The Civil War Connections Blog

McClellan and His Men

Hey there, folks, and welcome back to the Connections blog! During these past two weeks 150 years ago, Confederate General Lee and his army had slipped into Union General Pope’s rear and forced him into a fight at the Battle of 2nd Manassas, on almost the exact same battlefield as the Battle of 1st Manassas. The battle took place between August 28th and August 30th, and ended with a decisive Confederate victory. For General Pope, this meant the end of his career in the eastern theatre. For General McClellan, it meant one more chance to prove to Washington he was worth a dam.

… umm… yea. Yea that’s totally what I meant.


The issue of public memory over General McClellan is a relatively straightforward one. Those familiar with the Civil War mostly seem to view him in some form of negative light: those who study the conflict to any great depth (such as me) seem to have an even greater outpouring of dislike for the man. To save space, a couple articles that mention McClellan’s latest disobedience and incompetence are available HERE. After Pope was relieved of command, McClellan was given Pope’s Army of Virginia as well as his own Army of the Potomac because there was no one else to give the command to on such short notice. When news spread amongst the army that McClellan was back in charge, soldiers and officers alike rejoiced at being under the command of their old general again. But wait – if McClellan was passionately hated by Lincoln’s cabinet and the top echelon of the Union army, why then did the soldiers and lower officers so heartily celebrate? The answer has to do with how General McClellan was remembered by his men.

Soldiers from the Army of the Potomac.


After the 1st Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run), the Union army was in disarray. It was a hastily assembled congregation of various regiments to begin with, but after being defeated and routed at Bull Run it was reduced to little more than a mob. That’s when McClellan came in. Once in command, he went to great lengths to organize and train the army into fighting shape. By the time they began the Peninsula Campaign in spring 1862, the Army was in top form. This remarkable transformation gave his soldiers a fierce pride in themselves, and naturally this pride was heavily extended to the man who made it all possible. Whatever his faults as a strategic general and as a human being, McClellan sure knew how to make an army look, act and function like an army should. For the common soldiers, being transformed from a broken mob into an elite-looking military force was a miraculous achievement: how could they NOT love the man who gave them their pride, their purpose, and who marched them so close to Richmond that they could her its church bells ringing?

McClellan at Williamsburg.


After the 2nd Battle of Manassas the Union army had been trashed. Washington was once again under threat, and Lee was moving north. Being returned to McClellan’s command made them remember their reorganization and resurgence after the 1st Battle of Manassas, and gave them hope. They didn’t remember that McClellan was slow to move and had retreated after winning most of the Seven Days battles. Instead, they saw McClellan’s return as a precursor to driving back the Confederates and marching for Richmond. As for whether or not this would actually happen, only time would tell. Tune in next Thursday for more Civil War memory!