During the American Civil War, George Brinton McClellan twice served as the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac and briefly as the general-in-chief of all Union armies.
Born on December 3, 1826, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, George Brinton McClellan eventually became the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac and governor of New Jersey. His parents were Dr. George McClellan, an ophthalmologist and the founder of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and Elizabeth Steinmetz Brinton. McClellan had two brothers and two sisters. His parents emphasized the importance of education and enrolled George McClellan in the University of Pennsylvania in 1840. McClellan was only thirteen years of age. He initially expected to spend his adult life as a lawyer, but in 1842, he petitioned for admittance to the United States Military Academy at West Point. The institution accepted McClellan’s application, despite him being only fifteen years old when entrance requirements stated that candidates had to be at least sixteen years of age. McClellan’s father had lobbied President John Tyler on his son’s behalf, improving McClellan’s admittance chances. McClellan left the University of Pennsylvania, not graduating, and entered West Point.
McClellan graduated from West Point second in his class, out of fifty-nine cadets, in 1846. He was brevetted as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Corps of Engineers and was dispatched in October 1846 to join Zachary Taylor’s United States Army operating in northern Mexico during the Mexican-American War. McClellan contracted both malaria, which plagued him for the rest of his life, and dysentery, but he still performed bravely on the battlefield, participating in the Battles of Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. Officials first promoted him to first lieutenant and then to captain for his exploits.
Following the Mexican-American War, McClellan returned to West Point, where he taught cadets engineering. In 1851, authorities ordered him to Fort Delaware on the Delaware River to help construct the fortification. In March 1852, McClellan reported for duty at Fort Smith, Arkansas. While in this position, McClellan helped lead a party to find the source of the Red River. The following year, McClellan helped to identify a northern route for the Transcontinental Railroad. Authorities eventually selected a more southerly route.
Following this last expedition, McClellan returned to the vicinity of West Point, where he began to court Ellen Mary Marcy. Marcy had several suitors, including McClellan’s friend and future Confederate general, A.P. Hill. Hill proposed to Marcy in 1856, but the engagement came to a quick end after Marcy’s family objected to the relationship. In 1859, McClellan proposed to Marcy, and the couple wed on May 22, 1860 in Cavalry Church in New York City, New York. The McClellans eventually had two children, one son, George Brinton McClellan, Jr., and one daughter, Mary McClellan.
In June 1854, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis dispatched McClellan on a reconnaissance mission to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. At this time, many Americans believed that the United States of America should expand territorially, that God desired the United States to grow, that it was the nation’s Manifest Destiny, and McClellan’s assignment was to study the feasibility of an American takeover of the Dominican Republic. Later this same year, McClellan became a captain with the 1st Regiment of United States Cavalry. In 1855, he served as an observer of the Crimean War in Europe, and upon returning to the United States in 1856, McClellan developed a cavalry saddle, the “McClellan saddle,” which remained the official saddle of United States cavalry forces until the early twentieth century. He also wrote his own manual on cavalry tactics, which became standard reading for cavalry officers in the late 1850s.
On January 16, 1857, McClellan resigned from the military to engage in other economic pursuits, especially railroad operation. In this same year, he became vice president and chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1860, he accepted a position as president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. While a successful businessman, McClellan grew to dislike civilian life. During the late 1850s, he pondered returning to the military, and an opportunity arose for him to do so with the American Civil War’s outbreak in April 1861.
With the beginning of the conflict, government officials in the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York lobbied McClellan to assume command of the states’ militia forces. McClellan took command of the Ohio Militia on April 23, 1861. He remained in this position for just a short period of time, rejoining the United States Army on May 3, 1861 as the commander of the Department of Ohio. In this position, McClellan oversaw all federal forces in the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, western Pennsylvania, and western Virginia (modern-day West Virginia). On May 14, 1861, authorities promoted McClellan to the rank of major general.
