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Bill Thayer

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 [decorative delimiter] Class of 1846

[image ALT: A head-and‑shoulders photograph of a man of about 40, with a trim moustache in the shape of an almost perfect upside-down V; he wears a 19c U. S. Army uniform. He is the American Civil War general George B. McClellan, the subject of this webpage.]

Vol. II

(Born Pa.)

George B. McClellan

(Ap'd Pa.)


George Brinton McClellan: Born Dec. 3, 1826, Philadelphia, PA.

Military History. — Cadet at the Military Academy, July 1, 1842, to July 1, 1846, when he was graduated and promoted in the Army to

Bvt. Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1846.

 p251  Served: in the War with Mexico, 1846‑48, attached to the Company of Sappers, Miners, and Pontoniers, being engaged in opening the Road from Matamoras to Tampico, 1846‑1847, — Siege of Vera Cruz, Mar. 9‑29, 1847, — Battle of Cerro Gordo, Apr. 17‑18, 1847, — Skirmish of Amazoque,

(Second Lieut., Corps of Engineers, Apr. 24, 1847)

May 14, 1847, — Battle of Contreras, Aug. 19‑20, 1847, — Battle of

(Bvt. First Lieut., Aug. 20, 1847, for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct
in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco, Mex.)

Churubusco, Aug. 20, 1847, — constructing Batteries against Chapultepec, Sep. 9‑13, 1847, — and Assault and Capture of the City of Mexico,

(Bvt. Capt., Sep. 8, 1847,
for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Molino del Rey, Mex.: Declined)

Sep. 13‑14, 1847; at West Point, N. Y., attached to Company of Engineer

(Bvt. Capt., Sep. 13, 1847,
for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Chapultepec, Mex.)

troops, 1848‑50, and in command, 1850‑51; as Asst. Engineer in building Ft. Delaware, 1851‑52; as Engineer of Exploring Expedition to the sources of the Red River of Texas, 1852; as Chief Engineer of the Department of Texas, 1852, — and in charge of Surveys of Rivers and Harbors on the Gulf Coast of Texas, 1852‑53; as Engineer for Exploration and Survey of the Western Division of the projected Northern Pacific

(First Lieut., Corps of Engineers, July 1, 1853)

Railroad through the Cascade Mountains, 1853‑1854; on Special service, in collecting railroad statistics for the War Department, 1854‑55; and

(Captain, 1st Cavalry, Mar. 3, 1855)

as Member of the Military Commission to the "Theatre of War in Europe," 1855‑56, his official report being published by order of Congress, 1857, embracing his remarks upon the Operations in the Crimea, and the Organization, Instruction, Equipment, etc., of European Armies.

Resigned, Jan. 16, 1857.

Civil History. — Translator from the French of "Manual of Bayonet Exercises," adopted for the use of the U. S. Army, 1852. Chief Engineer of Illinois Central Railroad, 1857‑1858, — and Vice-president, 1858‑1860. President of St. Louis, Mo., and Cincinnati, O. Railroad, 1860‑61. Member of several Scientific Associations, 1853‑61.

Military History. — Served during the Rebellion of the Seceding

(Major-General, Ohio Volunteers, Apr. 23, 1861)

States, 1861‑62: in command of the Department of the Ohio, May 13 to

(Major-General, U. S. Army, May 14, 1861)

July 15, 1861, being engaged in the Action of Rich Mountain, W. Va., July 11, 1861, — and, by a forced march upon the Rebel Camp, compelling General Pegram's surrender, near Beverly, W. Va., July 12, 1861;​1 in command, headquarters at Washington, D. C., of the Division of the Potomac, July 27, 1861, — of the Department of the Potomac, Aug. 17, 1861, — of the Army of the Potomac, Aug. 20, 1861, — and as General-in‑Chief of the Armies of the United States, Nov. 1, 1861, to Mar. 11, 1862; in the Advance upon Manassas, Mar. 6‑10, 1862; in command of the Army of the Potomac in the Virginia Peninsular Campaign, Mar. to Aug., 1862, being engaged in the Siege of Yorktown, Apr. 5 to May 4, 1862, — Occupation of Williamsburg, May 5‑6, 1862, — Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31-June 1, 1862, — and the Battles of the Seven Days' change of base to the James River, June 26 to July 2, 1862; in command of the Defenses of Washington, D. C., Sep. 2‑7, 1862; in the Maryland Campaign, in command of the Army of the Potomac, Sep. 7 to Nov. 10,  p252 1862, being engaged in the Battle of South Mountain, Sep. 14, 1862, — Battle of Antietam, Sep. 17, 1862, — and March to Warrenton, Va., Oct. to Nov., 1862; and waiting orders at New York city, Nov. 10, 1862, to Nov. 8, 1864, during which time he was nominated by the Chicago Convention as a Candidate for President of the United States, but was defeated at the election in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln.

