George McClellan was the greatest Union general during the Civil War. At least he could have been and should have been.
McClellan was second in his class at West Point, he was an engineer, a brilliant organizer, he wrote many books on military tactics; he studied Napoleon, and fought bravely in the Mexican War.
He was a dashing and handsome man who was extremely confident in his own abilities. Wherever he went he brought with him an air of success and optimism.
From every perspective he seemed to be the answer the Union needed. The north could not have found a better choice to command the army.
McClellan was put in command of the Army of the Potomac. He immediately flung himself into action reorganizing the defeated army. He promoted quality officers and fired incompetent ones. He made the troops drill day in and day out, bring strict discipline to every man in the army.
George McClellan during the Civil War
Eventually the Army of the Potomac grew to 100,000 men. His men adored him, McClellan gave them pride and the confidence they needed to take on and defeat the rebel army.
Little Mac as his men referred to him was at the top of his game. He turned the army from a pathetic ragtag force into a shinning example around the world of what a professional army should look like.
After all of the preparation it was time for George McClellan to actually lead these men south and confront the rebel forces. This was McClellan’s failing. Although he was exceptionally brilliant in many things, he was not much of a leader when it came to actually commanding troops in actual combat.
McClellan was very cautious always overestimating the size of the enemy. He always believed he was greatly outnumbered and was constantly seeking more and more reinforcements.
He was afraid to attack. He did not want to put his men in harms way and wanted to keep them safe, and they in turn loved him for this, but that is no way to ever win a war. Lincoln knew this and prodded McClellan to attack.
A halfhearted attack to capture Richmond (the Confederate capital) began with the Peninsular Campaign in the summer of 1862. The Army of the Potomac very cautiously moved forward toward Richmond, eventually coming within only a few miles of the capital.
George McClellan and his wife Ellen Mary Marcy
McClellan was attacked several times by General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, which was much smaller in size than McClellan’s army during the Seven Days’ Battles. Although never being actually defeated in these battles McClellan nevertheless retreated.
Lincoln eventually ordered the Army of the Potomac to evacuate the peninsula. McClellan was equally ineffective in reinforcing Union troops during the Second Battle of Bull Run which led to another southern victory that summer of 1862.
With his recent victories Lee decided to invade the north. Lee confidently attacked the north because he knew who commanded the Union army. Lee was not in the least bit afraid of McClellan. McClellan was more of an asset to the south and Lee took full advantage of his battlefield incompetence.
In September 1862 Lee invaded Maryland setting off the Battle of Antietam, which would turn out to be the bloodiest day in American history.
Antietam was a nominal victory for George McClellan. The Union forces outnumbered the Confederate forces nearly 2 to 1 however McClellan was able to barely defeat Lee. The reason for this was that he failed to use his superior force in a mass attack along the entire line. He instead chose to attack in piece meal, First against Lee’s left then the center and finally the right. Lee was able to constantly shift his meager forces to whatever area was currently being threatened.
After the battle McClellan refused to pursue Lee and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, allowing them to escape and fight another day. This was the last straw for Lincoln. He fired McClellan in November 1862 and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside who would go on to become the worst military leader in world history.
In the election of 1864 McClellan ran against Lincoln on the Democratic ticket. He was easily defeated, even his beloved soldiers voted for Lincoln. He then moved to Europe for a couple years. Finally returning to the United States he was elected governor of New Jersey and died in 1885.