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George B. McClellan

Union General

George McClellan

George Brinton McClellan was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 3, 1826. He entered school at the age of five, and attended private schools, a prep school, and the University of Pennsylvania before entering the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in 1842. After graduating second in his class in 1846, he was appointed Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.

As an engineer during the Mexican War, McClellan won brevets of First Lieutenant and Captain for his zeal, gallantry, and ability. After the Mexican War, McClellan taught military engineering at West Point (1848-1851), surveyed possible transcontinental railroad routes, and, in 1855, went to Europe to study military systems being used in the Crimean War. One of the results of this trip was his designing of a cavalry saddle that was used by the U. S. Army until it discontinued its use of horses in combat.

In 1857, disappointed with the slow pace of advancement in the post-war Army, McClellan resigned his position as Captain of the 1st Cavalry to become chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, of which he later became vice-president. In 1860, he became president of the eastern division of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. He married Ellen Marcy on May 22, 1861, in New York.

Civil War Service

McClellan was living in Ohio when the Civil War broke out. He became Major General in command of the Ohio Volunteers on April 23, 1861, and on May 13 became commander of the Army of Occupation in western Virginia. After clearing western Virginia of Confederate forces, he became Major General in the Regular Army, outranked only by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott.

Following the defeat of the Union Army at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21, 1861, McClellan was put in command of the Union Army in the East, which later became the Army of the Potomac. He then spent several months reorganizing the disjointed and poorly disciplined army, during which time he all but refused to undertake any major offensive actions. His typical response to queries regarding his lack of action was to blame Washington for not sending him enough men and/or supplies. Despite his lack of major action, McClellan was made Commander-in-Chief of all Union armies on November 5, 1861. As such he developed a strategy for defeating the South that included an army of 273,000 men. The plan called for an invasion of Virginia from the sea with the goal being the capture of Richmond (the Confederate capital) and other major Southern cities. President Abraham Lincoln feared that his plan would leave Washington vulnerable to a Confederate raid, but was convinced by McClellan that the plan would work. McClellan spent the next two months assembling and training his forces. On January 15, 1862, he was ordered to appear before a committee investigating the way the war was being fought. When asked why he had not yet undertaken the planned advance on Richmond, McClellan responded with his typical claims of lack of men and supplies. Unhappy with McClellan's responses, President Lincoln ordered him to begin the offensive by February 22, or risk being removed from command. When Lincoln's deadline came and went, McClellan was relieved as Supreme General, but was allowed to keep his position as Army commander.

Peninsular Campaign

In March, 1862, McClellan landed on the Virginia Peninsula with more than 100,000 men. He subsequently occupied Yorktown and advanced up the York River, and by late May the Union army had marched to within six miles of Richmond. On May 31, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston led an attack on McClellan's army. The Confederates failed to follow up their initial success in the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31-June 1), however, and were forced to fall back toward Richmond. On June 25, the new commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, fell on McClellan in a series of attacks called the Battles of the Seven Days. Several battles and skirmishes took place between June 25 and July 1, including Mechanicsville (June 26), Gaines' Mill (June 27), Savage's Station (June 29), White Oak Swamp and Frayer's Farm (June 30), and Malvern Hill (July 1). The advantage constantly shifted from side to side, but McClellan believed his forces were hopelessly outnumbered and finally retreated to the James River. President Lincoln then ordered McClellan's army to northern Virginia, where it was to be united with a force under General John Pope. McClellan was initially given command of the combined army, but an argument with Lincoln led to that command being rescinded.


Following Pope's defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 29-30, 1862), McClellan was given command of all troops in the Washington area. In September, 1862, Lee invaded Maryland with about 50,000 troops. McClellan moved to meet Lee with about 90,000 men. On September 13, a Union soldier found a copy of Lee's orders to his commanders at an abandoned Confederate campsite. Lee learned of this and took up a position at Sharpsburg, on Antietam Creek. McClellan did not attack until September 17, however, giving the Confederate forces time to assemble. The Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest of the war, killed or wounded about 12,500 Northerners and almost 11,000 Southerners.

Loss of Command

When McClellan failed to follow up his victory at Antietam, President Lincoln replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside. McClellan left the battlefields and waited at his home in New Jersey for new orders, which never came.

Later Career

In 1864, McClellan was chosen as the Democratic candidate for President. During the subsequent campaign he declared the ongoing war a failure and promised to bring peace upon his election. By the time election day came around in November, however, the Union Army seemed to be on the verge of victory, and McClellan lost the election by a popular vote margin of 2,216,067 to 1,808,725. He formally retired from the army on election day. In 1870 he became Chief Engineer of the New York Department of Docks. He retained that position until 1872, when he became president of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. He served as Governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881, after which he retired from public service.

George B. McClellan died in Orange, New Jersey, on October 29, 1885. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Trenton.


Antietam National Battlefield
Shogun's Home of the American Civil War

See Also

U.S. Military Academy at West Point
Mexican War
Civil War
Winfield Scott
President Abraham Lincoln
Robert Edward Lee

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The Robinson Library >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on December 06, 2018.