Ulysses S. Grant captured the essence of General George McClellan when he said, “McClellan to me is one of the mysteries of the war.” If only he’d been more decisive, more eager to fight, and less worried about the size of the forces opposing him. If only he enjoyed a better relationship with Abraham Lincoln.
There were so many what ifs and could have beens and should have beens.
We’ll never know what McClellan could have accomplished. Instead, we know where he went wrong.
Lincoln appointed George McClellan general-in-chief of the Union Army in November 1861. However, after five months of inaction, he removed McClellan as general-in-chief on March 11th but left him in command of the Army of the Potomac.
Six days later, McClellan began his Peninsular campaign setting the largest-ever American expeditionary force in motion. After a series of battles, McClellan came within four miles of reaching Richmond. Then things began to unravel.
Joseph Johnston attacked McClellan’s army at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks when the Union army was fractured by flooding on the Chickahominy River. Shortly after that, Johnston got injured in the fighting, and Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
That was a game-changer.
Lee threw his forces at McClellan in a series of battles known as the Seven Days Battles. McClellan’s phobias of being outmanned got the better of him. He imagined he was up against 200,000 men, over twice as many as the 85,000 troops Lee had. When he was convinced that he no longer had a chance to take Richmond, McClellan withdrew his troops to a safer position.
Meanwhile, while McClellan dawdled in the Peninsula, Lee thrashed General John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run. After that, Lincoln put McClellan in charge of the fortifications and troops surrounding Washington. In doing so, he harbored many doubts. “To entrust to him the rescue of the army from its demoralization was a good deal like curing the bite with the hair of the dog,” said Lincoln.
And just like that, George McClellan was back in the saddle chasing after Robert E. Lee through the hills and valleys of Maryland.
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