Ego, inflexibility and inactivity defined ‘Little Mac’ in the governor’s office just as they had on the battlefield.
In a conflict that features numerous examples of men who acted contrary to their past natures, there is perhaps no more enigmatic figure in the Civil War than Union commander George Brinton McClellan. Was he, as some historians feel, a brilliant man, one whom life had carefully prepared for greatness? Did he, as biographer Warren W. Hassler Jr. argues, protect the nation during the dark, early days of the rebellion, when the Federal Army was in shambles and the Rebels were ready to pounce? According to Hassler, McClellan was a fabulous general who reacted appropriately and positively to every military threat he faced, only to fall victim to Machiavellian political intrigues stirred up by Radical Republicans, especially Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Major General John Pope. McClellan’s “achievements had been substantial—some masterful,” concludes Hassler.
Or was McClellan, despite his superior résumé, as history often portrays him: a man too cautious and too slow to react against an aggressive foe like Robert E. Lee? Did “Little Mac” have deep character flaws that conspired against him? “Whenever George McClellan found events turning against him…he fell back on the rationalization that he had not sought his role…and not being responsible, he was not to blame,” writes Stephen Sears. In Sears’ view, McClellan’s inflexible and rigid thought patterns doomed him to also-ran status as a general. When faced with the unexpected—and Lee was a master of the unexpected—Little Mac invariably came up short because he could not think outside the box.
Even those who have some kind things to say about McClellan, such as Bruce Catton and James McPherson, also find plenty of room for criticism of him. Catton, like many other Civil War writers and historians, faults McClellan for the frequent delays that turned his tenure as Union commander into a hurry-up-and-wait affair. “He was always going to make his big move in just two or three more days…the two or three days would pass…but nothing would happen,” says Catton. “Never could he bring himself to the point of action.”
McPherson was tougher on Little Mac, calling into question the general’s ability to face war’s one overriding fact: All armies, no matter how well-crafted, are both engines and targets of destruction. “He lacked the mental and moral courage required of great generals—the will to act, to confront the terrible moment of truth on the battlefield,” McPherson asserts. It is the “cautious McClellan” argument again, but this time illuminated by a harsher light.
The same types of conflicting statements are made about McClellan’s single term as governor of New Jersey from 1878-81. Some consider him a giant as the state’s chief executive—a principled, visionary leader who advanced ideas and achieved things that ordinary men just could not fathom at that time. Others, however, consider him a lightweight as governor—an indifferent, dilatory and headstrong leader whose greatest problem was progress.
The similarities between Little Mac’s tenure as New Jersey’s governor and his tenures as the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac (as well as his brief service as commander in chief) are remarkably similar. The only thing that can be said with certainty about his term as New Jersey’s governor is that, like his time with the Union Army, George McClellan was an able administrator.
McClellan plunged into politics in 1864, running for president on the Democratic ticket against Republican Abraham Lincoln that year. Winning just three states (New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky) and 21 electoral votes, McClellan suffered an overwhelming loss—which was exacerbated by the fact that Lincoln received 78 percent of the ballots cast by soldiers in the field. The old general had been abandoned by his troops. “I can imagine no combination of circumstances that will draw me into public life again,” he told his mother after his bruising defeat.
After that election, McClellan largely remained out of the public spotlight. He spent much of his time living in a home he built called Maywood (after his daughter) on Orange Mountain in Essex County, N.J. He traveled abroad, engaged in various business ventures and, in general, seemed like the classic old soldier fading out of the spotlight.
The event that drew him back into the political arena was the presidential election of 1876. Standing with the national election of 2000 as one of the most disputed of all time, the 1876 tally had Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden winning the popular vote but losing the electoral vote by one (185 to 184) to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes because of some highly questionable actions in three disputed states. McClellan, who had actively campaigned for Tilden, was roused to action against what he saw as the Republicans’ use of fraud, force and dishonesty to remain in power. “Any opposition to that [Tilden being declared the winner] must be forcible & revolutionary, & must be met with force,” he said, demonstrating his zeal on the matter. Although he ultimately took no action when Hayes was declared the winner, it was obvious that McClellan had reemerged as a leading force in the Democratic Party, particularly in New Jersey, where he enjoyed a reputation as one of the state’s leading citizens. Thus he was in a prime position to become a leading player in the political drama about to unfold.
When McClellan was named head of the Division of the Potomac after Irwin McDowell’s defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, he was heralded as the hero of the Union. His praises were widely sung, and it was generally agreed that he was the man who would put right all that had gone awry with the Federal war effort, a commanding figure who could unite the dispirited troops and lead them to victory. “By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land,” he said of that enchanted time early in his tenure when he basked in popular acclaim.
His nomination as the gubernatorial candidate of the New Jersey Democratic Party in 1877 was reminiscent of those early, heady days at the helm of the Union Army. The state party seemed poised to tear itself apart with an orgy of infighting. Two leading Democrats, Leon Abbett and Orestes Cleveland, were vying for the nomination. Abbett had almost become the candidate previously, and was determined this time to take the prize. But Cleveland did not like Abbett and was just as determined to stop him. He had a strategy in place to do just that.
