
“I find myself in a new & strange position here—Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me,” McClellan wrote to his wife, Mary Ellen. “By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land.”
Though McClellan did not yet head the Union army, Lincoln asked the major general for a plan to win the war. A week later, he delivered a grand scheme encompassing military, diplomatic, and political strategies. It was perhaps the first of its kind in American history. His proposal called for simultaneous offensive action against a variety of points of the Confederacy, [see map, page 66] and even suggested asking Mexico for assistance. McClellan hoped to end the war in one vast, multipronged campaign—after proper preparation, of course.
The key components included: clearing Missouri using the troops already there; sending a force of 20,000 men, plus those raised in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky (once the latter abandoned its neutrality), down the Mississippi River; seizing Nashville, as well as eastern Tennessee and the state’s rail lines; and moving from Kansas and Nebraska against the Red River and western Texas to take advantage of supposed Union and “free state” sentiment. The plan even raised the possibility of an advance from California via New Mexico.
But most important, a force of 273,000 would be raised for a thrust into Virginia, which McClellan viewed as the main theater. He intended for this army, under his direct command, to deliver the biggest and most decisive punch. Corresponding Union offensive movements were to key off his advance; once Virginia was taken, his men would drive farther into the Deep South in conjunction with the forces in the West. The navy would support these moves and coordinate with Union troops to seize important Confederate ports.
The plan, which landed on Lincoln’s desk on August 2, became McClellan’s blueprint for the war. Pleased with his creation, the general wrote his wife: “I shall carry this thing on ‘En grand’ & crush the rebels in one campaign.”
Three months later, in November 1861, Winfield Scott retired as general in chief. Lincoln tapped McClellan to replace him, and the new commander began to prosecute the war according to that August plan. First, following his penchant for order and efficiency, he reorganized the western theater, establishing two commands, one under Brigadier General Henry Wager “Old Brains” Halleck, the other under Major General Don Carlos Buell. McClellan knew that political and strategic considerations necessitated an immediate advance into eastern Tennessee, and he had clear objectives: sever communication (meaning the railroads) between the Mississippi Valley and eastern Virginia, protect Tennessee Unionists (one of Lincoln’s particular concerns), and reestablish Union government in east Tennessee. He also ordered Buell to advance on Knoxville.
Halleck, the head of the new Department of the West, was more than a decade older than McClellan, an 1839 West Point graduate who had made a name for himself outside the army as an engineer, lawyer, and military intellectual. He was known for being irascible and irresolute. Buell, an 1841 West Point graduate and Halleck’s counterpart in the Ohio Department, also inspired little love. No one worked harder than Buell, a smart and fairly talented operational planner. But he was querulous, fierce looking, chilly in manner, and utterly unconcerned that most who knew him did not like him.
Notes flew back and forth between the three generals, as McClellan vainly tried to coordinate the efforts of his two subordinates. Neither grasped McClellan’s intentions; both insisted that nothing could be done. Buell proposed operational plans, but sat. Halleck counseled McClellan to wait.
Lincoln, meanwhile, grew impatient for action, then increasingly depressed. In early January 1862, McClellan fell ill, and a Congressional war committee—itself impatient with the inactivity of the army under McClellan’s direct command—started to pressure the president to separate the offices of general in chief and commander of the Army of the Potomac. With nearly 200,000 men, the Army of the Potomac cost the U.S. government some $600,000 a day, and Lincoln needed successes to justify the outlay. On January 10, the president walked into Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs’s office and sat down in a chair in front of the fire. “General,” Lincoln said, “the people are impatient; [Treasury Secretary Salmon] Chase has no money and tells me he can raise no more; the general of the army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub.”
Two meetings between various generals and cabinet members quickly followed. On January 13, McClellan rose from his sickbed to attend a third session at which Meigs pressed for movement against the Confederates at Manassas. McClellan mistakenly believed the South had 175,000 troops facing him; too many, he insisted, for his men to take on. But a sullen McClellan finally bent—a little. The general divulged no detailed plans for his army, but said that he saw the value of a push into Kentucky by Buell’s forces. Assured that Buell would move, Liccoln said, “I will be satisfied, and will adjourn this council.”
Meigs left the meeting with the impression that “McClellan would prefer to send forward any other troops than those under his present command”—meaning the Army of the Potomac. In fact McClellan was trying to figure out how to deploy all the Union forces. As he learned more about the situation in the West, he tweaked the operational advances he had conceived in August. His overall approach—with the goal of crushing the South—had changed little from August. But McClellan continued to overestimate the strength of the Confederate forces, leading to personal, tactical, operational, and strategic paralysis exacerbated by the inaction of Halleck and Buell.
