After Defeat of First Bull Run, Lincoln Turns to McClellan
On July 21, 1861, the Union finally got the major battle Northern politicians, the public, and the press had been clamoring for since the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter three months earlier. However, the Confederacy’s rout of the Union troops at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) was certainly not the result the North was expecting. Stung by the loss, President Abraham Lincoln the next day summoned to Washington a cocky young general to be the savior of the Union: George Brinton McClellan. “Little Mac’s” star was rapidly rising in the summer of 1861, and the Northern public joyously celebrated Lincoln’s decision to place McClellan in charge.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the July 30, 1861, issue of the St. Albans Daily Messenger (Vermont)
McClellan was only 34 when he was commissioned a major general in the U.S. Army on May 13, 1861—second in rank only to the general-in-chief, Winfield Scott. On July 26, the day he arrived in Washington, Lincoln placed McClellan in charge of the Military Division of the Potomac, which became the famous Army of the Potomac. On November 1, McClellan replaced Scott as general-in-chief—“Young Napoleon” was now in charge of all Northern armies.
Not much had gone right for the Union in the opening months of the Civil War, but in the western part of Virginia—an area that wanted to remain in the Union and left Virginia to form the new state of West Virginia—McClellan gave the worried North some victories to celebrate in June and July. He won a small engagement called the Battle of Philippi Races, and somewhat larger clashes at Rich Mountain and Corrick’s Ford.
Hungry for good news, the Northern press trumpeted McClellan’s West Virginia triumphs as major victories, heralding the arrival of a bright new military genius. His reputation was made when the New York Herald called him “the Napoleon of the present war.” This article was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on July 16, 1861:
Gen. McClellan, the Napoleon of the Present War
In every war it is a necessity that there be a leader whose deeds excite and whose successes concentrate the fervor of popular enthusiasm. It is a necessity not only to the army, every man of which shares his leader’s fame and emulates his glory, as planets catch their fires from the sun, but also to the people at large, whose exultations or whose fears cheer on the soldiers to new victories or discourage them to renewed defeats. These leaders are the Washingtons, the Napoleons, the Garibaldis, of their times. They make their troops invincible. They inspire that enthusiastic confidence among the people at home which reacts upon those already in the field. They inaugurate victory, and make success inevitable. Such a leader as this, in the present war, is Major General George B. McClellan, the Napoleon of Western Virginia.
…At the outbreak of this rebellion he accepted the command of the Ohio forces. His appointment to a Major Generalship of the regular army, and to the command of the Department of Ohio, was received with the greatest enthusiasm. The motto of his soldiers was: “Remember Buena Vista.” Their confidence in him was but the reflection of the popular expectation of his success. The record shows that neither the confidence nor the expectation has been disappointed.
How brief and yet how brilliant that record is! Escaping from the meshes of the Kentucky neutrality intrigue, he put himself at the head of his troops, already flushed with the victories of Romney and Philippi, gathered around him most brilliant and effective officers—Rosecrans, Morris, Wallace, Kelly—and issued a proclamation promising his soldiers a speedy conflict and a certain success. He kept his word. He led them against a rebel army, strongly entrenched, headed by General Robert J. Garnett, and composed of the crack regiments of Eastern Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. In three days he has swept this army from Western Virginia, and brought his entire department again under the folds of the glorious Stars and Stripes. His laconic, Napoleonic dispatches to the War Department, which we publish in another column, tell the whole story. It is the “veni, vidi, vici” of Caesar, skillfully translated. On the 12th instant he gained the battle of Rich Mountain; on the 13th he occupied Beverly, took one thousand prisoners, and predicted that the enemy would be totally routed at St. George; on the 14th his prediction was verified, the picked troops of the rebel army were scattered like chaff, Gen. Garnett was killed, secessionism was dead in Western Virginia.
To a record like that what words can be added! A series of successes so sudden, so complete, so admirably planned and executed, so little due to chance, and so evidently the result of skillful, scientific prescience, has never before been achieved on this continent. We know not which most to praise, the genius which planned or that which executed. The victory was so certain, so assured, that Gen. McClellan predicted the very spot where it would be won, and Gen. Scott, in his office at Washington, anticipated the very hour of its occurrence. Its result will be most glorious for our cause. What Gen. McClellan says of Western Virginia we can safely say of the whole country—“secessionism is killed.” The backbone of the rebellion is broken. It made Virginia its Waterloo, and it has been defeated; it resolved to test its strength there, and that strength has proved to be perfect weakness. The road to Richmond is open, and, with General Butler in the rear of that city, its capture is certain. The rout of the rebels at St. George is but the beginning of their final overthrow, and the vindication of the righteousness of our cause.