In the early summer of 1861, McClellan led Union forces into western Virginia. His principal reason for this was Confederate threats against the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which passed through the region. This route provided Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, with easy access across the Appalachian Mountains to the Midwest. McClellan successfully defeated two Confederate forces, driving them from western Virginia. McClellan’s campaign was the only real Union military success in the first year of the war, prompting President Abraham Lincoln to issue General Orders, No. 94, on July 21, 1861, announcing that McClellan was replacing retiring General Winfield Scott as commander of the Army of the United States. Shortly after assuming command of this army, McClellan wrote his wife that,
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!
This self-inflated view had plagued McClellan throughout his earlier military career and would hamper his ability to lead during the Civil War. He routinely came into conflict with Lincoln and commonly refused to obey superiors’ orders. Regarding Lincoln, McClellan commonly called the commander-in-chief, "nothing more than a well-meaning baboon" or a "gorilla."
McClellan spent the remainder of 1861 and the first months of 1862 training the men that became the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln and many subsequent historians have criticized McClellan for his refusal to advance against the Confederates during this time, but McClellan realized that his army consisted primarily of untrained volunteers. McClellan decided to train the men, creating a capable and efficient military force. Despite McClellan’s refusal to advance, on November 1, 1861, Lincoln appointed him general-in-chief of all Union armies. Lincoln expressed concern to McClellan, wondering if the general could handle this additional responsibility. McClellan responded "I can do it all." After only a few months, however, on May 11, 1862 Lincoln stripped McClellan of the general-in-chief position, returning the general to only the command of the Army of the Potomac. The president wanted McClellan to focus his efforts on capturing of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Lincoln’s action further alienated McClellan.
In March 1862, after nearly nine months of inactivity, McClellan finally advanced from Washington, DC. He decided to transport the Army of the Potomac by ship to Fort Monroe in Virginia. McClellan preferred this maneuver over marching directly towards Richmond. He hoped that his army could march unopposed into Richmond, while the main Confederate army in Virginia remained at Manassas, approximately twenty-five miles from Washington. President Lincoln, however, was concerned about Washington’s safety and required McClellan to leave behind thousands of men under General Irvin McDowell to guard the nation’s capital. Upon arriving at Fort Monroe, McClellan embarked upon the Peninsula Campaign (March 1862-July 1862). He advanced slowly towards Richmond, believing that the Confederates in front of his army outnumbered the Army of the Potomac. In actuality, McClellan, at least initially, and more than three times the number of men as the Confederates. General Joseph Johnston, the Southern commander of soldiers at Manassas, quickly sent his army to defend Richmond. McClellan’s slowness advancing allowed Johnston ample time to complete his maneuver. Despite the arrival of Johnston’s men, McClellan still outnumbered the Confederates. In a series of engagements, known as the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25, 1862-July 1, 1862), Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee, who replaced Johnston after he was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31, 1862), drove McClellan and the Army of the Potomac back to Fort Monroe, bringing to an end McClellan’s unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign.
Following the Seven Days’ Battles, Lee advanced northward with his Army of Northern Virginia. He attacked John Pope’s Army of Virginia at the Battle of Second Bull Run (August 28-30, 1862), driving the Northern army from the battlefield. The Confederates then marched into Maryland, launching the Antietam Campaign and Lee’s first invasion of the North. President Lincoln recalled McClellan and his Army of the Potomac from Fort Monroe to deal with Lee’s advance.
McClellan responded decisively. The principal reason for this was due to McClellan receiving a copy of Lee’s orders that one the Confederate’s subordinates had lost. McClellan realized that Lee had divided his forces, and McClellan hoped to destroy the individual parts of the Army of Northern Virginia before they could be reunited. The major confrontation of Lee’s invasion occurred near Sharpsburg, Maryland along Antietam Creek. On September 17, 1862, McClellan attacked a portion of Lee’s army. During the course of the day, Lee’s divided army reunited on the battlefield and was able to fight McClellan and the Army of the Potomac to a draw. The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single-day engagement of the entire war, with both sides suffering a combined 23,000 casualties. While the battle was a draw, Lee withdrew from the battlefield, returning to Virginia.
