A Union Army commander in the American Civil War, George Brinton McClellan (1826-1885) repelled Gen. Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North. He was later a governor of New Jersey.
George B. McClellan was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on Dec. 3, 1826, the son of a prominent physician. He attended the University of Pennsylvania Preparatory School and, by special action, was permitted to enter West Point two years before attaining the minimum age. He graduated second in the 1846 class of 59 cadets.
McClellan won two brevets in the Mexican War in 1847 "for gallant and meritorious conduct." He was named to the American military commission which observed the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War (1853-1856). McClellan then studied military organizations, weapons, and systems in several European countries and wrote an excellent, comprehensive report on his observations (1857). Resigning his commission in the army Jan. 16, 1857, he became an executive with the Illinois Central Railroad. He was president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad when the Civil War erupted in 1861.
McClellan immediately volunteered his services on behalf of the Union and was commissioned a major general in command of the Department of the Ohio in May 1861. In this capacity he led the Federal forces into the pro-Union northwestern area of Virginia to confront Confederate troops ordered there by Robert E. Lee. McClellan soundly trounced the enemy at the battles of Philippi (June 3, 1861), Rich Mountain (July 11), and Carrick's Ford (July 13), paving the way for the creation of the new state of West Virginia (admitted to the Union in 1863). Called to Washington, D.C., to assume command of the army that had been routed at First Bull Run, McClellan was named head of the Department of the Potomac. On Nov. 1, 1861, he became general in chief. He delayed an advance until 1862 in order to train, equip, and perfect his army but, as a result, he clashed with President Abraham Lincoln and the difficult secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton.
Finally permitted to advance into Virginia via the peninsula between the York and James rivers, McClellan overcautiously laid siege to Yorktown in April 1862 and fought a drawn battle at Williamsburg on May 5. With his army of some 95,000 men—smaller by one-third than that which had been assured him—he inched to within 4 miles of Richmond through unusually heavy rains. When attacked by Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston in the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), May 31-June 1, he essentially repulsed the enemy assaults and maintained his position. Endless bickering with the Lincoln administration continued. In the sprawling Seven Days Battle initiated by Lee (June 25-July 1) McClellan lost only one engagement—at Gaines's Mill—and succeeded, in a brilliant change-of-base operation, in checking Lee's continued attacks. At Malvern Hill on July 1 McClellan administered one of the bloodiest repulses the Confederate commander ever suffered. Though the Army of the Potomac was safe at Harrison's Landing, Lincoln nonetheless withdrew it to Washington, against McClellan's protests, and gave it to another commander.
After the severe defeat of John Pope's Union army at Second Bull Run in August 1862, McClellan was renamed to command the army. Meanwhile Lee was pressing his advantage by invading Maryland. Plagued by contradictory orders from his superiors and obliged to reorganize his army on the march, McClellan pursued Lee into western Maryland, winning the important Battle of South Mountain (September 14) and wresting the initiative from him. Finally, at Antietam (Sharpsburg), McClellan attacked the Confederates in the bloodiest single-day battle of the war, gaining a strategic victory that forced Lee to retreat into Virginia. However, when he failed to follow up his success to the satisfaction of Lincoln, McClellan was fired on Nov. 5, 1862. He never held another Civil War command and resigned his commission on Nov. 8, 1864, to run unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for president against Lincoln.
After Appomattox, McClellan pursued his varied literary and cultural tastes in America and abroad. He was fond of mountain climbing, and he moved in high-society circles. Service in several large engineering enterprises was followed by his election as governor of New Jersey—a position he held with distinction from 1878 to 1881. He died of coronary trouble on Oct. 29, 1885, at Orange, N.J.
McClellan was powerfully built, handsome, and graceful. On May 22, 1860, he married the vivacious Ellen Mary Marcy, and his personal life was without blemish. Despite a tendency to magnify difficulties, his achievements during the Civil War were substantial, and some were masterful.
A scholarly, fully documented study is Warren W. Hassler, Jr., General George B. McClellan: Shield of the Union (1957). A strongly pro-McClellan treatment is H. J. Eckenrode and Bryan Conrad, George B. McClellan: The Man Who Saved the Union (1941), while the leading anti-McClellan biography is Peter S. Michie, General McClellan (1901). Clarence E. Macartney, Little Mac: The Life of General George B. McClellan (1940), is popularly written. More sophisticated is William Starr Myers, A Study in Personality: General George Brinton McClellan (1934). No student of the Civil War should neglect the general's memoirs, McClellan's Own Story (1887), which, while persuasive and containing the invaluable letters written by McClellan to his wife, is painfully defensive in tone.