George B. McClellan: Rockstar

On November 1st, 1861, Lincoln appointed a man named George B. McClellan as general-in-chief of all Union armies. Who was this man and how did he rise to power so quickly? The story of George B. McClellan is one of vast potential, unbridled hubris, and paranoia.

On November 1st, 1861, Lincoln appointed a man named George B. McClellan as general-in-chief of all Union armies. Who was this man and how did he rise to power so quickly? The story of George B. McClellan is one of vast potential, unbridled hubris, and paranoia.

To be fair to McClellan, I should have given him a nod back in July, but we’ve just had so much other Civil War content to cover that I’m a little late in introducing him. McClellan began his service in the Union army as a major general commanding Ohio’s volunteer army. McClellan first gained some notoriety after winning a series of skirmishes in West Virginia just as the main Union force was dealt a demoralizing blow at the First Battle of Bull Run. The timing could not have been more perfect for McClellan. Shortly after the battle, Lincoln summoned him to Washington to take command of the Union arm–which would later become the Army of the Potomac.

I like to think of the summer of 1861 as McClellan’s “rockstar days.” Newly arrived in Washington, he was very highly regarded by both the government and the public at large. He was seen as the man who would quickly, and decisively, put an end to the rebellion. But first, Lincoln needed him to whip the army into shape. According to John C. Waugh, author of “Lincoln and McClellan”, there was no man better suited for the job. In a recent lecture at the Virginia Historical Society, Waugh said:

“There could hardly have been a better choice of talent to do what had to be done at that moment–to drag a dispirited, scattered, defeated rabble of an army up from despair, reorganize it, and hammer it into a great fighting machine. In this, McClellan had no peer. No soldier in the army had a better grip or was better informed about military organization, strategy, and tactics – the science of war – than George McClellan. He soon proved to be a genius at the job.”

Of course, no one was more well aware of McClellan’s genius than McClellan himself. He had an ego that would make Kanye West blush. In Washington, he considered himself to be surrounded by inferior men, this included Lincoln. McClellan let his true feelings be known to his wife Nelly, to whom he wrote several letters to during the war. In the letters, he often praised his own greatness and excoriated Lincoln, his cabinet, other generals, and just about anyone who disagreed with him. The passage below gives you a good taste of McClellan’s hubris:

I find myself in a new and strange position here—Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me—by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. … I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me—but nothing of that kind would please me—therefore I won’t be Dictator. Admirable self-denial!
George B. McClellan, letter to Ellen, July 26, 1861

As Summer ended, Washington’s love affair with McClellan was starting to show signs of wear. McClellan, with little actual evidence, believed that a massive Confederate army awaited him just a short distance away in northern Virginia and presented a great risk to Washington. Even though most (including his superior, Gen. Winfield Scott) disagreed with his assessment, McClellan refused to budge until he felt his army was sufficient in both size, equipment, and training. In his VHS lecture, Waugh noted:

“Doubts that he intended to do anything at all soon began to permeate Washington and the entire Union. The wave of adulation that had buoyed him into Washington had greatly ebbed. And as week after week passed and his great army grew, he showed no sign or inclination to attack the enemy with it. Instead of taking it into battle, McClellan continued to build it, riding omnipresently among his men and holding spectacular parades and reviews.”

After several more disagreements with Scott, McClellan began actively campaigning to remove him from his position as general-in-chief. Scott, frustrated that McClellan would not divulge any of his war plans, finally decided to resign the position. Doubting McClellan’s ability to lead the Union army into battle, Lincoln gently told McClellan that he was concerned about whether he would be able to handle being both commander of the army and the general-in-chief. McClellan replied “I can do it all.”

Soon, McClellan’s hubris and insubordination reached new heights. On November 13th in a famous incident, Lincoln, his secretary John Hay, and Secretary of State William H. Seward called upon McClellan at his home. They were informed that he was at a wedding and would return shortly. Upon his arrival thirty minutes later, instead of greeting the president and his guests, McClellan went upstairs. Thirty more minutes later, the president was told the general had retired to bed for the evening. Hay and Seward were furious, but Lincoln forgave the snub.

While McClellan would only hold on to the title of general-in-chief for five months, he would remain a central figure in the war for the next year.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry.

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