Three years earlier, as a delegate to the New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial convention in 1874, Cleveland had seen firsthand how the mistaken notion that McClellan had been announced as a candidate had greatly aroused the delegates. Men cheered and hollered until the mistake was realized. Now Cleveland was ready to make that fortuitous error pay off.
Cleveland and other key Democrats met before the 1877 New Jersey State Democratic Convention to try and derail Abbett’s nomination. Cleveland presented McClellan (possibly without the general’s knowledge) as the one man who could stop his rival. The idea quickly met with enthusiasm, and a secret plan was devised to nominate Little Mac.
On nomination day at the Democratic convention all was chaos and confusion. At least nine names were announced, and the mood of many delegates in the hall was probably akin to Horace Greeley’s after news of Bull Run: “On every brow sits sullen, scorching, black despair….” But just when all hope seemed lost, a reedy voice piped up from somewhere on the convention floor and said what everyone was thinking: that with so many candidates, it would be impossible for the party to unite on any one of them. Swiftly the man proceeded to extol the virtues of a great unnominated Democrat who also happened to be a war hero and New Jersey citizen. Only he, the speaker implied, could prevent the party from imploding.
This was the lifeline that the delegates had been seeking. With cries of “name him” coming from all corners of the room, the reedy voice piped up again: “I name him—I name George B. McClellan of Essex!”
On cue, as befit a carefully managed production, many convention delegates broke into wild applause. Even Abbett’s supporters were swept up in the heat of the moment and began cheering. Shortly thereafter a vote was taken to make McClellan’s nomination unanimous. Once again, by wide popular acclaim, McClellan was selected to save the day.
George McClellan won election as the governor of New Jersey in what was then considered a landslide (12,000 votes). His dominating victory swept Democrats into power in both houses (Assembly and Senate) of the New Jersey Legislature for the first time in almost 10 years. So many people tried to attend his inauguration in January 1878 that the proceedings had to be moved outside. If ever there was a popular mandate, McClellan had it—just as he had early in his career as head of the Army of the Potomac.
But again, in circumstances remarkably similar to those of his days as commanding general, McClellan proceeded to squander all the goodwill he had accumulated. Politics was a curious profession for one who had such a loathing of politicians. From his earliest days in the U.S. Army, when he had bitterly criticized President James K. Polk for failing to vigorously prosecute the Mexican War, to his presidential campaign against Abraham Lincoln, McClellan simply had no tolerance of or sympathy for the political game and the individuals who played it.
“Don’t send any politicians out here—I’ll snub them if they come—confound them!” he once pleaded from his Orange Mountain hideaway. Thus McClellan was ill-prepared to deal with the flood of politicians who besieged him during the first few months of his administration, seeking the one constant in 19th-century politics: patronage. A few years before, the assassination of President James A. Garfield had unleashed an overwhelming cry to regulate civil service positions. It was expected that victorious Democrats would throw Republicans out of plum jobs, and vice versa.
McClellan would tolerate none of that. He resisted and rejected several candidates proposed for jobs, especially those advanced by state senators. Not surprisingly, McClellan succeeded in alienating the Senate. Assembly Democrats quickly moved to embrace the spoils of victory— namely, rewarding themselves and punishing their enemies— but found the governor as intractable a foe to them as he had been to the Senate.
Specifically, Assembly Democrats pushed several bills that would have done much toward keeping Democrats in power for many years to come in New Jersey. One bill gerrymandered election districts in the Democrats’ favor, while another disenfranchised college students, who usually voted Republican.
McClellan slapped down these naked power grabs as surely as a mother slaps down the hand of a child reaching for a pie cooling on the windowsill. Did he see similarities in these overt political maneuvers by New Jersey Democrats to the controversial presidential election of 1876, when it had seemed to him as if Republicans would use any and all means to stay in power?
Harkening even further back, did Little Mac view these Democratic efforts as similar to how the Lincoln administration politicized (in his view) the Civil War by expanding its aims to include the controversial issue of immediate abolition of slavery in addition to the goal of reunification? He apparently felt that a civil war was a contest for the minds of a whole people; did he believe that by blatantly vetoing partisan bills he would win the minds of the New Jersey populace for both himself and the Democrats?
If so, the people of the state were unimpressed. New Jersey voters were so dismayed by the gridlock and infighting in Trenton that they ejected the Democrats from power in subsequent elections, putting Republican majorities in control of both legislative houses in 1879 and 1880. This, of course, did McClellan little good either, for the Republicans quickly assumed an opposition role. The result was a governor at odds with the legislature during his entire term, no matter which party was in control.
Throughout it all McClellan largely kept his own counsel. He did not build a power base, nor did he try to wheedle and cajole other politicos to get his way. In modern parlance, it was his way or the highway. Consensus building, which practically defines politics, was not for McClellan.
