Why Civil War Gen. George McClellan wasn't actually a failure

Mar 05, 2012

Washington Post cartographer and Civil War nut Gene Thorp argues that Gen. George McClellan was not the miserable failure history has made him out to be, and that the mistakes that were made in the spring and summer of 1862 were mostly not his fault.

Gene live chatted with readers Monday at Noon ET about how he came to this conclusion.

George B. McClellan is the man that everyone loves to hate. He has been maligned ever since he overestimated the strength of the Confederate's at Manassas. Although most acknowledge that he was a great organizer, few credit him for having any ability at all to fight. He was labeled as over-cautious, disrespectful, and even a traitor by some, unable to accomplish anything positive for the North. But does history have him right? I say no, not by a long shot.

Thanks for joining me today as I place myself in the unenviable position of defending McClellan’s military decisions in the Spring and Summer of 1862.  

There are a lot of great questions out there and I will do my best to answer as many as possible within this hour.

General McClellan receives credit for having built the US Army up after several significant defeats. He demonstrated vision and good stewardship in this regard, but seemed hesitant to use the Army in sustained combat. Please comment on the perception that General McClellan lacked the will to close with and defeat the Army of the Confederacy. Respectfully, Bob Houde

Hi Bob,

Thanks for our question. I agree that McClellan was cautious, but I do not think he was over-cautious.  McClellan was more about destroying the Confederacy's ability to fight by eliminating its logistics than strictly by combat. Without railroads and open waterways to feed and supply its large armies, the Confederacy would fall. Grant proved that time and time again. McClellan generally moved to places where the Confederates had to attack him. That seems like a pretty good strategy to me. Although he did close up with the Confederates at Williamsburg, South Mountain, Antietam and Botler’s Ford.

Why didn't MacClellan act when he had Lee reeling after Antiedam?

In short, because McClellan’s army was reeling too. I should also note that many diaries and regimentals claim that Lee called the truce to bury the dead the day after Antietam, then slipped over the Potomac River at night.

Wasn't he responsible for the U.S. having a trained and healthy army?

Not by himself, but yes, his men were well fed and trained before moving off to battle in early 1862. That was not the case with the new wave of recruits in August and September who were transported to the front and immediately thrown into combat with almost no training.

How has the apotheosis of Lincoln in modern memory altered the way historians remember McClellan? -Kelsey H. Fairfield, CT

Thanks for your question Kelsey. It is a tough question to answer in such a brief format as this, but generally, since Lincoln was at odds with McClellan most of the war, if McClellan was right, then by default Lincoln was wrong. That does not fit well with Lincoln's current, almost deity,  status. Lincoln was human, and I think understanding his mistakes helps us understand him better.

Thanks for your article, Mr. Thorp. You make a good case that McClellan's problems were not entirely of his own making. But your article doesn't engage the more telling criticisms of McClellan: the numerous cases when his estimates of enemy strength were false, and his arrogant conviction that he alone knew what must be done (and he alone could do it). Even so, your article suggests yet another weakness: McClellan's unwillingness or inability to "manage up" and ensure that Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck saw things as he did -- or, failing that, make a good faith effort to carry out some of their goals as best he could. For example, if he knew that Lee could be reinforced, he could have gone around Richmond to block Southern approaches by rail. It is hard to see McClellan's refusal as anything other than spiteful inflexibility. Why did McClellan persist in strategies that opposed those of his commanders?

A lot of things to answer here. Wish I had more time. Lincoln and Stanton's strategy called for an overland campaign. We saw how well that worked out over four years. McClellan's strategy was the one that Grant used to win the war. 

Also, your quote, "For example, if he knew that Lee could be reinforced, he could have gone around Richmond to block Southern approaches by rail." No, he could not have gone around without Stanton's approval. Stanton controlled McC's movements. The  whole reason McC was north east of Richmond was to get McDowell's reinforcements - which were then taken away. Again, McC could not count on Lincoln to follow through with his promises of support.  

From my reading, many historians seem to assume that the Confederacy had a better talent pool of generals. Is there any basis to this?

