Share This Article

Failed Expectation

The Civil War dashed many expectations, and the image on this page mocks two such instances: Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and the ironclad Galena. “Little Mac” was the West Point–trained exemplar of an American military man who was supposed to lead his massive Army of the Potomac to victory on the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862, and Galena was the amazing new ironclad that was supposed to help him.

Instead, McClellan got shoved back down the Peninsula by an aggressive Confederate army, and eagle-eyed gunners at Drewry’s Bluff shot up Galena on May 15 (p. 40). During the subsequent engagement at Glendale (p. 14), McClellan was actually on the ship, watching the battle unfold. By the time this cartoon appeared in Northern newspapers, the Army of the Potomac was cooling its heels near Malvern Hill and both the general and the vessel had been united as objects of derision, with the commander saying, “Fight on my brave Soldiers and push the enemy to the wall, from this spanker boom your beloved General looks down upon you.”

Numerous theories have been put forth for McClellan’s failure on the Peninsula. Perhaps, in part, McClellan was suffering from the effects of another failed set of expectations—that the war would be relatively bloodless. After one engagement, he wrote his wife, “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded!”

The war’s bloodlust was only beginning, however, and long casualty lists would become the norm, changing forever Ameri­cans’ views of war. The unexpected had become the expected.