Part of the USA Today Network

“Little Mac” tossed as Army of the Potomac commander

Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan was one of the more enigmatic military officers in American history. Brilliant as an organizer, innovative in several ways, beloved by his men, and meticulous in planning, the McClellan off the battlefield was much different than the strategic and tactical leader the Army of the Potomac so desperately needed, especially when facing the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Early in the war in 1861, “Little Mac” had success in western Virginia, paving the way for that region to become a separate state of West Virginia. However, the following summer, McClellan’s planned advance on Richmond through the Virginia Peninsula ended in a retreat and failure. In mid-September, many believed he mismanaged the Battle of Antietam and missed a chance to crush Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

However, it was his dawdling after Antietam that frustrated President Abraham Lincoln, who urged him to take the field and give battle to Lee again. At one point, in response to a visitor admiring McClellan’s well-trained army, Lincoln is supposed to have sneered that it was McClelland’s personal bodyguard.

A young York County soldier weighed in when news arrived that Lincoln had relieved McClellan from command in November 1862.

Edwin Spangler
was a teenaged soldier from York, Pennsylvania. He had managed to convince a friendly recruiting officer to allow him to enlist despite not yet being tall enough to meet the army’s minimum height requirement. He became a private in Company K of the 130th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

Here is a passage from Spangler’s post-war memoirs, My Little War Experience. He and hundreds of other ill soldiers in the York U.S. Army Hospital had recovered enough to return to the Army of the Potomac. They traveled by train to Harpers Ferry and then marched to rejoin the army in the Loudoun Valley.

“The second day after, our haversacks were empty, and in the evening we were quartered in an ancient log grist-mill, with large overshot wheel on the outside, typical of all Virginia mills. The little log house adjoining was tenanted by a poor white family, who supplied our famished stomachs with flap-jacks made of corn-meal and water, without salt, and about eight inches in diameter, for each of which we paid twenty-five cents. The next morning we reached our regiment encamped near Warrenton where the commissary supplied our wants. We rested there nearly a week when news came that President Lincoln had relieved General McClellan as Commander of the Army of the Potomac.

On November 10th, the Second and Fifth Corps were drawn up in columns of regiments with intervals sufficient to give place for batteries, on both sides of the Centreville Pike. McClellan and his brilliant staff then passed between these gallant corps in taking a sad and last farewell of the army, amid the roar of cannon and cheers of the soldiery. The army certainly had a sincere affection for him, although it knew that as its commander he had not proven a success. His successor, Gen. [Ambrose] Burnside, was also a great favorite with the army, and that, probably, was the reason for his selection as successor.”

It’s interesting to note that Ed Spangler, despite his youth, perfectly captured the dichotomy of George McClellan — “a brilliant staff” which could help organize and structure the army and keep the communications flowing, personal charisma and a magnetic personality which drew “sincere affection” from his men, who all the while knew that he was a failure on the battlefield. His lack of aggression and reluctance to commit his army unconditionally proved to be a fatal flaw in his military performance.

And the latter proved ultimately to be Little Mac’s undoing.

After being relieved, McClellan went to New Jersey to await orders, which never came. Lincoln, wary of Mac’s popularity, kept him on the shelf. In 1864 McClellan would run for president while still holding his commission as a major general. Lincoln handily won, including taking 70% of the vote of the Army of the Potomac.

Another York County soldier, Pvt. Alfred Bond of the 3rd Pennsylvania Artillery penned in his diary, “How are you little Mac on the home vote? How do you think the soldiers will treat you? Just as they ought. Lincoln elected for four years.”

With his defeat, McClellan, having resigned his commission, stayed out of the limelight. When the war ended in 1865, he and his family toured Europe for three years before returning to New Jersey in 1868. The Democratic Party considered him as a candidate for the election, but when it became clear that the Republicans would nominate Ulysses S. Grant, interest in McClellan waned. He later served a single term as Governor of New Jersey.

He died on October 29, 1885, and is buried in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, NJ.

To this day historians argue over his merits and skills, as well as his wasted chances at Antietam and on the Peninsula.