Lincoln and McClellan: SET IN STONE?

“Incidents of the War. President Lincoln on Battlefield of Antietam” (OC-1522)

Lincoln and McClellan: SET IN STONE?

George C. Rable

“Dear Little Mac!” (LN-0836)

Mention George B. McClellan to students of the American Civil War, and the response is predictable. They know McClellan as a foil to Lincoln who might be able to organize an army but was reluctant to commit it to combat. As Lincoln once said, McClellan had “the slows” and had to be removed from command. To call McClellan a controversial commander at least in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries is misleading. People have largely made up their minds about McClellan—and not in the general’s favor.


Indeed, opinions about McClellan and his relationship with Lincoln appear to be set in stone and not likely to change. In his own day, however, McClellan had many warm friends and political supporters, and, of course, no shortage of critics and enemies. McClellan had the misfortune to clash with Lincoln—another controversial figure of the time but who became the savior of the Union, the great emancipator, and the martyr president in the aftermath of his assassination. The apotheosis of Lincoln further damaged McClellan’s historical standing.


George and Ellen McClellan (OC-0797)

McClellan sought vindication in an autobiography but did not live to complete it. His literary executor, William C. Prime, hardly helped matters by bringing McClellan’s partially completed manuscript into print and adding excerpts from letters between McClellan and his wife, Mary Ellen Marcy McClellan, that have offered fodder for McClellan critics ever since. By 1881, McClellan had largely completed his memoirs, and they were stored in a warehouse while he traveled to Europe. Just as he was returning from the trip, a fire tore through the building consuming the manuscript. He began anew but in a desultory fashion and often simply added healthy chunks of his 1864 report on military operations. When McClellan died on October 29, 1885, this new manuscript had only reached May 1862, so Prime had to take over the project. Even the title, McClellan’s Own Story, is misleading because it is McClellan’s story only in part since he had not come close to completing an account of his Civil War service. Prime did more than McClellan himself to shape the final product, and, it might be added, further damage his friend’s historical reputation.


For their part, Lincoln’s closest associates helped craft much of what became the standard narrative of the wise president and the troublesome general. As Lincoln’s private secretary John Hay noted in a letter to his fellow secretary and co-author, John G. Nicolay, as they were preparing their ten-volume biography of Lincoln: “I think I have left the impression of [McClellan’s] mutinous infidelity, and I have done it in a perfectly courteous manner. . . . It is of the utmost moment that we should seem fair to him, while we are destroying him.”


Historians have not exactly set out to destroy McClellan, but the weight of their work has been largely negative. Consider this lineup. In the anti-McClellan camp are giants of the Civil War field: Bruce Catton, T. Harry Williams, Stephen Sears, and James M. McPherson. For the defense, we have a so-so biography by Warren Hassler, a good unpublished dissertation by Joseph Harsh, Ethan Rafuse’s fine study of McClellan as strategist and commander, a few recent works that defend McClellan’s campaign operations, and a scattering of articles. And then there is Ken Burns’s documentary that presented thoroughly standard and conventional portraits of generals on both sides; his treatment of McClellan simply followed in the footsteps of Catton et al.


In many ways, the story of Lincoln and McClellan is one of clashing ambitions. In their younger days, both men strove to make their mark in the world; each held forth on the promise and perils of such striving. As the outgoing president of the Dialectic Society at West Point in 1846, nineteen-year-old George McClellan viewed his classmates as the key to national success not only in war but more broadly. “The great difference between the officer and private is that one is supposed to be an educated and well informed man, whilst the other is a passive instrument in the hands of his superior.” Such faith in an elite class, indeed in a natural hierarchy, would hardly sit well in democratic America, but his confidence in the power of superior minds was striking and unequivocal. Achieving greatness not only in the military but all walks of life required study and determination; natural talent combined with hard work remained the key.


