He turned his army into a mighty marching machine. But George McClellan’s greatest contribution to the war effort came much later.
HEAVY SNOW had been pounding the Army of the Potomac for hours when Brig. Gen. Catharinus P. Buckingham’s train arrived in Salem, Va., on November 7, 1862. Fierce as the blizzard was—particularly for that time of year—the orders Buckingham carried from the capital threatened to trigger an even more dangerous storm.
It had been two days since President Abraham Lincoln had signed the orders removing General George McClellan from command of the army, McClellan’s conflicts with the administration having finally come to a head. “Little Mac,” as his troops fondly called him, was to depart for Trenton, N.J., and await further orders; Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside was to take control of the army.
It was not the first, nor would it be the last, change of command for the Army of the Potomac. But Little Mac was not like other generals, and some of his superiors in Washington worried he would not go quietly. What’s more, they feared that if McClellan resisted, his worshipful troops might fall right in line behind him.
McClellan, a Democrat, had long butted heads with the Republican administration over politics and policy, not to mention military strategy. He and his supporters had even entertained notions of McClellan’s becoming some kind of a military “dictator,” and he would immediately declare his ouster to be a “great mistake.” Would he concede the day nonetheless?
U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who had personally drafted Buckingham into the role of messenger, was among the most skeptical. As Buckingham later recalled in an 1875 letter to the Chicago Tribune:
“The Secretary had not only no confidence in McClellan’s military skill, but he very much doubted his patriotism, and even loyalty….He expressed to me some fear that McClellan would not give up the command, and he wished, therefore, that the order should be presented by an officer of high rank, direct from the War Department, so as to carry the full weight of the President’s authority.”
It would be another two years before McClellan would formally challenge Lincoln for the presidency. But already he had willingly become an important voice and symbol of opposition to the administration. Like many Democrats, McClellan favored reconciliation with the South, not its annihilation. He virulently opposed the increasingly radical direction of Lincoln’s policies, particularly the impending emancipation of slaves, and often vented his complaints to Democratic political leaders and the newspapers they controlled. This, as McClellan biographer Stephen Sears noted, was another, unstated reason for McClellan’s removal, and a cause for Stanton’s suspicion that McClellan might rebel against those who sought to oust him.
Stanton, also a Democrat, knew McClellan well. Stanton had once been an ally and confidante of McClellan’s, but they had fallen out badly over the latter’s reluctance to engage the enemy on the battlefield. Their former close acquaintance had taught Stanton about both the depths of McClellan’s contempt for Lincoln—a contempt Stanton had once shared—and the general’s hunger for supremacy within the Union chain of command.
McClellan had never hesitated to criticize his superiors in Washington—or as he described them to his wife, “men whom I know to be greatly my inferiors socially, intellectually & morally!” He sneered at the president in letters, referring to him as “the original gorilla”—an insult Stanton had coined before his conversion to a Lincoln supporter. By November 1862, McClellan had come to regard Stanton not only as a turncoat, but his main adversary in the Cabinet.
McClellan, in fact, clashed to such an extent with his civilian superiors, personally and professionally, that some of his letters read as if he were at war with Washington rather than the Confederacy. “I am satisfied that the dolts in Washington are bent on my destruction if it is possible for them to accomplish it,” he railed to his wife on August 10, 1862. “The more I hear of their wickedness the more I am surprised that such a wretched set are permitted to live much less to occupy the positions they do….
“The next few days will probably be decisive,” McClellan continued. “If I succeed in my coup everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet. It may go hard with some of them in that event, for I look upon them as the enemies of the country & of the human race….”
Presumably, McClellan referred here to a purely political “coup,” not a military one. But as historian Richard Slotkin reflected in Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution, “the real significance of these rants is their revelation that the commander of the nation’s largest army was in an extraordinarily dangerous state of mind.”