Despite Antietam's outcome, President Lincoln still was disappointed in McClellan's performance, especially the general's slowness in advancing after Lee's retreating army. On November 5, 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order removing McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with Major General Ambrose Burnside. In a letter to his wife, McClellan wrote,
Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art. . . .I feel I have done all that can be asked in twice saving the country. . . .I feel some little pride in having, with a beaten & demoralized army, defeated Lee so utterly. . . .Well, one of these days history will I trust do me justice.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered McClellan to report to Trenton, New Jersey to await further orders. Stanton never sent additional orders, leaving McClellan without a command. The general spent his free time drafting a detailed report of the Peninsula and Antietam Campaigns, justifying his conduct in both events.
In 1864, the Democratic Party nominated McClellan as its presidential candidate. Like many Northerners, especially members of the Democratic Party, McClellan objected to a war to end slavery. During the Civil War, McClellan stated, "I will not fight for the abolitionists." After the conflict, he also wrote, "I confess to a prejudice in favor of my own race, & can't learn to like the odor of either Billy goats or niggers." Following the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that slavery would end in areas still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863. Lincoln hoped that Southerners would return to the United States of America, with this pledge by the federal government to allow slavery to still exist. If the Confederates did not rejoin the Union, Lincoln hoped that freeing the slaves would hurt the Southern war effort by denying the Rebels their slave workers. Lincoln also hoped that European countries, especially Great Britain and France, would stop sending aid to the Confederacy once the North made the war a conflict to end slavery. Many Northerners objected to the Emancipation Proclamation, believing that the freed African Americans would move from the South to the North, taking jobs and land away from working-class whites. McClellan echoed this view in the presidential campaign. He also promoted his war record as a reason for voters to elect him. Finally, McClellan also called for a continuation of the war, while the Democratic Party's official platform sought an immediate end to the war. The Democrats hoped that peaceful negotiations would reunite the nation, but if these failed, they contended that Southern states should be allowed to form a separate nation. Lincoln easily won reelection in 1864, receiving 212 Electoral College votes to McClellan's twenty-one. On election day--November 8, 1864--McClellan resigned from the United States Army.
After the election, in 1865, McClellan, his wife, and the couple's daughter embarked upon a tour of Europe, which lasted until 1868. McClellan's son was born in Germany on this trip. Upon returning to the United States, McClellan found employment as an engineer in New York City. In 1870, he became the chief engineer of the New York City Department of Docks. While holding this position, in 1872, McClellan also became the president of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. From 1873 to 1875, McClellan and his family returned to Europe. In 1877, New York Governor Lucius Robinson nominated McClellan as the state's first Superintendent of Public Works, but the New York Senate refused to approve the former general for the position, contending that he was "incompetent for the position." That same year, the Democratic Party nominated McClellan as the party's gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey. McClellan won the election, serving an undistinguished single term from 1878 to 1881.
McClellan died on October 29, 1885 in Orange, New Jersey. He is buried in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey.
Cite this Entry
"George Brinton McClellan," Ohio Civil War Central, 2016, Ohio Civil War Central. 28 Sep 2016 <http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=236>
"George Brinton McClellan." (2016) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 28, 2016, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=236
Lithograph of George B. McClellan, published by J.H. Bufford circa 1862.
- A.P. Hill
- Ambrose E. Burnside
- Army of Northern Virginia
- Army of the Potomac (USA)
- Army of Virginia
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Rich Mountain
- Battle of Seven Pines
- Edwin M. Stanton
- Emancipation Proclamation
- General Orders, No. 122 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 182 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 282 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 94 (U.S. War Department)
- Irvin McDowell
- Jefferson Davis
- John Pope
- Mexican-American War
- Peninsula Campaign
- Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
- President Lincoln's Executive Order Relieving General G. B. McClellan and Making Other Changes
- President's War Order No. 3
- Robert E. Lee