McClellan praised his fellow (and presumably like-minded) cadets for appreciating the best literature “essential to the man who would bear the character of an accomplished and polished gentleman.” Indeed, without educated officers, armies would become little more than mobs of the “most depraved and wicked men who would spread mindless pillage and devastation.” Power based on “the virtue of intellectual superiority is infinitely greater and more lasting than that which is the result of mere physical qualities.” Setting his sights still higher, he talked of the great commanders of history, including Napoleon, who recognized the importance of study and self-improvement. Yet he could not ignore the nation’s mounting sectional tensions and even alluded to “the horrors of civil war.” In such a crisis the trained officers would “hold the balance in our hands” and therefore the army should “ever incline to the conservative party” whose highest goal must be to preserve the Union.


The murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy by an anti-abolition mob in Alton, Ill., November 7, 1837 (Library of Congress)


A few years earlier, on a wintry day in January 1838, Abraham Lincoln, a young member of the legislature, spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on the “perpetuation of our political institutions.” The opening passages extolling the glories of the republic and singing hymns of gratitude to the founding fathers were jejune, but the address soon took on a more somber tone. This aspiring politician (and lawyer) deplored the “increasing disregard for the law.” Like young McClellan, he worried about the prevalence of “wild and furious passions” and specifically pointed to recent incidents of mob violence in Mississippi, Illinois, and St. Louis. In his view, the only real danger to the American experiment came from within: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” He dreaded a lawless spirit spreading through society like some great contagion, with even the best citizens growing alienated from their government.


In such an atmosphere, there might arise a man of boundless ambition eagerly taking advantage of disturbances and disorder to claim the mantle of savior. “Towering genius disdains a beaten path,” the young Lincoln warned. “It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”


The striking contrasts in their background and experience should not obscure the strong thread of ambition running through both McClellan and Lincoln. The coming of war meant that George B. McClellan’s long-frustrated ambition for martial distinction (if not greatness) might soon be gratified, and there was no shortage of people offering advice or seeking his talents. Viewing himself as indispensable would not only lead McClellan to work far too long and hard but also prevent him from sharing his plans and problems with subordinates, the War Department, or the president. At the same time, his moods often seemed mercurial, sinking one moment, soaring the next. Early in the war, McClellan displayed a penchant for caution, careful planning, an obsession with detail, and hesitation at the moment of crisis, but these qualities were not what contemporaries—including many Republicans—noticed. Not long after McClellan’s promotion to major general, the strongly Republican Chicago Tribune had declared that “no fitter appointment could be made.” Indeed the paper attached to him nearly super-human qualities: “He is now in the full vigor of his powers, both physical and mental . . . nature has endowed him with a close-knit frame which will enable him to endure any amount of fatigue. . . . With prudence and confidence in his strength, he will succeed where a bolder and rasher man would fail. He will commit no mistakes. When he advances, it will be with a strength that no ordinary force can oppose; if he recedes, ruin and disaster will not follow in his rear.” “There is a charm in this name [McClellan] which will yet work as a talisman upon the American heart,” the conservative New York Herald predicted.


Alexander Gardner photograph of John G. Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln, and John Hay (OC-1536)

Here was the hero who appeared just at the moment of greatest need, and so comparisons to Napoleon Bonaparte began. Two of Lincoln’s private secretaries, John Hay and William O. Stoddard, filed anonymous newspaper dispatches praising McClellan. McClellan basked in the attention. “I receive letter after letter—have conversation after conversation calling on me to save the nation,” he exulted. There was now talk of the presidency, which the general claimed he would never take. “I am not spoiled by my unexpected and new position,” he assured his wife. Nevertheless, he felt that “God has placed a great work in my hands,” and despite his own admitted weakness, he meant to “do right” because “God will help me & give me the wisdom I do not possess.” On being appointed general in chief, McClellan told Lincoln, “I can do it all.”