In this there were certainly echoes of his refusal to take any of his superiors into his confidence when he was commanding the Army of the Potomac. “The General’s single mistake, that was the source of all his misfortunes, was his distrust of Lincoln,” wrote newspaper editor Alexander K. McClure years after the war. Braced with the knowledge that he knew best, he kept potential allies like Lincoln at arm’s length during his time as Union commander, tightly guarding the details of his plans.
Eventually McClellan became an island unto himself, clinging to his notions and ideas with an almost fanatical fervor, unwilling to share his thoughts with subordinates and extremely reluctant to consider the other side of any equation. Ultimately this reluctance to confide in others played a major part in McClellan’s loss of favor and downfall as Union commander. He had alienated everyone who could have helped him. Thus there was no one to rise to his defense when Lincoln tired of trying “to bore with an auger too dull to take hold” and decided to dismiss him.
McClellan was clearly none the wiser during his tenure as governor. His refusal to cultivate friendships or relationships among leading New Jersey politicians or at least try to win support for programs doomed him to primarily operating alone.
However, some important developments did come out of McClellan’s years as governor. The most substantial, and perhaps the most often overlooked, was the fact that he ran a clean, scandal-free administration. This was no mean feat in the rough-and-tumble world of late 19th-century politics. (Perhaps Little Mac was onto something with his dislike of politicians.) What makes the lack of impropriety even more noteworthy was that it occurred in a state with a long history of government corruption.
McClellan took a keen interest in the condition of the New Jersey National Guard and helped modernize the guard’s equipment, improve its organization and increase its size. He also recognized the necessity of tax relief to a populace still suffering from the economic panic of 1873 and consistently advocated caution in state expenditures, so that the state tax (an assessment to help pay government expenses) could be kept low. He was so successful in this that he was able to press for the tax to be abolished in 1880.
McClellan also lobbied for better education. He decried the unemployment that existed in the midst of a statewide skilled labor shortage, and called for the creation of state-assisted schools to help train young people to work in various industries. In the best spirit of modern politics, however, he did not make any offer to pay for his proposal.
But in general, little of either innovation or perspiration resulted from McClellan’s term as New Jersey governor. The issues he chose to champion were ones that most voters could agree upon. Bold, daring moves like taxing railroads or reining in the growing political power of corporations were not for him.
In that cautious approach to government is the final echo from McClellan’s time as Union commander. While in charge of the Army of the Potomac he proved to be very good at the ordinary: instilling better discipline, for example, and reorganization. Where he failed as a commander was when bold, decisive action was needed.
McClellan’s initial inaction, for instance, after the discovery of what are generally referred to as Lee’s Lost Orders preceding the Battle of Antietam, was typical of his mind-set. A more daring commander might have seized that heaven-sent opportunity, moved quickly against the vulnerable scattered pieces of Lee’s army on the critically wasted day of September 16, and won a resounding victory that could have considerably shortened the war. But McClellan was not that daring commander. “Military success could be achieved only by taking risks,” notes McPherson. “McClellan seemed to shrink from the prospect.”
McClellan stayed true to form during his tenure as New Jersey’s governor. “He made little effort to exert an active influence on the deliberations of the legislature,” says New Jersey gubernatorial historian Jerome C. Reddy. The man who came charging into the governor’s chair accompanied by the shouts of his many constituents left it to the whispers of a die-hard few.
When his term of office expired in 1881, McClellan retired to private life. He apparently had not enjoyed his time as New Jersey’s chief executive, writing that he had found it “a nuisance to be obliged to go to Trenton in all matters.” He died at his home in Essex County on October 29, 1885, and is buried at Trenton’s Riverview Cemetery.
McClellan supporters say that he was an honest, principled man who refused to dirty himself in the mud of 19th-century politics by trading political favors and phony backslapping. While there is a lot of truth in this, the sad fact is politics at that time was not a business for the rigidly principled. To be successful at it one had to get down into the dirt of deal making.
McClellan stayed above all that. His administration is generally considered a competent but undistinguished effort. The same can be said for his tenure as commanding general. Though Hassler, a strong McClellan supporter, feels that he grew immeasurably in stature as Union commander as time went on, the opposite viewpoint is held by Sears, who charges that a central flaw in McClellan’s military character was a failure to grow as a commander. “The general he was on his first campaigns was as good a general as he ever became,” Sears says.
McClellan’s detractors may be right again when it comes to the New Jersey gubernatorial office. He was as good a politician in 1861 as he was in 1881. It is easy to surmise that had he lived to take another political office, he would have performed in the same cautious and predictable style. He never figured out how to play the game. He did not grow or learn from his previous forays into politics or contact with politicians. He was the same stiff, unyielding person in 1881 that he had been 20 years earlier, convinced of the correctness of his ways and determined to stick by them no matter the consequences.
Did McClellan’s principles rule him to the point of inflexibility, or did his inflexibility dictate his principles? The historical debate rages on. If, as historian Henry Brooks Adams said, “all experience is an arch, to build upon,” then it is sadly ironic that such a brilliant engineer as George Brinton McClellan never appreciated the benefits of constructing the present by using building blocks from the past.
Russell Roberts writes from Bordentown, N.J. For additional reading, see George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, by Stephen W. Sears.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.