Could be, but my call is that northern politicians interfered too much in military movements. The north had great generals too. Grant, Sherman, Sheridan being the obvious ones. Note also how they all started out to the west, away from the meddling of Washington.

What makes you think you know better than Ken Burns?

I love Ken Burns' series. Very moving and well put together. I recommend it for anyone who wants to get a great overview of the war.  I do disagree with his analysis of McClellan though. 

In one sense McCellan was not a failure; he did a good job of turning the Army of the Potomac into a trained, disciplined and organized force, and one that in particular had a better logistics train than any previous military force. However, how can you disagree that he squandered an opportunity to capture Richmond, and squandered an opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern VIrginia? I refer first to his strategically brilliant move to the James which he followed up with indefensible overcaution, and secondly to the Antietam campaign and battle in which (a) he had Lee's actual campaign orders, and (b) did an abominable job of tactical command in the cliactic battle itself.

What did he squander? Lee had 115,000 troops to McC's 104,000, most of them dug in, against a secure rail line and depot of supplies. Does that matter? Last I checked 2:1 odds against entrenchments are not great. McC's were less than 1:1. It took Grant 10 months with double the odds to crack Lee! Why is it expected that McClellan cound have done it in 1 month? Why does Lincoln not bear any blame for failing reinforce McClellan? Stanton and Lincoln controlled the grand strategy. 

Please. McClellan was a superior strategist and organizer, but a failure on the battlefield. We know this because, well, he failed on the battlefield, and when you're talking about being a field commander like McClellan, that's where it counts, right? Results matter. He would have made an ideal HQ officer or logistics commander, but he had no business being in overall command. While he was NOT an incompetent like Burnside, Pope, or McDowell, in the field McClellan was average at best. You can argue that he was the victim of poor intelligence gathering, but this misses the point. He used that bad information--the exaggerated estimates of Confederate troops--to justify his own indecisiveness. Even if his enemy force estimates had been accurate, he would have found another reason to excuse his snail-like progress in 1862. I suspect he was always uncomfortable with the messy realities of field action--it never works in practice like it's drawn up on the map, units don't move or fight in combat like they do on parade or in exercises. The precision that McClellan demanded in camp wasn't possible on the battlefield. There were simply far too many variables to control. Tactical success relies upon being flexible and adaptive to changing situations, and McClellan had none of this. Terrified of making a mistake, he tried to narrow the possible scope of action by moving slowly. He would explain this slowness by exaggerating the number of enemy troops, and by constantly needing reinforcements. When faced with an opponent of the caliber of Lee, who thrived at tactics, McClellan basically went into defeatist mode, insisting that he was badly outnumbered when the opposite was actually true.

How come after 150 years historians can't get  Lee's numbers right? Tell me, how did Lee have 60,000 men a week after Antietam  having just sustained 15,000 casualties during the campaign? The Confederate numbers have to be reevaluated. 

Can you cite any example where, given a choice between moving and sitting, McClellan chose to move? Each individual decision may be justifiable, but in total, they represent a career tinged with timidity. No?

Thanks for your question.

Sure, the Rich Mountain Campaign, the Peninsula Campaign, and the Antietam Campaign. He also directed all the armies movements up to March, 1862, so that means he had something to do with launching the drive up the Tennessee River, the North Carolina Expedition and the New Orleans Expedition as well as the other drives that were winning the war. When Lincoln "borrowed" part of McClellan's forces is when things began to fall apart. Again, McClellan got to Richmond with comparatively few casualties. He was doing something right.

At Antietam, where McClellan had Lee's operational order for the battle, he still failed to defeat Lee and failed to bag him when Lee retreated. How was that not McClellan's fault? Michael Waldron

I think too much is made over Special Order 191. Was it important, yes. Did it help McClellan direct his movements, yes, but by the time the lost order reached McClellan's hands and could be verified, it was already three days old and the last of Lee's orders should have been implemented the day before. McClellan knew that Lee's army was separated and he had to attack before all the parts came back together again at Boonsboro or Hagerstown. The next day, McClellan attacked and carried all three Confederate positions on South Mountain. By 9 a.m. the following day, the orders were no longer of use. McClellan did almost all that could be expected after such a find. I should also note that McClellan did not have any of Lee's battle plans at Antietam. Neither side knew they would be fighting there.

