I'm watching Ken Burns' The Civil War, and he paints a picture of George McClellan as someone who was perfectly prepared to score significant victories against the Confederacy, but simply decided to do nothing, because he did not trust Lincoln's judgement. Burns seems to side against McClellan in this, but I wonder if this is a commonly-held opinion about McClellan or if there are some who support his judgement of Lincoln and his decision not to act.

  • Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you started.
    – Tom Au
    Jan 21, 2012 at 0:48
  • If you want to read up on this, Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative -- Fort Sumter to Perryville goes into the Lincoln-McClellan relationship in considerable detail and contains answers to your question (which I can't recall in detail right now).
    – Drux
    Jan 16, 2013 at 7:37
  • Make a mistake and everybody gets killed. He was probably a lot smarter than some of the other Union generals. May 5, 2014 at 20:39
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    "Make a mistake and everybody gets killed." True. But fear making mistakes too much and you lose and might as well just surrender and save the trouble. That's why leadership is hard.
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 25, 2023 at 12:25

4 Answers 4


George McClellan was a "whiz kid" promoted to commander of the Army of the Potomac at the young age of 34. He was superbly trained (at West Point) and trained his men well, but lacked the confidence for serious fighting that comes with experience.


He himself admitted, “It would have been better for me personally had my promotion been delayed a year of more. Perhaps it was a case of too much – too soon obtained at too little cost.” (Leckie, 410)

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    He also had a good deal of strategic ability. His first campaign had a shot at taking Richmond, if executed decisively. Jan 22, 2012 at 17:56

The question has puzzled historians ever since. It's hard to look anywhere other than McClellan's makeup, which has led to much psychoanalysis of McClellan.

He had immense administrative ability. It's not too much to say that he saved the Union, with his formation of the Army of the Potomac after Bull Run. His Peninsula Campaign came within 4 miles of Richmond.

But it's also true that McClellan was strangely timid when it came time to force the issue. He wasted countless opportunities, seemingly stalled by insubstantial obstacles. He seemed to lack initiative. Plus Lee got completely into his head. It's difficult to imagine Grant stopping for a month at Yorktown, as McClellan did, rather than sweeping over it in his first couple of hours.

Ultimately no one knows. McClellan remains a complicated figure.

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    I question that Little Mac's "administrative ability" was all that outstanding. The North had a number of armies, all of which got put together at that time by other generals without them getting written up as geniuses. The Army of the Potomac, if anything, did less with more than any of the others
    – Oldcat
    Nov 18, 2015 at 1:28
  • Valid. I'm trying to be nice. McPherson is complimentary of McClellan's accomplishment in getting the Army of the Potomac ready in a short time after the disaster of Bull Run, so I'm content to follow his lead. Yeah, "immense" might be an overstatement, but he certainly had SOME administrative ability, and his contemporaries thought he was talented. Agree with your "less with more" assessment of that army. My answer could maybe stand some detail on McClellan's maneuvering against Lincoln – squabbles for power etc.
    – JimZipCode
    Nov 20, 2015 at 4:23
  • I agree that Mac had abilities. I just was bringing up the point that even though most conventional history focuses so much on the AoP that it is almost surprising when you realize that the three other armies (or four if you count the forces around New Orleans) were created and formed without Little Mac's involvement at all.
    – Oldcat
    Nov 20, 2015 at 22:50

One issue was his knowledge of the Confederate Army. Almost all of the good cavalry went with the South, and without scouts he was reduced to relying on Pinkerton for intelligence estimates. I doubt they were actually paid a fixed rate per Confederate soldier reported, but the result would have been about the same.

So, McClellan was advancing, relatively blind, against forces that were reported to be considerably larger than his own. More resolute generals than McClellan have had problems in those circumstances.

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    What surprised me the most was the anecdote about him having been delivered some of Lee's plans accidentally left behind on a piece of paper. Burns basically says that McClellan could have one the war with that information, but chose to do nothing.
    – clem
    Jan 22, 2012 at 21:01
  • @clem: That was what led to the battle of Antietam. By fighting that battle, McClellan did more than "nothing," just not enough.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 2, 2013 at 21:37
  • I read a recent work about Spying in the Civil war and he writer found that yes, Pinkerton's reports were bad, but Little Mac actually inflated these even further.
    – Oldcat
    May 6, 2014 at 0:04

I think McClellan has been unfairly treated by the politicians in power and by history. (Republicans ran the government at that time and McClellan was a big name Democrat).

When he fought against Lee in the peninsula his army was close to the size of the confederates. In the peninsular campaign his strategy was altered without warning by Washington several times. He had a large force that was trained to land farther up the peninsula and block in the confederates on the peninsula while a large portion of his army come up from the south. Was great idea until Washington held back the large corp that was to do it. They then said they would send troops overland and ordered McClellan position himself in an awkward way to meet those troops. He had plans made in case of an attack by the now numerically superior Confederates from this position ordered by Washington to move their supplies and supply lines to the James River. The Confederates did attack and McClellan did move to the James River.

Remember Confederates counted their troops as soldiers in line for battle not everyone in the area while Union forces were counted as total soldiers in the area under command of that general. The Confederates had in place conscription and were rapidly building up their forces at this time while the Union shut down recruiting and told McClellan he must make due with what he had. No wonder he was careful with his soldiers.

Once on the James River he wanted to move across the river and attack Petersburg which would then force the Confederates to abandon Richmond. Washington would not allow him to do this. The best and possibly only way to keep a large Union army supplied around Richmond is by water. All this same stuff was done by Grant later in the war.

After General Pope took command of all the Union troops and got routed at Second Bull Run McClellan was given back command. That he moved cautiously only made sense. Lee just whipped that same Union army so it would be stupid to rush back to attack Lee.

As for the lost orders being so advantageous. McClellan was maneuvering against Lee when they found those orders. One of the reasons some Confederate commanders said that McClellan did not rush and overwhelm two easily defended (by Confederates) mountain passes was that according to the lost orders which were several days old already they stated that Lee should have had more troops at or near those passes. Also McClellan was trying to manoeuvre his army to try and save over ten thousand union troops that were ordered to stay at Harpers Ferry by Washington against McClellan’s advice. He was not allowed to evacuate them earlier and add them to his army.

At Antietam McClellan did attack Lee. In hindsight he should have attacked before most of his own army was there for the attack but just remember he had far fewer Calvary to inform him of the confederate numbers and position and it was still not too long since Lee’s army had routed this very army that he now commanded when Pope was in charge. When he did attack most of his main corp commanders and some replacement commanders were killed or wounded and one commander (Burnside) especially would not attack on time despite repeated orders from McClellan. If the loss of the corp commanders and some of their replacements had not occurred things might have been very different.

Also note that Lee complained of close to twenty-five thousand stragglers that were spread all over. McClellan could not have known the extent of the number of lost soldiers due to straggling

Overall McClellan faced the confederates in battle with forces far closer in number and ability then later commanders like Burnside, Hooker, Meade, or Grant. He also when you calculated out Union versus Confederate casualties the best ratio of any commander fighting Lee. And finally he handled his army in a way that never gave Lee an opening to destroy part or all of it even when ordered into a bad position by Washington before the start of the Seven Days battles. Longstreet said it was fortunate that they removed McClellan as he was good and improving rapidly. He was one of the most beloved commanders if not the most beloved by that army during the war. That is usually a sign by the soldiers that they trust that someone and believe he is not Just getting them killed for no good reason.

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