eorge McClellan, Union general and 1864 Democratic presidential nominee, was
born in Philadelphia to Elizabeth Brinton McClellan and Dr. George McClellan, a
surgeon and medical professor. Young McClellan attended Philadelphia prep
schools, then studied at the University of Pennsylvania from 1840 until 1842
when he accepted an appointment to West Point. Graduating second in his class in
1846, he saw service in the Mexican-American War as an engineer constructing
roads and bridges. He won three commendations for distinguished service and was
raised to the rank of captain. At the war's conclusion, he returned to West
Point to teach military engineering. While there, he translated and adapted a
book of French regulations on bayonet exercises which was adopted by the army in
McClellan left West Point in 1851 for a series of engineering assignments in
Delaware, Arkansas, Texas, and the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1855 he joined a board of officers for a year abroad studying military
systems in Europe and the Crimean War theater of operations. McClellan's
reports-largely on the engineers, cavalry, and the Russian army-were highly
regarded. Based on his observations, he made several suggestions for improving
the American armed forces, including a new kind of saddle which was adopted. In
1857 he retired from the army to work in the railroad industry. He was chief
engineer, then vice president, for the Illinois Central Railroad before
accepting the presidency of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad in 1860.
When the Civil War began, McClellan was named major-general in charge of the
Ohio volunteers and state militia, but within a month was appointed
major-general in the federal army and put in charge of the Department of Ohio
(comprising Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and (later) parts of western Pennsylvania
and Virginia). His victory at Rich Mountain, West Virginia (July 11, 1861), just
ten days before the Union defeat at Bull Run, brought him to the attention of
military's top echelon as well as the public. As a result, he was given command
of the Division of the Potomac. Finding the troops in disarray, he reorganized,
trained, and disciplined them. Beloved by his men, he was called the "Young
Napoleon." As a reluctant fighter, though, he continually overestimated
enemy troop strength and refused to call his troops into action.
When General Winfield Scott retired as general-in-chief, McClellan replaced him.
That led to further delays, though, as McClellan pondered the larger situation.
He differed with President Lincoln on strategy, and exasperated the president
with his reluctance to fight. Lincoln relieved McClellan as general-in-chief but
left him in charge of the Army of the Potomac. After the Seven Days' Battle
(June 25-July 1, 1862), McClellan complained of lack of support from Washington
and of being outnumbered by the Confederates. As Confederate General Robert E.
Lee moved his troops into the Union state of Maryland, McClellan was given a
mislaid copy of Lee's plans found by a Union soldier. The Union general,
however, failed to act quickly enough to take advantage before the scattered
Confederate troops consolidated. Following the battle of Antietam (September 17,
1862), McClellan allowed Lee and his troops to retreat back to Confederate
territory in Virginia. A few months later, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his
command. He never saw field duty again.
In 1864 the Democratic party nominated McClellan for the presidency. The party
platform reflected the dominant force of the Peace Democrats at the national
convention. It criticized Lincoln's administration of the war effort, the
suppression of civil liberties, and called for an immediate cession of fighting
and a negotiated settlement. McClellan repudiated the so-called "peace
plank," promising, instead, to prosecute the war more effectively than
Lincoln. The Democratic party, however, stood before the country as the peace
party, which boded ill for its prospects after the Union capture of Atlanta that
fall. Lincoln was reelected by a large margin.
Retiring from the army on election day, McClellan spent the next three years
traveling in Europe. He returned to head the construction of a newly designed
warship, but the project was scrapped in 1869. He served as chief engineer of
the New York City Docks (1870-1872), then as governor of New Jersey (1878-1881).
He died of a heart ailment in 1885.