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Union Generals of the American Civil War: George McClellan

by Mike Haskew

General George McClellan was a key figure in the prosecution of the American Civil War, particularly during 1862, when he led the Union Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign, a failed offensive to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond in the spring, and the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history, on September 17, 1862.
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McClellan, nicknamed “Little Mac,” is remembered as a superb organizer capable of inspiring his troops, training a large army, and preparing the force for prosecuting an offensive campaign. However, historians have criticized his lack of drive in the field. Such criticism is particularly notable during the Peninsula Campaign, which began on March 17, 1862, and involved the movement of more than 120,000 soldiers to positions southeast of Richmond, poised to strike at the Confederate capital.

Losing the Initiative at Yorktown

However, McClellan lost the initiative during a month of preparation and planning for an attack against Confederate positions at Yorktown, Virginia. He then chose to believe wildly exaggerated reports of Confederate strength and proceeded cautiously. Although the Union army advanced within a few miles of Richmond, the campaign was blunted during the Battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, and a series of clashes referred to as the Seven Days Battles, during which Robert E. Lee led Confederate forces and convinced McClellan to evacuate his army.

During the Antietam Campaign, McClellan assembled his army at Rockville, Maryland, and proceeded slowly to intercept Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the first Rebel invasion of the North. McClellan was the beneficiary of a lost order that detailed Lee’s plan and might have advanced rapidly and destroyed the widely dispersed Confederate forces in detail.

However, he chose to advance slowly. Confronting Lee along the banks of Antietam Creek in western Maryland on September 16-18, 1862, McClellan possessed overwhelming numerical superiority but committed his forces to the battle piecemeal, allowing Lee to utilize interior lines and transfer troops as needed to counter McClellan’s offensive moves. Despite his poor performance, McClellan did succeed in compelling Lee to abandon his offensive and retreat southward across the Potomac River.

Already a Veteran

McClellan was born in Philadelphia on December 3, 1826, and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point second among 59 cadets in the class of 1846. A veteran of the Mexican War, McClellan rose to the rank of major general and to command all U.S. armies in the field during the early days of the Civil War.

After the Peninsula Campaign, he was relieved by President Abraham Lincoln, and a succession of inept commanders followed. Prior to Antietam, Lincoln reinstated McClellan, who continued his lackluster combat performance. Lincoln removed McClellan from command for the second and final time in November 1862.

McClellan was politically active and opposed Lincoln as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States during the 1864 election. He died in Orange, New Jersey on October 29, 1885.

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