In administration, preparation, and morale, he may have been excellent, but in starting campaigns he was ruinously cautious and in battles he was reluctant to sustain casualties. In the the Peninsula campaign, Confederate General Joe Johnston said "Nobody but McClellan would have hesitated to attack". In the subsequent retreat (necessitated by his hesitancy and mistakes), he conducted a skillful retreat, but wars aren't won by retreats.
Why did Robert E. Lee say that George McClellan was the best general he ever faced?
The quote was from a conversation Lee had with his cousin after the war and comes to us 3rd hand from someone who was not in the conversation. It was recorded 30+ years removed from Lee's death. So it's very possible Lee never made the statement. It's also possible that Lee said it but that the intent of the statement was mistook. Two old men, one could imagine Lee makes the statement and both men erupt in laughter afterwards. Robert E. Lee could have meant it as George McClellan was the best Union General because he did such a fine job of training and building up the Army of the Potomac after the First Battle of Manassas, something history commends him with having achieved. Or Robert E. Lee could have meant it as McClellan was the best Union general because I understood him so completely and defeated him so consistently (Seven Day's Wars, . Lee's favorite Union General? The "best" Union General for Lee. Beyond that Robert E. Lee is also credited with saying some kind words about General U.S. Grant. Lee said Grant was the greatest General in History. Not a direct quote but it captures the intention. Lee also said "Grant was the premier Union General, who had exceeded all the other more noted names" in the civil war.
The entire quotes and conversation are given below.
These words were attributed to Robert E. Lee(Jan 19, 1807 – Oct 12, 1870) 3rd hand, decades after his death. They appear in the book written by Lee's son "Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee" first published in 1904, on page 416. Lee's son says his father was talking to his first cousin Cassius Lee(May 22, 1808 - Jan 23, 1890) in Arlington Virginia, after the war. The conversation was related to the author, Robert E. Lee Jr. by Cassius Lee's son, Mr. Cazenove Lee(May 30, 1850 - 26 Apr 1912) who was 15 years old when the civil war ended.
Here is the paragraph from the book.
Mr. Cassius Lee was my father’s first cousin. They had been children together, schoolmates in boyhood, and lifelong friends and neighbours. He was my father’s trusted adviser in all business matters, and in him he had the greatest confidence. Mr. Cazenove Lee, of Washington, D. C., his son, has kindly furnished me with some of his recollections of this visit, which I give in his own words: “It is greatly to be regretted that an accurate and full account of this visit was not preserved, for the conversations during those two or three days were most interesting and would have filled a volume. It was the review of a lifetime by two old men. It is believed that General Lee never talked after the war with as little reserve as on this occasion. Only my father and two of his boys were present. I can remember his telling my father of meeting Mr. Leary, their old teacher at the Alexandria Academy, during his late visit to the South, which recalled many incidents of their school life. They talked of the war, and he told of the delay of Jackson in getting on McClellan’s flank, causing the fight at Mechanicsville, which fight he said was unexpected, but was necessary to prevent McClellan from entering Richmond, from the front of which most of the troops had been moved. He thought that if Jackson had been at Gettysburg he would have gained a victory, ‘for’ said he, ‘Jackson would have held the heights which Ewell took on the first day.’ He said that Ewell was a fine officer, but would never take the responsibility of exceeding his orders, and having been ordered to Gettysburg, he would not go farther and hold the heights beyond the town. I asked him which of the Federal generals he considered the greatest, and he answered most emphatically ‘McClellan by all odds.’ He was asked why he did not come to Washington after second Manassas.
“‘Because,’ he replied, ‘my men had nothing to eat,’ and pointing to Fort Wade, in the rear of our home, he said, ‘I could not tell my men to take that fort when they had had nothing to eat for three days. I went to Maryland to feed my army.’
