McClellan’s Culture of Command

Union general George B. McClellanCowan's Auctions

Union general George B. McClellan

George B. McClellan profoundly affected the course of the Civil War. His inexplicable retreat following a major victory at Malvern Hill in July 1862 undoubtedly lengthened the conflict and, to his chagrin, helped advance the process of emancipation. Ten weeks later, he wasted a breathtaking opportunity to deal a crushing blow to the Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Antietam. Beyond such specific actions (or non-actions), he fostered a culture of command in the Army of the Potomac that remained in place, often with pernicious results, long after he left active service.

McClellan’s approach to waging war percolated down from headquarters to subordinates of every grade. As head of the army for its first 15 months, he sought to avoid an all-out effort that targeted slavery and Rebel civilian property, preferring instead to beat the Confederates just enough to convince them they should return to the United States. He habitually, and sometimes grotesquely, inflated Confederate strength and offered excuses about why he could not take the offensive. He demanded more troops and supplies or insisted that some other factor prevented his taking action. In short, he preferred not to act until everything was just right—though, as any adult should know, everything is never just right in the real world. For McClellan, taking a risk meant that great harm, not great rewards, might follow. An exasperated Abraham Lincoln sacked him in early November 1862, but by then “Little Mac” had left a powerful imprint on the army. His watchwords, deeply insinuated into the army’s command structure, would remain evident until late in the war. They included embracing caution to the point of inaction, covering yourself in case of failure, imagining the worst possible outcome, and never striving to deliver a true knockout blow against the enemy.

McClellan’s response to the Battle of Seven Pines reveals much about his generalship. He felt revulsion as he rode over the field where Union casualties had exceeded 5,000 on May 31 and June 1, 1862. “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield,” he wrote his wife the day after the battle, “with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.” On one level, such concern about casualties invites praise and helps explain why the army’s soldiers lavished affection on McClellan. Yet it also illuminates his reluctance to press things on a battlefield, to pursue decisive results at the risk of damaging the impressive martial instrument he had created. McClellan lacked some elements of what mid-19th-century Americans would have called moral courage: the ability to keep focused in a crisis, to make hard decisions, and to accept responsibility for outcomes.

Examples of tentativeness among the army’s top leadership after McClellan’s departure are well known. Joseph Hooker opened the Chancellorsville Campaign aggressively but at the moment of truth on May 1, 1863, abandoned all thought of smiting the Rebels. Four days later, despite holding a line of powerful works against an enemy with only half his manpower, he withdrew across the Rappahannock River. Hooker was succeeded by George G. Meade, who did well under difficult circumstances at Gettysburg on July 1-3 yet mounted no serious effort to punish an obviously damaged foe over the ensuing week. Meade’s behavior during the Confederate retreat to the Potomac River struck Lincoln as “a dreadful reminiscence of McClellan” that would extend the war indefinitely.

Alpheus S. WilliamsLibrary of Congress

Alpheus S. Williams

Correspondence in From the Cannon’s Mouth: The Civil War Letters of General Alpheus S. Williams (1959) provides very helpful insights into the Army of the Potomac’s culture. Williams forged an admirable record as a hard-fighting brigade and division commander. But he often exaggerated Confederate numbers, seemed satisfied merely to avoid defeats, and manifested caution in confronting Robert E. Lee’s army. He denounced civilians who urged pursuit of retreating Confederates after Antietam, complaining that these “anxious souls know nothing of our preparations, nothing of the force or resources of the enemy.” Similarly, he approved of Hooker’s retreat after Chancellorsville. Neither “the most extravagant self-conceit nor the wildest lunacy,” he wrote in McClellanesque fashion, “could bring anyone to the belief that with our reduced army we can, with the least prospect of success, cross the Rappahannock just now…. [O]ffensive operations are out of the question.” After Gettysburg, Williams insisted that Confederates outnumbered the Army of the Potomac. The Federals must exercise prudence in this circumstance because the “army under Lee … is constantly falling back on reinforcements and his base of supplies. We are moving away from both and daily decreasing in numbers.” He conceded McClellan might have had “too much of the Fabian policy, but in judging of this one must not forget that he has been placed in circumstances where to lose the game would have been to lose all.” “Little Mac” could not have said it better.

Not all of the army’s officers embraced McClellan’s culture. Philip Kearny famously claimed the order to retreat from Malvern Hill “can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.” Even Captain William Biddle of McClellan’s staff thought the “idea of stealing away in the night from such a position, after such a victory, was simply galling.” Corps chief Daniel E. Sickles, a true outsider in the army, acted aggressively at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and Francis Channing Barlow represented those at lower levels of responsibility who sought to engage and bleed the enemy.

But the overall culture remained hesitant. Two snapshots underscore this fact. In Lydia Leister’s house at Gettysburg on the evening of July 2, Meade asked his principal subordinates whether the army should take the tactical offensive on July 3 or await more Confederate attacks. Two days of hard fighting had yielded heavy Union casualties but also, as everyone present surely knew, had cost Lee dearly. The generals voted unanimously to remain on the defensive. After the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness, an officer told U.S. Grant they faced “a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience….” According to Horace Porter’s account, an aggravated Grant snapped: “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do…. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” Just two days into the Overland Campaign, Grant had confronted McClellan’s culture head on. He would work hard over the next several months to eradicate it.


Gary W. Gallagher has published widely on the era of the Civil War, including several articles in The Civil War Monitor.

2 thoughts on “McClellan’s Culture of Command

  1. What a wonderful fair analysis. It perhaps might emphasize a bit more the emotional toll created by the screams of dying soldiers on a civil war battlefield. Lincoln (and Grant) had a passion to save the Union and move to a Union that was eventually all free and not all slave. McClellan did not share those passions at all, and so the emotional toll of the dying was not balanced as it was for Lincoln and Grant. But that does not excuse or explain McClellan’s cowardice or exaggeration of enemy strength that was almost treasonous.

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