The victory, soon to be completed, Gen. McClellan inaugurated. He is the pioneer of success. What Gen. Lyon has done for Missouri, McClellan has done for Virginia and the country. His fame stands foremost and original, and his name shall be remembered when a renewed, a perfect and a glorious Union preserves the roll of her heroes, as now we remember Warren, Stark, Greene and Allen.
Following his victories in western Virginia, McClellan delivered an address to his troops praising them for their (and his) success. Newspapers throughout the North delivered his words to their eager readers. This article was printed by the Atlantic Democrat (Egg Harbor City, New Jersey) on July 27, 1861:
General McClellan’s Address to His Soldiers
Headquarters, Army of Occupation, Western Virginia, Beverly, Va.
July 19th, 1861.
Soldiers of the Army of the West: I am more than satisfied with you. You have annihilated two armies, commanded by educated and experienced soldiers, entrenched in mountain fastnesses, and fortified at their leisure. You have taken five guns, twelve colors, fifteen hundred stand of arms, one thousand prisoners, including more than forty officers. One of the second commanders of the rebels is a prisoner, the other lost his life on the field of battle. You have killed more than two hundred and fifty of the enemy, who has lost all his baggage and camp equipage.
All this has been accomplished with the loss of twenty brave men killed, and sixty wounded on your part. You have proved that Union men, fighting for the preservation of our Government, are more than a match for our misguided and erring brothers. More than this, you have shown mercy to the vanquished. You have made long and arduous marches, with insufficient food, frequently exposed to the inclemency of the weather. I have not hesitated to demand this of you, feeling that I could rely on your endurance, patriotism, and courage. In the future I may have still greater demands to make upon you—still greater sacrifices for you to offer. It shall be my care to provide for you to the extent of my ability; but I know now that by your valor and endurance, you will accomplish all that is asked. Soldiers—I have confidence in you, and I trust you have learned to confide in me. Remember that discipline and subordination are qualities of equal value with courage. I am proud to say that you have gained the highest reward that American troops can receive—the thanks of Congress, and the applause of your fellow citizens.
—Geo. B. McClellan, Major General.
The “Young Napoleon’s” reputation was enhanced by articles such as this, printed by the Springfield Weekly Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts) on July 27, 1861:
The transfer of Gen. McClellan to the Army of the Potomac creates great enthusiasm among the troops, and gives great satisfaction to the country. Events point to him as a man to whom much of the active duty of the campaign will be entrusted. His late proclamation to his soldiers in Western Virginia was more Napoleonic than any similar document by any American pen—the best thing in its way that has been issued during the war. It was like the deeds which it recounts—terse, vigorous, clear and gallant.
Here is another example stoking the fires of hero-worship. This article was printed by the Wisconsin Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) on July 27, 1861:
Everywhere the praises of Gen. McClellan have been proclaimed, and he [is] pronounced the Garibaldi of the war—the Liberator of West Virginia. The House of Representatives passed the following resolution unanimously:
“Resolved, That the thanks of the House be presented to Maj. Gen. McClellan and the officers and soldiers of his command, for the series of brilliant and decisive victories which they have by their skill and bravery achieved over the Rebels and traitors in the army on the battlefields of Western Virginia.”
He has been called to the command of the army of the center, and great things are expected of him when the grand army is in readiness to move on invincibly to Richmond.
This little ditty entertained the readers of the Freedom’s Champion (Atchison, Kansas) on July 27, 1861, extolling McClellan’s insistence on never retreating, but always moving forward in the face of enemy fire:
Muggins has another attack. This is the result of it:
Why is a cricket on the hearth like Gen. McClellan at Beverly?
Because it often advances under a brisk fire.
McClellan-mania was sweeping the North. This notice was printed by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on July 27, 1861:
Horses for Gen. McClellan
The wealthy and liberal Solomon Sturges, of Chicago, has purchased two splendid horses, which he designs as a present to Maj. Gen. McClellan.
After receiving Lincoln’s summons to Washington, McClellan boarded a train in western Virginia and headed east. His journey became a triumphant procession, the young general greeted everywhere by wildly cheering, enthusiastic crowds eager to greet the new hero who was going to save the Union. This notice was printed by the Freedom’s Champion (Atchison, Kansas) on July 27, 1861:
Gen. McClellan has arrived at Pittsburgh, en route for Washington. His presence there will infuse fresh vigor into the military operations and inspire the soldiers with renewed confidence. He is the ablest general in the service.
