On this day in 1826, Union General George McClellan is born in Philadelphia. Although McClellan emerged early in the war as a Union hero, he failed to effectively prosecute the war in the East.
McClellan graduated from West Point in 1846, second in his class. He served with distinction in the Mexican War (1846-48) under General Winfield Scott, and continued in the military until 1857. After retiring from the service, McClellan served as president of the Illinois Central Railroad, where he became acquainted with Abraham Lincoln, who was then an attorney for the company.
When the Civil War began, McClellan was appointed major general in charge of the Ohio volunteers. In 1861, he commanded Union forces in western Virginia, where his reputation grew as the Yankees won many small battles and secured control of the region. Although many historians have argued that it was McClellan’s subordinates who deserved most of the credit, McClellan was elevated to commander of the main Union army in the East, the Army of the Potomac, following that army’s humiliating defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, Virginia.
McClellan took command in July 1861 and did an admirable job of building an effective force. He was elevated to general-in-chief of all Union armies when his commander during the Mexican War, Scott, retired at the end of October. McClellan was liked by his soldiers but was arrogant and contemptuous of President Lincoln and the Republican leaders in Congress. A staunch Democrat, he was opposed to attacking the institution of slavery as a war measure. While his work as an administrator earned high marks, his weakness was revealed when he took the field with his army in the spring of 1862. He lost to Robert E. Lee during the Seven Days Battles, and as a field commander he was sluggish, hesitant, and timid. Lincolnmoved most of McClellan’s command to John Pope, but Pope was beaten badly by Lee at the Second Battle of Bull Run. When Lee invaded Maryland in September 1862, Lincoln restored McClellan’s command. Though the president had grave misgivings about McClellan’s leadership, he wrote during the emergency that “we must use the tools we have…There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops into shape half as well as he.”
McClellan pursued Lee into western Maryland, and on September 17 the two armies fought to a standstill along Antietam Creek. Heavy loses forced Lee to return to Virginia, providing McClellan with a nominal victory. Shortly after the battle, Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation, which converted the war into a crusade against slavery, a measure bitterly criticized by McClellan. The general’s failure to pursue Lee into Virginia led Lincoln to order McClellan’s permanent removal in November.
The Democrats nominated McClellan for president in 1864. He ran against his old boss, but managed to garner only 21 of 233 electoral votes. After the war, he served as governor of New Jersey. McClellan died at age 58 on October 29, 1885, in Orange, New Jersey.