The Civil War Connections Blog

The Lauded Little Mac

In the post “The Cowardly Lion on the Peninsula,” Brian introduced you to the faults of General George B. McClellan.  However, what has yet to be explored is how the soldiers or the public felt about their now heavily criticized commander.  Did they see McClellan as a coward or was he considered more of a military tactician likened to a demigod?  The fact of the matter is that McClellan’s legacy was far more positive amongst the troops and the public than the Lincoln administration during the war.

George McClellan Frederick Maryland
“General McClellan Entering the Town of Frederick, Maryland- The Popular Welcome” Cover of Harper’s Weekly, October 4, 1862.
    As the Army of the Potomac gained yet another commander in the wake of the Battle of Chancellorsville, morale reached a new low in the Union rank and file.  John J. Hennesy explains this trend in his essay “We Shall Make Richmond Howl,” arguing that the drop in morale was not solely a product of limited supplies or unfamiliarity with the new general, “Fighting” Joe Hooker.  “A good part of the discontent with the current leadership,” Hennesy elucidates, “had to do with the men’s affinity for George B. McClellan, the army’s past commander and ‘first love’ in terms of both time and stature.”  The men in the Army of the Potomac respected McClellan and disliked all those who attacked his reputation.  Hennesy touches on this hostility in his essay: “To some observers, the administration seemed bent on purging the army of McClellan’s influence.  For its part, the army seemed equally fervent in its desire for McClellan’s return.”[i]

General McClellan Cartoon

“The Small Politicians In Congress Cackling at General McClellan”


But why would there exist such a disparity between the opinions of the soldiers and that of the Lincoln administration?  Surely the men who directly suffered the consequences of McClellan’s command would view him as present-day historians often do, right?  There are many explanations as to why McClellan’s name rang true amongst the troops and the public while it soured on Capitol Hill.  Reid Mitchell highlights one such reason in his essay “The Perseverance of the Soldiers.”  In comparison to his successors (except Grant), Mitchell argues “George McClellan at least had strategic brilliance on his side.  His Peninsula Campaign certainly should have worked.”  Historians admit that McClellan was no intellectual push-over; he simply lacked the nerve to put his exceptionally well-trained army into action.  However, when Hooker or Burnside adopted the more “direct approach” that Mitchell describes, perhaps the men favored defeat with direction under McClellan as opposed to the carnage that resulted from faulty battle plans accompanied by a go-get-em’ anyways attitude.[ii]

No doubt the difference between McClellan the general and McClellan the private citizen affected the opposing perceptions of his character.  Anyone who takes the time to read his personal letters or correspondence with his superiors will find them in stark contrast with the statements and speeches he issued to the public.  For example, on page 723 of the November 16, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, McClellan applauded his predecessor, Winfield Scott, who was considered a hero amongst the public and lauded as a great military tactician.  In the following bombastic and seemingly never-ending pat-on-the-back, McClellan gives the former Commander-in-Chief what he deems a proper send off:

“The army will unite with me in the feeling of regret that the weight of many years and the effect of Increasing infirmities…should just now remove from our head the great soldier of our nation; the hero who, in his youth, raised high the reputation of his country in the fields of Canada, which he sanctified with his blood; who in more mature years proved to the world that American skill and valor could repeat, if not eclipse, the exploits of Cortez in the land of the Montezumas; whose whole life has been devoted to the service of his country; whose efforts have been directed to uphold our honer at the smallest sacrifice of life…a citizen whom his declining years has given to the world the most shining instance of loyalty, in disregarding all ties of birth, and clinging still to the cause of truth and honor. Such has been the career and character of Winfield Scott, whom it has long been the delight of the nation to honor, both as a man and a soldier.”[iii]

Now, compare that with a sentiment that he expressed to his wife, Mary Ellen McClellan, right before he took command in 1861:

“General Scott is the great obstacle- he will not comprehend the great danger and is either a traitor or an incompetent.  I have to fight my way against him…”[iv]

I highly doubt that McClellan and Scott had a massive reconciliation in the few months before Scott resigned.  In fact, Lincoln did not even wish to accept Scott’s resignation; McClellan’s command had a rocky start with his administration from the beginning.  Relations would not improve as the war progressed with McClellan’s hesitation on the Peninsula and at Antietam (as I discussed in an earlier post).  Alexander Gardner snapped some excellent photographs of Lincoln’s review of the Army of the Potomac in 1862 which capture the tension between the president and his general.  Notice how in the images below Lincoln physically towers over the boisterous McClellan, even going so far as to refuse eye contact with him whilst meeting in McClellan’s tent.  Relations would further deteriorate as McClellan led the Democratic ticket in the 1864 election, advancing one of the most slanderous and vile campaigns according to modern standards.

[Abraham Lincoln on battlefield at Antietam, Maryland, cropped version that highlights McLellan and Lincoln]
Abraham Lincoln on battlefield at Antietam, Maryland. Library of Congress.
[Antietam, Md. President Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general's tent; another view]
Antietam, Md. President Lincoln and Gen. George B. McClellan in the general’s tent. Library of Congress.


Perhaps what Lincoln viewed as vanity, McClellan’s men perceived as courage.  Regardless of the explanation, McClellan remained a popular namesake in the Army of the Potomac and continued to influence the men’s military mindset as the war progressed.  The hesitant nature that he instilled in his troops would be difficult to purge; a characteristic that Grant would grapple with upon his rise to command.  Modern-day historians, however, are not so kind as we are privy to information that the soldiers and public did not have access to.  As demonstrated by A. Wilson Greene’s essay “Stoneman’s Raid,” terms such as “McClellanesque” are used today to describe military faux pas and follies; an adjective that many nineteenth century citizens would have welcomed and preferred.[v]

[i] John J. Hennesy. “We Shall Make Richmond Howl: The Army of the Potomac on The Eve of Chancellorsville.” Chancellorsville: The Battle and Its Aftermath. Ed. Gary W. Gallagher. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). Print. pp. 3-4.

[ii] Reid Mitchell. “The Perseverance of the Soldiers.” Why the Confederacy Lost. Ed. Gabor S. Boritt, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). Print.  pp. 118.

[iii] George B. McClellan. “Our New Commander in Chief.” Harpers Weekly. Vol. V. No. 225. 16. Nov. 1861. pp. 723. Web. <> .

[iv] George B. McClellan. “Letter to Mary Ellen McClellan: Aug. 9 [10] 1861 1am.” The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865. Ed. Stephen W. Sears. (New York: Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data, 1989).

[v] A. Wilson Greene. “Stoneman’s Raid.” Chancellorsville: The Battle and Its Aftermath. Ed. Gary W. Gallagher, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). Print. pp. 81.