Searching for George Brinton McClellan

George_B._McClellan_-_Brady-Handy

In preparation for Rob Orrison’s and my upcoming ECWS book, To Hazard All: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862, we closed the books and hit the trails and cement roads zigzagging through northern Virginia and central and western Maryland. At the end of one particular long day (soon to be even longer since we were squarely on the wrong side of rush-hour traffic), we made our last stop in the middle of bustling Rockville, Maryland. Our destination was the home of the Montgomery County Historical Society.

Before the historical society moved in, during the Maryland Campaign of September 1862,

 

the two-and-a-half story brick dwelling belonged to the widowed Jane Beall, “an old maid of strong Union sentiment.” Rob and I wandered around all four sides of the house, reading each interpretive marker dotting the property. None of them had anything to do with why we were there. They made no mention of the Maryland Campaign, only the Gettysburg Campaign that eclipses all others in public memory.

Despite the setback, there was no mistaking why we were there. George B. McClellan slept there his first night in the field–September 7–during his campaign to rid Maryland of the invading Confederate army. But still, no mention.

 

Rob turned to me and quipped, tongue in cheek, “You should write Searching for George Brinton McClellan,” calling to mind Tom Huntington’s Searching for George Gordon Meade. “Why isn’t Meade better remembered today?” Huntington questions in his opening pages. Here we were, at a point crucial to McClellan’s story in the campaign, and nothing. Why isn’t McClellan remembered at all here, today? I wondered. 

Of course, it is no secret that George McClellan is a lightning rod of controversy. It was not always so.

In the fallout of the Federal defeat at First Bull Run, a desperate Lincoln administration handed the 34-year-old general almost everything. “I seem to have become the power of the land,” he believed, as many in Washington appeared to bow down to him. “A better officer could not be found,” wrote William Tecumseh Sherman in the war’s early stages.

Sixteen months after McClellan arrived in the eastern seat of war, raised the Army of the Potomac from the ashes, and crafted it in his image, the relationship between McClellan, Lincoln, and some members of Congress dropped out the bottom. McClellan lost his job and never again rose to the pedestal he had occupied in the summer of 1861.

The war of words swirling around McClellan’s head began even in his moments of prominence in the nation’s vast struggle. “By some persons he is considered the greatest strategist of the age. By others he is regarded as unfit to command even a hundred men,” commented an early biographer. Indeed, Ulysses S. Grant tried to dodge the debate entirely: “McClellan to me is one of the mysteries of the war.”

No matter which way one sits in the ongoing conversation, very rarely does one find themselves wavering back and forth or sitting squarely on the fence in their deep-rooted opinions of the man. To have an unbiased discussion of McClellan is a rare occurrence at all.

Perhaps the turning point of all this comes when examining the general’s relationship with his most immediate superior, Abraham Lincoln. McClellan’s private letters to his wife demeaning (even dehumanizing) his commander-in-chief became public following his death. By that time, Lincoln had become a well-seated martyr for the Union cause and was well on his way to being memorialized on the National Mall in a temple of stone. Anyone anti-Lincoln was undoubtedly not a fan favorite.

On the flip side of that equation, McClellan sparred against a general viewed with much admiration throughout American history–Robert E. Lee. While not literally carved in stone to the extent of Lincoln, Lee’s symbolic figure equally seems untouchable. Indeed, George McClellan could not rival or best the Virginian Lee.

McClellan’s conflicts with Lincoln and Lee and the status those two achieved automatically places him at a disadvantage when it comes to being remembered. Additionally, his meteoric rise to fame and power followed by his corresponding fall from grace is something not easily equaled in the annals of history.

All of these factors, and probably more, combine to wane the memory of McClellan’s role in the Civil War. Like any career, his had its ebbs and flows. But for a time, perhaps George B. McClellan was the right man for the job, coming to Washington’s rescue in July 1861 and again when he rode through the night to reach his army’s camps around Rockville in September 1862. Despite this, he, like George Gordon Meade, appears to have been left behind it all.

McClellan Gun Club sign

It’s blurry, but that’s George Meade on the McClellan Gun Club sign. I guess they both shared the same first name, right?