What is your explaination or defense of McClellan's lack of aggession or at least his slow actions and deployment of troops?

Can you be more specific? At Yorktown for example, Lincoln yanked away 35,000 men with no notice while McClellan was just starting an offensive. How could he continue plans when he did not have control over the forces he had available? I recall Stonewall Jackson resigning over just such an instance with his Secretary of War in western Virginia. McClellan probably  should have done the same.

I have posted a series of graphics I did for the Post ten years ago at:


Civil War Part I

Civil War Part 2

Civil War Part 3


I'll be happy to address anything in the graphics that you feel is a slow action.

Would history evaluate George McClellan differently if the confessional letters to his wife - extolling himself as a martyr and vilifying Lincoln, for example - had been destroyed rather than widely published and made an indelible part of his historical record?

Great point.I think history would have treated him a little better, but there were a great number of people out to vilify McClellan either way. 

Following Lincoln’s death, Republicans strove to put his legacy in a positive light and worked feverishly to suppress any faults or questions of mismanagement by his administration. Perhaps the biggest threat to Lincoln’s image was McClellan. While writing Lincoln’s definitive 10-volume biography, John Hay, Lincoln’s personal assistant secretary during the war, divulged his agenda against McClellan in a letter not meant for publication. “I think I have left the impression of his mutinous imbecility, and I have done it in a perfectly courteous manner. It is of the utmost moment that we should seem fair to him, while we are destroying him” McClellan died years before the publication of the book and Hay’s often quoted version of events are seldom questioned. 


In a world of Bing maps and Google Earth, just what is a WP Cartographer? As to G Mac, he was a better general than politician. Good subject!

We make maps of what is going on, just as we always have. Here is a Civil War interactive I did to make my point.


As for McClellan as a politician, I don't know if I would have voted for him as President. Little Mac was on the wrong side of the argument over emancipation. I wonder what the people of New Jersey thought about him as a governor? Anyone?

During the Peninsular campaign the Union forces came close to the outskirt of Richmond, Va, then the capital city of confederacy. He has the advantage of men and materiel at that time, (Lee divided his forces to deal with the Union pincer movement) . Gen. Kearny even penetrated Lee's defense but was overwhelmed because McCleland feared to push forward and witheld support. He cannot make brave decisions at crucial moments. He could not win Antietam nothwithstanding that he has Lee's battle plan beforehand and outnumber Lee 1:2. Politically, he was a pain in Lincoln's butt.

I have to disagree with your assessment. When the Lee launched his offensive outside of Richmond, he slightly outnumbered McClellan. (115,000+ to 104,000). Lee also had a secure supply depot immediately in his rear with ample rail lines to move troops and material. McClellan had to rely on just one exposed railroad to his rear. Just because the Confederate lines were breached in a spot does not mean that they were defeated. That same scenario occurred countless times throughout the war such as at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, the rebel right flank at Fredericksburg, the Crater, etc - when the Union outnumbered their foe 2:1. In the end, the Federals were still thrown back by a quick Confederate response. I am not sure why people think it would be so easy for McClellan to beat Lee, when Grant, a tested general with far better odds, could not do the same. I'll broach this topic more in the fall Special Section.

McClellan lands at Yorktown with 55,000 men facing J.B. Magruder's 15,000 men and takes 4 weeks to organize a seige? The Confederates retreat and McClellan declares a victory! McClellan gathers the rest of his army numbering over 100,000 and arrives outside the gates of Richmond. Lee ultimately gathers 88,000 Confederates to defend Richmond. Lee divides the Confederate army leaving the lines thin on his right and center and hammers McClellan's right flank over the 7 days battles driving McClellan to the James River. McClellan ultimately directs the battles from a gunboat in the James River and declines the advice of his generals urging an offensive action. That is why Lee liked McClellan. He could depend on Mac being cautious and on the defensive in battle. Mac was the same (slow) in support of Pope at Second Manassas in August and slow in command at Antietam in September 1862, when he knew Lee's battle plan and he let Lee take his wounded army back to Virginia continuing the war for another 3 years. It was not Lincoln's fault that McClellan failed. It would not have taken U.S. Grant 4 weeks to get by Yorktown. Grant would never have used 100,000 men in a defensive action against Richmond. Your essay omitted numerous instances of McClellans poor leadership in commanding an army in combat, which were many. Though Lincoln did attempt to play at being a general in the early days of the Civil War, he was forced to do so because most of the quality generals had gone south.