Along with such major cities as Pittsburgh and Baltimore, McClellan stopped at his hometown of Philadelphia on his way to meet Lincoln. The local paper reported on his rapturous reception. This article was printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on July 26, 1861:
General McClellan in Philadelphia—Grand Reception
A telegraphic dispatch was received in this city yesterday morning from Pittsburg, stating that General McClellan would pass through Philadelphia en route to Washington. He left Pittsburg in the fast night line on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and reached the West Philadelphia depot at two P.M. yesterday afternoon.
The ground in the neighborhood of the West Philadelphia station was crowded with workmen, citizens and ladies, and as the last car, in which the General was seated, was detached from the locomotive, it was invaded by the curious spectators. The utmost exertions of the brakesmen and employees was required to keep the platform even passably clear, and finally the object of the excitement was induced to expose himself to view at the rear door, when he was greeted with enthusiastic and oft-repeated cheers.
Gen. McClellan was accompanied by his wife and Colonel Key and Major Storman. Mrs. McClellan joined her husband at Wheeling, and participated in the reception at Pittsburg. E. C. Biddle, Esq., a relative of Mrs. McClellan, with other Philadelphians, met the party just beyond the city.
The passage of the car down Market street was almost obstructed by the crowds rushing over the cobblestones and pavements. The General made his appearance on the front platform, and received cheers at every corner. He gratefully acknowledged the compliment, and as the curve at Eleventh street was rounded, and the vehicle turned into the railroad depot, he was doubtless glad to be relieved from the necessity of paying tribute to the admiring people. Another trial was yet to come, however, for while passing from the car door to the street, he was beset by a crowd more enthusiastic than polite, and was obliged to yield to the pressure, and be carried along by the tide. Before leaving the car, he was introduced to Mayor Henry, and the two proceeded to the barouche in company. They were then driven up Market street to Broad, and the General was received by the First Regiment of Grey Reserves, Colonel Ellmaker, who were drawn up in line, the right resting on Market street. The barouche was driven along the front of the line, and the men presented arms, General McClellan standing upright in the vehicle. The steps of the Mint, immediately opposite, were crowded, as was the sidewalk.
The barouche halted in front of the color-bearers, who then took precedence, and the regiment, escorting the General, marched down Chestnut street to Third, along Third to Walnut, and up Walnut to the residence of John McClellan, brother of the General. At various points on the route, including the Continental Hotel, and the office of The Inquirer, loud cheers were given, and acknowledged by the recipient. The vehicle also contained Mayor Henry and Paymaster R. P. DeSilver, of the Grey Reserves.
At the house on Walnut Street the military halted. A strong police force was in attendance, and General McClellan passed into the dwelling without difficulty, only to reappear, however, in a few moments, upon the balcony, in answer to repeated calls. He then reviewed the troops, and as the cheering and shouts still continued, made a few remarks.
He thanked his fellow citizens for the reception which they had given him, but felt that the good wishes and good feeling expressed were not intended for him personally, but for the brave men under his command. This was not the time to indulge in words, but to act, and in obedience to his instructions he would go to Washington and lend what assistance he could in the present emergency. After again thanking the large number of persons for the kind reception, he withdrew amid continued applause, and the crowd dispersed.
General McClellan will leave for Washington, this morning, at eleven o’clock.
The Trip from Pittsburg
Our Special Reporter gives us the following account of the trip of Gen. McClellan from Pittsburg: The train arrived at Allegheny City, from Wheeling, at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. Here a committee met Gen. McClellan, and after the utmost difficulty succeeded in escorting him through the assembled mass of humanity, which had gathered to do the hero honor, to a carriage, which had been provided for his reception. As soon as the General had taken his seat in the vehicle, a procession, composed of military, firemen, and citizens was formed, and escorted him to the Monongahela House, in Pittsburg. As the General alighted from the carriage the enthusiasm was intense, and in obedience to the repeated calls of the thousands of patriots in front of the building, General McClellan appeared upon the balcony, and thanked them for their kind attention, and for the good feeling expressed towards him as the representative of his gallant men.
He also assured them that the last drop of his blood, and his last energy, should be devoted to the cause of the Union, and to crushing out the rebellion. Upon bidding them goodnight, he was again called upon to speak, when bowing gracefully to the crowd, he said, “Gentlemen, speaking is not my business. I again thank you cordially, and wish you a good night.”
At quarter to one, yesterday morning, having been escorted to the depot by a large delegation of citizens, preceded by a band of music, he left Pittsburg for Philadelphia. Nothing unusual occurred on the route until the cars arrived at Harrisburg. Here a regiment of soldiers were standing preparatory to embarking, and upon it being rumored that the General was in the cars, an immediate rush was made, but soldiers and citizens only had time to shake him by the hand before the train left the depot.
