George Brinton McClellan (December 3, 1826 - October 29, 1885) was a Major General of the United States Army during the American Civil War. He played an important role in raising a well trained and organized army for the Union, but his leadership skills in battle were questioned, and he was accused of being incompetent and cowardly. While skilled in organization, he did not seem to have the decisive drive of a Lee, Grant or Sherman, willing to risk a major battle even when all preparations were not perfect. He also seemed never to grasp that he needed to maintain the trust of President Abraham Lincoln, but instead proved to be frustratingly insubordinant to his Commander in Chief.
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2 The Civil War
3 Civilian career
Born in Philadelphia, McClellan first attended the University of Pennsylvania, then transferred to West Point, graduating second in his class of 1846. Originally assigned to the engineers, he served under Winfield Scott in Mexico, then transferred to the cavalry in 1855.
Dispatched to study European armies, he observed the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. He then adapted a saddle used in Prussia and Hungary into the "McClellan Saddle," which became standard issue for as long as the U.S. horse cavalry existed. McClellan resigned his commission January 16, 1857, and got into the railroad business, becoming chief engineer of the Illinois Central and then the Ohio & Mississippi. He rejoined the military when war broke out in 1861, initially commanding the Ohio Militia. His first combat assignment was to occupy the area of western Virginia which wanted to remain in the Union and later became the state of West Virginia. He defeated there two small Confederate armies in 1861 and became famous throughout the country.
The Civil War
After the defeat of the Union forces at Bull Run in July 1861, Lincoln appointed McClellan commander of the Army of the Potomac (July 26), the main Union army located around Washington. He brought a much higher degree of organization to this army, and on November 1, 1861 he became supreme commander over all Union armies after General Winfield Scott's retirement. In late 1861 and early 1862 many became impatient with McClellan's slowness to attack while he insisted the troops were still not ready. Lincoln urged McClellan to attack and accepted (with some reluctance) McClellan's plan to advance on Richmond from the southeast after moving by sea to Fort Monroe, Virginia (a fort that stayed in Union hands when Virginia seceded). This campaign is known as the Peninsular Campaign. Lincoln removed McClellan from the supreme command of all Union armies in early 1862 while leaving him in command of the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan's advance up from Fort Monroe proved to be slow. He believed intelligence reports that credited the Confederates with two or three times the men they actually had. Critics of his slowness felt justified when some of the Confederate fortifications evacuated after McClellan took the time to bring up siege artillery against them proved to be lined with fake cannons. The Confederates also exploited McClellan's caution by marching a group of men over and over again past places where they could be observed, to give the impression of a long line of troops arriving.
McClellan came within a few miles of Richmond, Virginia in June 1862, and his army repelled an attack at Seven Pines. Confederate commander Joseph Johnston was wounded in this battle, and Jefferson Davis named Robert E. Lee commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee ordered a series of attacks in the Seven Days Campaign. While these attacks failed to attain Lee's goal of crushing McClellan's army, they convinced McClellan to move his army further from Richmond to a base on the James River. In a telegram reporting on these events, McClellan accused Lincoln of doing his best to see that the army of the Potomac was sacrificed, a comment that Lincoln never saw (at least at that time) because it was censored by the War Department telegrapher.
Urged to remove McClellan from command, Lincoln compromised by taking some of McClellan's men and some newly organized units to create the Army of Virginia under John Pope, who was to advance towards Richmond from the northeast. Pope was beaten spectacularly by Lee at Second Bull Run in August.
Lee then advanced into Maryland, hoping to arouse pro-Southern sympathy since Maryland was a slave state. Lincoln then restored Pope's army to McClellan on September 2, 1862, who even after obtaining a copy of Lee's orders dividing his forces, did not move swiftly enough to encounter the Confederates before they were reunited. At the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, McClellan attacked Lee. Lee's army while outnumbered was not decisively defeated, because the Union forces did not manage to attack together and because McClellan held back a large reserve.
After the battle, Lee retreated back into Virginia. When McClellan failed to pursue Lee aggressively after Antietam, he was removed from command on November 5 and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside on November 9. He was never given another command.
McClellan generally had very good relations with his troops. It has been suggested that his reluctance to enter battle was caused in part by an insistent desire to spare them, to the point of failing to take the initiative against the enemy and therefore passing up good opportunities for decisive victories which could have ended the war early and thereby could have spared thousands of soldiers who died in those subsequent battles.
McClellan would go on to run against Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 U.S. presidential election. In the summer of 1864 Lincoln feared that he would lose the election because of weariness with the war, as Grant appeared deadlocked with Lee in Virginia. Sherman's capture of Atlanta, Georgia and Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah valley dispelled much of this weariness and Lincoln won the election handily. While McClellan was highly popular among the troops when he was commander, it appears that they voted for Lincoln over McClellan in greater proportion than the general population.
McClellan would later become Governor of New Jersey, serving from 1878 to 1881. He died in 1885 at Orange, New Jersey, and is buried at Riverview Cemetery in Trenton.
His son, George Brinton McClellan, Jr., (November 23, 1865-November 30, 1940) served as Mayor of New York City from 1904 to 1909.