I have read that when President Lincoln dismissed General McClellan for the second time (after he didn't try to beat Lee to Richmond in 1862), the troops almost mutinied (The Civil War by Shelby Foote and Ken Burns).

Did they think he was a military genius? Did they like that he was cautious? Did Pope's screw-ups make them fear any replacement?

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    Added reference. Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 11:12
  • @user2448131 See the quote from General McClellen himself in my answer below. Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 17:09

3 Answers 3


McClellan had been a popular commander on several counts. He had come to command the Army of the Potomac after winning two small victories in the modern West Virginia in 1861, which was two more victories than any other Union commander up to that time, and led to that state rejoining the Union.

McClellan was a great "book" commander, having graduated second in his class at West Point. This showed in his "administration" and retraining of the Army of the Potomac. This greatly improved the Army's morale after the lost Battle of Bull Run.

McClellan's main weakness was his lack of "real" fighting experience. Like many other American officers, he had served in the Mexican War, but unlike them, he had not acquired battle experience, having arrived too late for one battle, and been sick during another one. He therefore preferred "Fabian" tactics, the idea of trying to wear out the South with a minimum of loss. which was particularly popular with the soldiers, and not out of temper for most of the northern public.

The idea was actually soundly executed as formulated, the Peninsular Campaign was actually a "Pyrrhic victory" for General Lee, who lost more men both absolutely and proportionately. Not even Grant, the ultimate victor could inflict more absolute casualties on Lee until the very end. (And Grant was regarded as a "Butcher.")

Basically, McClellan could be trusted not to "lose" the war, even if he did little to win it. Particularly after the Pope fiasco, that was enough for the "average" Northerner, who was lukewarm about the Civil War, just not enough for Lincoln and the "Radical Republicans."

No less a historical figure than Winston Churchill (in "A History of the English Speaking Peoples") opined that the final outcome would like have been the same (a Northern victory) with less bloodshed if McClellan had been left in charge. The reason is that Ulysses S. Grant was winning in the west, capturing 'Tennessee in 1862, and Mississippi in 1863, thereby cutting off these states plus Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas from the main Confederacy, pursuant to General Winfield Scott's Anacaonda Plan. In 1864, Grant and Sherman could have traversed Georgia, cutting off another slice (Georgia, Alabama, Florida) of the Confederacy. Eventually, the South would lack the "critical mass" to survival.

McClellan's role in this exercise would be to tie up Lee, his best troops, and his best generals in Virginia, so that the North could defeat the rest of the South "piecemeal."

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    @KorvinStarmast: Added two more paragraphs to address most of your concerns. During the Revolution, General Nathaniel Greene exhibited a similar reluctance to fight a decisive battle with Cornwallis and others, preferring to inflict "Pyrrhic" victories (Guildord, Hobkirk's Hill, Eutaw Springs.).Greene "lost every battle and won every campaign."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 21:34
  • Nice. Two thumbs up if i could. Commented Jul 4, 2017 at 0:59
  • I'm wondering something... I heard someone on NPR mention that Yale and Harvard used to use family status in their calculation of class ranking. I'm wondering if the service academies might have also been doing that, so his 2nd place rank might at least be somewhat thanks to his mother's family being rather prominent?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 9, 2018 at 22:21
  • @T.E.D.: I would guess not. Even today, while the Ivy League schools don't fudge class ranks, they do fudge admissions, based on "legacy" issues. But the service academies are meritocracies. They don't need donations because they are publicly funded, but they need to identify the best students to be "mission ready." McClellan's strong academic record was borne out by his strong "paper" command; or, as you once put it, "his strategical chops vs. his tactical chops."
    – Tom Au
    Commented Feb 11, 2018 at 15:31

The main reason that the troops of the Union army objected to Lincoln's sacking of McClellan was that the sacking appeared to be a political, rather than a military, decision.

Soldiers, then as now, often resented interference from politicians who did not share their experience of the actual events in battle. They had fought at Antietam, and many presumably shared McClellan's caution in the aftermath.

I found the following contemporary quotes in the recent book, McClellan and the Union High Command, 1861–1863: Leadership Gaps That Cost a Timely Victory, by Jeffrey W. Green:

General George Meade noted that McClellan was sacked after the New York election:

"This removal now proves conclusively that the cause is political, and the date of the order, November 5 confirms it"

McClellan himself remembered that the news of his dismissal from the Army of the Potomac thus:

"created an immense deal of deep feeling in the army, so much so, that many were in favour of my refusing to obey the order and of marching upon Washington to take possession of the government".

(Both quotes appear on page 129)


There are two kinds of good generals: Tacticians and Strategists. McClellan was mediocre as the first, but really good as the second. He knew that merely saving the army is enough for winning the war. Maybe, he was not so genious as Kutuzov to win a war by a single maneuvre, but ... his target was not to be genious, but to win the war with the least losses, right? And his understanding of the fact made him the best.

Really, there were no war or economic reason for the North for winning the war ASAP. It was the South who needed the fast actions. So, for soldiers it was enough not to be fools to like that general. Any non-suicidic soldier should simply love that general. We see here that the problem of the North was that it was not much democratic these times. And the profits of several polititians weighed more than interests of millions. And America as a whole had paid really crazily high price in lifes and hartred and divided country as a result. But somebody made his profit on that.

It is interesting, how the history could turn if McClellan did what he was advised - took over the power in the North. Long and quiet war, with slow strangling of the South? Peaceful reconciliation with southern states voluntary returning back one after another? Peaceful and COMMON solution of the common problems after the war? It is interesting, how would the USA look out at the end of 19th Cent.?

  • This seems to answer some other question. Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 2:33
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    First two paragraphs are strong; third paragraph is counterfactual/alternate history/speculation.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 23:18
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    @MarkC.Wallace If you agree, that USA paid that excessively high price for the Civil War, than, obviously, with that price significantly lower, America's alternative future would have many quite obvious better features. So, I think that only last 2 sentences are somewhat speculative here. Ok, I am removing them.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 7:03

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