To add credibility to the quote. After Stonewall Jackson died at Chancellorsville and before Lee's invasion of the North the second time; Lee reorganized his army into 3 corps. The first under Longstreet. The second under Ewell and the third under General AP Hill. Hill and Ewell had previously been division commanders under Jackson. So it makes sense that Lee would contrast Ewell's conduct to that of Jackson his greatest subordinate tactician. Also elements of Ewell's command did capture the town of Gettysburg June 26, 1863 prior to the main battle. Lee had issued orders that Ewell was to take the high ground outside the city called Cemetery Ridge, but added the words "if practicable". Ewell did indeed survey the field and determined taking the ridge was not practicable and didn't attempt it. That ridge was the defensive position which repulsed Picket's Charge, delimited the "high water mark of the Confederacy", and shattered Lee's army.
On the other hand, there were more than 30 forts defending Washington DC during the Civil War. None of them were named Fort Wade. The only Union civil war fort named Fort Wade I found was in NY.
It's hard to believe Lee's words were meant to suggest that McClellan was the best Union General of the war.
Perhaps Lee was complementing McClellan on his ability to train and discipline his army. Something Lee would have appreciated. After the first battle of bull run when the Union army broke and panicked in falling back on their Capital, McClellan had systematically rebuilt that army into a new greatly expanded fighting force. Even McClellan's critics credit McClellan with doing a fine job of rebuilding the Army of the Potomac after their initial defeat.
Here is Lee's record against McClellan in 1862 before McClellan was relieved of his command by Lincoln. Tactically McClellan actually won many of the engagements. Strategically though McClellan was always retreating as the battles move from Richmond north across Virginia into Maryland.
- June 26, Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, Virginia. Tactical Union Victory, McClellan however retreats
- June 27, Battle of Gaines Mill, Virginia, clear-cut Confederate tactical victory, McClellan retreats.
- June 27–28, Battle of Garnett’s Farm and Golding’s Farm, Virginia*. tactical Union victory, McClellan decides to give up on sieging Richmond and retreat.
- June 29, Battle of Savage Station and Allen’s Farm, Virginia*, Stalemate - McClellan retreats.
- June 30, Battle of White Oak Swamp, Virginia. Artillery Duel, Lee fails to send his infantry into the Frey and again McClellan retreats.
- June 30, Battle of Glendale, Virginia. McClellan is not fighting for the life of his army. Tactically it's inconclusive, but only because McClellan retreats and in doing so escapes.
- July 1, Battle of Malvern Hill, Virginia. Tactical Union Victory, due to Unions superior artillery and Confederates 3 frontal attacks into that artillery. McClellan is absent from the battlefield and after the battle again retreats.
- August 9, Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia. Confederate Victory Stonewall Jackson defeats Banks with a counter attack.
- August 28–30, Second Battle of Bull Run Manassas, Virginia, Confederate Victory. Lee defeats Pope. Afterwards Pope is released of his command.
- September 12–15, Battle of Harpers Ferry, (West) Virginia, Great Confederate Victory. Largest Union Surrender of the War. Jackson and Hill defeats Miles and White.
- September 14, Battle of South Mountain, Maryland. Union Victory, McClellan fails to follow up and destroy Lee's outnumbered forces before he can mass is troops.
- September 17, Battle of Antietam / Sharpsburg - Tactically inconclusive; Union strategic victory, Lee turns south.
Lee had taken command of the Confederate forces when McClellan was a few miles outside of Richmond at the culmination of the Peninsula_Campaign. Lee was outnumbered and McClellan had even more re-enforcements coming. Lee set about evissorating McClellan command in the Seven Days Battles systematically marching him backwards until he was forced to withdraw. This resulted in McClellan numerically superior forces being forced to shelter under the US Navy's guns for fear of Lee's numerically inferior forces. Lee ultimately pushed McClellan all the way back to Washington DC. In many battles between the two, Lee arguable never lost a battle. The best McClellan ever did was the Battle of Antietam where McClellan with more than twice the men and advanced knowledge of Lee's battle plans was able to check Lee's initial invasion of the North and force him back south. Still McClellan took most of the casualties at Antietam and history remembers it as more of a stalemate. McClellan's best showing against Lee. After Antietam McClellan would be relieved of his command by Lincoln.
