The Smearing of General George B. McClellan
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
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
The smearing of McClellan began after he was
appointed commander of the Army of the
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
McClellan was the Democratic Party’s
presidential nominee in the 1864 election.
Incredibly, despite all the advantages that
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
“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.
with Civil War Historian Dr. Tom Clemens, This Mighty Scourge website
(2010). In Part
12, Dr. Clemens discusses criticism of McClellan’s movements from
“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
Rafuse is the author of the book McClellan’s War (Indiana University Press, 2005), one of the better modern defenses of McClellan.
Army of the Potomac: General McClellan’s Report (
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
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 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)
Samuel Cox’s speech in defense of McClellan. Cox, a Democrat from
“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.
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
“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
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
1. At noon, the
Lost Order was still in the hands of the 12th Corps, yet to be delivered to
2. McClellan did not have the ability to telegraph from
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
5. It makes no sense that McClellan would try to telegraph
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
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
12. McClellan was reviewing the 2nd Corps the same time he was supposedly telegramming the letter to
13. The Signal Corps reported that “in the evening” it transmitted a message from
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
“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
Later in 1862,
George B. McClellan,” by Dimitri
Carried on The McClellan Society’s website, this article discusses
McClellan’s excellent record as governor of
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
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
“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.
Background for the Urbana and Yorktown Campaigns,” by The McClellan Society.
This article chronicles the actions that sabotaged McClellan’s
campaign to take
“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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Intelligence During the Maryland Campaign: McClellan, Lee, and the Lost
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
Some scholars now argue that Lee’s
army numbered about 75,000 when it crossed into
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
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