Lee ultimately gathers 115,000. Lee did not say he liked McClellan, he thought McClellan was the best general he faced.

It took Grant 4 weeks to get to Richmond and at a cost of 60,000 men. 

McClellan was on the offensive. How else did he get to Richmond? 

I'll get to Antietam in the next addition. 

Gene: I'm a retired Army colonel and West Point grad who is interested in your take on Gen. McClellan. I have long thought that he got somewhat of a bad rap. His training of the Army of the Potomac was masterful, his strategic vision was significant, his troops loved him, etc. His distaste for Pres. Lincoln, his party affiliation with the opposing Democrats, his fear of Gen. Lee and his larger than life ego distorted his unique abilities. Since he came from the "old Army" and knew many of his adversaries, I have always thought that he was reluctant to fight them and sought ways to settle the war peacefully before it got out of hand. If true, this approach caused him to procrastinate when it came to closing with and destroying the Confederate army...Do you think this idea has any merit? George Grayeb.


Great question - like so many on this board.

From what I have read, I don't believe that he was avoiding combat until a negotiated end to the war could be made. I think he just wanted to avoid unnecessary casulaties and bring the war decisively to a close. He also was explicit about the army's relationship with non-combatants, hoping to minimize the impact on them so that when reconstruction came, the Federal authority would be more readily accepted. He probably felt that when he pushed the Confederates to the wall, if the terms were generous enough, they might surrender rather than fight. His views on this topic collided severly with the Republicans in July, 1862 when the Federal Congress passed laws requiring all persons in hostile territory to make an oath of alliegence to the U.S. If it was found that a citizen had violated that oath, all their property could be siezed. Thanks for your service!

Lawyers make lousy presidents. Lincoln kept getting snookered by McCleelan and his generals and FDR just didnt have a clue and Churchill and Stalin ate his lunch. FDR also put way too much faith in his generals and admirals. Lawyers never make great presidents.

I guess my point is that they usually make even lousier generals. : )

Isn't snubbing Lincoln proof that McClellan's ego was so out of control that he lost respect for the chain of command?

This is text from a previous conversation I had internally at the Post about the "Snub" incident.

What was the protocol anyway for meeting with someone back then? From what I have read, the President would generally summon the person he needed to the White House, not just show up at their house unannounced, late at night on matters that were not urgent.  Why has so much been made of this anyway? McClellan by all accounts at this time was working himself to death trying to get the army up to speed. He is human. Doesn't he get to sleep?

Furthermore, can that account even be trusted? John Hay, the person making the claim wrote this to his co-author when working on Lincoln's biography, "As to my tone towards Porter and McClellan — that is an important matter. I have toiled and labored through ten chapters over him [McC.]. I think I have left the impression of his mutinous imbecility, and I have done it in a perfectly courteous manner. Only in “ Harrison’s Landing” have I used a single injurious adjective. It is of the utmost moment that we should seem fair to him, while we are destroying him." Seems like a little bias there, eh?

Now to the facts:

Hays claims McClellan was at Gen. Wheaton's wedding with Buell before the incident. Wheaton had already been married for some two years. Buell was not in Washington as he had recently headed off to the western front. 

I have found no letters from McClellan that even hint at the incident, something it seems strange that McClellan would neglect to mention. The basic facts of the event don't even corroborate.

Even if the incident did happen, could McClellan have just not felt well and maybe at first thought he could make an appearance but then realized he could not, thus resulting in the delay before the servant contacted Lincoln? Sure, that is speculation but that same situation seemed to be excusable for Gen. Scott during the Fort Sumter crisis. Heck, could the servant have just been negligent? Really, does McClellan stink and is the worst person on earth because someone thought he supposedly snubbed Lincoln? By Hays' account, not even Lincoln seemed concerned over the alleged incident. 