Perhaps Lee was saying McClellan was "his" favorite Union General to fight against? The best Union General in his view. Like General Halsey saying in WWII, "the only good Jap is a dead Jap". This makes sense as Lee really had his way with McClellan in nearly every battle. So perhaps what Lee really meant was McClellan was the best Union General, because Lee spanked him so completely and consistantly.
Lastly I'll say, Lee was known to have had some very kind words for General Grant the man who not only defeated him in battle, but put Lee on the defensive and defeated him in the War. Three things McClellan never achieved.
Source page 54
Within a few weeks of General Grant's death, a person in conversation with General Lee refereed to General Grant as a military accident, who had no distinguishing merit, but had achieved success through a combination of fortunate circumstances." Lee Replied: "Sir, your opinion is a very poor compliment to me. We all thought Richmond protected, as it was, by our splendid fortifications and defended by our army of veterans, could not be taken. Yet Grant turned his face to our capital and never turned it away until we had surrendered. Now, I have carefully searched the military records of both ancient and modern history, and have never found Grant's superior as a general, I doubt if his superior can be found in all history."
Ron Chernow's, GRANT page 517
The Reverend George W. Pepper, a chaplain in Sherman's army said Lee named Grant as the premier Union General: "Both as a gentleman and as an organizer of victorious war, General Grant has excelled all your most noted soldiers"
Lee statement's on his Union opponents are either contradictory or have come to us second or third hand. Little can be attributed to Lee with certainty, and none of it reveals much. The rest may be true, or true in part, or simply fabricated. At various times, he is reported to have said that Generals McClellan, Grant, Meade and Sherman were the best.
If all that has been attributed to Lee is true, he would not be the first person to make contradictory statements. If we are to believe all the sources, Lee's opinion seems to have changed from effusive praise of Grant in 1865 to an almost equally enthusiastic endorsement of McClellan by 1870.
There are circumstances which suggest Lee may have changed his opinion for reasons (personal and political, see detailed answer) other than battlefield experience, and the same may be true to some extent concerning Grant’s somewhat critical assessment of Lee. He may also have felt, as suggested in his correspondence, that there were other issues which were more important than who was the best general.
LEE ON UNION GENERALS
In roughly chronological order, Lee either wrote or is alleged to have said the following on Union generals:
McClellan, 5th June, 1862
McClellan will make this a battle of Posts. He will take position from position, under cover of his heavy guns & we cannot get at him without storming his works, which with our new troops is extremely hazardous.
Lee was clearly not unappreciative of McClellan's intent and recognized that it posed problems for his Confederate army, but this falls someway short of ‘best general’.
McClellan, 5th November 1862
That Lee found McClellan predictable is evident in his reaction to hearing that McClellan had been removed from command by Lincoln. One of Lee's subordinates, Lt General James Longstreet noted Lee's response to this news:
General Lee, on receiving the news, said he regretted to part with McClellan, "for," he added, "we always understood each other so well. I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don't understand."
Grant, 24th July, 1864
In a letter dated 24th July 1864 from Lee to his son George Washington Custis Lee wrote:
Where are we to get sufficient troops to oppose Grant? He is bringing to him now the 19th Corps & will bring every man he can get. His talent & strategy consists in accumulating overwhelming numbers.
Lee’s frustration is evident and should probably be seen in the context in which it was written; Lee was facing Grant’s numerically superior forces in Virginia, supplies were running short, and Petersburg was under siege, while elsewhere confederate forces had failed to halt Sherman’s advance on Atlanta.
Grant & Sherman, May 1865
This lengthy account is from a chaplain in Sherman’s army, Captain George W. Pepper. Its reliability is questionable, not least because it quotes an almost effusive Lee at great length. It seems unlikely that Pepper could have remembered so much of what Lee said to directly and accurately quote him at such length, even if he had made notes immediately after the meeting (which he may well have done – Pepper kept notes during the campaign and published them). Pepper only published this account in 1899, more than 30 years his account of Sherman’s campaigns. Ron Chernow, in Grant (2017) only cites Pepper on Grant, and without commenting on the credibility of this source (while casting doubt on McCormick below).
