The Smearing of General George B. McClellan


Michael T. Griffith


@All Rights Reserved

Fourth Edition


When I began to study the Civil War in 2002, I quickly formed the opinion that General George B. McClellan was a timid, indecisive, and incompetent battlefield commander who repeatedly squandered golden opportunities for victory and who refused to take responsibility for his failures.  In book after book I also read that McClellan was vain, petty, unstable, arrogant, and power hungry.  This is how nearly all Civil War scholars have portrayed McClellan for decades.


In point of fact, McClellan was one of the Union’s best generals, if not the best, and was a man of good moral character, integrity, sound judgment, and faith.  He was not the petty, disagreeable, power-hungry figure described in most “mainstream” books on the Civil War.


The smearing of McClellan began after he was appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac.  The majority of Republicans, especially the Radical Republicans, distrusted and disliked McClellan because he believed in the honorable type of warfare he was taught at West Point, because he opposed the wanton destruction of civilian property in the South, because he opposed the Republicans’ violations of civil rights in the North, because he opposed the vast expansion of the size and power of the federal government, and because he did not believe the war should be used as an excuse to impose immediate emancipation.  McClellan regarded slavery as “a great evil” and strongly supported gradual emancipation, but he opposed the imposition of immediate emancipation as a war measure.


The Republican assault on McClellan reached fever pitch when McClellan began to move on the Confederate capital of Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862.  The vast majority of Civil War scholars, especially modern ones, blame McClellan for the failure to take Richmond, and they cite this failure as a prime example of his alleged timidity, indecision, and incompetence.  However, a strong case can be made that Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans sabotaged McClellan’s operation by suddenly pulling tens of thousands of soldiers from his command and by rejecting his recommendations regarding key troop movements.  W. C. Prime, one of McClellan’s strongest defenders, argued that the Radical Republicans sabotaged McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign because they did not want a quick end to the war but wanted to prolong the war so they could ravage and subjugate the South and consolidate their own political power.


McClellan was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in the 1864 election.  Incredibly, despite all the advantages that Lincoln enjoyed, McClellan received 45 percent of the vote.  If Southern citizens had participated in the election, McClellan almost certainly would have won the popular vote.


What follows is a list of online books and articles that give “the other side of the story” on McClellan.


McClellan’s Own Story (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1887).  McClellan wrote this book.  W. C. Prime’s “Biographical Sketch of George B. McClellan” (pp. 1-26) is reason alone to read the book. 


(Note: To read this and other Open Library books linked herein, click the “Read Online” link on the book’s webpage.  If you want to read the book in PDF format, click “PDF” in the “Read” field on the book’s webpage.  There’s also an option to read the book in plain text format.)


“In Defense of McClellan: A Contrarian View,” The Washington Post (March 2, 2012), by Gene Thorp.  Thorp responds to criticisms of McClellan’s handling of the Peninsula Campaign, i.e., the first Union attempt to seize Richmond.


“In Defense of McClellan at Antietam,” The Washington Post (September 7, 2012), by Gene Thorp.  Thorp shows that McClellan did not “dawdle” after he received a copy of Lee’s orders before the Battle of Antietam.  Thorp also shows that McClellan’s performance in the Battle of Antietam was superb, that he won a significant victory, and that he inflicted more damage on Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia than most scholars acknowledge.


McClellan: A Vindication of the Military Career of General George B. McClellan (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1916), by James Campbell.  The entire book is available for online reading.  It is a good response to most of the common attacks on McClellan.


Interview with Civil War Historian Dr. Tom Clemens, This Mighty Scourge website (2010). In Part 12, Dr. Clemens discusses criticism of McClellan’s movements from South Mountain in the Maryland Campaign. In Part 13, he responds to the claim that McClellan squandered opportunities for victory on September 15 and 16 at Antietam.


“Civil War Buff Takes on McClellan’s Critics.”  This is an NPR interview with Gene Thorp held on September 20, 2012.  The page includes the interview transcript.