How do you excuse McClellan's lax battlefield tactics at Antietam? He had maybe 30,000 troops available that day that he didn't put into action, plus the brigades he did use were put in picemeal along the front instead of all at once, allowing Lee to move his far smaller army along the battle line to counter McClellan's successvie attacks. And all this delay by the North gave AP Hill time to arrive from Harpers Ferry near the end of the battle to stop the final assault made by Burnside. Thanks.

I will handle that in the next issue.

Are you aware of the 1937 book by Eisenschiml, "Why Was Lincoln Murdered?" It is maligned by historians who note inconsistencies about the assassination itself. But he includes a chapter in there, "Not Wanted: Victory in the East," and in there defends McClellan. What is your opinion re: this single Eisenschiml chapter? -- Roger Thiel

I am not aware of the book. I will have to look into it. Thanks!

He wasn't exactly a success either. His greatest accomplishments were not leading his troops into slaughter. And he trained them well. But the only thing he was capable of doing was holding ground. You don't win wars that way. The more complicated and difficult thing is to move your men to the right place and maneuver you enemy out. Takes a lot of whiskey to find the right guy who can do that. And failures. You need to have failures to find who is a good general and who is a Custer. McClellan just couldn't bring himself to that test.

Just because McClellen did not have to bleed his army to get to Richmond does not deflect the fact that he got there against worst odds than any other Union commander in that theater faced. 

Please explain, then, why McClellan was so cautious to take advantage of knowing exactly what Lee was doing in splitting his army when the orders wrapped around the cigars were found. From what I read, he should have been able to end the war with that info. if he had taken quick advantage of it.

Please read this excellent article by Tim Reese.


Mr. T: Sorry, I agree McClellan was a great organizer, but when it came to closing with and destroying the enemy - he wasn't there. Antietam - he actually gets a copy of Lee's battle plan and takes nearly a day to give orders to start his army moving. His attacks at Antietam were totally piecemeal, against a foe he far outnumbered. After the battle he made no real attempt to follow Lee's army, when the Army of the Potomac was in far betters shape. And . . . he always, always over- estimated the numbers of the enemy he faced - so he was forever "outnumbered," when it was the other way around.

Please read this article by Tim Reeese


regarding S.P. 191. As for your other queries on Antietam, I plan to address them in the Post's next special section. If possible, sooner. In short, McClellan had huge command structure issues to overcome which are constantly overlooked.

Seeing other questions I realize brevity is good. At 5 to 1 odds at Yorktown, wasn't it foolish for McClellan to attack, when his subordinates wanted to, and the South feared that he would. Where did you get your figure of 115,000 for Lee's force in the 7 Days when no one else gives him more than about 90,000, and no one has ever suggested that McClellan was outnumbered. At 2 two 1 odds at Antietam, with his army less worn than Lee's, how can it not be a failure for McClellan to attack ruthlessly and decisively. --Michael Jeck Many years ago I mapped the Manassas and the four Fredericksburg battlefields for the Park Service.

Brevity appreciated! (I am but one man)

He may very well have succeeded at Yorktown, but Lincoln sure did throw things for a loop. 

I am glad you asked about the numbers for the Confederate army at Richmond. In short. Johnston had 87 regiments and 4 battalions totaling 55,000 men on the Peninsula. When Lee launched his offensive the AoNV consisted of 184 regiments and 12 battalions. I have spent several years trying to track down where each of those units came from and what their numbers were. Hope to publish that in full one day when I get the time. In the end, when you total all the numbers available and then take out casualties for the Valley and Seven Pines, the number is at least 115,000. 

The defense of McClellan at Antietam will have to come in the next issue.

Thank you sir for taking this unenviable postion defending General McCellan. How is it that the reportedly over blown estmates of the Confederate troops strength resulted in the Union not pressing on to victory; for example in the Penninsular Campaign?

Thanks for your question. Historians have under counted C.S. numbers from the Peninsula to Antietam. Lee lost some 45-50,000 men between the 7 Days and Antietam, yet he still had 60,000 a week after the battle. How is that possible?

