George McClellan, a senior Union general during the American Civil War, was the son of a surgeon, was born in Philadelphia on 3rd December, 1826. McClellan was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where in 1846 he graduated second in his class.

McClellan was appointed to the staff of General Winfield Scott during the Mexican War (1846-48) and won three brevets for gallant conduct. He taught military engineering at West Point (1848-51). In 1855 McClellan was sent to observe the Crimean War in order to obtain the latest information on European warfare.

McClellan left the United States Army in 1857 to become chief of engineering for the Illinois Central Railroad where he became acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, the company’s attorney. In 1860 McClellan became president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad.

Although McClellan was a member of the Democratic Party he offered his services to President Abraham Lincoln on the outbreak of the American Civil War. He was placed in command of the Department of the Ohio with responsibility for holding the western area of Virginia. He did this successfully and after the Union Army was defeated by the Confederate Army at Bull Run, Lincoln appointed McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan insisted that his army should undertake any new offensives until his new troops were fully trained.

In November, 1861 McClellan, who was only 34 years old, was made commander in chief of the Union Army. He developed a strategy to defeat the Confederate Army that included an army of 273,000 men. His plan was to invade Virginia from the sea and to seize Richmond and the other major cities in the South. McClellan believed that to keep resistance to a minimum, it should be made clear that the Union forces would not interfere with slavery and would help put down any slave insurrections.

McClellan appointed Allan Pinkerton to employ his agents to spy on the Confederate Army. His reports exaggerated the size of the enemy and McClellan was unwilling to launch an attack until he had more soldiers available. Under pressure from Radical Republicans in Congress, Abraham Lincoln decided in January 1862, to appoint Edwin M. Stanton as his new Secretary of War.

Soon after this appointment Abraham Lincoln ordered McClellan to appear before a committee investigating the way the war was being fought. On 15th January, 1862, McClellan had to face the hostile questioning of Benjamin Wade and Zachariah Chandler. Wade asked McClellan why he was refusing to attack the Confederate Army. He replied that he had to prepare the proper routes of retreat. Chandler then said: “General McClellan, if I understand you correctly, before you strike at the rebels you want to be sure of plenty of room so that you can run in case they strike back.” Wade added “Or in case you get scared”. After McClellan left the room, Wade and Chandler came to the conclusion that McClellan was guilty of “infernal, unmitigated cowardice”.

As a result of this meeting Abraham Lincoln decided he must find a way to force McClellan into action. On 31st January he issued General War Order Number One. This ordered McClellan to begin the offensive against the enemy before the 22nd February. Lincoln also insisted on being consulted about McClellan’s military plans. Lincoln disagreed with McClellan’s desire to attack Richmond from the east. Lincoln only gave in when the division commanders voted 8 to 4 in favour of McClellan’s strategy. However, Lincoln no longer had confidence in McClellan and removed him from supreme command of the Union Army. He also insisted that McClellan left 30,000 men behind to defend Washington.

During the summer of 1862, McClellan and the Army of the Potomac, took part in what became known as the Peninsular Campaign. The main objective was to capture Richmond, the base of the Confederate government. McClellan and his 115,000 troops encountered the Confederate Army at Williamsburg on 5th May. After a brief battle the Confederate forces retreated South.

McClellan moved his troops into the Shenandoah Valley and along with John C. Fremont, Irvin McDowell and Nathaniel Banks surrounded Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and his 17,000 man army. First Jackson attacked John C. Fremont at Cross Keys before turning on Irvin McDowell at Port Republic. Jackson then rushed his troops east to join up with Joseph E. Johnston and the Confederate forces fighting McClellan in the suburbs the city.


General Joseph E. Johnston with some 41,800 men counter-attacked McClellan’s slightly larger army at Fair Oaks. The Union Army lost 5,031 men and the Confederate Army 6,134. Johnson was badly wounded during the battle and General Robert E. Lee now took command of the Confederate forces.

