History of the American Civil War: General George McClellan (1826-1885)
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History of the American Civil War: General George McClellan (1826-1885)


By Lincoln Mint

George Brinton McClellan was a man gifted with all the qualities of great military leadership--magnetism, strategic skill, administrative ability, organizational efficiency--except one. But that one, possessed in high degree by Lee and Jackson and Forrest, by Grant and Sherman and Sheridan, was the indispensable quality: a driving aggressive combativeness that waged war as war must be waged to win.

Graduating second in his class at West point, McClellan served with distinction as an Engineer in the Mexican War, taught three years at West Point, surveyed and explored in the West, and was a member of an officer group sent abroad to study European armies. He resigned his commission in 1857, but the war brought him back into service at 35.

Minor victories in western Virginia gave him the prestige that catapulted him into supreme command in the demoralization following the First Bull Run debacle. With swift efficiency he reorganized and inspired the Army of the Potomac, but only after much Presidential prodding did he move to take his army into battle. Transporting his 100,000-man army by sea to the Virginia peninsula, he began a slow advance on Richmond, finally reaching its outskirts. Then came the Seven Days' Battles, as Lee drove him back to the protection of the gunboats at Harrison's Landing.

Shorn of most of his command during the Second Bull Run Campaign, at its close he was called again to pull together the dispirited Union army. The bloody, indecisive Battle of Antietam followed. When McClellan failed to pursue Lee's battered army until a month later, Lincoln removed him from command. 

How to evaluate him? All his brilliance and charm fail to counterbalance his obsessive reluctance to commit his men to battle, and his habitual exaggeration of enemy strength led him to call constantly for more and more troops. A despairing Lincoln complained that he had "the slows"; that sending him reinforcements was "like shoveling flies across a barn." Yet no other commander of the Army of the Potomac inspired the hero-worshiping love and devotion that "Little Mac" did. In those early days of the war, before romance died at contact with reality, he made his soldiers feel their manhood.

This article has been read 3805 times. Last read on 2/28/2021 9:35:04 PM

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