Civil War Gen. George McClellan: Deemed a savior, then a failure
By Michael E. Ruane,
Well before dawn on Nov. 2, 1861, an elderly, white-haired general was driven in a carriage through the rain-lashed streets of Washington to the B&O railroad station near the Capitol.
He was a big man: 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. But he was so infirm that he couldn’t walk more than a few steps unaided and hadn’t been able to ride a horse in years. He had been an Army officer a half-century, a national hero and, once, a presidential candidate.
But at 75, he had been forced by circumstances to resign as the Army’s commanding general. And as he made his way to the waiting room, his handsome young replacement was splashing through the storm with his cavalry escort to bid the old man goodbye.
The farewell meeting that morning between the aged warhorse, Winfield Scott, and his former subordinate, the new national hero, Gen. George B. McClellan, 34, was one of the most poignant of the Civil War.
The two men, who had been feuding since McClellan’s summons to Washington in July, appeared to represent the old and the new, past and present, bygone glory and newfound hope in the current emergency.
Indeed, Scott’s fame stretched back to the War of 1812. But the martial saga of the “Young Napoleon,” as McClellan came to be called, was to last only a little over a year — his tenure in command marked by controversy, infighting and recrimination.
On that rainy Saturday, though — just six months into the war — silence fell over the waiting room when McClellan entered and sat down beside Scott.
McClellan had eased the tension with a conciliatory, and calculated, statement the day before calling Scott a hero. Scott offered best wishes to McClellan’s wife and new baby.
He then rose, shook hands and was helped to the luxury rail car that had been sent for him. McClellan rode back to his quarters and recounted the scene in a letter to his wife.
“It may be that at some distant day I too shall totter away from” Washington, he wrote, “a worn out old soldier. . . . Should I ever become vainglorious & ambitious remind me of that spectacle.”
An army in tatters
Exactly a month before, Scott, McClellan, President Abraham Lincoln and a parade of other dignitaries had attended the funeral at Congressional Cemetery of Gen. George C. Gibson, an old friend of Scott, who had died Sept. 30 at age 86.
There was much pomp as the body of Gibson, the oldest general in the army, was borne along Pennsylvania Avenue, escorted by infantry, cavalry and artillery.
But a newspaper correspondent in the crowd was disturbed by what he saw. “No part of the cortege was in full regulation uniform,” he wrote in the Washington Evening Star. “I doubt if there is such a thing in existence as a full regulation uniform.”
“The officers’ horses were not well-groomed or decently equipped,” the correspondent reported. One horseman “rode past with a parcel in a newspaper strapped behind his saddle.”
And elsewhere across the city, where the broken Union army was being reassembled, he found soldiers “most astonishingly shabby, careless and inexact in every respect.”
In the weeks after the North’s humiliating July 21 defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, its army was in a state of near collapse. The nation’s survival seemed to rest with McClellan.
The doctor’s son from Philadelphia had finished second in his class at West Point, and he had served under Scott in the Mexican War. He had been part of a small delegation sent to observe the Crimean War in the 1850s. And he had had some modest military success against the rebels in western Virginia.
He was cultured, smart and confident, and seemed to be a winner. Plus, he looked like a general. Dignified, with dark, carefully combed hair and a thick moustache, “he was built for riding a horse,” said biographer Stephen W. Sears. “He was a very good horseman. And he had very good horses.”
McClellan is one of the most fascinating figures in Civil War military history and perhaps one of the most thoroughly known.
Married just over a year when he took command, he wrote to his wife, Mary Ellen — “you, who share all my thoughts” — almost every day. His letters contained his most private musings and often-intemperate opinions, written in haste, anger and chronic exhaustion. They included things a man might only tell his spouse and would never want preserved for posterity.
But they were.
Although scholarship has periodically softened its view, McClellan is generally portrayed as one of the war’s great, failed generals — proud, sensitive, overwrought, tentative, quick to exult and to despair.
He opposed emancipation and had a strained relationship with Lincoln, privately calling him a “gorilla.”
His offensive against Richmond in spring 1862 was thrown back by the Confederates under Gen. Robert E. Lee, and he was shortly supplanted by a rival general, John Pope.
And his Antietam campaign the following September, after his reinstatement, is viewed by most historians as an anemic victory, at best, even though he had numerical superiority and a copy of the Confederate plans.
When Lincoln fired him for good after Antietam, his nemesis, Lee, wrote: “I hate to see McClellan go. He and I had grown to understand each other so well.”
Discipline and direction
McClellan arrived in Washington from Beverly, Va., on Friday, July 26, five days after the rout at Bull Run and four days after he had received a telegram from the Army’s adjutant general: “Come hither without delay.” The order most likely originated with Secretary of War Simon Cameron.
