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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 456

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This is the grave of George McClellan.

Born in 1826 in Philadelphia, McClellan was a brilliant young child from a leading family. He started at the University of Pennsylvania in 1840 to study the law, but didn’t like it (he was just a kid after all!) and managed to transfer to West Point in 1842, even though he was not yet 16, the minimum age requirement. He finished second in his class and was commissioned in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1846, shortly after graduating, the U.S. decided to steal half of Mexico to expand slavery. Despite contracting malaria and missing a big chunk of the war due to illness, McClellan was a quick student of military tactics. Well connected (his father and Winfield Scott were good friends), he rose fast. He started getting assigned to reconnaissance missions for Scott. He came to disdain the politics of the military, especially volunteer politicians promoting their own political career through the military without engaging in the discipline it required to do well. He also worked to maintain good relationships with civilian populations, which makes sense but would later serve him very poorly.

After the war, McClellan was training other engineers at West Point, which he found boring. He was part of a mission to find the source of the Red River, during which rumors started that the entire mission had been wiped out by the Comanches and they were given up for dead, much to their surprise when they returned. Later in the 1850s, he was part of surveying parties for the eventuality of transcontinental railroads, working in Washington Territory. He was pretty close to Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, ardent slaver, expansionist, and future head of the project to commit treason in defense of slavery. Davis sent McClellan on a secret mission to Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) to inspect the nation’s defenses in the hope that the U.S. could annex it and expand slavery. Davis also began using his protege to move toward building a transcontinental railroad across the South to expand southern power over that of the North. That is what led the Pierce government to force Mexico to give up even more land in the Gadsden Purchase, though McClellan to my knowledge was not involved in that at all.

Being talented and well-connected, McClellan was chosen to the U.S. military observer for the Crimean War. He learned much, wrote reports, and designed what is known as the McClellan saddle, adopted from Hussars he observed in the war and which is still used today in military ceremonies. McClellan left the military in 1857 to go into private life as a railroad executive. He made a lot of money running railroads, but was bored and considering rejoining the army. He was a big supporter of Stephen Douglas, hated Republicans, and supported slavery, so he worked actively for Douglas in 1860.

Of course, when Lincoln won that year, the South committed treason in defense of slavery. Many of the top military officers did so as well. One of the problems the North faced in the war is that in the South, the best young men went into the military but in the North, the best young men went into business, leading to a lot of second-rate West Point graduates from that region. The two cultures simply had very different values on these issues. McClellan was an exception. And while we look today at Lincoln as a hero during his presidency, he was largely seen as a schmuck, a weird westerner who told long pointless stories and couldn’t win the war. People such as Seward and Chase were seen as the real players in Washington.

There was initially some question of what McClellan would do. Several large states immediately asked him to command their militia, but since his hatred of Republicans was so well known, the South also approached him about joining its cause. Secession was a step too far for him, but it’s telling that the idea was even considered possible. Winfield Scott was the commanding general of Union forces at first, but he was old and fat and that was not a tenable situation. After the loss at Manassas, Lincoln summoned McClellan from what is today West Virginia and placed him in command of the Army of the Potomac.

It is his problematic period as the nation’s commanding general that everyone knows him for. There are a number of issues to consider here. First, McClellan was excellent at professionalizing the military. He deserves credit for this. The rag-tag army had no idea what it was doing. Political appointees to high officer roles plagued the military throughout the war. Both the North and South had told itself that this would be a quick war with no real sacrifices and both were very, very wrong. McClellan helped alleviate at least some of these problems through his organizational genius, demand for more supplies, and emphasis on rigorous training.

On the other hand, McClellan had an ego the size of Russia. He literally believed that there was only one American who could save the Union and that was George McClellan. And for him, the nation needed saving from both secession and from Abraham Lincoln. He was determined to conduct a war that would not allow secession to succeed and would also do nothing to end slavery. One thing Grant understood immediately that McClellan never did was that the seceding officers were no longer his friends. They were the enemy. McClellan so sympathized with the South over slavery that he could not get past this, even as he disapproved of secession itself. Moreover, McClellan was far and away the most influential officer in the Union army, having acolytes of his own that he trained in both strategy and ideology. He also despised politicians of all stripes and constantly chafed at having to answer to Lincoln, who was commander-in-chief after all. Combined with an extremely cautious mentality to begin with and bad intelligence from Allan Pinkerton who vastly overestimated Robert E. Lee‘s forces, McClellan did little to end the war.

Lincoln saw the problems with McClellan pretty early on, but he had few options. First, McClellan was far more popular nationally than Lincoln and the latter knew this. He was the one who had to walk a narrow line, not McClellan. Second, who would he replace him with? It was a long journey to get to Grant, in no small part because Grant was a no one at the beginning of the war and also because the vast killings at Shiloh came at a point when the Union public had not yet accepted what this war was going to be about, making Grant seem like a butcher.

