“The Dreadful Responsibility”: Why George B. McClellan Was the Go-To Guy (part one)

TurningPoints-logoECW welcomes back Jon-Erik Gilot
(part one of two)

I’ve long been fascinated with the early days, weeks, and months of the Civil War. The optimism and unbounded confidence displayed on both sides of the conflict during the spring and summer of 1861 would quickly wane as the human toll began to exceed even the wildest expectations. And while events during those first months would seem to unfold rather quickly, military actions—both in planning and on the battlefield—happened at a more deliberate pace. While I’ve spent more than two decades studying all aspects of the war, I’ve often found the early campaigns to be easier to digest than the frantic fighting and wholesale slaughter that would be the hallmark of later battles and campaigns.

So in considering the theme of ‘turning points,’ my thoughts were immediately drawn to the spring and summer of 1861, which had not been kind to new Lincoln administration. As more southern states seceded and government property and installations were lost, Federal troops suffered a number of minor though highly publicized setbacks in Virginia and Missouri ahead of the first large-scale battle of the war at Manassas, Virginia on July 21, 1861. This stunning Confederate victory on the doorstep of Washington, DC, sent the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia streaming back to the capital city. Any thoughts of a 90-day war were quickly eroding. 

Abraham Lincoln needed a general to rebuild his citizen-soldier army. While Manassas was clearly an early turning point of the war, I’d argue that a second turning point came within mere hours of the Federal defeat, when a desperate telegram was sent to a general on the western fringes of Virginia: “Circumstances make your presence here necessary.”[i] What prompted Lincoln to call on this ‘Young Napoleon’?

“I realize now the dreadful responsibility on me – the lives of my men – the reputation of the country & the success of our cause…I recognize the fact that everything requires success in my first operations.” – George McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, July 05, 1861

George Brinton McClellan had led an accomplished 34 years on the eve of the Civil War. Graduating second in his 1846 West Point class, he earned a coveted commission in the Army Corps of Engineers, serving ably during the Mexican-American War and peacetime army before turning to civilian railroad work. His engineering and organizational capabilities had made him highly sought-after in military and civil circles.

Within two weeks of the attack on Fort Sumter McClellan returned to the military with a commission as major general of Volunteers in the Ohio militia. Ten days later, he accepted a federal appointment as commander of the Department of the Ohio, charged with defending the broad border of the Ohio River, his department eventually stretching from western Pennsylvania and Virginia to far off Missouri. Just eleven days later, he was commissioned a major general in the regular army, an impressive ascent for a former regular army captain who had spent the last three years in civilian pursuits!

As Confederate troops in western Virginia under the command of Colonel George A. Porterfield burned bridges and threatened the viability of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad—the key railroad line connecting Baltimore and Washington to the west—McClellan issued orders for his troops to cross the Ohio River and enter ‘the seat of war,’ vowing to “with an iron hand, crush any attempt at insurrection.”[ii] While McClellan remained in Ohio to gather troops and supplies he arranged for Ohio, Indiana, and loyal Virginian troops to secure bridges and the important juncture of the B&O and Northwestern Virginia Railroad at Grafton, Virginia, which was accomplished by Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley on May 30, 1861.

On June 02, Kelley led a force of 3,000 troops to dislodge Porterfield’s command of less than 600 men at the nearby village of Philippi, where on June 3 in a driving rainstorm the Federals would rout the Confederate soldiers in the first land ‘battle’ of the Civil War. As more Ohio and Indiana troops were pushed into western Virginia, Confederate reinforcements arrived and occupied entrenched positions commanding the Staunton & Parkersburg Turnpike near the village of Beverly. McClellan, showing an early penchant for exaggerating enemy strength (at various times doubling to quadrupling Confederate strength in the region) recalled that “the reports from Grafton were now very alarming, I determined that the proper time had arrived for me to take the field”[iii]

(To be continued…)


[i] Scott, Robert N., The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume II, (Washington, DC: Gov’t Printing Office, 1882), 753

[ii] O.R., I:II:48 – 49

[iii] George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac: To Which is Added an Account of the Campaign in Western Virginia (New York, NY: Sheldon & Company, 1864), 19

12 Responses to “The Dreadful Responsibility”: Why George B. McClellan Was the Go-To Guy (part one)

  1. George B, the Confederacy’s Secret Weapon! I can see Lee laughing out of the side of his face when he referred to Georgie as the “ablest general” he faced.

