In certain circles, the name “George B. McClellan” is spoken with a hint of dismissiveness. McClellan, born the son of a prominent Philadelphia surgeon during 1826, graduated from the prestigious West Point Academy in 1846, just as the United States was opening hostilities against Mexico. The young cadet was shipped to the Rio Grande in October, too late, he noted sadly, to participate in the stunning American victory at Monterrey. An engineering officer, McClellan spent the first months of his deployment under General Zachary Taylor (who would go on to win the presidency in 1849 but die in 1850). His first battles were not against Mexican troops, but against dysentery and malaria. The malaria would plague him off and on for the rest of his life.
McClellan would later go on to take part in the Battle of Contreras and the Battle of Churubusco the next day (August 1847). His service at these engagements earned him a promotion of first lieutenant. For the Battle of Chapultepec in Mexico City (which led to the fall of Mexico City) he was made a captain.
During part of his service, he ran recon missions under General Winfield Scott, who happened to be a close friend of his father. Known as Old Fuss and Cuss and the Grand Old Man of the Army, Scott (1786-1866) holds the distinction of being active in the American military longer than anyone else in history (an astonishing 53 years) and for having fought in every military engagement from the War of 1812 to the American Civil War.
After the war, McClellan returned to West Point where he commanded the engineering company. After the adventure of Mexico, he found peacetime life boring, though he did rather enjoy social activities. During 1853, he was sent to the Pacific Northwest by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to survey a route for the transcontinental railroad. During his journeys west, McClellan showed himself to be insubordinate to authority. The governor of the Washington Territory became dissatisfied with his performance when he chose a pass through the Cascade Mountains based on bad intel and further refused to lead a party though it in the winter.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, McClellan was serving as vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad, having resigned from the army in 1857. Given his experience with railroads and his knowledge of military “science,” McClellan was a much sought after man. The governors of several Union states practically begged him to take command of their militias, something that the vain McClellan must have found gratifying.
He eventually took a commission from the state of Ohio as a major general of volunteers, assuming his post on April 23, 1861. In less than a month, the 34-year-old McClellan was made a major general in the regular army, holding a higher rank than anyone else – save for General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, his old commander.
During the early part of that summer, McClellan led federal troops to victory in several small skirmishes in the mountainous Shenandoah region of Virginia, receiving recognition from congress.
War fever had gripped the North, and the majority of the public wanted the Union Army to march on Richmond and make short work of the secession. Scott thought this wrong, instead suggesting a massive blockade of southern ports and sending an army down the Mississippi. Aged and over three hundred pounds, Scott was considered by the public at large to be unfit for command, his plan being derided (though later in the war, the Union would follow it closely).
After the humiliating Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan brought a degree of organization to the army that had been lacking under Scott, but he was brash, arrogant, and contemptuous of Scott, Lincoln, and others. In a letter to his wife, McClellan spoke rather glowingly of himself:
I find myself in a new and strange position here—President, 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!
On November 1, 1861, Winfield Scott, once called Old Fuss and Cuss but now mocking called Old Fat and Feeble (after 53 years’ service to his country to boot), resigned his post. Still in command of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan succeeded him as General-in-Chief of all Union armies, assuring Lincoln “I can do it all.”
During 1862, McClellan revealed himself not to be the grand military genius his obviously thought he was, but to be, rather, weak, slow, and timid, flanking Confederate armies rather than engaging them, camping rather than perusing, and pussyfooting around the outskirts of Richmond rather than attacking it. In June, much of McClellan’s power was taken away and a large part of his army was transferred from under his command. By this point, he had alienated much of Washington, and was on the verge of being sacked. After the Union was resoundingly defeated at Bull Run yet again (August 1862), McClellan was vested with great power yet again. He defeated the army of General Robert E. Lee at Antietam, Maryland, in September, repelling the first Confederate invasion of the Union. The battle was a bloody one, and Lee’s army was on the brink of collapse. They retreated back into Virginia, but McClellan refused to follow them. Had he, the war may very well have come to an early close. Disgusted, Lincoln removed McClellan from command on November 5, 1862.
In 1864, McClellan ran against Lincoln for President. He would later spend the rest of his life defending his actions.