“General McClellan and the Politicians Revisited,” Parameters (Summer 2012), by Dr. Ethan Rafuse.  Among other things, Dr. Rafuse notes,


There is also the fact that Lincoln was almost certainly wrong on the substantive merits of the case. His decision in early April [1862] to withhold a corps commanded by Irvin McDowell from McClellan’s army was a gross overreaction to the situation in the Shenandoah Valley. It also undermined McClellan’s ability . . . to undertake a joint operation against the Confederate garrison at Yorktown. Such an operation could have quickly overcome the obstacle the Confederate defenders there presented and spared the Union army the month-long siege operation. . . .  In late May, Lincoln once again overreacted to problems in the Shenandoah Valley by diverting a significant portion of McDowell’s command to the region in a move that, as McDowell presciently warned the president at the time, would not produce any measureable benefits for the Union cause. With mismanagement of McDowell’s command preventing him from joining McClellan in a timely manner, the Confederates were able to take advantage of McClellan’s vulnerable right wing and compel the Federal commander to make a risky move to a new position on the James River. (p. 78)


Rafuse is the author of the book McClellan’s War (Indiana University Press, 2005), one of the better modern defenses of McClellan.


The Army of the Potomac: General McClellan’s Report (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1864). This is General McClellan’s report on his operations as commander of the Army of the Potomac. This report, often ignored by critics, refutes nearly all of the attacks on McClellan’s performance as a combat commander. For example, some critics claim that McClellan squandered a golden opportunity to crush Lee’s army at Antietam by “failing” to attack on September 15. This myth ignores most of the relevant facts of the matter. 


McClellan not only wanted to attack on the 15th, but he attempted to do so. He ordered that if the Confederates were overtaken, they were to be attacked at once, unless they were found to be “in heavy force and in position,” in which case his troops were supposed to get in position for an attack and wait for McClellan to arrive.  As it turned out, Lee’s units were “in heavy force and in position” when McClellan’s troops caught up with them.  When McClellan arrived on the scene, he found that he could not attack because not enough of his soldiers had moved far enough forward to carry out an assault.  This happened frequently to virtually every general in the war, including Lee and Grant.  For instance, Lee had to delay some of his attacks because none other than Stonewall Jackson arrived late and/or did not get into position in time.  A general can order corps, divisions, or brigades to be at a certain location at a given time, but sometimes, for reasons beyond the general’s control, they do not arrive at the designated time.  Yet, we’re supposed to believe that McClellan’s “failure” to attack on the 15th constitutes proof of his alleged timidity.  Here is what McClellan said about the attempt to attack on the 15th:


It had been hoped to engage the enemy during the fifteenth. Accordingly, instructions were given that if the enemy were overtaken on the march they should be attacked at once; if found in heavy force and in position, the corps in advance should be placed in position for attack, and await my arrival. On reaching the advanced position of our troops, I found but two divisions, Richardson's and Sykes's, in position; the other troops were halted in the road; the head of the column some distance in rear of Richardson.


The enemy occupied a strong position on the heights, on the west side of Antietam Creek, displaying a large force of infantry and cavalry, with numerous batteries of artillery, which opened on our columns as they appeared in sight on the Keedysville road and Sharpsburgh turnpike, which fire was returned. . . .


The division of General Richardson, following close on the heels of the retreating foe, halted and deployed near Antietam River, on the right of the Sharpsburgh road. General Sykes, leading on the division of regulars on the old Sharpsburgh road, came up and deployed to the left of General Richardson, on the left of the road.