It was expected that the General would proceed from Harrisburg to Washington, over the Northern Central Railroad, but as he had, upon the receipt of the dispatch requesting his presence in Washington, without even taking time to arrange his affairs, or indeed to change his clothes, started upon his journey, he deemed it advisable to continue on to Philadelphia, and to use his own words, “arrange a few business matters, as I do not know when my duties will again afford me the opportunity to do so.”
At Lancaster several hundred persons had assembled, and not only was he received with cheers, but a fair damsel handed into the car window a large bouquet of choice flowers.
At the different stations between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, the same feeling of admiration for the man whom the whole country now regards as one of the greatest Generals of the age, pervaded the people, and while cheers rent the air at every point where the cars stopped, at others as the train passed rapidly by, hats were waved, and handkerchiefs in fair hands evinced the feelings of the owners.
When word circulated that Lincoln had indeed placed McClellan in charge, the floodgates of praise opened wider. Typical is this article, printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on July 28, 1861:
There is a charm in this name which will yet work as a talisman upon the American heart. McClellan is now at the head of the army of the Union. The reader will find in another column the official order appointing him to the command of all the troops on both sides of the Potomac in the vicinity of Washington, thus investing this able captain with the united commands both of McDowell and Mansfield, and making him in point of fact the generalissimo in the field. This appointment is highly important. The man seems to have loomed up in the moment of need when he was most wanted. We did not know the best man before, but events have displayed his ability and brought him to light. It is so in all revolutionary convulsions—the best men are thrown on the surface. McClellan is a United States officer, educated at West Point. He served in the Mexican war; and when the terrible struggle was going on in the Crimea, between Russia on one side, and the English and French on the other, he was one of three commissioners sent out there to study the war and turn it to account for the benefit of his native land. That he has done so is very evident. The other two commissioners have never been heard of, and we believe they spent most of their time in London and Paris. Not so McClellan. With a view to his profession, he watched the operations with the eye of an enthusiastic soldier, and some experienced English officers, with whom he became acquainted, declared that if ever the time came which would give him an opportunity he would be heard of in the world. His recent exploits in Western Virginia are but the harbingers of more glorious victories in the future, and the prestige of his name will operate upon the newly organized army like a charm, such as did that of the youthful Bonaparte when he took in hand the army of the republic of France. Before Napoleon gained the chief command there were numerous disasters, and the troops had broken and run in battle after battle, when commanded by the old, superannuated generals. But a young man of genius arose who organized victory, and it never deserted his banners till the republic was established, one, and indivisible. McClellan is the Napoleon of the American republic. He is in the prime of his youth. The country is in danger from the vast preparations of the rebels, the flush of victory, and the military genius and daring of their leaders. We have underrated their power and position. They have designs upon Washington which we may very soon see carried into execution. Let the Government at once avail itself of the talents of McClellan. General Scott will do very well to plan a campaign; but he is too old for the active exertions of the field.
The Government has found out, or ought to have found out by this time, that is has no ordinary enemy to cope with. Jefferson Davis and his party have been preparing for ten years for this struggle. He secured the best talent of the army when he was Secretary of War, and his successor managed to transfer most of the arms and munitions to the South. They took good care to have on hand a vast supply of the most important weapon—artillery. On the other hand we are now found wanting in cannon. Whilst the Southern rebels were actively preparing to fight, the Northern republicans were only preparing for a political party triumph and for a division of the spoils. But a new era has opened upon us. We have been awakened from a dream of fancied conquest without the necessary preparation to achieve it. A man has arisen equal to the times. Like the legions of France under Napoleon, the troops of the American republic under McClellan will be invincible, and the shameful rout of Bull Run will be forgotten in the glory of his victories.
Unfortunately for both McClellan and the North, he did not live up to his advance billing. He proved to be a marvelous organizer of armies, but an overly cautious leader on the battlefield. It took him nearly eight months of fastidious drilling and planning before he led the massive Army of the Potomac on its Richmond attack in the spring and summer of 1862, called the Peninsula Campaign, only to be outfoxed by a smaller Southern army eventually led by Robert E. Lee. McClellan retreated back to Washington claiming the Lincoln administration had undermined his efforts. When he again failed to defeat Lee’s smaller army at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland on September 17, 1862, the exasperated president had seen enough. Lincoln removed McClellan from command on November 5, and the two became bitter rivals during the 1864 presidential election—won convincingly by Lincoln.
Click here for more articles about the American Civil War.