“The Dreadful Responsibility”: Why George B. McClellan Was the Go-To Guy (part two)

TurningPoints-logoECW welcomes back Jon-Erik Gilot
(part two of two)

McClellan arrived in western Virginia on June 22 to take personal command of his troops in the field. Endearing himself to the enlisted men, he issued a circular on June 25 with a flair for the dramatic: “Soldiers! I have heard that there was danger here. I have come to place myself at your head and share it with you. I fear now but one thing—that you will not find foemen worthy of your steel. I know that I can rely upon you.”[i]

Over the following two weeks, McClellan would gather supplies and men to move on the reinforced Confederate army, now under the command of General Robert S. Garnett. Richmond had also sent Confederate reinforcements into the Kanawha Valley under former Virginia governors Henry A. Wise and John B. Floyd, against whom McClellan would detach Jacob Dolson Cox with a brigade of Ohio and Kentucky troops. 

McClellan would divide his command, sending one brigade to hold in check a force of nearly 4,000 Confederates under Garnett at Laurel Hill, while McClellan himself would move three additional brigades, totaling 7,000 men, nearly two dozen miles south to attack the Confederate position at Rich Mountain, held by approximately 1,300 men under Colonel John Pegram. Though he had estimated the Confederate force at Laurel Hill to be as many as 10,000, McClellan chastised his brigadier general, Thomas A. Morris, charged with holding those Confederates in place, stating “I propose taking the really difficult & dangerous part of this work on my own hands,” threatening to relieve Morris of command should he request any further reinforcements.

The Battle of Rich Mountain – July 13, 1861 (Harpers Weekly, July 27, 1861)

McClellan’s brigades were in place near Rich Mountain July 9, and the following day were alerted by a local Unionist farmer that a pathway existed whereby the Federal troops could turn Pegram’s left flank. McClellan detached a column of 1,850 under an able but maligned Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans to make the flank assault on the morning of June 11, while McClellan would lead the remaining two brigades in a frontal assault upon hearing Rosecrans’ guns.

When hearing gunfire and artillery open later in the afternoon, McClellan waffled; cheers heard from the Confederate lines raised further doubt as McClellan called off his frontal assault, leaving Rosecrans to fend for himself on the enemy’s flank. Rosecrans would carry the Confederate breastworks on his own, sending the disorganized Confederates fleeing down the mountain and rendering Garnett’s position at Laurel Hill as untenable. Pegram and nearly half his command would surrender three days later. Garnett would evacuate his position on June 11 and would be mortally wounded two days later at the battle of Corrick’s Ford, though the majority of his column would escape.

Front page of the New York Daily Tribune – July 14, 1861

A war-hungry northern press lavished praise on McClellan, the first general to gain any semblance of victory in the young war. He would likewise receive the laudatory thanks of Congress. To be fair, he had outmaneuvered and routed all organized Confederate resistance in northwestern Virginia; had captured hundreds of prisoners and killed the highest-ranking Confederate officer in the region; had secured the Ohio border and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad for the Union; and had protected the northern panhandle city of Wheeling, where politicians from western Virginia were meeting to form a new government, ultimately resulting in the new state of West Virginia. The first campaign had been a resounding success, McClellan rattling off a telegram to the War Department: “Garnett’s forces routed—…his army demoralized—Garnett killed. We have annihilated the enemy in Western Virginia. Our success is complete & secession is killed in this country.”[i]

While planning a proposed movement on the vital rail junction at Staunton, McClellan was made aware of Irvin McDowell’s advance on Manassas. After learning of McDowell’s repulse, on the morning of July 22 McClellan would receive the fated telegram calling him to Washington. After a circuitous route through Wheeling, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, McClellan was in the capital inside a week, reviewing the situation with the demoralized Union army and haphazard defenses around the city. Within a month of his arrival, he reformed the broken army he’d found into the Army of the Potomac. The press would make references to him as something of a Napoleon, a comparison McClellan couldn’t help seeing himself, remarking in a letter to his wife that “I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me.”[ii]

1864 Copy of McClellan’s Report, Inscribed by Colonel Horatio Blake Reed, 22nd New York Cavalry (Author’s Collection)

Regardless of your opinion of George B. McClellan, much credit must be given to what he accomplished during the second half of 1861. His engineering expertise helped to transform Washington, DC, into the most heavily fortified city in the world. He more than tripled the size of the Army of the Potomac, swelling the ranks to more than 160,000 officers and enlisted men. He reinvigorated morale in the army, making the men believe in themselves, if not their officers. The organization and reforms instituted and the confidence instilled under McClellan would help carry the men of the Army of the Potomac through some dark days and serious reverses that lay ahead. While he may not have been the man who could lead the army to victory, he was the man the army needed at that moment. His ascension to the head of the Army of the Potomac is undoubtedly a turning point in the war.

In his seminal work on the Army of the Potomac, historian Russell Beatie described McClellan as “The Enigma,” which of all the monikers attached probably comes as close to describing McClellan in 1861 as much as it does our understanding of him today.[1] In my next article we’ll look at characteristics and traits—both good and bad—that McClellan exhibited in western Virginia and carried east with him to the Army of the Potomac. We’ll do the same with his counterpart in Robert E. Lee, whose own experiences in western Virginia helped to shape some of his decisions at the helm of the Army of Northern Virginia. These early campaigns—often relegated to the backwaters of Civil War historiography —can be used as a benchmark in measuring the later successes and failures of both McClellan and Lee.


[1] Beatie, Russell H., Army of the Potomac, Volume I, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 387

[i] O.R. I:II: 204

[ii] McClellan Papers (C-7:63/D-10:72), Library of Congress

[i] O.R., I:II:196 – 197