13 January 2010

ch.14: General McClellan

No individual from the American Civil War is as despised and detested as much as Union General George B. McClellan. Historians have not judged him well--agreeing that he was an incompetent commander and leader. His soldiers liked him; but he was extremely arrogant and pompous to his superiors—especially to Lincoln (his boss and Commander-in-Chief).

It always seemed to me that nothing better reveals Lincoln’s class than his relationship with McClellan. And in contrast, Lincoln’s character brings out the many faults and weaknesses of George McClellan.

When it became clear that Winfield Scott was too old and feeble to lead the Union forces, Lincoln had to find a new general. That duty would fall to McClellan—he was charismatic, the troops adored him, and he was able to train the men for combat—something that was sorely needed at the start of the war.

But McClellan had two major faults (among many). First, his ego was enormous; he thought himself the savior of the Union. Reading his letters—where he calls himself a savior—you wonder if he understood democracy and representative government at all. But early in the war, he was all Lincoln had. And Lincoln withstood McClellan’s many slights: leaving the president waiting in the parlor for hours, and calling him a baboon to name just a few. McClellan had little respect for Lincoln and allowed his feelings be known. Lincoln had every reason to fire and/or court-martial McClellan, but he cared little about egos and simply wanted to win the war. So the president continually showed his class by taking the general's slights--hoping that McClellan would prove to be useful on the battlefield. 

McClellan’s other flaw—which we will see more of in Team of Rivals—if that while he was an outstanding trainer, he seemed afraid to actually send his troops into battle. He continually made excuses for not pursuing the enemy. Lincoln begged him to take action—and McClellan still would hesitate. Lincoln kept the general as long as possible before finally firing him after the Battle of Antietam in the late summer of 1862. And by the way, McClellan was Lincoln’s Democratic Part opponent in the 1864 election—Lincoln crushed him, helped in a great measure by the soldier’s vote!    


  1. Professor Woodard does a commendable job of describing the truly egotistical and self-righteous character of George McClellan – a perfect contrast to the modest, yet clever Abraham Lincoln.

    I would add only one minor comment in defense of “Little Mac.” He warned against the dire consequences of “total war” deliberately perpetrated on American civilians and their property (e.g. Sherman’s march through Georgia). While I defend Lincoln’s decision to carry out such a drastic necessity to achieve the earliest possible conclusion to this terrible war, I wonder how much damage in long-term sectional animosity was paid as the heavy price for military victory.

    Tim Utter

  2. Well said Tim; well said.

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