In a late January letter to Union adjutant general Lorenzo Thomas, McClellan described his slightly altered strategic plan. This incorporated ideas advanced by others for coastal operations, which he said would be “designed to draw off and distract the enemy.” He wanted Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman’s force on the southern coastline of South Carolina “to attack Charleston or Savannah or both.” Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside was to coordinate an amphibious attack on the coast of North Carolina or southern Virginia. Meanwhile, Gulf of Mexico operations would seize Confederate positions in the Tortugas, Key West, and Pensacola, “together with demonstrations against the Florida coast.” The core of the plan remained a massive coordinated assault toward the south and west that in one hammer blow would unhinge the South’s defenses and bring an end to the war.
Lincoln, however, had his own ideas. At the end of January, without consulting McClellan, he promulgated General Order No. 1, designating February 22 as “the day for a general movement of all the land and naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces.” Just days later, he issued Special War Order No. 1, which specifically commanded the Army of the Potomac to take “a point upon” the railroad southwest of Manassas Junction on or before February 22.
Not every Union general had “the slows,” as Lincoln said of McClellan. On February 2, 1862, one element of the Union war machine had finally begun to uncoil. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote struck in Tennessee, taking first Fort Henry, then Fort Donelson, and shattering the cordon of Confederate defensive positions in the West. The impetus for this aggressive thrust came not from Lincoln’s order, nor from McClellan, but from Grant himself, who had to ask three times for permission to move before Halleck yielded. At the same time, Buell began his long-awaited push into Kentucky and central Tennessee.
The effect of the Union drives—particularly Grant’s—was devastating to the Confederacy. The surrender of Fort Donelson, combined with the capture of Bowling Green, made the important industrial city of Nashville vulnerable to Union forces. The fall of the forts opened the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to Union passage, which meant the Union could not only threaten Nashville and nearby Clarksville but also drive into Mississippi and Alabama. Control of the two waterways also allowed the Union to drive the Confederates from Kentucky and western Tennessee, wounding or killing a third of the enemy forces there, and cutting off the South’s access to even more industry as well as its granary and greatest source of pork.
As Grant fought the shooting war, McClellan continued to press his battle of ideas with Lincoln. He responded to Lincoln’s January orders to move the Army of the Potomac by not moving. Instead, he tried to make a case for his own plan for the East. In a letter delivered to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on February 3, McClellan produced a detailed discussion of the Union’s options, including an outline of what became known as his “Urbanna Plan,” named for a small Virginia port that he believed would be critical to his army’s movements.
Writing to Stanton, McClellan first defended the Union army’s inactivity. He reminded Lincoln (through Stanton) of the poor state of the Union forces in the East and West when he had come to town. Citing his August plan—which was proving now to be a handy excuse—he wrote: “I asked for an effective movable force far exceeding the aggregate now on the banks of the Potomac. I have not the force I asked for.”
After this answer to his critics, McClellan went on to explain to Stanton what the North should do to win the war: “I have ever regarded our true policy [strategy] as being that of fully preparing ourselves & then seeking for the most decisive results;—I do not wish to waste life in useless battles, but prefer to strike at the heart.”
His ambitions were no different than they were in August: He wanted to prosecute the war in one great, multipronged campaign, the main thrust being toward Richmond. Every preparation would be made before launching this array of offensive operations, and each would “strike at the heart” of the Confederacy, delivering a Union victory with the lowest possible cost in lives.
It was this strategic goal that drove McClellan’s Urbanna plan and determined where to start the advance of the Army of the Potomac. It could have begun near Washington, as Lincoln had commanded. But McClellan did not want to take this course. The general, to his credit, asked the kind of question that few other Civil War military or political leaders considered: Even if the North won at Manassas, what next? McClellan believed engaging the enemy near Washington would yield little, if any, long-term benefit, even with a victory. It would neither win the war nor destroy the main Confederate army, which could simply fall back when pressed by Union forces. A direct movement, he concluded, would only force “the enemy to concentrate his forces & perfect his defensive measures at the very points where it is desirable to strike him where least prepared”—meaning, of course, Richmond.
(McClellan was correct, as future campaigns proved. Direct attacks against Confederate forces in northern Virginia in 1862 and in 1864–1865 forced the South to concentrate at or near Richmond to protect its lines of communication and supply.)
