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 '12 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 '13 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 '14 at 20:39

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)

  • 1
    He also had a good deal of strategic ability. His first campaign had a shot at taking Richmond, if executed decisively. Jan 22 '12 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 '15 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 '15 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 '15 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 '12 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 '13 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 '14 at 0:04

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