Monday, October 29, 2007

"One of the Mysteries of the War"

George B. McClellan

Everything in his background pointed toward success. His mother came from a prominent Pennsylvania family, while his father was a talented surgeon. At the age of fifteen, he entered the United States Military Academy, where he graduated four years later, second in a class of 59.

He served in the Mexican War, taught at West Point, wrote a manual on bayonet tactics, went to Europe to observe the Crimean War, and rose to the rank of captain.

He retired from the army at the age of 31 and began a lucrative career in the railroad industry, eventually serving as the president of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad and later, the St. Louis, Missouri & Cincinnati Railroad.

George B. McClellan had it all.

And then the war came.

After the fall of Fort Sumter, the Lincoln administration called for volunteers. Ohio Governor William Dennison appointed McClellan a major general in charge of the state’s volunteers. He quickly received a commission in the regular army.

Everything pointed toward success, but McClellan's Civil War career is ultimately a study in missed opportunities.

Historian Jonathan M. Beagle has recently summarized the McClellan enigma:

The ambiguity of George McClellan’s Civil War service admits both praise and criticism. He forged a powerful weapon of war, the Army of the Potomac, yet wielded it weakly. He roused both the admiration of his troops and the ire of his superiors. He parried Lee’s thrust into the North, but was himself checked at the gates of Richmond. Indeed, McClellan’s legacy defies easy categorization and simple judgment. Perhaps Ulysses S. Grant expressed it best when asked after the war to evaluate McClellan as a general. “McClellan,” he replied, “is to me one of the mysteries of the war.”

McClellan’s postwar career is fascinating, but it is not well-documented. He traveled through Europe from 1865 to 1868, where his wife gave birth to a son in Germany. When he returned to the states, McClellan worked on several engineering projects in New York City. Like he had done before the war, he also served as president of a railroad, this time the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad.

McClellan reentered politics in 1877 when he ran for governor of New Jersey. He won and served a single, though successful, term in office.

George B. McClellan died unexpectedly on this date in 1885. He was 58.

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