It seemed to be an established fact that George McClellan was one of, if not the most ineffectual officer produced by either the Union or the Confederacy during the Civil War. Yet recently, some historians have begun to re-examine the legacy of McClellan, on the basis that while his mistakes were many, they may have been confounded by the fact that as a Democrat and a vacillator on the issue of slavery, McClellan’s disagreements and eventual break with Radical Republicans Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton may have done more to end McClellan’s career than his own performance (or lack thereof) during the War.
At the outset of the Civil War, when McClellan was seen as a savior, the only man who could make soldiers out of the thousands of volunteers who’d come to fight the war, McClellan was favorably compared to Napoleon. Within the space of year, this comparison would seem all too apt.
Success undoubtedly went to McClellan’s head. He wrote to his wife in 1861,
I find myself in a new and strange position here-[President], Cabinet, [General Scott] & all deferring to me-by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. … I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please meâ€¦
His own inflated self-worth knew no bounds; he openly referred to President Lincoln as a gorilla or ape, depending on his mood, and even snubbed the President both socially and professionally on several occasions.
Furthermore, he was notoriously secretive, refusing to outline his plans to any but a handful of personal confidantes. Among those denied his counsel were President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and most other members of the Cabinet, Congress, House of Representatives, and his own subordinates.
But ultimately it was not McClellan’s pompousness that lost him the command of the Army of the Potomac, although that certainly didn’t help matters. On several fronts, McClellan deviated from the prevailing political mood of the time, a deviation that cost him his military career.
While many of the men who would eventually serve the Confederacy were approached to serve in the Union Army, George McClellan had the distinction of being one of few Northern men to be asked to join the Confederate army. Although McClellan obviously declined, it is not a stretch to see why; McClellan did not support slavery, but he did consider it to be a constitutional right. However, he did not believe in the right of Southern states to secede.
Unlike most other Federal officers, McClellan was not willing to either free slaves in occupied territories. During his occupation in what would become West Virginia, he proclaimed to citizens there regarding their slaves to “understand one thing clearly-not only will we abstain from all such interference but we will on the contrary with an iron hand, crush any attempted insurrection on their part.” This understandably caused a stir in Washington.
When it came to Southern citizens, McClellan’s views clashed with the scorched earth policy that Grant and Sherman would adopt in the later years of the war. Unlike Grant and Sherman, McClellan had a history of instructing his soldiers to respect both the property and persons of civilians they encountered, a policy he followed in West Virginia. He had friendly relations with even those who supported the Confederacy.
As McClellan grew increasingly unpopular with his superiors, much was made of his feelings and actions toward the South – and of his relationships with several important figures in the Confederacy. McClellan had worked closely with Confederate President Jefferson Davis when Davis served as Secretary of War, and counted among his closest friends Confederate General A.P. Hill. These relationships, which had actually lapsed during the war, were used to explain McClellan’s reluctance to punish Southern civilians or make decisive military maneuvers against Confederate troops.
McClellan did little to redeem himself when he ran against Lincoln as a Democrat in the election of 1864. One of the tenets of his campaign was the negotiation of a settlement with the Confederacy and an immediate end to the war. This only served to provide ammunition for the Radical Republicans who’d made McClellan a target.
That McClellan had political aspirations had been a well-known fact in Washington for sometime prior to the election of 1864. As the election neared, and the threat of a McClellan Democratic ticket became a reality, the Republicans in Lincoln’s capitalized upon the failures of McClellan as an officer. Lincoln’s re-election came as no surprise to anyone but McClellan himself, perhaps.
But McClellan’s political opinions and aspirations earned him an enmity on the part of the Republicans that would haunt him for years and taint his legacy forever. He made powerful enemies, enemies that had the power to diminish his part in the Civil War for eternity. To the victors – in this case the Union and the Republicans – go the spoils, not to mention the burden of history.
General Ulysses S. Grant wrote after the war that “McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war;” although Grant was doubtlessly referring to McClellan’s military decisions, his statement was more prescient than he could have known.