Hello there! If you have followed the new podcast format you will know that I have recently recorded my thoughts on my least favorite Civil War General, Geoorge B. McClellan. Now it is time for the blog post, since the intention was to write and record as much as possible. I would love to hear and read any feedback you may have and would love to know which historical figures just drive you crazy as well! So allow me to climb on my soapbox and preach the gospel that is McClellan's failure.
McClellan was born into an affluent family with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, his dad was a well-renown surgeon and would eventually run a surgical school in Philadelphia.(1) George was given all the best things in life and was given every chance to succeed; he would be enrolled in an ivy league college at the age of 13 and would eventually take his talents to West Point. While at West Point, George found himself a model student, he did not garner many demerits while at the academy and would excel in the classroom. He would eventually graduate 2nd in his class in 1846 and would excel in his service in the Mexican American war. In the decade before the Civil War, McClellan would leave the army and would gain a high paying job as a railroad executive in the mid-west. With the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the governor of Ohio would ask McClellan to command all of that state's volunteer forces. McClellan would do quite the good job in Kentucky and what is today West Virginia. His ability to keep Kentucky out of the Confederacy early in the war deserves praise, and he is partly responsible for keeping Confederates at bay in the western counties of Virginia, which would allow those western counties to create the new state of West Virginia.
All of these early success would lead to McClellan being asked to do what many saw as the impossible, reorganize and drill the Army of the Potomac after the debacle at Bull Run. What you must understand is that McClellan was a fantastic army organizer, he was gifted in the acts of training, drilling, feeding and clothing a huge army. McClellan would garner the admiration of his men for these abilities and many in Washington were quite impressed with his ability as an army organizer, but it is during the later months of 1861 that we begin to see his greatest downfall as a General emerge, his unwillingness to listen to his commander in chief, and his unwillingness to use the army he organized.
McClellan would not advance his massive army through 1861 and early 1862, Lincoln was all but begging him to come up with a plan and execute it. Here we see some of McClellan's most disgusting acts of disrespect, he grows annoyed with Lincoln and in letters home to his wife refers to Lincoln as "the original gorilla" and a "well-meaning baboon". I have a huge problem with our greatest President in American history being disrespected by a little Napoleon wannabe in such a manner. Finally, little Mac was ready to move and outlined his peninsula campaign, which was a convoluted idea of sailing his massive army onto the Virginia peninsula and attacking Richmond from that direction. Lincoln gave his approval and Mac was on his way, but from the onset we see Mac delaying and refusing to fight armies when he encounters them.
McClellan was always seeing boogeymen around every corner when he was in command, he was convinced that he was facing a Confederate army that VASTLY outnumbered him which was a ludicrous assumption. The problem was with whom he chose as his leader of Army intelligence, Allan Pinkerton. Pinkerton is famous for all Wild West buffs as the leader of the Pinkerton detective agency, during the Civil War he volunteered his talents to the Union war effort. Now, Pinkerton was a very capable detective, but he was an absolute disaster as an army intelligence officer. He devised this convolution mathematical equation to determine troop strength where he would take the number of soldiers he saw and do a multiplication problem with that, the result being that he vastly expanded Confederate troop strengths. Mac would listen to his reports and believe them to the man so he was convinced that he was facing an army of massive proportions.
The truth was that if Mac would have attacked Johnston on the peninsula and kept up the offensive, he would have most likely ended the war right then and there in 1862. Instead, he wastes the offensive, gets bogged down by Johnston's replacement Lee and is demoted by Lincoln in August of 1862. Mac would be given another chance to command the Army of the Potomac in September if 1862 and this would lead to his biggest blunder.
Mac was given the greatest gift that any military leader has ever been given in the history of warfare, he was handed the marching orders for Lee's invasion of the north. Some Union soldiers found Lee's marching orders in a field and they found their way to McClellan. McClellan would not act on these orders for almost two days and would allow Lee to position his men for the fight that would be at Antietam. Even with wasting that initiative, McClellan had the opportunity to destroy Lee on September 17,1862. The fight near Sharpsburg, MD would be the bloodiest day in American history, McClellan had multiple opportunities to crush the Confederates, but he would only send his army in piecemeal rather than sending in reinforcements. This means that McClellan would allow individual corps to be decimated without reinforcing them so he would never gain the initiative. The result was a bloody draw, but even with the draw Lee was forced to retreat and Mac had the perfect opportunity to deal a death blow. Instead, he sat around Antietam creek and refused to attack and eventually after begging his general to attack for weeks, Lincoln would fire him for the 2nd and final time.
