General McClellan, the Army of Potomac & the Peninsula Campaign

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  • 0:48 George McClellan
  • 1:29 Building an Army
  • 2:59 Virginia
  • 3:52 Battle for Richmond
  • 5:30 The War Continues
  • 6:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
General George McClellan was a leading Union commander in 1862 when he built and then led the Army of the Potomac in an attempt to capture Richmond, Virginia, which resulted in the Peninsula Campaign, stretching from March to August, 1862.

General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac

If you were to make a list of the most influential generals of the American Civil War, most people would include names such as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, and William Tecumseh Sherman. Each of these generals had remarkable successes that changed the course of the Civil War. A name that probably wouldn't appear on the average list is George Brinton McClellan, a man who had a tremendous impact on the war as well. McClellan built one of the main Union armies and launched a major campaign against Richmond in 1862, but ultimately is remembered as a failure. Let's learn more about George McClellan and his Peninsula Campaign.

George McClellan

In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, George McClellan was in command of a Union force in western Virginia, trying to protect those who were loyal to the Union in that part of the state. He achieved a few victories over Confederate forces, giving him the reputation of being able to defeat Confederates on the battlefield. When Union forces were soundly defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wanted a new general to command troops in Washington. George McClellan was his choice. The general traveled to Washington, took command of the troops there, and by November, George McClellan was the General-in-Chief of Union forces.

Building an Army

For the first few months of his tenure as General-in-Chief, McClellan remained in Washington. While some wanted him to attack Confederates in Northern Virginia, McClellan instead spent his time building an army. McClellan was a professional army officer before the Civil War. He entered West Point at the age of 15, gained acclaim serving in the Mexican War, and observed the Crimean War in Europe. He knew how to organize an army, and he excelled at the task. By early 1862, what became known as the Army of the Potomac, one of the most famous armies in American history, had taken shape.

Despite his work building an army, Lincoln grew increasingly frustrated with McClellan during this time. By February 1862, he ordered McClellan to move. McClellan, known as the Young Napoleon, devised a plan to sail his army down the Chesapeake and south along the Virginia Coast, landing on the Peninsula east of Richmond, and launching a campaign against the Confederate capital. This plan would save McClellan the difficulties of having to push overland through Virginia against Confederate forces, avoiding the mistakes that had led to the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. This would be forever known as the Peninsula Campaign. By April 1862, McClellan and his army were in Virginia. Opposing them was Confederate General Joseph Johnston and his army that would become known as the Army of Northern Virginia.


Starting in early April, McClellan began to slowly push his way toward Richmond. He was slowed, however, at nearly every turn by both the Confederates and the terrain. The rivers and (at times) swampy terrain of the Peninsula made it difficult for McClellan to keep moving.

What was perhaps even more damaging to McClellan's campaign was his constant fighting with Washington. Lincoln had removed McClellan from his General-in-Chief post in March so that McClellan could focus on his army in the field. Lincoln insisted McClellan leave troops to defend Washington, which McClellan reluctantly agreed to do. Once on the Peninsula, however, McClellan repeatedly requested more reinforcements. In July, Lincoln brought Major General Henry Halleck to Washington to take on the role of General-in-Chief, further complicating his relationship with McClellan.

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