When the confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War, many of the future Generals thoughts were far from the battlefield where they would soon be leading soldiers. As the call went out to them, many veteran officers of the Mexican War answered, picking ups arms to lead both sides in the war that would tear apart our country during the next five years. The war against Mexico proved to be a great training ground for Civil War commanders. Under the leadership of General Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor, they learned how to fight. One of these men was George B. McClellan, who rose from West Point Cadet to Commander-in-Chief of the entire Union Army.
George McClellan graduated 2nd in his class at West Point in 1846 and was given a commission in the Corps of Engineers. As a young second lieutenant he proved to be a highly competent officer, training his troops on infantry and field engineering skills. War had broken out with Mexico and McClellan was eager to take part. Before his unit was called into service against the Mexicans, he arranged with his brother-in-law the service of a slave to perform his units menial duties in the war zone, believing that, "a gentleman did not go to war without proper personal service." (Sears 13). Upon arriving in Mexico at Brazos Santiago, McClellan was quickly disappointed at the recently signed armistice, feeling he had missed his chance to fight. His frustration was further compounded when he contacted dysentery and malaria, which put him in the hospital for one month.
After recovering he served gallantly under the command of General Winfield Scott on his campaign to capture Mexico City. He had not been a major player in the campaign, not learning much about military strategy beyond the junior grade responsibilities. His service can be at most described as promising. McClellan did gain something from his experiences in Mexico, the contempt of the civilian management of the war. He resented having to serve under political Generals Patterson and Pillow, believing that officers must be trained from boyhood through a military education. McClellan learned his most important lesson from General Scott and would use it during the Civil War; Scott’s siege tactics instead of costly frontal assaults and the flanking movements implemented at Cerro Gordo. McClellan thought highly of General Scott commenting that he was, "the General under whom I first learned the art of war." (Sears 26)
When the Mexican War ended McClellan was assigned to the company of engineer soldiers at West Point. From there he went on an expedition of the Red River, a survey for a route for the transcontinental railroad, a survey for a port in the Dominican Republic and finally on a military commission to Europe to study the Crimean War. His report on the Crimean War was the pinnacle of his peacetime army service and for this he was highly regarded by most people in Washington. After resigning his commission, he took a position as chief engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad. He soon became bored with his position in the civilian world and began keeping constant tabs on the events shaping the military. He even contemplated returning to active duty during the crisis with the Mormons in Utah saying that, "I have determined to give up my present position with all advantages of high pay an c., and reenter the service at least until the trouble is over. I cannot hear the idea of my old friends being on campaign without me." (Sears 55)
After Fort Sumter, McClellan was one of the most sought after ex-military officers. The governors of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York worked hard to recruit him. McClellan was leaning toward taking command in Pennsylvania telling his wife, "I think the matter could be easily arranged...I much prefer the Penna service....and would like to make it proud of me." (Sears 69) In a mix-up, the telegram offering him the Pennsylvania command, was sent to the wrong city, so he took the Ohio command when offered to him.
McClellan took to the task of building his army with great skill and determination. He had a training camp constructed near Cincinnati where he began training the newly mustered militia soldiers. He was soon named Commander of the Department of the Ohio, consisting of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and promoted to the rank of Major General with a commission in the regular army. McClellan’s first run-in with General Scott came when he was recruiting officers to server on his staff. Scott was reluctant to approve the officers he choose. McClellan was further frustrated by the reluctance of Scott to fill his initial request for equipment and told Governor Dennison, "I can get no answers now and then a decided refusal of some request or another - perhaps that is a little exaggerated, but the upshot of it is that they are entirely too slow for such and emergency." (Sears 74) He felt that with Maryland and Missouri on Ohio's boarder his requests should have received top priority.
Although he had his differences with Scott and the powers in Washington, he was eager to take action against the confederacy, proposing to thrust his armies into western Virginia on a downward thrust toward Richmond. McClellan wanted, "to relieve the pressure upon Washington and tending to bring the war to a speedy close." (Sears 75) Before his troops were fully prepared for battle, he already formulated a plan for a grandiose campaign to defeated the rebels. Scott felt McClellan's plan was not realistic due to the logistical problems that would arise. General Scott devised the so called Anaconda Plan that would slowly surround the confederacy, cutting her off from the rest of the world. He thought that this was a sure way to end the conflict and assured McClellan he would play a vital role in the campaign.
McClellan's first military task was to monitor the events in western Virginia after the states' referendum on the secession ordinance. When the confederates moved troops into Grafton, they began to destroy the Baltimore and Ohio railroad lines. He dispatched troops to Grafton and they took it without firing a shot. The confederates quickly retreated south eighteen miles to Philippi. McClellan dispatched Thomas Morris to destroy them. The rebels were routed there and a union soldier said, "Out they swarmed, like bees from a molested hive. This was and that the chivalry flew, and yet scarcely knew which way to run." (Sears 80) This became known as the Philippi Races. For achieving the first victory in the war, McClellan was exalted in the North as a hero.
General Lee, Commander of the forces of Virginia, sent soldiers to the region to regain the losses in the western Virginia theater. McClellan mounted a campaign to secure this vital area. He effectively neutralized Lee's army, forcing most of them to surrender. Although he was regarded as the first Union battlefield hero, his campaign was overshadowed by accusations made that he was reluctant to commit his men to battle. This reluctance did not stop the stream of accolades thrown at him by Washington and the Union Press. General Scott told him that, "the president and the cabinet are charmed with your activity, valor, and consequent successes." (Sears 93) Overcome with his new found fame, he put aside his differences with General Scott.
After the Union's loss at Bull Run, Secretary of War, Cameron felt that McDowell's army needed a fresh start with a new commander and called on McClellan. General McClellan arrived in Washington to command the newly designated Army of the Potomac that comprised of McDowell's army and the Washington defenses. He quickly became full of himself due to all the great things everyone throughout the North was saying of him. Evidence of this can be found in the letter he wrote to his wife shortly after arriving, saying that, "I find myself in a new and strange position here- presdt, cabinet, Genrl Scott and all deferring to me- by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land." (Sears 95)
McClellan set out to reorganize the Army of the Potomac into the great fighting force that would later on win the war for the Union. He used the organizational and administrative skills he had learned while working for the railroad to bring together, “only a mere collection of regiments cowering on the banks of the Potomac, some perfectly raw, others dispirited by the recent defeat.” (McPherson 349) In only two short months, he successfully prepared his men for battle. Instilling pride and confidence in these new soldiers, while cracking down on incompetent officers, he quickly earned the respect of his soldiers.
McClellan’s feud with General Scott was rekindled shortly after his arrival in Washington. He was frustrated by the way General Scott, “always comes in my way. He is a perfect incubus. He understands nothing, appreciates nothing....I do not know whether he is a dotard or a traitor....If he cannot be taken out of my path, I...will resign and let the admin take care of itself.” (McPherson 360) McClellan constantly went over General Scott’s head to confer with the president and congress on military matters. He felt that he was the savior of the Union. Under pressure from Congress, Lincoln asked for General Scott’s resignation. General George B. McClellan was then named General-in-Chief of all Union forces, completing his rise to power.
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