Resigned, Nov. 8, 1864.

Civil History. — Engineer for the completion of the "Stevens Ironclad Floating Battery," — a steamer for harbor defense, 1868‑69. Declined Presidency of the University of California, 1868; and of Union College, N. Y., 1869. Engineer-in‑Chief of the Department of Docks of the City of New York, 1870‑72. Appointed Controller of the City of New York, Sep. 16, 1871 (declined). Governor of the State of New Jersey, Jan. 1, 1878, to Jan. 1, 1881. Member of the Board of Managers of the National Home for Disabled Soldiers, 1881‑85. Author of "Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac," 1864; and of various magazine articles, 1864‑85.

Died, Oct. 29, 1885, on Orange Mountain, N. J.: Aged 59.

See Annual Association of Graduates, U. S. M. A., 1886, for an obituary notice.º

Buried, Riverview Cemetery, Trenton, NJ.

Biographical Sketch.

Major-General George B. McClellan was born, Dec. 3, 1826, in Philadelphia, Pa. He received a good elementary education, passing two years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he acquired a knowledge of the ancient classics and of modern literature, which cultivated his taste no less than his intellect. Before he was sixteen years of age, he entered the Military Academy, from which he was graduated second in his class, July 1, 1846, and thence promoted to the Corps of Engineers. He was immediately ordered to Mexico, being attached to the Company of Sappers and Miners. In the campaign of General Scott McClellan served with a distinction not surpassed by any one of his grade, and won two brevets for his gallant and meritorious conduct.

After the Mexican War and a short tour of duty at West Point, McClellan, in 1852, accompanied Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Marcy on an exploration of the upper Red River. Then, as Chief Engineer of the Department of Texas, he was in charge of various surveys of rivers and harbors on its coast. In 1853‑54 he was the Engineer for exploration and survey of the Western Division of the projected Northern Pacific Railroad through the Cascade Mountains. On Mar. 3, 1855, he was appointed Captain of the First Cavalry, and employed in collecting railroad statistics for the War Department. While on this duty, he was detailed as a member, with Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Delafield and Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Mordecai, of the Military Commission to the "Theatre of War in Europe," his official report, entitled "The Armies of Europe," being published by order of Congress in 1857, embracing his remarks upon the Operations in the Crimea, and the Organization, Instruction, Equipment, etc., of European Armies. This report "was a model of concise and accurate information."

Captain McClellan resigned, Jan. 16, 1857, from the Army, to become the Chief Engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, of which in 1858, he was the Vice-president. The year following he was the President of the Eastern Division of the Ohio and Mississippi, and of the St. Louis, Missouri, and Cincinnati Railroads, which offices he held till the outbreak of the Rebellion.

McClellan's Mexican War experience, his knowledge of the armies of  p253 Europe, and his conceded ability, secured him the appointment of Major-General of Ohio Volunteers, and, in less than a month later, of the same rank in the United States Army, with command of the Department of the Ohio. Soon he was in the field at the head of a considerable force, which he quickly organized, with it advanced into West Virginia, and by a series of rapid manoeuvres defeated the Confederates at Rich Mountain, July 11, 1861, and by a forced march secured, the next day, the surrender of General Pegram's forces near Beverly. For this brilliant eight days' campaign he promptly received the thanks of Congress.

Shortly after these successes, was fought the disastrous Battle of Bull Run, when McClellan was summoned to Washington and assigned to the command of the Division of the Potomac, and, in less than a month, to that of the Army of the Potomac, with which he was identified during the remainder of his military career.

McClellan at once became exceedingly popular, and was hailed as the coming hero of the war. He vigorously set about the re-organization of the defeated Federal forces, and upon the retirement of the veteran Scott, Nov. 1, 1861, was appointed General-in‑Chief of the Armies of the United States, a position of immense responsibility. He laboriously devoted all his energies to fit the Army of the Potomac for active warfare, but his excessive caution and dangerous sickness, in December following, deferred his taking the field, much to the dissatisfaction of the public, which contended that he should strike a vigorous blow while the enemy was weak, unorganized, and not yet concentrated. The President, being among the impatient ones, gave a general order for the advance of all the Union armies, and limited McClellan's command to that of the Potomac, which did not move to the theatre of his coming campaign till Mar. 17, 1862, after a fruitless demonstration upon Manassas.

