George Brinton McClellan – The Young Napoleon
Early in the Civil War, General George B. McClellan provided needed leadership to the Union military efforts with his organization, administration, and training of men in the rapidly growing and forming army. This was very important at the time and McClellan’s abilities were much-needed. He provided a great service to the inexperienced, raw, and untamed army with his preparation and organizational skills. However, as the war progressed McClellan was ineffectual and unsuccessful at actually taking an army to battle. For President Abraham Lincoln, George B. McClellan was a continual source of frustration because of his inability or unwillingness to move the army and have it do what an army exists to do… which is to fight and defeat the enemy.
George B. McClellan seemed destined for greatness. He was the son of a distinguished Philadelphia doctor and finished second in his class at West Point. In the Mexican War he earned three brevets for gallant and meritorious conduct. Later, he spent a year in Europe and a report he wrote of his observations of foreign military methods brought him acclaim and recognition. Captain McClellan resigned from the United States Army in 1857, and began a career in business. He became vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad where he met a tall, country bumpkin lawyer who represented the railroad. This rough-hewn lawyer’s name was Abraham Lincoln. McClellan looked down on Lincoln, considering Lincoln his inferior both socially and intellectually. Another influential man George B. McClellan met during his railroad times was Allan Pinkerton, who was working as a contract private detective of the railroad. McClellan, Lincoln, and Pinkerton were all destined for importance and greater things when the Civil War came.
With the start of the Civil War, George B. McClellan began as a Major General of Ohio volunteers, then became Major General of the Regular Army and having command of the Department of the Ohio. McClellan was only 35-years-old. During the first year of the Civil War, he’d achieved prominence with Union victories at Rich Mountain and Carrick’s Ford in western Virginia (This part of Virginia would later become the Union State of West Virginia.). McClellan seemed to have the world by the tail. After Irvin McDowell’s defeat at Bull Run, President Lincoln replaced McDowell with McClellan as the commander of the Division of the Potomac, made up of the armies around Washington. General Winfield Scott soon retired as general in chief, and Abraham Lincoln gave George B. McClellan that title and responsibility as well as being the commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan told Lincoln: “He could do it all.”
Soon it was apparent to President Lincoln that although George B. McClellan could prepare an army for war, he had no plans, ability, or inclination to actually lead an army into war. Because of his strong skills at organizing and motivating an army, McClellan was dubbed with praiseworthy monikers such as; “The Young Napoleon” and “Little Mac,” but McClellan was always finding fears and reasons not to move the army towards the enemy. McClellan would claim that the army did not have enough supplies, that the horses are too tired, that he needed more and more troops, that his army was vastly outnumbered by the enemy, (Allan Pinkerton, who was now McClellan’s personal secret operative, contributed to this fear and reason for delay of McClellan’s. Pinkerton would often overestimate the number of enemy forces, sometimes by as much as three times their actual number.) and on and on with more and more reasons for delay and more preparation. With McClellan, there was always a reason not to move forward towards the Rebels and engage them in battle.
Instead of considering George B. McClellan as “The Young Napoleon” or “Little Mac,” others had a more critical and disparaging opinion of the arrogant, conceited, strong-willed, constantly delaying, and unmoving McClellan. They referred to him as: “McNapoleon.”
Quotes By and About George B. McClellan
“The true course in conducting military operations, is to make no movement until the preparations are complete.”
–George B. McClellan, while preparing in Washington.
“Who would have thought, when we were married, that I should so soon be called upon to save my country?”
–George B. McClellan’s words from a letter to his wife. President Abraham Lincoln had made George Brinton McClellan commander of the Division of the Potomac after First Bull Run.
“By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land.”
–George B. McClellan said this of himself shortly after he assumed command of the Union forces around Washington in 1861.
“All quiet along the Potomac.”
–Attributed to General George B. McClellan, c. 1861.
“Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”
–President Abraham Lincoln’s question directed to George B. McClellan, who had excused his lack of action in the fall of 1862 because of exhausted horses. McClellan was removed from command soon afterward.