General Lee now adverted to the character of General Grant, of whom he spoke in the most friendly words and terms.... he possessed all the requisites and talents for the organization of armies.
A little further on in this account, Pepper asks Lee about Sherman. While critical of the ‘scorched earth policies’ during the march to the sea (Nov-Dec 1864), Pepper quotes Lee as saying
As a strategist and commander of men, Sherman has displayed the highest order of military genius.... he is, in my opinion, the most successful of the Federal officers who have played a prominent part in the history of the war.
Pepper then continues:
I asked him who was the greatest of the Federal generals.
“Indeed, sir, I have no hesitation in saying General Grant. Both as a gentleman and as an organizer of victorious war, General Grant has excelled all your most noted soldiers. He has exhibited more true courage, more real greatness of mind, more consummate prudence from the outset, and more heroic bravery, than anyone on your side.”
Assuming that there is some truth in Pepper’s account, we must still consider that Lee’s thoughts on Grant may well have been favourable in large part because of the latter’s lenient terms of surrender at Appomattox about a month earlier. Also, Lee may simply have been playing the perfect host, but it is nonetheless likely that Pepper’s account has been embellished.
Grant, sometime between 1865 and 1870
This source (McCormick) has Lee reportedly saying:
I have carefully searched the military records of both ancient and modern history, and have never found Grant's superior as a general.
Source: William C. Davis, Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee--The War They Fought, the Peace They Forged (2015)
However, the authenticity of this has been disputed, and it’s not hard to see why when one considers that
It originated in a brief article by S. D. McCormick,... (July 17, 1897).... he described it as “another occurrence, which was currently reported among the students”; in other words a campus rumor [at Washington College, where Lee was President 1865-70), and one not set down by him until some thirty years later.
Meade, sometime between 1865 and 1870
On General Meade, who defeated Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, there is this in:
a letter he supposedly wrote after the war [which] circulated in Washington. In it he declared that the Yankee with “the greatest ability” was Meade, and that “he feared Meade more than any man that he ever met upon the field of battle.”
The contents are plausible given what happened at Gettysburg, but the words “a letter he supposedly wrote...circulated in Washington” do not inspire confidence in this source. Lee's curt (especially for him) refusal to attend a Gettysburg reunion in August 1869 may be an indication of how painful for him the defeat he suffered there was.
McClellan, sometime before 24th January 1870
This is cited by Davis. He comments that it “may not be authentic”. He relates that General Lee
reportedly told a cousin that the Federals’ finest commander was McClellan. “Oh yes!” Lee reportedly exclaimed, “he was the ablest soldier they had.”
Davis’ source for this is given in the endnotes as:
J. F. Lee to Fitz-John Porter, January 24, 1870, “Knapsack,” North & South, 5 ( July 2002), p.11.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to access this source for a closer look but J. F. Lee may well be a relative of General Lee, John Fitzgerald Lee, a 1834 West Point graduate who was Judge Advocate of the Army 1849-62. Caught between loyalty to his Virginia relatives and his duties in Washington (pdf), he fell out of favour and resigned, retiring to his farm in Maryland.
The recipient of the letter (?) is more intriguing. In January 1863, Union Major General Fitz-John Porter was “found guilty of disobeying a lawful order” in a controversial court-martial. Porter was a McClellan loyalist and his conviction was widely seen as a political act; in convicting him, the court was condemning McClellan who had been removed from command shortly before the trial began. Before the Civil War, Porter had been post adjutant for Robert E. Lee at West Point, and Lee was one of the people he wrote to for assistance during his long attempt to clear his name. It may well have been Robert E. Lee who put Porter in touch with J. F. Lee who, having been Judge Advocate of the Army, would have been a useful contact when Porter sought to clear his name. After many years of high-level political wrangling (it’s complicated), Porter was cleared and restored to the army in 1886.
