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Name:  George Brinton McClellan

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Born:  December 3, 1826
Died:  October 29, 1885
 
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
George 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 1852.

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.

Source consulted: Dictionary of American Biography; The Civil War Dictionary, ed. Mark Boatner; Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History; William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U. S. Presidents.

 

 


 

 
 

 

     
 

 
     
 

 
     
 

 

 

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