George McClellan in 1861: A Glimpse of Foibles to Come (part two)


We are pleased to welcome back guest author Jon-Erik Gilot

(part two of two)

Yesterday, I outlined some of the ways that George McClellan’s early war actions in western Virginia foreshadowed some of the problems that would become some of his best-remembered if least-desirable traits. Quarreling with subordinates and superiors was one hallmark trait. Micromanaging was another. His micromanagement, in turn, served as a manor contributing factor in another infamous McClellan trait . . . 

Slow Movement:

Numerous delays—either real or perceived—would slow McClellan’s movement during the western Virginia campaign and throughout the remainder of his service. He would describe his plan to Col. E. D. Townsend, stating he would not move “until I know that everything is ready, & then…move with the utmost rapidity & energy,” while reassuring his wife, Mary Ellen, that “I shall feel my way & be very cautious.”[1] Historian Fritz Haselberger noted that, between the battle at Philippi on June 3 and McClellan’s advance from Clarksburg to Buckhannon at the end of the month, it had taken McClellan 27 days to advance his army a mere 30 miles to occupy a town that had only been held by the Confederates for a matter of hours. Haselberger estimates that “it was merely a matter of getting up enough nerve to advance and occupy the town” that spurred McClellan’s eventual movement.[2]

McClellan was again slow to move in the face of the Confederates at Rich Mountain. Furious over Schleich’s unauthorized July 5-6 expedition that he feared had tipped his hand, it still took McClellan another five days to move a mere twelve miles ahead of Rosecrans’s July 11 attack at Rich Mountain. Following Irvin McDowell’s defeat at Manassas, General Winfield Scott ordered McClellan to advance down the Shenandoah Valley, to which McClellan responded with reasons why such a movement—which McClellan himself had suggested only days earlier—was impossible, ranging from homesick regiments to incapable officers. McClellan would be criticized for slow movement during some portion of each of his following campaigns; Lincoln referred to it as “the slows.” This sluggish movement can often be attributed to McClellan’s tendency to . . .

Overestimate Enemy Strength:

George McClellan was always outnumbered, or so he thought. While some of this could be chalked up to faulty intelligence, McClellan was apt to overestimate strength and underestimate the abilities of those below him. While his own forces in western Virginia numbered nearly 20,000 men, McClellan would routinely overestimate the strength of the Confederate forces in front of him, believing at one point that up to 50,000 Confederates were headed his direction, when in reality the Confederate strength in the area would muster less than 10,000 effectives. McClellan would estimate Confederate strength at Laurel Hill as high as 10,000, when in reality it was closer to 4,000. Confederates at Rich Mountain were likewise estimated at more than 5,000—the actual number being fewer than 1,500—giving McClellan’s 7,000 men a decided five-to-one advantage.

In the fall of 1861, McClellan would estimate Confederate strength around Manassas ludicrously high at 170,000. Constantly feeling outnumbered, McClellan would wear on the nerves of the Lincoln administration in his continual calls for reinforcements. This stigma would often cause McClellan to exhibit . . .


In the spring of 1861, a civilian railroad director recalled that McClellan “can never make up his mind under two or three weeks on any matter and when he has made it up, is by no means certain about his decision.”[3] While McClellan would exhibit indecisiveness throughout the first campaign, it is nowhere better illustrated than in the face of the enemy at Rich Mountain.

On July 10, with the assistance of local intelligence, McClellan and Rosecrans devised a flanking movement around the Confederate works at Rich Mountain. The plan called for Rosecrans to take his brigade over five miles on a rugged path around the Confederate works, coming out on the Staunton & Parkersburg Turnpike in their rear. At the sound of Rosecrans becoming engaged in the Confederate rear, McClellan would launch a frontal assault on the Confederate works at Camp Garnett.

Rosecrans’s early morning march was more arduous than anticipated, setting back his timetable on the assault, which did not get off until midafternoon. The fight swirled around Rich Mountain for nearly four hours before the Confederate defenders fled over the mountain towards Beverly. Rosecrans had gained position behind the Confederate works at Camp Garnett, located two miles below at the base of Rich Mountain. He had heard no gunfire coming from Camp Garnett, where McClellan was to make a frontal assault. What had happened?

John Beatty of the 3rd Ohio would recall that on hearing Rosecrans become engaged, “General McClellan and staff came galloping up, and a thousand faces turned to hear the order to advance; but no order was given. The General halted a few paces from our line, and sat on his horse listening to the guns, apparently in doubt as to what to do; and as he sat there with indecision stamped on every line of his countenance, the battle grew fiercer in the enemy’s rear. Every volley could be heard distinctly.”[4]

McClellan vacillated on hearing the growing battle. Hearing cheers from the Confederate lines and fearing that Rosecrans had met with defeat, McClellan refused to commit his forces to battle, eventually calling off the retreat and calling his men off the line. Jacob Cox would recall that McClellan “showed the same characteristics which became well known later. There was the same overestimate of the enemy, the same tendency to interpret unfavorably the sights and sounds in battle, the same hesitancy to throw in his whole force when he knew a subordinate was engaged.”[5] Damning commentary from a capable, hard-fighting general.

Historian Russell Beatie picks apart McClellan’s decision-making at Rich Mountain. Beatie relates that “under almost any military circumstances, the first stroke of a flanking force must be immediately followed by the major attack, even a frontal assault against defensive works, or the flanking force will be destroyed and the plan aborted.” Beatie continued, believing that McClellan “drew negative conclusions from inconclusive and incomplete facts that supported by negative and positive inferences . . . McClellan had devised a plan in which he could not see the flanking column and knew his active part would begin on sound. In short, he did not carry out his role as he should have because he refused to make a frontal attack when circumstances demand it.”[6] How many later battles could the same have been said about McClellan?


If not a benchmark, in hindsight we can at least agree that McClellan’s first campaign set a precedent for future expectations. This is not to say all of his qualities were poor, but that those poor qualities are what would come to define his Civil War service and our popular memory of him.

What do you think was McClellan’s biggest character flaw of the Civil War? What admirable traits did he impart on the Army of the Potomac?


[1] Sears, Papers…, 45, 46

[2] Haselberger, Fritz, Yanks from the South (The First Land Campaign of the Civil War: Rich Mountain, West Virginia), (Baltimore, MD: Past Glories, 1987), 159

[3] Beatie, Russell H., Army of the Potomac, Volume I, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002), 403

[4] Beatty, John, The Citizen-Soldier – The Memoirs of a Civil War Volunteer, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 25.

[5] Cox, Jacob D., “McClellan in West Virginia,” Battles & Leaders of the Civil War., Vol. I , 137

[6] Beatie, 413 – 414.

“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