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

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

I’ve long been fascinated with the early days, weeks, and months of the Civil War. The optimism and unbounded confidence displayed on both sides of the conflict during the spring and summer of 1861 would quickly wane as the human toll began to exceed even the wildest expectations. And while events during those first months would seem to unfold rather quickly, military actions—both in planning and on the battlefield—happened at a more deliberate pace. While I’ve spent more than two decades studying all aspects of the war, I’ve often found the early campaigns to be easier to digest than the frantic fighting and wholesale slaughter that would be the hallmark of later battles and campaigns.

So in considering the theme of ‘turning points,’ my thoughts were immediately drawn to the spring and summer of 1861, which had not been kind to new Lincoln administration. As more southern states seceded and government property and installations were lost, Federal troops suffered a number of minor though highly publicized setbacks in Virginia and Missouri ahead of the first large-scale battle of the war at Manassas, Virginia on July 21, 1861. This stunning Confederate victory on the doorstep of Washington, DC, sent the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia streaming back to the capital city. Any thoughts of a 90-day war were quickly eroding. 

Abraham Lincoln needed a general to rebuild his citizen-soldier army. While Manassas was clearly an early turning point of the war, I’d argue that a second turning point came within mere hours of the Federal defeat, when a desperate telegram was sent to a general on the western fringes of Virginia: “Circumstances make your presence here necessary.”[i] What prompted Lincoln to call on this ‘Young Napoleon’?

“I realize now the dreadful responsibility on me – the lives of my men – the reputation of the country & the success of our cause…I recognize the fact that everything requires success in my first operations.” – George McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, July 05, 1861

George Brinton McClellan had led an accomplished 34 years on the eve of the Civil War. Graduating second in his 1846 West Point class, he earned a coveted commission in the Army Corps of Engineers, serving ably during the Mexican-American War and peacetime army before turning to civilian railroad work. His engineering and organizational capabilities had made him highly sought-after in military and civil circles.

Within two weeks of the attack on Fort Sumter McClellan returned to the military with a commission as major general of Volunteers in the Ohio militia. Ten days later, he accepted a federal appointment as commander of the Department of the Ohio, charged with defending the broad border of the Ohio River, his department eventually stretching from western Pennsylvania and Virginia to far off Missouri. Just eleven days later, he was commissioned a major general in the regular army, an impressive ascent for a former regular army captain who had spent the last three years in civilian pursuits!

As Confederate troops in western Virginia under the command of Colonel George A. Porterfield burned bridges and threatened the viability of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad—the key railroad line connecting Baltimore and Washington to the west—McClellan issued orders for his troops to cross the Ohio River and enter ‘the seat of war,’ vowing to “with an iron hand, crush any attempt at insurrection.”[ii] While McClellan remained in Ohio to gather troops and supplies he arranged for Ohio, Indiana, and loyal Virginian troops to secure bridges and the important juncture of the B&O and Northwestern Virginia Railroad at Grafton, Virginia, which was accomplished by Colonel Benjamin F. Kelley on May 30, 1861.

On June 02, Kelley led a force of 3,000 troops to dislodge Porterfield’s command of less than 600 men at the nearby village of Philippi, where on June 3 in a driving rainstorm the Federals would rout the Confederate soldiers in the first land ‘battle’ of the Civil War. As more Ohio and Indiana troops were pushed into western Virginia, Confederate reinforcements arrived and occupied entrenched positions commanding the Staunton & Parkersburg Turnpike near the village of Beverly. McClellan, showing an early penchant for exaggerating enemy strength (at various times doubling to quadrupling Confederate strength in the region) recalled that “the reports from Grafton were now very alarming, I determined that the proper time had arrived for me to take the field”[iii]

(To be continued…)

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[i] Scott, Robert N., The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume II, (Washington, DC: Gov’t Printing Office, 1882), 753

[ii] O.R., I:II:48 – 49

[iii] George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac: To Which is Added an Account of the Campaign in Western Virginia (New York, NY: Sheldon & Company, 1864), 19