IF MCCLELLAN was the darling of democratic politicos, he was equally beloved by his troops—another potential problem for his civilian superiors. The majority of Union troops were Democrats, but their attachment to McClellan went beyond politics.
“The men idolized him,” Private Robert Tilney of the army’s V Corps later wrote in his memoir. “He was undoubtedly a great organizer, and made a magnificent army out of the raw troops that were sent him; the men recognized this, and in addition, there was something in the man that appealed to their hearts and affections, and their grief and indignation were intense when called upon to part with ‘Little Mac,’ as they familiarly and affectionately called him.”
Newspapers, particularly Democratic ones, spilled over with descriptions of McClellan’s popularity among his troops, whose welfare he often appeared to prioritize above the battlefield fortunes of the Union. McClellan certainly had critics within the army as well, but the loyalty of his supporters was profound.
In dismissing McClellan, however, Stanton’s first concern was actually Burnside. A modest man and friend to McClellan, he had declared openly in the past that he was not suited for such a promotion. As Buckingham explained in the Tribune, Stanton had told him to approach Burnside first and use the “strongest arguments to induce [Burnside] not to refuse.” Those concerns were well-founded, as Burnside did indeed decline the post, citing both “his want of confidence in himself and his particularly friendly relations to McClellan, to whom he felt under the strongest obligations.”
Buckingham dutifully countered that there was no saving McClellan now. If Burnside did not take the helm, Buckingham warned, it would be handed to Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker, a political infighter whom Burnside detested. Reluctantly, Burnside accepted command.
BUCKINGHAM and Burnside rode through the snowstorm back to Salem, where Buckingham’s train waited to carry them five miles north to McClellan’s headquarters at Rectortown. McClellan was alone when they came knocking on his tent pole late that night. By all accounts, he received the pair of generals politely and— contrary to some of his critics’ expectations—took the news calmly. McClellan would later write in his memoirs that he actually smiled as he read the order, then turned to Burnside and said, “Well, Burnside, I turn the command over to you.”
He would also write that he had heard earlier that day of Buckingham’s trip to Burnside’s camp—and suspected the reason for it, “but kept my own counsel.” That night, however, he wrote to Mary Ellen McClellan, his wife and constant confidante, that he was “much surprised” by the turn of events, for which he said no reason was given.
“But as I read the order in the presence of Genl Buckingham, I am sure that not a muscle quivered nor was the slightest expression visible on my face, which he watched closely. They shall not have that triumph. They have made a great mistake—alas for my poor country….”
Not surprisingly, news of McClellan’s dismissal sparked emotional displays and openly rebellious talk. Loyal officers warned that the order would obliterate morale; in the Irish Brigade, Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Meagher had to refuse so many resignations he issued a formal order condemning such demonstrations.
While the officer corps voiced the most outrage, it bled through the rank-and-file as well, according to Robert G., John H. and Walter Carter, three brothers from Maine who had enlisted in the Army of the Potomac. In a collection of their letters, which then-Private Robert Carter later published—and which blurs precise attribution—either Walter or John wrote: “If you could only hear the soldiers talk about it, you wouldn’t give much for the patriotism of the Army of the Potomac, and as for their being in good spirits and eager to advance, as the papers say, it is all bosh! For many are discouraged and say they won’t fight under any other general than ‘Little Mac’….
“Officers threaten to resign, and men refuse to fight,” the enlisted man went on. “In heaven’s name, why make the transfer now, when all the plans are made, and McClellan is our leader, the idol of the army? Why give the enemy the victory?”
McClellan’s sacking “created among the troops universal feelings of the most profound sorrow, sadness and gloom,” wrote Private William McCarter of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry. “Hundreds wept bitterly. The few who had life enough to converse upon the situation of military affairs asked, ‘What next?’”
The furor was not directed against Burnside, who was also “a favorite” among the troops, army surgeon Thomas T. Ellis reflected in his diary. “But they feel and say, that without McClellan, the Army of the Potomac will be powerless. His name alone acts like magic on the men, and the beloved ‘Little Mac,’ who is looked upon by every soldier as the father and preserver of the Army of the Potomac, can wield an influence over them that no other general can hope to possess.”