Antietam Creek, in this vicinity, is crossed by four stone bridges. . . .  The stream is sluggish, with few and difficult fords. After a rapid examination of the position, I found that it was too late to attack that day, and at once directed the placing of the batteries in position in the center, and indicated the bivouacs for the different corps, massing them near and on both sides of the Sharpsburgh turnpike. The corps were not all in their positions until the next morning after sunrise. (p. 628)


Representative Samuel Cox’s speech in defense of McClellan.  Cox, a Democrat from Ohio, delivered this speech in the House of Representatives on January 31, 1862.  It was later published as a small book titled Speech of Hon. S.S. Cox, of Ohio, in Vindication of Gen. McClellan from the Attacks of Congressional War Critics.  The linked version is from Cox’s book Eight Years in Congress.  Cox was responding to Radical Republican attacks on General McClellan.  One of the section titles in the speech is “Perversion and Prolongation of the War.”


“Maurice D’Aoust on a Famous Telegram,” Civil War Bookshelf, March 20, 2014.  Civil War scholar Maurice D’Aoust presents strong evidence that McClellan did not know about Lee’s lost order until around 3:00 p.m. (not noon), that he telegrammed Lincoln about the lost order at midnight (not noon), and that he responded to their discovery promptly and credibly. 


“The McClellan Telegram: A Response from Maurice D’Aoust,” Civil War Bookshelf, April 2, 2014.  D’Aoust responds to Stephen Sears’ defense of the traditional story that McClellan received Lee’s lost order at around noon and then telegrammed Lincoln about them shortly thereafter.  D’Aoust makes a compelling argument that McClellan sent the telegram to Lincoln at midnight, not noon.


“Closing Remarks on McClellan’s Telegram from Maurice D’Aoust,” Civil War Bookshelf, April 3, 2014.


“Defending McClellan: In Depth,” The Washington Post (September 8, 2012), by Gene Thorp.  This is an in-depth look at when McClellan sent his telegram to Lincoln regarding Lee’s lost order.


“McClellan Debate,” The Washington Post (April 27, 2013).  Gene Thorp destroys Stephen Sears in a debate over McClellan’s reactions to Lee’s lost order, especially the timing of McClellan’s telegram to Lincoln regarding the lost order. Thorp summarizes the evidence that McClellan sent his telegram to Lincoln at around midnight, not noon:


1. At noon, the Lost Order was still in the hands of the 12th Corps, yet to be delivered to McClellan.
2. McClellan did not have the ability to telegraph from Frederick at noon or anytime immediately thereafter because the line was down and the telegraphic instruments were absent.
3. McClellan knew he did not have the ability to telegraph from Frederick or Monocacy Junction at noon or anytime immediately thereafter because he could see the line was down.
4. McClellan had no motive to break military protocol and telegraph Lincoln before Halleck.
5. It makes no sense that McClellan would try to telegraph Lincoln at noon, then wait 11 hours before attempting to telegraph Halleck about the same topic.
6. It makes no sense that McClellan would wait three hours before asking Pleasonton to verify the movements of the Lost Order.
7. The telegram sent to Lincoln contains information about an event (the capture of Catoctin Mountain) that did not transpire until well after noon.
8. On the day McClellan was given the Lost Order, he wrote to General-in-Chief Halleck that he had received it in, “the evening,” not the morning.
9. McClellan’s headquarters had to be established before the Rebel sympathizer could enter it and witness McClellan receiving the Lost Order. The headquarters were established almost 3 hours after noon.
10. McClellan would have had to unrealistically marched with his escort and staff an additional 4 miles to the Steiner Farm and back to have established his headquarters before noon, .
11. McClellan was traveling to the southern entrance of Frederick the same time he was supposedly writing a letter to Lincoln.
12. McClellan was reviewing the 2nd Corps the same time he was supposedly telegramming the letter to Lincoln.
13. The Signal Corps reported that “in the evening” it transmitted a message from Lincoln to McClellan, and a return message from McClellan to Lincoln. The report mentions no other transmittal of information between the two men at any other time of the day.
14. Telegraphers did write “12 Midnight” on telegrams during the Civil War, including telegraphs from McClellan.
15. The dateline of the telegram from McClellan to Lincoln in Lincoln’s papers clearly states “12 midnight”.