Over time, McClellan overplayed his hand; or rather, he underplayed his hand since he refused to fight. Very slowly, his political popularity began to slip, not that he could see it, so wrapped up was he in his own ego and in hating Lincoln. Scott and other generals expressed increasingly open frustration as his inactivity. Finally, Lincoln directly ordered him to attack Richmond. This led to the Peninsular Campaign. It failed, largely because McClellan held huge numbers of troops out of the fighting, refused to move quickly, and was easily fooled by diversionary tactics. Weather didn’t help and after the Seven Days Battles, he retreated. He blamed the Lincoln administration for all of it, writing to Edwin Stanton, “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.” That McClellan refused to name a second in command in case something happened to him and abandoned the army at key points in time really put the entire war effort at risk and several military historians have accused him directly of dereliction of duty.

In the aftermath of this disaster, Lincoln named Henry Halleck general-in-chief, but he wasn’t any good either. Lincoln wanted to give the Army of the Potomac to Ambrose Burnside, who refused the assignment. So he created the Army of Virginia and put it under John Pope, who was completely out of his element and got defeated at Second Manassas. So Lincoln felt he had no choice to return to McClellan, who had been sidelined as much as possible. But when Lee marched north into Maryland, culminating in Antietam, McClellan couldn’t even take advantage of one of the greatest blunders in the history of warfare in this country–Lee’s plans, wrapped around cigars, were discovering laying around in a camp. They were sent to McClellan, who now knew that Lee was dividing his army. McClellan claimed “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

Well, he wasn’t quite willing to go home, but he went home anyway, because while the Union did technically win at Antietam, it was no great victory as McClellan again refused to throw everything he had at Lee and then refused to chase him back into Virginia, preferring to allow his army to rest. He again showed massive incompetence in his military tactics. So Lincoln finally fired him and sent him to New Jersey to raise troops, adding insult to injury.

While McClellan did not actually resign from the military until Election Day, 1864, he spent the next two years angrily defending himself and planning his revenge. He wrote long reports defending himself that the War Department tried to squash. He also declared himself a Democrat and planned to run for president against Lincoln in 1864. For as terrible as McClellan was, both as a commanding general and as a politician, he still did not approve of treason. But in 1864, the Democratic Party was moving toward an open embrace of that. Clement Vallandigham after all had secured the nomination for governor of Ohio after having been evicted and deported for treason, running from Canada. The Peace Democrats–which wanted a peace that would allow the South to become its own nation–were in the ascendant, despite the fact that McClellan was the candidate as a War Democrat, but that was only because of who he was. The Democratic platform was openly for peace, as was the VP candidate, George Pendleton. McClellan did repudiate that part of the platform, but it is not a good campaign when you are running against your own party.

It’s worth remembering today that even with the South entirely out of the nation, just how strong even a Democratic Party openly flirting with treason was in 1864. Not only did Lincoln think he was going to lose until Sherman marched on Atlanta, but it really did take the soldiers’ vote to secure the election. Yes, Lincoln destroyed him in the Electoral College, but that consisted of a lot of very narrow wins in the states and McClellan still managed to win 45 percent of the popular vote. Again, the big difference in several states was the soldiers, who, even if they came from Democratic families who hated Lincoln, had now seen slavery up close and personal and were disgusted by it. Lincoln won the soldiers’ vote by a 3:1 ratio and that included 70 percent of the Army of the Potomac.

At this point, McClellan was still only 41 years old. What would this still incredibly ambitious man do? Well, he took his family to Europe for a three-year trip. Democrats thought about nominating him for president again in 1868, but that ended when Grant ran as a Republican and the idea of running McClellan against Grant was so absurd that the idea died. He returned to the U.S. in 1868 and ran railroads and lived the life of a rich guy. They all want back to Europe for another three-year trip in the 1870s. In 1877, the governor of New York nominated him to be Superintendent of Public Works, but the legislature rejected him as incompetent, which I think was much more about him than his competence. But New Jersey Democrats nominated him for governor in 1877 without even asking him about it. But he accepted and served one uneventful term. He really wanted Grover Cleveland to name him Secretary of War when Cleveland won the presidency in 1884, but his enemies made sure that did not happen. McClellan died of a heart attack in 1885, only 58 years old. Said the New York Evening Post in its obituary, “Probably no soldier who did so little fighting has ever had his qualities as a commander so minutely, and we may add, so fiercely discussed.” Ouch.

George McClellan is buried in Riverview Cemetery, Trenton, New Jersey. That tomb has moved more rapidly in the last century plus than the guy underneath it did after Antietam.

If you would like this series to visit more Civil War generals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Henry Halleck is in Brooklyn and John Pope is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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