McClellan instead proposed transporting the Army of the Potomac by water down the Chesapeake Bay to the southern tip of Virginia’s Peninsula, which offered the shortest land route to Richmond—one target of his August plan. Landing there would force the enemy to abandon its lines in northern Virginia and hurry south to cover Richmond and Norfolk. McClellan promised dramatic, decisive results if this worked: the capture of Richmond and Norfolk, the capture of the Confederate supply and communications lines, control of the Chesapeake Bay, and a Confederate withdrawal from Tennessee and North Carolina.
McClellan also argued that the Peninsula launch point provided better Union alternatives in the event of a defeat. If the army could not take Richmond, it could retreat south, back down Virginia’s Peninsula to Fort Monroe, its left flank protected by water and its right by distance.
McClellan initially planned to land the Army of the Potomac at Urbanna, a Chesapeake Bay port town on the lower Rappahannock River. (He later chose Fort Monroe instead.) “A rapid movement from Urban[n]a would probably cut off [Confederate major general John] Magruder in the Peninsula, & enable us to occupy Richmond before it could be strongly reinforced.”
If this failed, McClellan could use the navy to cross the James River and put the army “in the rear of Richmond, thus forcing the enemy to come out & attack us—for his position would be untenable, with us on the southern bank of the river.”
The general hoped to land up to 140,000 troops, yet promised that his operation would not leave Washington unprotected. With rapid movement, he assumed his army could seize Richmond before the enemy could react. “Nothing is certain in war—but all the chances are in favor of this movement,” he concluded.
McClellan did not guarantee victory, but said: “I will stake my life, my reputation on the result—more than that, I will stake upon it the success of our cause.”
It is generally overlooked that what became McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was meant as the most important operational element of a larger strategic plan. As the Army of the Potomac moved in Virginia, Burnside’s troops would be in North Carolina. At the same time, Buell’s forces would push into eastern Tennessee and Alabama while Halleck’s seized Memphis and Nashville. Following this would be movements to link up with Thomas Sherman’s troops in South Carolina by capturing Wilmington and Charleston, while the forces in the Union center drove into South Carolina and Georgia, Buell toward Montgomery, Alabama (or perhaps toward the main army in Georgia), and Halleck southward, down the Mississippi to join Union troops that would capture New Orleans. This would allow Union forces to occupy Southern ports, use the Mississippi River, and reassert control over Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. McClellan reached back to his earlier proposal, insisting, “Such is the object I have ever had in view; this is the general plan which I have hoped to accomplish.” As always, though, everything was subsidiary to his Virginia drive.
Lincoln was not persuaded by McClellan’s argument for the Peninsula Campaign. He believed it made far more sense to simply attack the Confederate army near Washington. It would cost less and could be carried out more quickly. A Union victory seemed more assured. But reluctantly, for reasons he never explained, he accepted his general’s plan.
Even as McClellan was pressing his argument with the president, Union movements in the West began to give form to his grand plan. After Grant took Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, a portion of Buell’s force entered Nashville on February 25. Three days later, Buell reported that his advance elements were 10 miles down the rail lines toward Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Halleck had also begun pushing his forces south, along the Mississippi, and was massing troops to take Island No. 10, the Confederate Mississippi River bastion.
McClellan grasped the reins and decided the Union’s next move. He wired Halleck on March 2: “Buell thinks the enemy intends uniting behind the Tennessee River, so as to be able to concentrate either on you or Buell.” Therefore, McClellan emphasized, it was “doubly important” to hold Nashville and to take Decatur, Alabama. This would isolate Memphis and Columbus, Kentucky, making them vulnerable. Critically, he noted that “Chattanooga is also a point of great importance for us.” He knew its fall would sever the Memphis and Charleston Railroad running between Chattanooga and Corinth, Mississippi, which at the time was the only east–west Confederate rail link; Chattanooga was also the gateway to the Confederate heartland.
On March 11, McClellan set his own army in motion. With that, the key Union forces were finally on the march and moving into place to deliver the multiple blows that he was sure would cripple the Confederacy. The war might soon be over.
We will never know, however, if McClellan’s grand plan could have worked, and significantly shortened the war. After McClellan and the Army of the Potomac sailed for the Peninsula, Lincoln relieved him as general in chief. Lincoln did not do this as a reproach; rather, he thought it was too much for one man to lead the Union’s biggest army as well as handle the duties of general in chief. Freeing McClellan of some responsibility, the president thought, would give him a chance to revive his wilting reputation.
Lincoln, with the help of Secretary of War Stanton, took on the job of general in chief. He also gave Halleck command of all the Union forces in the West. With these moves, the Union strategy spun completely out of control.
As commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan stayed true to his plan, landing his troops on the Virginia Peninsula and beginning his drive toward Richmond. Conceptually, an operational move to the Peninsula and a quick march on the Confederate capital were not bad ideas. But success depended upon too many things going his way. He expected, for example, the roads and weather to be better on the Peninsula than along the invasion route from Washington. Union success also depended upon moving quickly, and speed was not one of McClellan’s strong suits.
Still, despite much hesitation and operational mismanagement, as well as Lincoln’s interference, McClellan came staggeringly close to victory as his army fought its way to within six miles of Richmond. Though the Peninsula Campaign is remembered as one of the general’s failures, it came within a hair’s breadth of being a great triumph.
Meanwhile, in mid-April, Union forces under Brigadier General Ormsby Mitchel, one of Buell’s subordinates, took Stevenson, Alabama, in striking distance of a virtually undefended Chattanooga. Mitchel begged for reinforcements to help take the city. McClellan, who had recognized Chattanooga’s importance, had ordered its capture before he sailed for the Peninsula. Yet with McClellan demoted, Mitchel now answered to Halleck and Buell, and the two refused his request, letting an astounding strategic opportunity—likely a major early victory—slip through their fingers.
Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his Personal Memoirs that after the fall of the forts, great opportunities lay before the Union, and that if a single general had commanded in the West, “he could have marched to Chattanooga, Corinth, Memphis and Vicksburg with the troops we then had.”
“Providence,” Grant said, “ruled differently.” The Union army would return to Chattanooga—but only after 17 months of bloodshed.
Could McClellan’s grand plan of August 1861 have delivered a quicker Union victory? His idea was far more sound than not. McClellan clearly understood the importance of solid planning, good organization, and preparation, and he wanted to seize the great advantage derived from landing multiple, simultaneous blows against the enemy. Executed by someone with the talent for implementation, the 1861 proposal and its 1862 variations stood an excellent chance of succeeding.
In fact, Grant proposed something similar when he became general in chief in March 1864. Grant hoped to end the war within 10 months by launching multiple, simultaneous attacks against the main Confederate armies in Georgia and Virginia and striking key areas and cities such as Mobile, Alabama, and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He also included an amphibious landing up the James River, south of Richmond. Grant’s plan was a good one, based upon a clear understanding of the political, strategic, and operational realities facing any Union offensive, and composed of mutually supporting prongs. There is no evidence that Grant, who is rightly praised for delivering the Union victory, was familiar with the details of McClellan’s plans. But there is also no disguising the similarity of his plan to McClellan’s of August 1861.
To be sure, McClellan’s original August proposal had weaknesses, such as the small numbers of troops in the western prongs, particularly the one intended for the Mississippi River advance, and the difficulty of raising a maneuver army of 273,000 men. But the plan had evolved by the spring of 1862, and these issues had largely evaporated: the forces in the Western prongs were now much larger, while McClellan had anticipated a much smaller maneuver force (110,000 to140,000 men) under his command.
The fundamental problem, then, was not the plan, but the planner. Indeed, one of McClellan’s chief failures was his misinterpretation of the nature of war. In describing the execution of his plan, he urged the reassertion of Federal authority through “overwhelming physical force”: defeating the Confederacy’s armed forces, taking strongpoints, and demonstrating the futility of resistance. Yet McClellan also insisted that the North protect the people and property of the South. Taken together, these aims are a contradiction: McClellan wanted to wage a war that could not be waged.
Additionally, like many Union leaders, McClellan chased the mirage of a Southern Unionism suppressed by a violent minority. “The contest began with a class; now it is with a people,” he wrote. In truth, the South’s fight had always been waged by its people; the bulk of white Southerners supported the war.
McClellan’s 1861 plan—and its subsequent versions—was further weakened by his insistence that the army under his command deliver the biggest blow. With corresponding Union offensive movements subservient to his advance, the Union was gripped by strategic paralysis because McClellan failed to move. Moreover, McClellan did not adequately take into consideration the various political elements of the war—particularly the demands in the North for quick action and the administration’s need to demonstrate progress in the war to satisfy its political supporters and quiet its detractors.
Union brigadier general Phil Kearney evidently recognized McClellan’s true talent. On March 4, 1862, Kearney asserted that McClellan should remain as general in chief while someone else led the Army of the Potomac—perhaps a general better suited to handling operations and tactics. This seems a wise assessment. But Lincoln decreed otherwise, McClellan marched on Richmond, and his plan died aborning.