“Why Civil War General George McClellan Wasn’t Actually a Failure,” The Washington Post (March 5, 2012), by Gene Thorp.  Thorp responds to a myriad of criticisms of McClellan in a Q & A format.  It is very interesting, worthwhile reading.


“General George B. McClellan: 1826-1885,” by Brendan McGeehan.  This is good short summary of McClellan’s life and his performance as a commanding officer.  Excerpt:


Due to his early success, McClellan was placed in command of all troops in the area in and surrounding the capital of Washington. He officially took control of this Army of the Potomac on July 27, 1861. Within three and a half months, McClellan replaced General Winfield Scott of Mexican War fame as supreme commander of the Union troops. Although this position carried a great deal of power, McClellan was frequently limited in what he could do strategically, primarily by President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. His Peninsular Campaign was constantly halted and rerouted by the government and his repeated requests for desperately needed supplies were ignored; thus he was many times unable to move his troops. McClellan’s enemies in the White House felt that he was intentionally slowing the progress of the Union forces and pressured President Lincoln into relieving McClellan of supreme command of the Union troops. He had scored several victories on the battlefields of Maryland and Virginia and his troops adored him, but the political forces in Washington were too strong to allow him to continue in this position.


Later in 1862, Lincoln called on McClellan for a second time to defend the city of Washington against a possible invasion by Confederate troops. During this period (September 1862), McClellan faced General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war. The Union General and his troops forced Lee’s Confederate soldiers to retreat back across the Potomac River. McClellan again came away with a great victory, but again disputes with the White House over supplies and troop movement caused McClellan’s removal of command entirely in November of 1862. He was sent to Trenton, NJ, to await further orders from the army. Ultimately, he and his family, which now included a daughter Mary who was born during the war on October 12th, 1861, ended up in Orange, New Jersey.


“Governor George B. McClellan,” by Dimitri Rotov.  Carried on The McClellan Society’s website, this article discusses McClellan’s excellent record as governor of New Jersey.  McClellan served as governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1882.


“Governor George B. McClellan: An Overview of His Election, Administration, and Succession,” by Dr. William Starr Myers.  This is another look at McClellan’s record as governor of New Jersey.  Observed Dr. Myers,


McClellan's service as Governor was above reproach and of good quality of judgment. The state, as well as the rest of the country, was slowly recovering from the results of the depression of 1873 and he had the good sense to see that while it was impossible to legislate prosperity a government can cooperate with constructive economic forces and hasten its return, rather than hinder this by half-baked measures of reform and unwise experiments. He turned his attention for the most part to three things. These were, taxation and public expenditures, public education, and the national guard. All three were efforts in a sound constructive direction. . . .


McClellan was successful in lessening the state taxes and even in abolishing them in large part. Also, he especially was interested in the advancement of commercial, industrial and agricultural training and especially in technical training for industries such as silk and cotton manufacturing in the northern part of the State, glass-making in the southern part, and for the potteries located at Trenton.


“Major Author, Minor Error,” by The McClellan Society.  This article discusses some of the erroneous criticisms of McClellan found in major books on the Civil War.


“Water Torture: Background for the Urbana and Yorktown Campaigns,” by The McClellan Society.  This article chronicles the actions that sabotaged McClellan’s campaign to take Richmond.


“McClellan Controversies,” by The McClellan Society.  This page includes links to the two previous articles and several others.


Life, Character, and Public Services of General George B. McClellan (Boston: Cupples, Upham and Company, 1887), by George Curtis.  This is a book-length address given at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in 1886, one year after McClellan had passed away.  Curtis, a long-time friend of McClellan’s, gave the address at the request of the McClellan Memorial Association of Philadelphia. Curtis’s address provides us with an insightful look at McClellan’s character, leadership, and achievements.


