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On this day: McClellan’s career one of unfulfilled promise

On this day (Oct. 29) in 1885, George Brinton McClellan died at age 58.

Mostly remembered for his military service as a controversial general in the Union Army during the bloody Civil War, “Little Mac” has the deserved reputation of being a brilliant before-battle soldier who excelled in training and equipping an army for battle.

After the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run on July 21, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed McClellan as general-in-chief of the Union Army. Thereafter, McClellan skillfully reorganized and re-equipped the beaten and demoralized Union Army into a powerful fighting force.

The twin problems Lincoln soon faced, however, were that McClellan was egregiously insubordinate and additionally he quickly proved to be an incompetent field commander.

McClellan’s insubordination was quickly manifested when just 13 days after he had appointed “Little Mac” to high command, the president went to McClellan’s house to confer with his newly appointed commander. When told that McClellan was not home, but would be arriving shortly, the president sat down to wait for his arrival. After 30 minutes, a servant informed the president that McClellan had come home and had gone to bed.

More importantly, McClellan repeatedly refused during the Civil War to aggressively attack his usually outnumbered opponents.

Although usually overly patient and tolerant of insubordinate and incompetent field commanders, Lincoln soon tired of McClellan’s inactivity.

On Jan. 10, 1862, the president issued his General War Order No. 1, which called for “the forward movement of all armies.” He was also reported to have remarked at this time that “if Gen. McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”

Finally, in the spring of 1862, McClellan agreed to take the offensive. Somewhat reluctantly, Lincoln agreed to the general’s peninsula campaign, which failed to capture Richmond mainly because of McClellan’s reluctance to attack the overmatched Confederates.

The most notable example of McClellan’s unwillingness to commit his whole army to an aggressive attack was in the Sept. 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam, when he refused to follow up his successful halting of Lee’s first invasion of the North by immediately attacking the beaten and demoralized Army of Northern Virginia.

McClellan’s legacy as a military commander is that he was a brilliant staff officer who displayed great organizational skills and great compassion for his troops. However, as a field commander, he came up short. He clearly lacked the necessary aggressiveness displayed by Union Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.

After Antietam, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command. This effectively ended the military career of the brilliant, but overly cautious and imperious staff officer who had failed repeatedly as a field commander.

As the Democratic candidate for president in 1864, McClellan was soundly defeated by his former chief, Abraham Lincoln. Thereafter, McClelland traveled in Europe (1864-1868), wrote his memoirs (published posthumously in 1887), and became active in state politics, serving as the 24th governor of New Jersey (1878-1881).

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, when asked who the best Union general, answered “McClellan, by all odds.” Grant, when asked about McClellan, said, “he is to me one of the mysteries of the war.”

George B. McClellan remains an enigma: brilliant Army staff officer who served with distinction as a junior officer in the Mexican War, but when given high command failed as a commander in the field. McClellan’s military career appeared to have been one of unfulfilled promise.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at

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