What he found on arrival was “chaos,” he recalled later.
“Not a regiment was properly encamped, not a single avenue of approach guarded,” he wrote. “The streets, hotels, and bar-rooms were filled with drunken officers and men absent from their regiments without leave — a perfect pandemonium.”
McClellan set about the task that became his chief contribution to victory: the construction of the force that would withstand incredible adversity and eventually destroy Lee’s storied Confederates.
On Aug. 20, he issued an order establishing the Army of the Potomac.
“My army,” he called it. He would be its parent, and its soldiers his children. He would build it out of “nothing” and come to love it so much he could not stand to see it injured.
“I ought to take good care of these men,” he wrote his wife later. “I believe they love me from the bottom of their hearts. I can see it in their faces when I pass among them.”
His first challenge was to get them into shape.
What he started with “could not properly be called an army,” he recalled. “It was only a collection of undisciplined, ill-officered and uninstructed men, who were, as a rule, much demoralized by defeat and ready to run at the first shot.”
He set up a provost guard of veteran army regulars and had them scour the bars and hotels for soldiers. Men were sent back to their camps and barred from Washington without a pass.
Mutinies in several regiments were put down and ringleaders sent to prison. Another regiment had its flag taken away.
“I rode everywhere and saw everything,” he recalled. “Not an entrenchment was commenced unless I . . . approved its site . . . almost every man in the army saw me at one time or another, and most of them became familiar with my face.”
In early August, he announced that he had cleaned up the District. “I have Washington perfectly quiet now,” he wrote.
It was not quite accurate, as subsequent news accounts would reveal. Still, he was the hero of the hour.
“By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land,” he wrote his wife July 27. “I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator. . . . But nothing of that kind would please me. Therefore I won’t be Dictator. Admirable self denial!”
He sensed that he was awfully young to have such weight on his shoulders. Three days later he went to the Senate on business and was mobbed by legislators.
“Half a dozen of the oldest made the remark . . . ‘Why how young you look — yet an old soldier!!’ ” he wrote his wife. “It seems to strike everybody that I am very young. . . . Who would have thought when we were married that I should so soon be called upon to save my country?”
To that end, he had much more work to do.
On Oct. 10, McClellan’s pronouncements to the contrary, a Washington Star subscriber complained to the editors about the ongoing depredations of Union soldiers.
“We in the District, where the soldiers are camped, are left to the uncontrolled lawless acts of an undisciplined mob,” the reader asserted. “Our places and grounds are run over, our property destroyed, our persons subjected to injury and abuse, our very lives threatened.”
There were other reports — of officers gallivanting around town in army ambulances, of drunkenness, of an accidental ammunition explosion outside the White House.
McClellan told his wife that some of his soldiers, “behaving most atrociously,” had even burned down houses. “I will hang or shoot any found guilty,” he wrote. “Such things disgrace us.”
But he also sought positive methods of cementing the army.
A major tool was the public review of troops. On his Crimean assignment, he had seen the stirring grand review of the French Imperial Guard, and he began to stage a series of such events in an around Washington.
The goal was for the men “to see each other, to give the troops an idea of their own strength, to infuse esprit de corps,” he wrote. Reviews also let the men see McClellan.
The biggest was the so-called Grand Review, held at Baileys Crossroads on Nov. 20, 1861. The president and, reportedly, 30,000 spectators streamed out of the city to watch 75,000 soldiers assembled in a vast semicircle on an open plateau.
McClellan arrived with a huge escort, and band, and was greeted with an artillery salute.
“As he rode along the line in review,” the Washington Star reported, the “cheers that were sent up from the seventy-five thousand throats of his army were nearly as deafening as the thunders of the artillery.”
The pageant went on for hours. There was a huge traffic jam as spectators made their way home and the rebels tried to disrupt things with some distant firing.
Among those headed back to town was the poet and essayist Julia Ward Howe, who was visiting Washington with her husband, the abolitionist physician Samuel Gridley Howe, and her minister, the Rev. James Freeman Clarke.
Crawling through the tangle of soldiers and carriages, the trio joined in singing the popular marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Clarke remarked that Mrs. Howe could surely write better lyrics.
She said she had wanted to.
The next morning about dawn, according to her reminiscences, she awoke in her room in Willard’s Hotel with new words forming in her mind. Lest she forget them, she got up and began to jot them down:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
He is trampling out the wine press, where the grapes of wrath are stored,
He hath loosed the fateful lightnings of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.
One Union general said McClellan’s army was born that day at Baileys Crossroads, according to U.S. Army historian Kim B. Holien.
With Mrs. Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” it now had its anthem.
This story was included in a Washington Post special section, “Ripples of War.” See more stories on the Civil War.