George Brinton McClellan and the Forgotten Alternative: An Introduction to the Conservative Strategy in the Civil War, by Dr. Joseph Harsh.  This is Harsh’s 1970 doctoral thesis at Rice University.  Harsh was chairman of the history department at George Mason University and author of the widely acclaimed book Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862.  Among other things, Harsh argued that McClellan understood better than his critics what it would take to defeat the Confederacy:


It seems fair to point out, however, that McClellan, although wrong in specific instances [about Confederate troop strength] when at the mercy of his primitive intelligence apparatus, was more nearly correct in his assessment of the time and effort that would be required to subdue the South than his contemporary critics, who arrived at smaller and more precise estimates of rebel forces at specific points in time and space, but operated on an erroneous and dangerous underestimation of the Confederate effort in general. (p. 197)


Review of McClellan’s Campaigns (Boston: Press of the Daily Courier, 1863), by George Lunt.  This short book was written in 1863 to reply to the Republican attacks on McClellan.  Among many other points, Lunt notes that McClellan’s plan to take Richmond most likely would have succeeded if “Washington” (i.e., Lincoln, Stanton, and others) had not interfered:


It is only necessary for the present to state the facts as affecting General McClellan in determining upon his plans for the campaign. He deemed he had amply complied with the conditions relating to the protection of Washington; and having done that, his plan was to embark with his entire remaining force, except that of General McDowell, for Fortress Monroe, and from thence proceed in the direction of Yorktown, as he subsequently did. His plan, further, was for the transports to return and take the corps of General McDowell, as a unit, to Fortress Monroe. From thence. General McDowell was to proceed up the Severn and take Gloucester. This being accomplished, the gunboats could pass up York River, and then he was to advance beyond in the direction of West Point. This was proposed to obviate the delays of a siege. For, with the forces of General McDowell in the rear of the enemy, they would have been compelled to at once evacuate or run the risk of capture, their position being turned. No one now has reasonable doubts but that, if these plans had not been interfered with at Washington, they would have resulted successfully, and Richmond, probably, have been soon taken. (p. 8)


General McClellan and the Conduct of the War (New York: Sheldon and Company, 1864), by William Henry Hurlbert. This is an excellent, detailed defense of McClellan’s performance as a combat commander.  Among other things, Hurlbert does a good job of showing that Lincoln gave McClellan conflicting, nonsensical orders, and even dishonest orders.  For example, in War Order Number 3, dated March 8, 1862, Lincoln ordered McClellan to begin moving by ship up the Chesapeake Bay “as early as the 18th of March.”  But Lincoln knew this was impossible.  Lincoln did not even authorize the procurement of the necessary ships until February 27, and Lincoln knew that the person in charge of acquiring the ships—his assistant secretary of war—had said it would take at least 30 days to get the required number of vessels.  Noted Hurlbert,


Upon this order it is to be remarked, that the clause holding General McClellan responsible that the movement on the bay should begin as early as the 18th of March was issued directly in the face of the facts which were perfectly well known to the President, though not to the public, that the assistant secretary of war, charged with procuring transportation for this movement, had stated it to be impossible to procure such transportation in less than thirty days' time, and that the said assistant secretary of war had never received permission from the President to begin the work of procuring such transportation until the 27th of February.


The clause of this order, therefore, can only be regarded as a deliberate attempt to make the general commanding the expedition responsible before the country for a delay of which the President, who issued the order, knew himself, when he issued it, to have been the cause. (p. 191)


“Civil War Scholar: General McClellan Was Victim of History, Politics,” DOD News (September 6, 2012).  This is a news article about a presentation that Civil War scholar Dr. Tom Clemens gave on General McClellan at the Department of Defense’s historical speakers series in 2012.  An excerpt:


In a presentation for the Defense Department’s historical speakers series, retired history professor Tom Clemens said McClellan, considered by many historians to be an ineffectual commander, was in fact hamstrung by political and military jealousies that ultimately led to his removal from command.


In describing the events leading up to the battle of Antietam, Clemens outlined efforts by the military and political establishment to prevent McClellan from being perceived as a hero of the Civil War.


His orders were often confusing and contradictory, Clemens said.