Major General John Pope, the commander of the new Army of Virginia, was instructed to move east to Blue Ridge Mountains towards Charlottesville. It was hoped that this move would help McClellan by drawing Robert E. Lee away from defending Richmond. Lee’s 80,000 troops were now faced with the prospect of fighting two large armies: McClellan (90,000) and Pope (50,000)

Joined by Thomas Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate troops constantly attacked McClellan and on 27th June they broke through at Gaines Mill. Convinced he was outnumbered, McClellan retreated to James River. Abraham Lincoln, frustrated by McClellan’s lack of success, sent in Major General John Pope, but he was easily beaten back by Jackson.

McClellan wrote to Abraham Lincoln complaining that a lack of resources was making it impossible to defeat the Confederate forces. He also made it clear that he was unwilling to employ tactics that would result in heavy casualties. He claimed that “ever poor fellow that is killed or wounded almost haunts me!” On 1st July, 1862, McClellan and Lincoln met at Harrison Landing. McClellan once again insisted that the war should be waged against the Confederate Army and not slavery.

Salmon Chase (Secretary of the Treasury), Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War) and vice president Hannibal Hamlin, who were all strong opponents of slavery, led the campaign to have McClellan sacked. Unwilling to do this, Abraham Lincoln decided to put McClellan in charge of all forces in the Washington area.

After the second battle of Bull Run, General Robert E. Lee decided to invade Maryland and Pennsylvania. On 10th September, 1862, he sent Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson to capture the Union Army garrison at Harper’s Ferry and moved the rest of his troops to Antietam Creek. When McClellan heard that the Confederate Army had been divided, he decided to attack Lee. However, the Harper’s Ferry garrison surrendered on 15th September and some of the men were able to rejoin Lee.

On the morning of 17th September 1862, McClellan and Major General Ambrose Burnside attacked Robert E. Lee at Antietam. The Union Army had over 75,300 troops against 37,330 Confederate soldiers. Lee held out until Ambrose Hill and reinforcements arrived from Harper’s Ferry. The following day Lee and his army crossed the Potomac into Virginia unhindered.

It was the most costly day of the war with the Union Army having 2,108 killed, 9,549 wounded and 753 missing. The Confederate Army had 2,700 killed, 9,024 wounded and 2,000 missing. As a result of being unable to achieve a decisive victory at Antietam, Abraham Lincoln postponed the attempt to capture Richmond. Lincoln was also angry that McClellan with his superior forces had not pursued Robert E. Lee across the Potomac

Abraham Lincoln now wanted McClellan to go on the offensive against the Confederate Army. However, McClellan refused to move, complaining that he needed fresh horses. Radical Republicans now began to openly question McClellan’s loyalty. “Could the commander be loyal who had opposed all previous forward movements, and only made this advance after the enemy had been evacuated” wrote George W. Julian. Whereas William P. Fessenden came to the conclusion that McClellan was “utterly unfit for his position”.

Frustrated by McClellan unwillingness to attack, Abraham Lincoln recalled him to Washington with the words: “My dear McClellan: If you don’t want to use the Army I should like to borrow it for a while.” On 7th November Lincoln removed McClellan from all commands and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside.

In 1864 stories began to circulate that McClellan was seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Worried by the prospect of competing with the former head of the Union Army, it is claimed that Lincoln offered McClellan a new command in Virginia. McClellan refused and accepted the nomination. In an attempt to obtain unity, Lincoln named a Southern Democrat, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, as his running mate.

During the campaign McClellan declared the war a “failure” and urged “immediate efforts for a cessation of hostilities, with a view to an ultimate convention of the states, or other peaceable means, to the end that peace may be restored on the basis of the federal Union of the States”. However, McClellan added that this could happen when “our adversaries are willing to negotiate upon the basis of reunion.” McClellan made it clear that he disliked slavery because it weakened the country but he opposed “forcible abolition as an object of the war or a necessary condition of peace and reunion.”

The victories of Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, George Meade, Philip Sheridan and George H. Thomas in the summer of 1864 reinforced the idea that the Union Army was close to bringing the war to an end. This helped Lincoln’s presidential campaign and with 2,216,067 votes, comfortably beat McClellan (1,808,725) in the election. McClellan carried only Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey.

After the war McClellan he spent time in Europe before returning to serve as chief engineer of the New York Department of Docks (1870-72) and in 1872 became president of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. He also served as governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881. George McClellan died on 29th October, 1885, in Orange, New Jersey.

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