Such was the conviction of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson, who “entirely lost my self control” upon hearing that McClellan was leaving. “I…lost my grip, so to speak, and gave way to tears of indignation and words of bitter reproach,” he wrote. “Yes! I sat down and cried, and in my dire distress cared no longer to continue in the service. Could I have gotten home, I would have done so, as I no longer had the heart to fight for such an ingrateful [sic] army.”
Rejecting allegations that McClellan had been too slow to fight, his supporters blamed politics for his downfall. Some accused Lincoln of firing McClellan in retaliation for Democratic victories in the 1862 midterm elections—particularly in New York, the Union’s most populous and influential state, where the entire Republican ticket, including an incumbent governor, had been defeated.
Others took McClellan’s view that many in the administration conspired against him out of jealousy, fear or personal ambition. Donaldson was quick to blame the “perfidious Stanton,” accusing him of fearing that “ambition might make McClellan dictator….I tell you frankly, had McClellan done this, had he placed himself at the head of the army and instead of marching onto Richmond turned against Washington, all would have followed….”
This was not the first talk of a military takeover, as Stanton well knew. McClellan himself spoke and wrote of supporters—both inside and outside the army—encouraging him to wrestle control of the military away from Washington and establish a “dictatorship.” At times, McClellan dismissed the notion; at others, he seemed ready to consider it. Either way, it appeared to reinforce his belief that his rise to command was providential—that God had chosen him to be nothing short of a savior for his nation. In July 1862, McClellan had boldly proposed that Lincoln create a semi-independent “commander in chief of the army”—a post that McClellan said he would readily accept.
But if notions of a takeover—legal or otherwise—had once held any fascination for McClellan, he did not entertain them at this crucial moment. A professional soldier to his core, McClellan sought instead to tamp down rebellious talk, particularly among his own hot-headed staff, whom he advised during a private farewell that “we have only to obey orders.”
He closed his farewell message to the troops with a reminder: “[W]e shall ever be comrades in supporting the Constitution of our country and the nationality of our people.” He began the slow, emotional goodbye to his troops in earnest on November 10, riding out to review them for the last time. Division after division waved banners, cheered, applauded, cried and otherwise made grand displays of allegiance as he rode past. Some broke ranks to surround him, making it difficult at times for him to continue.
It was “an impressive sight, a painful and in some respects an alarming sight,” Brig. Gen. John Gibbon recorded in his memoir. “As he rode along in front of the paraded troops, the men burst out into tumultuous cheers which were kept up as long as he was in sight and loud calls of ‘Send him back, send him back’ resounded on all sides.”
The Irish Brigade reportedly threw down its colors in the dirt for McClellan to tread over (McClellan refused). In some cases, Gibbon claimed, “whole regiments had thrown down their arms declaring that they would fight no longer, and that one general officer had called to him as he rode past his command, ‘Lead us to Washington, General. We will follow you there.’”
McClellan had often waxed poetic about his affection for “my army.” But he wrote to his wife that he had not before realized the depth of his men’s devotion, “nor how dear they are to me. Gray-haired men came to me with tears streaming down their cheeks. I never before had to exercise so much self-control. The scenes of to-day repay me for all that I have endured.”
AS CONTROVERSIAL as McClellan was, and as partisan as newspapers of the day were, it remains difficult to gauge just how grieved the army was— particularly the enlisted men, whose exposure to the general in person had been more limited. Democratic observers, officers and newspapers gushed about the displays of emotion, just as they vilified McClellan’s superiors and warned that the army would cave in from lack of morale. But Republicans’ accounts of the scene were more matter-of-fact, and some directly challenged the claims of widespread anguish while they defended McClellan’s removal.
“What is the general feeling in the Army regarding the removal of McClellan, as far as you can judge?” a perplexed Elizabeth Freeman Adams Lusk of Connecticut wrote to her son, Asst. Adj.-Gen. William Thompson Lusk. “The Post and Tribune oppose him, the World and Express uphold him, while the Herald humbly submits its judgment to the will of the President….”
Some of McClellan’s critics saw politics in the outpouring of grief. Alfred Lewis Castleman, an army surgeon, acknowledged dryly that some in the army were indeed distraught but doubted the blow to morale would prove either severe or long-lived.
Mostly it was the officers who venerated their commander to the heavens, Castleman wrote—probably because they saw McClellan as a future political leader who might later reward their loyalty.
“It will go hard only with the aspirants in high places, who have spent so much time and breath in inflating McClellan, that he became an unmanageable balloon, broke from his fastenings, and has ‘gone up,’” Castleman wrote.
One New York Times correspondent, William Swinton, acknowledged the demonstrations but alleged that McClellan’s officers had staged them for effect. Swinton had his own biases, however, as a reporter writing for a pro-Lincoln paper. In 1864 he turned to writing pamphlets directly supporting Lincoln’s reelection campaign.
Stephen Sears offers some perspective. To some extent, the troops’ displays were contrived—as they often were during McClellan’s “grand reviews.” Yet, according to the historian, “the cheers were given no less sincerely. Even without orchestrated cheering, the drama of the moment was real.”
On November 11, McClellan bade his men goodbye from the balcony of the Warren Green Hotel in Warrenton, Va.. A few hours later, McClellan boarded the train that would carry him north. It was at the depot that some of his most devoted followers made their wildest display yet.
McClellan disappeared inside the train car amid cheers and salutes from his men. Before the train could pull away, however, a crowd of soldiers “uncoupled the car, rolled it back, and seemed determined not to let him go,” army chaplain William Corby wrote.
“The moment was critical,” George Ticknor Curtis, a Democratic observer and historian recalled in 1880. “One word, one look of encouragement, the lifting of a finger [by McClellan] would have been a signal for revolt against lawful authority, the consequences of which no man can measure.”
It was McClellan’s final test. Whatever his personal feelings—about the administration, the war or his role in it—he would not permit mutiny to stain his legacy. The general reappeared to deliver a few final words to calm the men surrounding his train car. “Stand by General Burnside as you have stood by me, and all will be well.”
Offering their last salutes, they allowed his train to roll on. McClellan traveled quietly to Washington and changed trains for Trenton. He received a hero’s welcome in New Jersey, where, as directed, he waited for further orders. No orders would come, however. His career in the Union Army was effectively at an end.
THE ARMY of the Potomac, meanwhile, would not collapse under the weight of its own grief as so many had foretold. Most dutifully stood by Burnside, as McClellan had directed. But there remained a troublesome core of officers loyal to McClellan who—particularly after Burnside’s defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December—undermined him to such an extent that the general sent Lincoln a list of names for dismissal or transfer.
Lincoln opted to dismiss Burnside instead, replacing him with Hooker in January 1863.
Calls from McClellan’s devotees for his reinstatement—as well as errant rumors of his return—surfaced periodically for months to come.
He was derided by Lincoln and criticized by historians ever since for inaction on the battlefield, so it is perhaps an irony that George McClellan’s greatest service might have been his refusal to act when relieved from his post. McClellan would go on to lose the presidential race of 1864 by a whopping margin of 403,000 votes. But neither time nor political defeat would change his own view that he had done right by the army, and his country.
In the years that followed, his sentiments would reflect those he penned at the time he was sacked. “I have done the best I could for my country, to the last I have done my duty as I understand it,” he wrote that night to Mary Ellen, adding: “Our consolation must be that we have tried to do what was right; if we have failed, it was not our fault.”
Catherine Whittenburg has covered politics in Maryland, Florida and Washington, D.C. She now lives in her hometown of Williamsburg, Va.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.