General George McClellan: Civil War Facts & Timeline

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  • 0:01 George McClellan
  • 1:58 The Civil War Begins
  • 3:36 The Peninsula Campaign
  • 5:22 The Maryland Campaign
  • 8:13 Post-Army Life
  • 8:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
George McClellan was a Union General in the American Civil War. He built the Army of the Potomac and led it during the Peninsula and Maryland Campaigns in 1862. Let's learn more about this complicated and fascinating Civil War general.

George McClellan

For millions of Americans, the names of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee are instantly recognizable. Many know these two to have been great Civil War generals. However, another general, George B. McClellan, arguably had just as much influence on the course of the war as did Grant and Lee, and yet few know who McClellan was or what he did. George McClellan built the most famous Union army of the war, the Army of the Potomac, and led the army to victory at the Battle of Antietam. He also ran for president in 1864. George McClellan's story is one of success and failure, and it is very important to the history of the American Civil War.

The Early Years

George Brinton McClellan was born into a prominent Philadelphia family on December 3, 1826. At age 13, he began studies at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1842, at the age of 15, he entered into West Point. He graduated in 1846, second in his class. The 19-year-old McClellan became a brevet second lieutenant and began his career as an army engineer.

Because his graduation occurred just as the Mexican War was beginning, McClellan went right into action. In Mexico, he worked as an engineer and took part in reconnaissance work, seeing action in several battles. After the war with Mexico, McClellan served in numerous posts that allowed him to utilize his skills as an engineer. In 1855 he traveled to Europe to officially observe the Crimean War, studying the tactics and technology being used. During these years, McClellan developed a strong preference for professional military officers over volunteers.

In 1857, McClellan resigned from the army. He quickly became the vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad and then the president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. He worked in these positions until the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Civil War Begins

At the outset of the Civil War, there was a desperate need for military officers and men such as George McClellan were highly sought after. In April 1861, McClellan accepted a post commanding the Ohio militia and became a Major General of Volunteers. Shortly after that, he was appointed the commander of the Department of the Ohio.

That year, McClellan began making a name for himself with his campaign in western Virginia, where he achieved several victories. After the dismal Union defeat at First Manassas on July 21, 1861, McClellan was called to Washington to take over Union forces in the East. On November 1, his meteoric rise continued when, at the age of 34, he was made General-in-Chief of all Union forces. Upon taking this position, he was heard to proclaim, 'I can do it all'.

McClellan had a very short honeymoon period with the Lincoln Administration in Washington. The general was a staunch Democrat and had strong disagreements with President Lincoln on matters of policy. These disagreements quickly soured his relationships in Washington. Making matters worse, at a time when many wanted immediate action, McClellan spent several months organizing and building what eventually became the Army of the Potomac. It was not until March 1862 that he was ready to move. By that time, Lincoln removed McClellan as General-in-Chief, leaving him in command of only the Army of the Potomac. This only served to heighten the tensions between the two leaders. While McClellan was unpopular with Republicans, he was beloved by his men. Many soldiers believed he would not sacrifice them needlessly with rash decisions.

The Peninsula Campaign

McClellan's first major campaign was an attempt to take Richmond, Virginia. It called for the Army of the Potomac to travel by sea to the Virginia Peninsula, then advance against Richmond from the east. McClellan viewed Richmond as a key strategic target. By capturing the city, the war could be ended before massive bloodshed occurred. McClellan's worst fear was that the war would lead to radical changes in the country. By April 1, McClellan's army had landed in Virginia near Fort Monroe, beginning the advance toward Richmond. By the end of May, Union forces were within several miles of the city. That was the closest McClellan would get.

On June 1, 1862, Confederate General Joseph Johnston launched an attack that became the Battle of Seven Pines. During that fight, Johnston was wounded, and General Robert E. Lee took his place. By the end of June, Lee launched a series of desperate attacks that have become known as the Seven Days Battles. While the battles resulted in several Federal tactical wins, they also forced McClellan to begin backing away from Richmond. By mid-July, McClellan's campaign had stalled. He and his army were soon recalled to Washington. It appeared as though McClellan had failed and would not have another chance to command forces in battle.

Once back in Washington, McClellan could only watch as his men were sent into the field to support Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia. However, at the Battle of Second Manassas, Pope was thoroughly defeated by Lee, leading to a moment of crisis for the Union. While Pope's defeated army streamed back toward Washington, Lee was on the verge of victory. In a moment of desperation, Lincoln turned to McClellan to pick up the pieces from Pope's defeat and stop Lee's army. McClellan had found his second chance.

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