  2. “McClellan, showing an early penchant for exaggerating enemy strength…..”. Was he really always in the dark about such matters, or did he do that deliberately to avoid having to take certain actions at certain times? In other words, was that his excuse for his actions? Alan Pinkerton got much of the ‘blame’ for troop estimates during the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days battles, but how was Mac arriving at estimates of his foes strength at this early juncture? Or did he spike the numbers he was facing to enhance his own glory? He is arguably the most perplexing individual of the Civil War, given his pre-war background and accomplishments.

    1. Hi, Doug,

      I think he was working on the intelligence provided to him, which wasn’t always accurate or from sources with any knowledge. He didn’t arrive in Western Virginia until mid-June so he was at the mercy of the telegraph. Once in-state he would get numbers ranging from loyal populace and railroad officials to some very raw and highly unqualified officers. This was the first time most people had ever seen large bodies of troops (or people, for that matter) and I think the tendency was to vastly overestimate without having experience on which to base their numbers. I’m apt to be a bit more forgiving in these early campaigns as both sides tried to figure it out.

  3. McClellan always intrigues me. I just can’t understand some of his decisions, given his prior records. It would be so fascinating to get inside his head and know what he was thinking at times. Also I can’t imagine the vast amounts of pressure, especially in those early days of the war when everyone got a real eye-opener of what they had actually signed up for. I will be looking forward to the next part of this.

  4. Actually, at its heart, I feel the McClellan riddle is rather easily explained. He had never failed throughout his life. As a result, he never had to seriously reflect on his actions, or truly mature from the lessons of failure.The fear of failure grew with every year, until it overwhelmed him. He became paranoiac, delusional, inert, and finally, a coward. And unlike Grant, when he broke, he never put himself back together again. He just continued to lie to himself.

  5. As a Rafuse/Harsh fan, I probably see things a bit differently from some of the other commenters. I would say McClellan did fail in his assignment to survey Snoqualmie Pass as a possible railroad route in Washington Territory, and failed to convince SecWar Davis of the correctness of his recommendations for organizing the Cavalry regiments (leading to his resignation).

    As far as numbers, what does one use as the “correct” numbers to which McClellan’s estimates are to be compared?

    1. Hi, Scott,

      I was a big fan of Rafuse’s book as well. In terms of numbers it can always be difficult to get a firm number on Confederates. As for the western VA campaign we do have some pretty solid numbers based on communications between Porterfield, Garnett and Richmond, mostly bemoaning the lack of Confederate sentiment and recruits in the area, as well as relating to the reinforcements Lee had sent west. Lee wouldn’t arrive in Western Virginia until later that summer but as commander of Virginia troops he still had considerable input on the first campaign.

    2. Good points. Had never heard of his disagreement with Davis. What was the disagreement over, structure, function or both? I remember that during his “stewardship” of the Army of the Potomac McClellan grossly mishandled his neophyte cavalry, and that only the much maligned Pope and Hooker began to reorganize the arm.

      As far as numbers, if McClellan really believed, or was afraid not to believe the bloated estimation of Confederate numbers, why did he keep his army so divided for well over a month? Why did he not even take the most elementary steps to intrench, which his experience in the Crimea should have provided? There is something rather unhinged about a commander who screams poverty, places his army in a position to exacerbate the problem, then almost begs to be relieved through grossly insubordinate communications. A year later, Hooker was relieved for less. But then the Lincoln of 1863 had more steel in him.

      Great post. Hope to see you next August!

      1. Thanks, John. Garnett had already divided his army and occupied commanding positions astride the S&P Turnpike. He’d expected McClellan to attack at Laurel Hill, whereas the actual assault came at Rich Mountain. McClellan had to keep a sizable force in front of Garnett at Laurel Hill to keep Garnett from falling on Clarksburg and the railroad. The concern is that he left too small a force in front of Garnett from the number of Confederates he estimated to be there (2.5x the actual number). I discuss this in my next piece, which deals with some of McClellan’s character flaws in the first campaign.

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