Where does all this lead? Porter had connections to the Lee family and he had been professionally associated (at least) with Robert E. Lee. He was a McClellan loyalist, and feelings ran high over his conviction and on McClellan in general. It is plausible that Robert E. Lee said something highly favourable about McClellan, possibly because he felt the condemnation of McClellan had gone too far, or possibly as a kind of moral support for Porter, a victim because of his association with McClellan. On the other hand, if the General did not say it, it is plausible that he had at least spoken favourably of McClellan and J.F. Lee embellished it in his communication with Porter.
McClellan, July 1870
Davis notes that this source “may not be authentic”. In Recollections and letters of General Robert E. Lee (1904), the General’s son Capt. Lee cites Cazenove Lee, son of the General’s cousin Cassius Lee ‘in his own words’, but some 35 years after the General’s visit to his cousin Cassius’ home in mid July 1870.
I asked him which of the Federal generals he considered the greatest, and he answered most emphatically ‘McClellan by all odds.’
Lee could simply have been referring to McClellan's organizational ability and his popularity with his army which, as has already been noted several times in comments and by JMS in his answer, is generally not disputed.
On the other hand, Lee's apparent change of heart may have been down to political differences. Lee was much closer politically to McClellan than to Grant, and he was very much opposed to the radical republicans who supported Grant in the 1868 election.
Grant on Lee
This seems worth citing given what Grant wrote. Grant’s opinion of Lee is from his own hand. In The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: November 1, 1876-September 30, 1878, he wrote:
I never ranked Lee as high as some others of the army, that is to say, I never had as much anxiety when he was in my front as when Joe Johnston was in front.
Grant’s opinion of Lee may have been coloured by (1) the latter’s elevation to almost mythical status after the war, (2) Grant’s friendship with Lee’s subordinate James Longstreet who fell out with his superior at Gettysburg and later wrote critically about him, and (3) Grant’s close friend Sherman’s friendship with Joseph E. Johnston, another confederate general overshadowed by Lee.
In considering Lee’s apparently contradictory statements and Grant’s placing Johnston above Lee, it seems apt to quote Davis’ concluding remarks on these two generals:
Lee routinely defeated McClellan, and believed he had to a degree beaten Meade in the drawn battle at Gettysburg. If McClellan was the Union’s best, and Lee consistently bested him, then what did that say about Lee? Intending a book to demonstrate that Grant only prevailed by numbers, Lee would hardly accord him surpassing skill. There was no conceit in him, but there was pride, and if he really entertained these opinions, they compensated forgivably for his far heavier burden of defeat. As for Grant, the years of being portrayed as a lucky bumbler too powerful not to win had an effect in the end. Nothing in Johnston’s wartime performance offered any justification for Grant claiming him as a feared adversary, but somehow in Grant’s mind that deflected the endless comparisons of himself to Lee in which he came out second best.
Lee, in a letter to his cousin Cassius dated 6 June 1870, stated his intention to write about the war:
A history of the military events of the period would be also desirable, & I have had it in view to write one of the campaigns in Virginia in which I was more particularly engaged.
In the same letter he touches on the performance of individuals, though whether he is referring to Confederate or Union leaders, or both, is unclear:
The reputation of individuals is of minor importance to the opinion which posterity may form of the motives which governed the South in their late struggle for the maintenance of the principles of the Constitution.
Acknowledgement: JMS for his correction on Cassius Lee's relationship to Robert E. Lee
Charles B. Flood, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War (2005)
Mark Grimsley and Brooks D.Simpson (eds) The Collapse of the Confederacy (2001)
It was probably in jest. McClellan was an extremely cautious general. He consistently overestimated his enemy. That made him act very slow, his nickname was the Virginia creeper. I can well understand why Lee would call him the best general he ever faced. Other generals would (possibly) defeat him.
McClellan broke the back of Confederacy
Public and amateur historians like flashy victories, but war is actually cruel game of numbers and willpower. North had enormous advantage in numbers part of the game, both in number of available men (population) and industrial capacities, naval power and other logistical concerns. Only way South could win would be to break Northern will to fight, and to keep numbers game in check. In simpler terms, South needed lopsided victories, with casualties ratio favoring them, to keep Northern numbers advantage (ratio of available soldiers) steady. Then, when Northern public became tired of war and senseless slaughter, favorable peace for South could be achieved. On the other hand, if North and South have about equal exchange of casualties, North would soon have overwhelming advantage in ratio of available men.