McClellan failed to take Richmond when he had overwhelming numberical superiority. He sabotaged Pope at 2nd Bull Run, missed his opportunities at South Mountain and fought a horrificly managed battle at Antietam. Unless there is some new information he was a failure. He was the Montgomery of the Civil War, too cautious and too unwilling to use his troops.

Not even Sears claims that McClellan had overwhelming superiority at Richmond. Off hand I think it is 90k CS to 104k US. I explained the supposed Bull Run sabotage incident in my story.  Antietam, next time.

Generals always blame the politicians for interfering, but what would have happened if McClellan had done as Lincoln wished, when he was ordered to do so, with the resources he had available to him?

Great question and we will never know. McClellan predicted the Confederates would just fall back to the Rappahannock before he could strike them. Keep in mind that the first of the '61  3 years men really did not become fully trained until November, just as the campaign season was closing down. No Union commander started a campaign in the east until May (Hooker '63 and Grant '64) except in 1865 when Grant was outside of Petersburg, (Mar. 31). McClellan for all his "slows" had his army well underway in Mid-Mar. Earlier than anyone else. Maybe Hooker and Grant were not hounded about sitting out the winter because by then it was apparent that winters in this area before concrete where tough to get around in.

Why did McClellan have such an unstinting belief in Alan Pinkerton's fantasies?

Well, what are your numbers then? 

Can you argue that McClellan's actions are defensible in terms of his lack of support for Pope at Second Manassas? "Leave Pope to get out of his scrape." This I'd like to hear . . . !

The Fifth and Third corps did make it through to Pope. The Sixth and Second corps would have too if Pope hadn't left "the rear to take care of itself" Really, what were Franklin's 10,000 infantry supposed to do against Jackson's 24,000 with artillery and cavalry? Sounds like a Turkey shoot to me. Put the blame where it belongs on that one, Pope. Pope did need to get out of the scrape himself. If he had taken the most basic precautions to secure his supply line, all of McClellan's troops would have gotten through. What happened to Taylor's New Jersey Bridge is only a smaller scale of what would have happened to Franklin or Sumner.  I have much more to say on this but no time.

Was McClellan a coward for refusing to press and press the enemy a la U.S. Grant, or was he just a perfectionist who wanted everything just so before committing his troops?

Again, here are the stats:

McClellan gets to Richmond in one month. 10k casualties

Grant gets to Richmond in one month, 60k casualties. 

(BTW Grant was a great commander. I am not knocking him)

McClellan was not a perfectionist, he just wanted Lincoln to provide him with the troops he was promised. (2x)

I caution against basing any substantive argument on assertions of numbers involving Civil War armies, Confederates in particular. Generalities in the face of widely divergent methods of record keeping and reporting are the best one might achieve. You and your antagonists may argue ad infinitum about how many soldiers Lee or McClellan had. Largely such a discussion is founded on supposition, and destined to generate more fury than substance. These numbers are the golden fleece of the Civil War.

You are absolutely correct, however, when big time historians constantly use ridiculously low numbers to prove a point as if they are absolute,  then those numbers must be challenged. When historians say Lee had 40,000 at Antietam, they fail to explain how after 10,000+ casualties Lee had 60,000, men 10 days later. Again, it is a slippery slope, but some numbers are better than others.

A comment - Few people read the entire quote from McClellan's dispatch to Halleck. He wrote there were two options, send everyone to Pope and hope to win, or secure the defenses of the capital and "let Pope get out of his own scrape." it was an option he offered to his commander, not an opinion. Read, read, read, original documents, not rehashed books. Tom Clemens

Thank you Tom! It is hard to have all the quotes in front of me to source directly.

Ugh, I can't believe it has been an hour and a half! I have been flanked, enfiladed, breached, overrun, and bombarded, but I am still going to stand my ground. I have to wrap things up for today (modern news calls) but I hope to get to some of your questions that I was unable to answer in a blog. Stay tuned for details.


Again, thank you for all of your questions, it has been really fun.

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Gene Thorp
Gene Thorp is an award-winning cartographer who has spent the last decade mapping news locally and around the world for the Washington Post.
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