Such overweening ambition might well have resonated with (or alarmed) the president. William Herndon knew one thing for sure about his old law partner: he was very ambitious. “That man who thinks Lincoln calmly sat down and gathered his robes about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln,” Herndon wrote in a much-quoted passage. “He was always calculating, and always planning ahead. His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” In a less-quoted letter, Herndon was even more pointed: “His ambition was never satisfied; in him it was a consuming fire which smothered his finer feelings.” Lincoln studied a question, listened carefully, but less often asked advice of anyone. There was about him a quiet, though in some ways steely, self-confidence that belied his popular image as the humble Illinois rail-splitter. Despite periodic moods of depression and seeming apathy, Lincoln often acted like a driven man. He set his sights not only on political success but on lasting influence, and at times appeared to see himself as destined for some great work. Deeply resentful of his great rival Stephen A. Douglas, in the 1850s Lincoln feared that his ambitions had been a “flat failure.” Yet the presidency, secession, and civil war would give Lincoln ample opportunity for greatness.


Even the historians most critical of McClellan have praised his organizational abilities, and some have acknowledged his strategic sense. In 1882, Francis Winthrop Palfrey who had served in the 20th Massachusetts Infantry (the famed “Harvard Regiment”) offered one of the earliest and most judicious assessments. While praising McClellan as both organizer and strategist, Palfrey noted the general’s failure to deploy his forces with enough speed and vigor to obtain “decisive results,” though he might have added that decisive results eluded virtually all Civil War generals. Palfrey realized that it might seem strange to praise McClellan as the Army of the Potomac’s best commander—as indeed it does—but he carefully weighed the difficulties McClellan had confronted. For Palfrey, the question of timing was especially important in shaping McClellan’s historical image because he had faced the Confederates early in the war and at the height of their strength. Yet Palfrey also acknowledged that McClellan’s politics and especially early talk of a presidential candidacy made his removal from command most likely, especially given his checkered record and his difficulties with Lincoln. Whatever the general’s shortcomings and limitations, Palfrey deemed McClellan’s failures “partly his misfortune but not altogether his fault.”


Palfrey’s roughly balanced though not entirely convincing analysis was generous but not uncritical. It recognized McClellan’s political liabilities without probing more deeply the political nature of the command relationship. Given the president’s position as commander in chief, Lincoln and his advisers had to select and evaluate the Union’s military leadership. At the beginning of the war, none of the generals had commanded large armies in combat, and given the eventual size of Civil War armies and the limits of staff, communications, and transportation, that task often seemed beyond the capabilities of even the better generals. Ulysses S. Grant in an often-quoted passage would later describe McClellan “as one of the mysteries of the war.” But what has been much less often noted was Grant’s conviction that no commander was likely to succeed early in the conflict: “It has always seemed to me that the critics of McClellan do not consider this vast and cruel responsibility—the war, a new thing to all of us, the army new, everything to do from the outset, with a restless people and Congress. McClellan was a young man when this devolved upon him, and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying. If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman, Thomas, or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us.”


However that might be, Civil War campaigns sometimes seemed like a series of blunders and missed opportunities, and the inability of generals to follow up even after victories was striking. McClellan’s supporters stressed the role of political interference by the Lincoln administration in the Army of the Potomac’s operations—including both the withholding of forces from McClellan on the Peninsula and the ordered withdrawal at the end of the Seven Days campaign.


Yet to mount any kind of defense of McClellan’s military record, or a more critical assessment of Lincoln’s leadership, should hardly mean ignoring the general’s shortcomings or failing to see how the president grew in his role as commander in chief. Indeed, what might be termed the “standard narrative” contains a good deal of truth. Historians have emphasized McClellan’s slowness and timidity along with his repeated overestimation of enemy numbers. The general seemed oblivious to public impatience; he also appeared uncertain of himself when the moment for decisive action arrived. The stress of command itself may also have reinforced McClellan’s natural cautiousness.


