General George McClellan was the Union Army’s first commander in the early part of the American Civil War. Because of how the Union army was faring under his leadership, McClellan was regarded as an ineffective general, if not a failure. As a result of how he commanded the Union army and prosecuted the war, he was replaced by President Abraham Lincoln until he found a much more abler leader in General Ulysses S. Grant who carried the Union to total victory which led to the eventual surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the civil war in 1865.
This study intends to look if General McClellan has been fairly “judged” by historians and if his incompetence was valid. In his book, George B. McClellan and Civil War History, Thomas Rowland attempts to give an impartial view of McClellan. Based on other accounts he has read from other historians who discussed McClellan, history has not been so kind to the hapless general.
McClellan had served as one of the benchmarks on how modern-day American generals would take action such as the case of General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Shield/Storm and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell in response to the troubles in the former Yugoslavia. The reason why McClellan was brought up in comparing him with these two modern-day counterparts was both nearly made the same mistakes he did in being indecisive or vacillating in taking the proper course of action when they were facing a similar situation as he did (Rowland, 1998, p. 10).
McClellan had a superior army at his disposal compared to the ragtag forces of the Confederacy, yet his issues led them to be mismanaged and what could have been victories for the Union in the early battles ended up in defeat. Another inference Rowland made was that one of the reasons why McClellan was probably not effective was he had psychological problems that would explain why he was not an effective commander and it was rather unfortunate for him since his counterpart on the opposing side was General Robert E. Lee who was undoubtedly one of the best generals the Confederacy had among its ranks.
One historian pointed out that McClellan: “Alternating between fits of ‘arrogant confidence and wretched self-abasement,’ the adult McClellan revealed an indulgent insolence displayed by those who are ‘congenially incapable’ of acknowledging authority because it would “make them feel inferior (cited in Rowland, 1998). ‘” If one were to base McClellan’s leadership on this case, it would appear that McClellan’s psychological issues was the root cause for his incomptence. Rowland would go on and enumerate other flaws McClellan had as told by other historians.
McClellan had tendencies of being vain, unstable, undisciplined, dishonest and had a messianic complex. Besides being incompetent, he was even said to have problems with authority, particularly with President Lincoln who was his commander-in-chief. Some even went to the extent of comparing McClellan to Napoleon not in terms of brilliance but in terms of vanity and ego, a trait both commanders appear to possess and this dated way back in his childhood and somehow carried over throught his life from his cadet days at West Point to his various military postings as he rose through the ranks(17-18).
Besides these issues, he also exhibited a tendency to be cautious in terms of the tactics and strategies he employed which proved to be ineffective when faced with a highly competent enemy commander in Lee who had a very distinguished military career as well as having combat experience from the Mexican War that made him an even more capable commander besides other subordinate generals such as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart and James Longstreet, to name a few.
Because of his apparent incompetence and despite having a seemingly superior army at his disposal, he squandered the chance to give the Union an early victory and made it easy for the Confederates to win, thus prolonging the war to four years. In one book, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, written by James McPherson, McClellan is depicted more kindly. Where other historians depicted McClellan as having issues with authority since his cadet days at West Point, McPherson saw him differently.
McClellan graduated second in his class at the academy in 1846 and served with distinction in the Mexican War and was one of the few foreign military officers who were observers in the Crimean War. During his hiatus in civilian life, he was a manager in a railroad company where he was considered an exceptional manager (12-13). Clearly, one can see there appears to be some sort of discrepancy in the way McPherson depicts McClellan compared to Rowland and others. Contrary to depicting McClellan as a problematic commander vis-a-vis his subordinates, McPherson depicted him as someone who was charismatic and a capable motivator of his troops.
In a letter to his wife, McClellan said that “I never heard such yelling… I can see every eye glisten. ” (cited in McPherson, 2002) It can be inferred here that McClellan was hardly the man who had a psychological problem, the sort that would not allow him to assume command of the Army of the Potomac when the Civil War broke out. But later, McPherson would take a different turn when McClellan assumed command and this was following the defeat of the Union army in the Battle of Bull Run.
Whereas writers like Rowland found McClellan to have psychological issues, McPherson depicted McClellan as a brilliant officer facing what was probably the most challenging commnand of his life and it was the kind of challenge that he could not meet and this eventually resulted in his eventual relief as the war went on. McClellan, as McPherson saw it, was a perfectionist almost to the point though it may not be in the same line of thinking as Rowland and others that he had a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. “He was a perfectionist in a profession where nothing could ever be perfect.
His army was perpetually almost ready to move, but could not do so until the last horse was shoed and the last soldier fully equipped. ” (cited in McPherson 2002) Despite his different approach with other historians, there are some aspects where McPherson agrees with them – that McClellan was too cautious and tended to be on the defensive most of the time. This was manifested partly by his obsessive-compulsive behavior and his tendency to overestimate the strength and capabilities of the Confederate forces on the account they were led by more capable commanders such as Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, etc.
This led him to have disagreements with hiws subordinate commanders, leading to their defeats. Because of his attitude, some speculated that McClellan might have sympathies towards the Confederacy owing to his ties with Democrats (13-15). But in fairness to McClellan, he was not always a loser. He did indeed score a victory for the Union and that was at Antietam in 1862. Despite this victory, it was a very costly one as the Union army suffered heavy casualties in this battle. Beyond that, McClellan’s command of the Union army was dismal and he was eventually relieved and replaced by a more capable commander in Grant.
What made Grant different from McClellan, and this is what all civil war historians agree upon, especially Rowland and McPherson, was that Grant was the opposite of McClellan in the sense that Grant was a risk-taker like his Confederate counterpart Lee. What made Grant willing to take risks was that he was not afraid to fail. Because it was part of learning and his initial defeats made him wiser in subsequent battles and this was proven time and again. Grant did suffer some defeats when he took command but despite these setbacks, he was not relieved.
He learned from his mistakes and redeemed himself in other encounters and this mattered the most and he eventually led the Union to victory and presided over Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Courthouse in 1865. In conclusion, history has not been so kind to George McClellan. Had he been decisive and willing to take risks, the war could have been over the moment it started and history could have judged him differently. But it turned out that his personality was his undoing and this cost him not only his career but the conduct of the war which had to run for four years.
If it is any confort for McClellan, his apparent incompetence (for lack of a better term) proved to be a blessing in disguise for future American military leaders. He would often be referred to or invoked whenever his modern-day counterparts were about to make the same mistakes he did and whenever they would think about him, they would completely do a complete turn around and rectify it, thereby winning their wars and avoid being placed in the same spot as McClellan on being one of the (unfortunately) worst American military leaders in history.
In a rather crude sense of irony, McClellan’s mistakes provided lessons for his future counterparts to learn and improve on and it was rather fortunate for McClellan that he have lost battles but his replacements did win the war but unfortunately for him, he could not partake of that victory because he was not involved in it. References Rowland, T. (1998). George B. McClellan and Civil War History. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press. McPherson, J. (2002). Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam. New York: Oxford University Press.