For example, on Aug. 3, 1862, at the same time he was ordering McClellan to retreat back to Washington, Gen. Henry Halleck wrote McClellan to tell him he soon would be put in command of the Army of Virginia. Instead, President Abraham Lincoln and Halleck give McClellan command only of the troops within the perimeter of the nation’s capital. On Sept. 3, 1862, McClellan was ordered to form a field army, but the order didn't say who would command it, Clemens said.


"He's got two missions -- he's got to defend the capital, but he also has to create this field army," Clemens said. "It's clear the Confederates are crossing the river [into Maryland] . . . and he begins to push troops out towards Rockville as an advance guard to essentially see where the Confederates are going." In response to this, Clemens said, Halleck reminded McClellan that he was not in command of any troops outside of Washington.


”Military Intelligence During the Maryland Campaign: McClellan, Lee, and the Lost Order,” Antietam on the Web, 2008, by Laurence Freiheit.  This is not a “pro-McClellan” article, but it is somewhat balanced toward McClellan and contains some useful background information on the intelligence challenges that both sides faced before and during the Battle of Antietam.  Although critical of McClellan on the issue of estimating enemy troop strength, Freiheit at least acknowledges that McClellan based his estimates on the intelligence sources that were available to him:


McClellan's estimates of Lee's army during the campaign were based on wildly varying reports from civilian and official sources but there is no evidence that McClellan saw any of the more realistic figures available. In a report to Lincoln on 10 September, he said that "statements I get regarding the enemy's forces that have crossed to this side range from 80,000 to 150,000." He seems to have settled on the estimate of 120,000 as realistic based on the reports he saw.


Some scholars now argue that Lee’s army numbered about 75,000 when it crossed into Maryland, instead of the traditional figure of 40,000 or 50,000 (see, for example, Thorp’s previously mentioned article, “In Defense of McClellan at Antietam”).


McClellan’s critics constantly attack him for overestimating Confederate troop strength, but they rarely mention that many other Union generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, did the same thing, as did Confederate generals.  Civil War scholar Dr. Otto Eisenschiml provided some needed perspective on this issue:


The art of sifting information on enemy strength had not yet been developed, and the Confederates used clever and heretofore unknown schemes to mislead him.  Furthermore, McClellan was not the only one guilty in this respect.  “We overrated each other’s strength greatly, as was generally done by the opposing generals during the war,” wrote the Confederate general Joe Johnston.  Instances to prove this pronouncement are plentiful.  On the first day of Shiloh, Grant sent a note to Buell asserting that he was fighting more than 100,000 men, although they numbered no more than 45,000.  These lines may have been written hastily amid the excitement of the moment, but Grant affirmed his belief in Johnston’s superiority after the fight with equal conviction: “Those people who expect a field of battle to be maintained for a whole day with about 30,000 troops . . . against 70,000, as was the case at Pittsburgh Landing, . . . know little of war.”  On the eve of the Battle of Antietam, Halleck thought Lee had 150,000 men. . . .  In 1862 Lincoln advised McClellan that Jackson had 30,000 men in the Valley; James Shields’s estimate was from 20,000 to 40,000, Fremont’s 30,000 to 60,000.  The truth was that Jackson had 16,000.  Two years later, when the Intelligence service had made considerable progress, Secretary of War Stanton estimated that Early had 35,000 men, while the actual figure was closer to 12,000.  On the eve of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Hooker advised Lincoln that the Confederates had received reinforcements and now outnumbered him.  The fact was that Lee had received no reinforcements and commanded less than half as many men as Hooker.  The doubtful honor of beating all others in overestimating enemy forces belongs to Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania, who wired the War Department on September 13, 1862, that Lee had 190,000 men in Maryland and 250,000 on the other side of the Potomac, a total of 440,000 men, or about ten times the real number. (The Hidden Face of the Civil War, New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1961, pp. 243-244)




About the Author: Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College. He is a two-time graduate in Arabic and Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas. He is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient texts, and of one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination. He has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.


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