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This week in history: McClellan becomes the Army’s commanding general

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In the early stages of the Civil War, on Nov. 1 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to the position of commanding general of the United States Army. His appointment came on the heels of long-serving officer Winfield Scott's retirement.

McClellan had graduated from West Point Military Academy in 1846 and had gone on to serve with distinction during the Mexican-American War. During the mid-1850s, McClellan had been an observer during the Crimean War, in which he witnessed the aftermath of the French and British armies' siege of Sevastopol.

In the book, “George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon,” biographer Stephen W. Sears wrote: “In technical and administrative matters, George McClellan's military education was greatly advanced by his European experience. At installations all across Britain and the Continent he had witnessed how professional armies were trained and administered. … Although the Sevastopol siege was over by the time he reached the scene, the logistical framework that had supported it was still in place, as were the officers who had operated it.”

McClellan retired from the Army in 1857 and soon went to work as a railroad executive. Later that year, however, when the federal government sent a military expedition to Utah and it looked as though a shooting war might break out between the U.S. Army and the Mormons, McClellan attempted to gain a command. His efforts ultimately came to nothing and as the country drifted closer to Civil War, he became more and more interested in politics. A staunch Democrat, he had supported Stephen Douglas for president in the critical 1860 election that ended with Lincoln's victory.

When the Civil War began, McClellan's understanding of railroads and logistics earned him a promotion to general, and he was soon assigned to command the Department of the Ohio. Believed to be sympathetic to the South, he had been approached about joining the Confederate Army, but declined because of his opposition to secession. His army soon penetrated Western Virginia, that part of the state that remained largely pro-Union.

Winning a series of small battles, he soon gained quite a reputation as a military commander. Sears wrote: “The Louisville Journal termed his campaign 'a piece of finished military workmanship by a master hand.' The New York Times announced, 'We feel very proud of our wise and brave young Major-General. There is a future before him ….' The New York Herald headed a column of fulsome praise 'Gen. McClellan, the Napoleon of the Present War.’ ”

Further east, the Union Army commanded by Irwin McDowell suffered a major defeat at the battle of First Bull Run on July 21, 1861. It had been the first major battle of the Civil War, and many in the north feared the consequences of such a catastrophic failure. Eager to find an officer as competent in military affairs as he was able to restore northern confidence in victory, Lincoln turned McClellan, who many now began referring to as “The Young Napoleon.” McClellan was not yet 35 years old.

Lincoln ordered McClellan to take command of the Army of the Potomac, made up of the forces located around the capital and the defenses of Washington itself. McClellan soon found what amounted to an armed rabble rather than a true military force. As Socrates supposedly said, “a disorderly mob is no more an army than a heap of building materials is a house,” and McClellan set about training this mob and preparing it for battle. Drawing upon those lessons learned in the Mexican and Crimean Wars, McClellan succeeded in turning the Army of the Potomac into a first-rate fighting force.

For McClellan, however, that was not enough. As soon as he arrived in Washington, he began to butt heads with the commanding general of the Army, Winfield Scott. Scott, who had held a general's rank since the War of 1812, had been appointed commanding general in 1841. In 1847, he had captured Mexico City in the face of superior numbers and little in the way of supply and reinforcement. Capitalizing on his success as a war hero, Scott had run for president in 1852 as a Whig, though he lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, the commanding general was 74 years old. Overweight and plagued by gout, he could no longer ride a horse. Despite his infirmities, he soon drew up an operational war plan to crush the Confederacy. The Anaconda Plan called for a blockade of Southern ports and the conquest of the length of the Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy into two. Because of its great size and the vast reserves of manpower it had to draw from, Scott understood the war would not be won in a few weeks or months. His plan, which called for a slow strangulation of the South, was projected to take two or three years.

When Republican Sens. Benjamin Wade and Zachariah Chandler began to express frustration that McClellan had not advanced into Virginia, McClellan met with them. Assuring the senators that he wanted to invade Virginia as soon as possible, he stated that Scott's devotion to the Anaconda Plan, with its more leisurely pace, prevented him from doing so. The senators in turn met with Lincoln, and implored him to relieve Scott of his command. Scott, whose health was failing, had already written a letter of resignation that Lincoln had not yet accepted.

In his book, “Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief,” historian James B. McPherson wrote: “McClellan was pulling every string he could find to get himself appointed Scott's successor. But the old general wanted that job to go to Henry W. Halleck, author and translator of books on military strategy, who had resigned from the army in the 1850s … Scott hoped that Halleck could get to Washington from California in time for Lincoln to appoint him rather than McClellan as Scott's successor.”

Meeting with his Cabinet, Lincoln made the decision to relieve Scott. A few days later, on Nov. 1, Scott retired and the president asked McClellan to take up his post. The youngest commanding general in America's history, McClellan still maintained operational command of the Army of the Potomac around Washington. When Lincoln expressed his concern that his new post would “entail a vast labor” for McClellan, the young general replied with his typical bravado, “I can do it all.”

The relationship between Lincoln and McClellan soon proved extremely rocky. When among friends, the general took to using the common derisive moniker for Lincoln, “the original gorilla.” Also, only a few weeks after his appointment as commanding general, McClellan famously kept Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward waiting in his parlor for several hours while he took a nap. Lincoln, who felt he needed the general's expertise to win the war, ignored the slight.

McClellan, however, proved to be anything but the “the young Napoleon” that Northerners had hoped for. A first-rate military organizer, he proved a barely adequate field commander and strategist. His spring 1862 Peninsula campaign failed to take Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and ended in retreat. The battle of Antietam, the culmination of Robert E. Lee's summer 1862 invasion of Maryland, saw the Army of the Potomac victorious, though McClellan had failed to crush the Confederate army, even though he had had the means to do so.

In fact, in every engagement in which the Army of the Potomac went up against Confederate forces, McClellan always believed he was outnumbered, when the reverse was always true. Disgusted with McClellan's performance at Antietam, Lincoln fired him not long after. For his timidity and over-cautious nature, many historians rank McClellan as one of the worst generals of the Civil War.

The general still enjoyed popularity within the Army that he had largely created. So much so that in 1864 he ran as the Democratic candidate for president against Lincoln. He gained only 21 electoral votes to Lincoln's 212, however.

In those dark days following the loss at Bull Run in summer 1861, however, the country may well have accepted McClellan as a dictator who could solve the national emergency with absolute power. To his credit, he remained committed to constitutional government, however much he detested Lincoln. That, and his abilities as a military organizer, must be remembered when weighed against his battlefield failures. After all, it was the Army that McClellan had created that Ulysses S. Grant used to defeat Lee in 1865.

After McClellan's removal from the post, the position of commanding general of the United States Army was subsequently held by Halleck, Grant and William T. Sherman. The last man to hold the position was Nelson Appleton Miles, who served from 1895 to 1903. Thereafter, the Army was reorganized and the title “chief of staff” became the new designation for the nation's highest Army officer.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com