Both Lincoln and McClellan considered the Union to be a sacred trust, but they could not agree on military strategy. McClellan the engineer favored meticulous preparation and thought the war might be won by overwhelming the Confederates in a single campaign. Such a strategy risked considerable delay, and Lincoln had to respond to political pressures that McClellan cavalierly dismissed. The president could at times be indecisive while McClellan was often loath to explain (or even share) his plans with the government.


More broadly speaking, Lincoln and McClellan came to see the nature of the war in quite different ways. Lincoln’s views, however, evolved—albeit haltingly—while McClellan’s did not. McClellan failed to recognize how changing attitudes about the role of slavery in the conflict meant that the more conciliatory and conservative policies that he preferred were losing public favor. He opposed both confiscation and emancipation even as Lincoln was coming to embrace both as necessary means to overcome Confederate resistance. McClellan remained fundamentally conservative—in terms of his own whiggish background and later his identification as a Democrat aligned with the Stephen A. Douglas wing of the party. McClellan believed in moderation and compromise, and the war did not weaken that faith. Given his political philosophy and West Point training, McClellan favored maneuvering over fighting and preferred moving along rivers and railroad lines rather than advancing overland.


That McClellan would not throw his troops headlong into battle or assault heavily fortified positions partly explains his popularity in the ranks, and indeed his success in winning the loyalty and even affection of his men was striking. McClellan identified with his soldiers and many of them identified with him. He was quite visible in camp and became known for looking after his troops’ welfare. Newspapers paid much attention to McClellan, and early in the war uniformly exalted the “young Napoleon.” Expectations for success ran so high that they set the general and his most devoted acolytes up for disappointment.


McClellan prided himself on military professionalism, but the men he commanded were mostly citizen-soldiers. McClellan’s elevated standing in the army and at home stood in ironic contrast to his at times condescending attitude toward the volunteers. McClellan may have been a Democrat, but he was no democrat. At the same time, McClellan often had trouble with superiors, whether military or civilian; frustration and anger boiled over if a proposed strategy or requests for more men were not approved. He had little faith in civilian leadership or the northern public.


For his part, Lincoln showed great patience with McClellan, at least until the early months of 1862. He reluctantly went along with McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign despite strong reservations, but in March removed McClellan as general in chief while leaving him in command of the Army of the Potomac. The president’s appointment of corps commanders in the Army of the Potomac created additional friction. There followed a series of controversies over whether McClellan had left Washington adequately defended, over the withholding of troops from McClellan’s army, over the general’s frequent calls for reinforcements, over whether McClellan’s army should have been withdrawn from the Peninsula in August, and over the general’s conduct of the Maryland Campaign in September. McClellan hardly helped his cause with complaining and at times self-pitying dispatches.


The relationship between Lincoln and McClellan began early in the war and at times dominated its course with many a twist and turn. It was often a conflict of command that spilled over into the political arena and divided the president’s advisors. Politicians and journalists of various stripes had a great deal to say about Lincoln and McClellan. So too, did the men in uniform. Enlisted men as well as officers read newspapers, followed politics, and developed their own ideas on strategy; they often viewed their military superiors and civilian rulers with a critical eye. Unlike many nineteenth-century European armies, American armies did not play an independent political role, but that hardly meant an absence of political opinions and political partisanship in the ranks. The soldiers would have their say about both McClellan and Lincoln; many would cast their votes in 1864 during one of the strangest and most important presidential elections in American history.


McClellan deplored the influence of politics on the conduct of the war, yet could hardly escape from that reality. However much McClellan might wish to insulate himself from Washington politicians, that was simply not possible. Politics became inextricably entangled with the war’s conduct. Of course, the Lincoln administration had to select and deal with an array of military commanders. Lincoln himself had much to learn, could be oblivious to logistical constraints, and had unrealistic expectations for military success based on the Union’s superior resources. He eventually developed a firm resolve in working with generals but paid a price for earlier indecisiveness and allowing generals—including McClellan—to bypass the chain of command.


“Grand National Democratic Banner,” 1864 (Library of Congress)

McClellan tended to draw a whiggish distinction between politicians and statesmen; he viewed himself as principled and his opponents as conniving. His opinions of Lincoln ran hot and cold, but he often saw the president as an uncultivated teller of droll stories who failed to grasp the most important elements of military strategy. The two men came to regard each other warily. Lincoln only occasionally showed flashes of temper, but McClellan could easily grow out of sorts and bristle with self-righteousness. Through much of his life, Lincoln suffered from bouts of melancholy, and McClellan could fall into the depths of self-pity as well.


It was certainly ironic that McClellan, who took an often-jaundiced view of politicians, if not of democracy itself, should be nominated for president. The general obviously sought martial glory and claimed to disdain political ambition, even as Democratic politicians and editors raised the possibility of a presidential nomination. Yet political entanglements had soon followed. Meeting with Radical Republican senators, he bluntly declared that he was fighting to preserve the Union, not for the Republican Party or for emancipation. Indeed, the famous Harrison’s Landing letter not only made policy recommendations but would later be deployed as a campaign document. McClellan’s erstwhile friend Edwin Stanton, after being appointed secretary of war, became an implacable critic. Likewise, the always suspicious members of the congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War worked tirelessly to prove that McClellan was an incompetent if not disloyal commander. In the cabinet, in the Congress, and in Washington social circles, the president and the general became constant subjects of political intrigue.


“The True Issue or ‘That’s What’s the Matter'” (71.2009.081.0242)

In the end, the conflict between Lincoln and McClellan reached a culmination when the Democrats chose the general as their presidential nominee in 1864—a faceoff between a president who badly wished to be reelected and a general who sometimes appeared to be a diffident candidate. Despite repeated calls after November 1862 to give McClellan another command, Lincoln’s own ambition for a second term had dictated keeping McClellan at arm’s length to avoid strengthening his political hand. Ironically, in disputes over reconstruction policy, two of the president’s Radical Republican critics accused him of unbridled political ambition. Yet the uncertain military situation along with lukewarm support, if not outright opposition from some Republicans, made Lincoln’s prospects for reelection seem doubtful. But by the fall of 1864, Union military victories and opposition missteps rescued the president. The supposed Copperhead influence at the Democratic convention along with the peace plank in the party platform killed McClellan’s prospects for garnering the soldier vote. Shortly after the election, McClellan resigned from the army and traveled with his family to Europe.


It is important to remember how many people at the time lacked confidence in Lincoln’s decisions as commander in chief; by the same token, there is a need to acknowledge how high McClellan stood in the estimation of many contemporaries. In the aftermath of Union victory and Lincoln’s assassination, much of that was forgotten. Historical reputations are constantly being revised, but McClellan’s appears fairly fixed, even as each generation seems to favor different (albeit mostly positive) versions of the Lincoln saga. This all might have struck both men as ironic, though McClellan lacked any appreciation of irony, whereas Lincoln at times reveled in it.


Yet on hearing news of Lincoln’s assassination, McClellan did note one irony that hit home with so many other Americans: “How strange it is that the military death of the rebellion should have been followed with such tragic quickness by the atrocious murder of Mr. Lincoln!” Thinking back on their relationship, McClellan remarked, “Now I cannot but forget all that had been unpleasant between us & remember only the brighter parts of our intercourse.” Unfortunately for McClellan, history would later focus mostly on the “unpleasant” aspects of the relationship. In a sermon preached a little over a week after Lincoln’s death, a leading Presbyterian minister observed that the nation had attempted to make McClellan into an idol after the Union disaster at Bull Run, but God had refused to allow it. Instead, Lincoln became the martyr president and McClellan his foil, a simple story later baked into the standard Civil War narrative, and one that to this day often resists even the mildest revisions.


George C. Rable is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alabama. He is the author of several books, including Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War (2023).