Very few Northern generals, not to mention politicians, understood this reality. They were seeking to achieve complete dominance in the field and to end war quickly. This could be explained by the fact that both sides had very few officers with "strategic" military education and experience with commanding large armies. By "strategic" I mean education concerning strategic conduct of the war. On Union side one of such generals was Winfield Scott. Early in the war Scott came to unpopular conclusion that only way to bring down South is slow and unrelenting blockade (Anaconda Plan). Plan was at first rejected, but from what we know McClellan greatly respected Scott, and took under consideration some things that Scott said and wrote to him. This is not surprising, since McClellan was one of those few officers who had opportunity to study military logistic and strategy (for example he was observer in Crimean war).
Considering this, it was no surprise that McClellan waged a very careful war, trying to limit his casualties. When we look at the Peninsula Campaign, supposed Southern victory, strange thing appears : Confederate losses were actually higher then those of the Union ! Even at Antietam, casualty ratio was close to 1:1 . Finally at Gettysburg, where Union forces were led by another cautious general (Meade, personally selected by McClellan ), again we have casualty ratio of roughly 1:1 . It is clear to anyone that South simply could not continue to wage such war indefinitely, and that because of McClellan's caution in latter years of conflict North had such advantage in numbers. People often proclaim Grant as greatest Union general, but he simply enjoyed vast superiority and pressed on regardless of casualties. Grant's style is reminiscent of latter Soviet generals like Zukov in WW2. This style worked because generals like McClellan created that numbers advantage to him, and he could afford to loose more men then Lee, like for example in Battle of the Wilderness.
Much of criticism of McClellan comes from the fact that he was on loosing political side before and during the war. McClellan favored reconciliation with the South, and for him question of slavery was simply not worth of war and break up of US. His views are politically incorrect today, but in his time he had both substantial opposition and support. He was Democratic candidate in 1864 elections against incumbent president Lincoln, and he got 45% of popular vote which is not bad, considering that elections were held only in Northern states and that by that time war was definitely going on in Unions favor. Nevertheless, as we could see, he and his views were reasonably popular. But on the other hand, his political views were often held against him - he was accused both during the war and after it that he really didn't want to decisively defeat South .
McClellan was a "good" (skillful) general, just not a winning general.
McClellan, who graduated second in his class at West Point, was a fine "book" general. His weakness, compared to Grant's strength, was that he was not a natural "brawler." But Gentleman Bobby" Lee (also a high-ranked West Pointer) respected McClellan's "book" strengths more than Grant's brawling abilities.
McClellan's big weakness was his reluctance to fight. During the Seven Days' campaign (a fine defensive action), McClellan suffered 16,000 casualties and inflicted 20,000 on Lee. At Antietam, he inflicted 10,000 casualties on Lee (losing 12,000 with an army more than twice the size of Lee's), and turned back Lee's invasion of Maryland. In either case, McClellan could have won the war by turning around and dealing a hard "death blow" to Lee, and he failed to do so.
U.S. Grant, who won the war, had much lower "victory percentages," and much lower "kill ratios," than McClellan. The reason that Grant was a hero was because he realized that if he fought out the war using his inferior (to McClellan's) tactics, that Lee would run out of men before he did. Grant was perhaps the first general to realize that given the Union numerical advantage of 2 to 1, the North could win as long as they suffered fewer than two casualties for every Confederate casualty.
Using the above yardstick, Fredericksburg and the second battle of Bull Run should be reckoned as Union defeats, (Union losses were more than twice the Confederates'), but other "defeats," such as Chancellorsville were actually Union victories (12,000 Confederate casualties and the peerless Stonewall Jackson versus "only" 16,000 Union casualties, far less than 2 to 1). Ditto for most of Grant's battles, but just barely.
Battle for battle, McClellan was the better general. The difference was that Grant won the war and McClellan didn't, because Grant fought more battles.