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American Civil War: Major General George McClellan

"Little Mac"


American Civil War: Major General George McClellan

Major General George B. McClellan, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

George McClellan - Early Life

George Brinton McClellan was born December 23, 1826 in Philadelphia, PA. The third child of Dr. George McClellan and Elizabeth Brinton, McClellan briefly attended the University of Pennsylvania in 1840 before leaving to pursue legal studies. Bored with the law, McClellan elected to seek a military career two years later. With the aid of President John Tyler, McClellan received an appointment to West Point in 1842 despite being a year younger than the typical entry age of sixteen. In school, many of McClellan's close friends were from the South and would later become his adversaries during the Civil War.

George McClellan - Mexican-American War

Graduating second in his class in 1846, he was assigned to the Corps of Engineers and ordered to remain at West Point. This duty was brief as he was soon dispatched to the Rio Grande for service in the Mexican-American War. Arriving too late to take part in Major General Zachary Taylor's campaign, he was shifted south to join General Winfield Scott for the advance on Mexico City. Preforming reconnaissance missions for Scott, McClellan gained invaluable experience which would serve him later. As the war was brought to a successful conclusion, he also learned the value of balancing political and military affairs.

George McClellan - Interwar Years

Brevetted to first lieutenant for his service in Mexico, McClellan returned to a training role at West Point after the war. Settling into a series of peacetime assignments, he wrote several training manuals, aided in the construction of Fort Delaware, and took part in an expedition up the Red River. A skilled engineer, McClellan was later assigned to survey routes for the transcontinental railroad by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Becoming a favorite of Davis, he conducted an intelligence mission to Santo Domingo in 1854, before being promoted to captain the following year and posted to the 1st Cavalry Regiment.

Due to his language skills and political connections, this assignment was brief and later that year he was dispatched as an observer to the Crimean War. Returning in 1856, he wrote of his experiences and developed training manuals based on European practices. Also during this time, he designed the McClellan Saddle for use by the US Army. Electing to capitalize on his railroad knowledge, he resigned his commission on January 16, 1857 and became the chief engineer and vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1860, he also became the president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad.

George McClellan - Tensions Rise

Though a gifted railroad man, McClellan's primary interest remained the military and he considered returning the US Army and becoming a mercenary in support of Benito Juárez. Marrying Ellen Marcy on May 22, 1860, McClellan was an avid supporter of Democrat Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential election. With the election of Abraham Lincoln and the resulting Secession Crisis, McClellan was eagerly sought by several states to lead their militia. An opponent of federal interference with slavery, he was also quietly approached by the South.

George McClellan - Building an Army

Accepting Ohio's offer, McClellan was commissioned a major general of volunteers on April 23, 1861. In place four days, he wrote a detailed letter to Scott, now general-in-chief, outlining two plans for winning the war. Both were dismissed by Scott as unfeasible which led to tensions between the two men. McClellan re-entered federal service on May 3 and was named commander of the Department of the Ohio. Moving to occupy western Virginia to protect the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, he courted controversy by announcing that he would not interfere with slavery in the area.

Pushing through Grafton, McClellan won a series of small battles but began to display the cautious nature and unwillingness to fully commit his command to battle that would dog him later in the war. The only Union successes to date, McClellan was ordered to Washington by President Lincoln after the Union defeat at First Bull Run. Reaching the city on July 26, he was made commander of the Military District of the Potomac and immediately began assembling an army out of the units in the area. An adept organizer, he worked tirelessly to create the Army of the Potomac and cared deeply for the welfare of his men.

In addition, McClellan ordered an extensive series of fortifications constructed to protect the city from Confederate attack. Frequently butting heads with Scott regarding strategy, McClellan's insistence on not interfering with slavery drew ire from Congress and the White House. As the army grew, he became increasingly convinced that the Confederate forces opposing him in northern Virginia badly outnumbered him. By mid-August, he believed that enemy strength numbered around 150,000 when in fact it seldom exceeded 60,000.

George McClellan - To the Peninsula

In late October, the conflict between Scott and McClellan came to a head and the elderly general retired. As a result, McClellan was made general-in-chief, despite some misgivings from Lincoln. Increasingly secretive regarding his plans, McClellan openly disdained the president and weakened his position through frequent insubordination. Facing growing anger over his inaction, McClellan was called to the White House on January 12, 1862 to explain his campaign plans. At the meeting, he outlined a plan calling for the army to move down the Chesapeake to Urbanna on the Rappahannock River before marching to Richmond.

After several additional clashes with Lincoln over strategy, McClellan was forced to revise his plans when Confederate forces withdrew to a new line along the Rappahannock. His new plan called for landing at Fortress Monroe and advancing up the Peninsula to Richmond. Following the Confederate withdraw, he came under heavy criticism for allowing their escape and was removed as general-in-chief on March 11, 1862. Embarking six days later, the army began a slow movement to the Peninsula.

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