“If he had a million men he would swear the enemy has two millions, and then he would sit down in the mud and yell for three.”
–Edwin M. Stanton, the United States secretary of war commenting on General George B. McClellan. McClellan often overestimated the number of enemy forces opposing him, and so he always needed and wanted more men and more supplies before he could take offensive action.
It is called the Army of the Potomac, but it is only McClellan’s bodyguard…If McClellan is not using the army, I should like to borrow it for a while.
–Abraham Lincoln on April 9, 1862, regarding George B. McClellan. McClellan often tested Lincoln’s patience because of his failure to take action against the Confederates. This quote is from a note Lincoln eventually decided not to send.
General McClellan, if I understand you correctly, before you strike at the Rebels, you want to be sure of plenty of room so you can run in case they strike back.
–This is from Zachariah Chandler, a member of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War as he was questioning McClellan regarding his inability to take offensive movement against the Rebels.
McClellan’s vice…was always waiting to have everything just as he wanted before he would attack, and before he could get things arranged as he wanted them, the enemy pounced on him.
–Union General George G. Meade regarding General George B. McClellan. McClellan was a brilliant organizer and administrator, and he had good strategic sense. His organizational skills as a commander were badly needed to whip the army into shape early in the war. His training of the Union armies for war is highly regarded.
“Stand by General Burnside as you have stood by me and all will be well.”
–George B. McClellan’s advice to his troops after being replaced by Burnside in November of 1862.
The effect of this man’s presence upon the Army of the Potomac–in sunshine or in rain, in darkness or in daylight, in victory or defeat–was electrical, and too wonderful to make it worthwhile attempting to give a reason for it.
–Anonymous comments regarding Union General George B. McClellan. McClellan was loved by his troops and he staged grand reviews to improve the morale of the men. He made the men of the army proud.
“He went beyond the formal military salute, and gave his cap a little twirl, which with his bow and smile seemed to carry a little personal good fellow-ship to the humblest private soldier…It was very plain that these little attentions to the troops took well, and had no small influence in establishing a sort of comradeship between him and them.”
–A Union officer describing General George B. McClellan. The soldiers believed in McClellan, they thought he was the one who would lead them to victory.
“He has got an eye like a hawk. I looked him right in the eye and he done the same by me.”
–A Union soldier from Massachusetts commenting on General George B. McClellan. The soldiers of the Army of the Potomac called him “Little Mac” and in the press he was called “Young Napoleon.”
“Sending armies to McClellan is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard. Not half of them get there.”
–Abraham Lincoln expressing his frustration and dissatisfaction with General George George B. McClellan.
“Action, action is what we want and what we must have.”
–George Brinton McClellan, 1862.
“I regard it as certain that the enemy will meet us with all his force on or near the Chickahominy…If I am not re-enforced, it is probable that I will be obliged to fight nearly double my numbers, strongly entrenched.”
–George B. McClellan on May 10, 1862.
“I feel sure of success, so good is the spirit of my men and so great their ardor. But I am tired of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses and poor wounded. Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such a cost.”
–George B. McClellan on June 2, 1862.
“I prefer Lee to Johnston. The former is too cautious and weak under grave responsibility–personally brave and energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility and is likely to be timid and irresolute in action.”
–Union General George B. McClellan sizing up Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
“McClellan will make this a battle of posts. He will take position from position, under cover of his heavy guns. I am preparing a line that I can hold with part of our forces in front, while the rest I will endeavor to make a diversion to bring McClellan out.”
–Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s thoughts and plans for handling Union General George B. McClellan in June, 1862.
“The spectacle yesterday was the grandest I could conceive of. Nothing could be more sublime. Those on whose judgement I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly, and that it was a masterpiece of art.”
–George B. McClellan commenting on his own performance at the Battle of Antietam. Antietam was not a tactical victory for the North.
“I will hold McClellan’s horse if he will only bring us success.”
–Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Abe would be holding that horse for a long time while waiting for success from George B. McClellan. When McClellan failed to pursue Robert E. Lee after Antietam, Abraham Lincoln made Ambrose Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac.