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George Brinton McClellan, one of the war’s more controversial figures, inspires markedly contradictory assessments of his personality and career. Book titles reflect the striking contrast of opinions. In 1957 Warren W. Hassler published General George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union, an admiring treatment that portrayed its subject as “not only a most able organizer, drillmaster, and disciplinarian” but also “a soldier of superior strategic and tactical ability as compared with many of the other prominent generals on both sides.” In contrast, four years ago Edward H. Bonekemper III offered McClellan and Failure: A Study of Civil War Fear, Incompetence and Worse, which suggested that Little Mac “has not yet received the ignominy that he so richly deserves.”

Careful studies by Stephen W. Sears, Joseph L. Harsh and Ethan S. Rafuse have occupied more moderate interpretive ground, conveying the complexity of the 35-year-old officer who found himself general-in-chief of all U.S. armies and commander of the republic’s largest and most important field force in the fall of 1861.

McClellan’s actions and words pose daunting obstacles to anyone hoping to reach unbiased conclusions. He repeatedly scorned his commander in chief, refused to respect Winfield Scott—a soldier far McClellan’s superior in every way—and exhibited unlovely ambition, narcissism and lack of self-awareness in stunning proportion. All these qualities were on display after Antietam, a hard-won victory that could have been much more decisive had McClellan proved willing to risk anything in pursuit of a much smaller and badly mauled Army of Northern Virginia.

Three days after the battle, McClellan sent a most revealing letter to his wife. “I feel some little pride,” he wrote with self-congratulatory understatement, “in having with a beaten and demoralized army defeated Lee so utterly, & saved the North so completely.” He then turned to characteristic whining about how others failed to appreciate his earlier service: “Well—one of these days history will I trust do me justice in deciding that it was not my fault that the campaign of the Peninsula was not successful.” As for the future, only recognition of his superior talents would redeem the republic. “The only safety for the country & for me” would be in getting rid of General in Chief Henry W. Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. “I am tired of fighting against such disadvantages,” he said in his best martyr’s tone, “& feel that it is now time for the country to come to my help, & remove these difficulties from my path….Thank Heaven for one thing—my military reputation is cleared—I have shown that I can fight battles & win them! I think my enemies are pretty effectively killed by this time! May they remain so!!”

The war, it seems from reading many such letters from McClellan’s pen, was really about allowing the long-suffering hero to win the conflict despite tormentors in the Lincoln administration and in the army’s hierarchy. The general would take comfort in knowing that some 21st-century authors and bloggers, quick to defend him against what they describe as small-minded critics, match his own soaring flights of self-congratulatory rhetoric, untethered to any reasonable assessment of historical evidence.

Yet it must be admitted that McClellan possessed formidable talents, rendered superior service to the nation and earned his soldiers’ love. He built the nation’s most important army from the wreckage of green units that had lost the First Battle of Bull Run, instilling a sense of pride in the men who would contest most of the conflict’s bloody battles. That he also compromised the Army of the Potomac’s performance by creating a culture of caution that persisted even after the advent of Ulysses S. Grant in the spring of 1864 should not diminish McClellan’s good work in the summer and fall of 1861.

The incredible bond between McClellan and his soldiers has always fascinated me. Only that between Lee and his soldiers exceeded it, I believe, and in the Army of Northern Virginia’s case Lee had earned his troops’ devotion with multiple victories against long odds. So why did the officers and men in the Army of the Potomac embrace their young commander enthusiastically and maintain their affection for so long? A crucial factor lay in a shared vision of the war’s overarching purpose. First to last, McClellan and the soldiers waged a war to smash the rebellion, restore the Union and protect it from future internal threats such as that posed by the secession crisis of 1860-1861.

The famous Harrison’s Landing letter that McClellan handed to Abraham Lincoln in July 1862 underscores this point. Dated July 7, 1862, it has provoked a good deal of criticism of McClellan because it seems to highlight his penchant for addressing political questions when he should have been smiting the Rebels militarily. A common argument is that after retreating unnecessarily following the Battle of Malvern Hill, McClellan sought to divert attention from his military failures by lecturing Lincoln on the issue of emancipation. The letter called for a restrained war that did not seek to destroy the slavery-based social structure of the Confederate states. “Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude,” McClellan argued, “either by supporting or impairing the authority of the master; except for repressing disorder as in other cases.” War should be waged for the sole purpose of restoring the Union—adding emancipation to the equation would be harmful. “A declaration of radical views,” insisted McClellan, “especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.”

Although McClellan exaggerated the degree to which emancipation would weaken the nation’s armies, he correctly gauged the sentiment of the vast majority of Federal soldiers—in July 1862 and throughout the conflict. Officers and rank-and-file formed a remarkably strong bond over the concept of Union. As McClellan noted in his farewell order to the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862, “We shall ever be comrades in supporting the Constitution of our country and the nationality of its people.”


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times