||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
McClellan, George Brinton (December 3, 1826 – October 29,
George B. McClellan was a Union general, general–in–chief (November
1861–March 1862), commander of the Army of Potomac (August 1861–November 1862),
Democratic presidential nominee in 1864, and later governor of New Jersey
He was born on December 3, 1826, in Philadelphia to Elizabeth Brinton
McClellan and Dr. George McClellan, a surgeon and medical professor. Young
McClellan attended Philadelphia prep schools, and then studied at the University
of Pennsylvania from 1840 until 1842 when he accepted an appointment to West
Point. Graduating second in his class in 1846, he saw service in the
Mexican–American War as an engineer constructing roads and bridges. He won
three commendations for distinguished service and was raised to the rank of
captain. At the war’s conclusion, he returned to West Point to teach military
engineering. While there, he translated and adapted a book of French regulations
on bayonet exercises which was adopted by the army in 1852.
McClellan left West Point in 1851 for a series of engineering assignments in
Delaware, Arkansas, Texas, and the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1855 he joined a board of officers for a year abroad studying military
systems in Europe and the Crimean War theater of operations. McClellan’s
reports—largely on the engineers, cavalry, and the Russian army—were highly
regarded. Based on his observations, he made several suggestions for improving
the American armed forces, including a new kind of saddle which was adopted. In
1857 he retired from the army to work in the railroad industry. He was chief
engineer, then vice president, for the Illinois Central Railroad before
accepting the presidency of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad in 1860.
When the Civil War began, McClellan was named major–general in charge of the
Ohio volunteers and state militia, but within a month was appointed
major–general in the federal army and put in charge of the Department of Ohio
(comprising Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and (later) parts of western Pennsylvania
and Virginia). His victory at Rich Mountain, West Virginia (July 11, 1861),
just ten days before the Union defeat at Bull Run, brought him to the attention
of military’s top echelon as well as the public. As a result, he was given
command of the Division of the Potomac. Finding the troops in disarray, he
reorganized, trained, and disciplined them. Beloved by his men, he was called
the “Young Napoleon.” As a reluctant fighter, though, he continually
overestimated enemy troop strength and refused to call his troops into action.
When General Winfield Scott retired as general–in–chief, McClellan replaced
him. That led to further delays, though, as McClellan pondered the larger
situation. He differed with President Lincoln on strategy, and exasperated the
president with his reluctance to fight. Lincoln relieved McClellan as
general–in–chief but left him in charge of the Army of the Potomac. After the
Seven Days’ Battle (June 25–July 1, 1862), McClellan complained of lack of
support from Washington and of being outnumbered by the Confederates. As
Confederate General Robert E. Lee moved his troops into the Union state of
Maryland, McClellan was given a mislaid copy of Lee’s plans found by a Union
soldier. The Union general, however, failed to act quickly enough to take
advantage before the scattered Confederate troops consolidated. Following the
battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), McClellan allowed Lee and his troops to
retreat back to Confederate territory in Virginia. A few months later, Lincoln
relieved McClellan of his command. He never saw field duty again.
In 1864, the Democratic Party nominated McClellan for the presidency. The
party platform reflected the dominant force of the Peace Democrats at the
national convention. It criticized Lincoln’s administration of the war effort,
the suppression of civil liberties, and called for an immediate cession of
fighting and a negotiated settlement. McClellan repudiated the so–called “peace
plank,” promising, instead, to prosecute the war more effectively than Lincoln.
The Democratic Party, however, stood before the country as the peace party,
which boded ill for its prospects after the Union capture of Atlanta that fall.
Lincoln was reelected by a large margin.
Retiring from the army on election day, McClellan spent the next three years
traveling in Europe. He returned to head the construction of a newly designed
warship, but the project was scrapped in 1869. He served as chief engineer of
the New York City Docks (1870–1872), then as governor of New Jersey
(1878–1881). He died of a heart ailment on October 29, 1885.
Sources consulted: Dictionary of American Biography; The
Civil War Dictionary, ed. Mark Boatner; Harper’s Encyclopedia of United
States History; and, William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U. S.