George B McClellan – a summary

George B McClellan was another West Point graduate who went on to a successful military career.  He commanded a company of engineers in the Mexican-American War and was an engineering instructor at West Point.  He was often sent on scouting and exploration expeditions, including one journey into the wilderness to gather information that would be used to plan the transcontinental railroad.  He was part of a group sent to observe European armies.  He later wrote cavalry manuals and designed a saddle, both of which were adopted by the United States’ cavalry.

In 1857, McClellan resigned from the army to become chief engineer and vice-president of the Illinois Central Railroad as well as president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad in 1860.  He married Ellen Marcy in New York that same year.

McClellan was opposed to federal interference with slavery.  He was approached by colleagues to side with the Confederacy, but he disagreed with secession. He returned to the military and was involved in two conflicts that were minor, but drew enough attention to make him a national hero. (The photograph of McClellan was taken by Mathew Brady).

Army of the Potomac

He formed the Army of the Potomac and built defenses for Washington, DC, that were nearly impregnable.  They included 48 fortified positions with 480 guns manned by 7,200 artillerists.  He favored the Napoleonic style of campaigning which imposed minimal impact on the civilian population and would not require the emancipation of slaves.  This was one of many things that put McClellan at odds with Abraham Lincoln.

The two men did agree on one thing.  They opposed the Radical Republicans.

McClellan was also at odds with General Winfield Scott to the point Scott resigned to be replaced by McClellan as commander-in-chief of Union forces. But McClellan fell far short of Lincoln’s expectations, spending too much time planning and preparing to the point where the opportunity he was preparing for had passed by.  He was accused of not being aggressive enough on the battlefield.  McClellan and Lincoln’s dislike for one another didn’t help matters.  Finally, on March 11, 1862, McClellan was relieved as general-in-chief of the Union Army and given command of the Army of the Potomac.

He retained that command until after the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War.  When McClellan did not pursue Robert E Lee after the battle, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command.

In October of 1863, McClellan declared for president. He was nominated by the Democratic Party as their candidate for president, but lost to Lincoln by a vast margin.

George B McClellan resigned his military commission on Election Day, November 8, 1864.  After his electoral defeat to Lincoln, he took his family to Europe where they remained for several years.  He died 29 October 1885, aged 58, in Orange, New Jersey, having complained of chest pains for several weeks.

Kat Smutz

Read more about the Civil War in The American Civil War: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on Ulysses S GrantRobert E Lee and Winfield Scott.