The years after his command are the most galling, He would run AGAINST Lincoln in the election on the stance that he would end the war immediately. That means that means that he was going to allow the south to gain their independence; this shows the historian of today that all of his actions as commander of the Army of Potomac are now tainted with the knowledge that he was undermining efforts of the Lincoln administration. He would spend his later life making a multitude of excuses for his pathetic performance and would die before his memoirs could be published.(2)
So, who are the people from history you love to hate? Would love to hear all of your ideas. Remember to like the facebook page and to check out my spreaker podcast page at
“Write what you know”, “Write what interests you”
Well, I have taken that great advice to heart and you can see that most of my posts have a 19th century lean, the reason for that is quite simple really; I am obsessed with 19th century American History and it is my area of greatest knowledge. This past summer Civil War lands and monuments were under fire from a misguided attempt to erase history; I promised myself that I would not make a blog post about my feelings on that topic, but there is something that really bugs me about the current perception of the war; there are a countless number of Americans today that believe every southerner was fighting for slavery and to keep “their” slaves. This is such a hard topic to discuss that my focus for this post will be to focus on just one aspect of the war and the motivations for the common southerner vs. the motivations for people in power in the south.
For sake of brevity and to be concise this will be the label of the rich people in the antebellum and Civil War era in the south. I will also refer to them colloquially as the “slaveocracy”. What you need to know is that the south in antebellum America was run by an aristocracy that depended on land ownership and the slaves that worked their lands to thrive. This DOES NOT mean that every southerner had slaves, actually quite to the contrary. According to PBS, only 25% of southerners owned slaves in the year before hostilities broke out. (1) So, why has the common theme always been that Johnny Reb was fighting for slavery? Well, that is the crux of the issue, while these men did not own slaves and probably thought very little about slavery and the Constitution, these men did react quite quickly to public furor for the war. They reacted to the fact that the north was now invading and that every newspaper is the south was having a call to arms for soldiers. Shelby Foote tells a great story about why a southern soldier was fighting, he was asked by his union captors why he was fighting and his response was, “because you’re down here”. (2)
Now, all of this public sentiment for war directly benefitted the southern slavocracy because they wanted this war but would not have had proper support if it were only about slavery. It would have been difficult for the south to even recruit states like Virginia to their cause if Lincoln would not have invaded the south after Sumter. Lincoln had no choice in the matter really, but all this played right into the hands of the southern slave owners. The slave owners would of course get the war that they wanted and it would prove to be their ruin. There are entire books written on the question of slavery’s survival if the war would have been avoided, there are many who say it was on life support before the war, but it was this constant worry about slavery’s death knell that actually sped up its death. Lincoln said many times that he just wanted to reunite the Union, but fire breathers in South Carolina and other states made the preemptive strike. It would cost over 660,000 men and 4 years of heartache, but Lincoln original view of just keeping the Union together would eventually morph into a war to destroy slavery and it would be successful.
There are some moments in life where I believe that we all become disenchanted with a major portion of our lives. Over the last few weeks, I have gotten bummed out at work; I just haven't felt the drive and passion for history for a few weeks. Luckily, I was reminded by many people just how important my job is. I think that almost everybody has moments like that in their careers, a friend of mine helped me gain perspective. She helped me see why I enjoy teaching and gave me an outlet to my talents. She is currently taking a college history course and has needed some help along the way with perspective and defining some of the concepts ideas involved in early 20th century history. I decided to record my thoughts and send them along, this was like a huge spark of joy for me in a time of feeling burned out. Just the act of teaching and pouring out all of this information just filled me with joy. It reminded me to be thankful for the gift of gab that I have that allows me to be a good educator. It is all about the joy, no matter what you do, don't let the down times rob that from you.
Matthew Perry is a public school history teacher in West Virginia. He earned his BA in social studies education from Marshall University and is MA in American history from the American Military University. This blog is designed to follow the journey to becoming a published author of historical articles and essays.