When the Army of the Potomac landed on the Virginia Peninsula, everything seemed in its favor: the troops had been well organized, drilled, and disciplined; their numbers were far in excess of the enemy, which had then no conscription to fill its ranks; its wants had been supplied by a lavish expenditure of money; it had confidence in its leader, for whom it had much affection; and its spirits were at the highest pitch from the late successes of our arms at Port Royal, Mill Spring, Roanoke Island, Forts Henry and Donelson, Pea Ridge, etc. The time seemed to have come for striking a vigorous blow to crush the Rebellion.

McClellan, hindered by bad roads and a lack of topographical knowledge of the country, did not reach Yorktown, his first objective, till Apr. 5th, when, instead of assaulting or turning the place, not strongly garrisoned, he spent a precious month in besieging it, at the termination of which the enemy escaped. Then, pursuing the foe, the Battle of Williamsburg took place the next day, without previous reconnoissance or concert of corps commanders, and with but a fragment of the Army. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker's division bore the brunt of the action, while, says he, 30,000 troops were in sight unengaged.

On leaving Williamsburg, had McClellan crossed the lower Chickahominy, then practicable, and moved to the James, he would have had a fresh and power­ful army, which, with the co-operation of the navy, could then have marched upon and captured Richmond in two weeks. But McClellan was undecided, awaited the junction of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McDowell's corps, and finally plunged into that Serbonian bog​a of the Chickahominy. Again, after his success at Fair Oaks, June 1st, with three fifths of his army, he might have followed the retreating, disorganized enemy, without serious difficulty, into Richmond.

When the Confederates, with nearly their whole force, assumed the offensive, June 27th, at Gaines's Mill, had Porter been adequately supported, the victory would have been ours, or, left as he was to defeat after  p254 a terrible struggle, McClellan, with the unengaged part of his army, might have easily marched into Richmond.

It is unnecessary to follow the Seven Days' contests in the "change of base" to the James River, where McClellan might have been nearly two months earlier.

These prolonged operations on the Virginia Peninsula had materially lessened the Union forces, while those of the Confederates had increased. McClellan, to take Richmond, now demanded reinforcements beyond the possibility of the Government to supply. Hence no alternative remained but to unite the Armies of the Potomac and Virginia, then on exterior lines, with the enemy between, ready at will to fall upon either. The President, after mature deliberation, ordered the junction of the two armies by withdrawing that on the Peninsula, which was not effected with sufficient rapidity to save the Army of Virginia from defeat.

The disaster of the Second Bull Run Battle, like that of the first, so demoralized our troops that the President again called to command McClellan, in whom the Army of the Potomac still had unbounded confidence. The General at once started to meet the victorious Confederates in Maryland, defeated them at Turner's and Crampton's Gaps of South Mountain, and, after a severe battle at Antietam, Lee hurriedly retreated across the Potomac, but was not followed till more than a month later, because, as contended by McClellan, his army was deficient in necessary supplies. The complaints of the General were unsubstantiated in the mind of the President, and he, dissatisfied with McClellan's lack of subordination, placed General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Burnside, Nov. 7, 1862, in command of the Army of the Potomac, and ordered McClellan to await orders, which came not during the Civil War.

Notwithstanding the President's rebuff, McClellan's popularity was so great that he was nominated for the Presidency, but was defeated by Mr. Lincoln at the election, Nov. 8, 1864, on which day McClellan resigned from the Army. For the next four years he was in Europe, and upon his return took up his residence in New York city, where he was engaged in various occupations sufficiently detailed in his foregoing Civil History.

McClellan, in 1878, became Governor of New Jersey, which position he filled with credit to himself, and to the satisfaction of the people of the State. In 1881 he was appointed by Congress a Member of the Board of Managers of the National Home for Disabled Soldiers, which position he held till his death in Orange Mountain, N. J., Oct. 29, 1885, at the age of 59.

Besides McClellan's voluminous report giving a complete history of his career during the Rebellion, he wrote many other able papers. The Memoirs, entitled "McClellan's Own Story," prepared by a friend after his death, was an unfortunate publication for his memory.

Notwithstanding my warm affection for McClellan, I must admit that he, with all his military knowledge and personal daring, lacked many of the essentials to form a great general. But never having seen much of him in his later life, I submit the opinion of his friend and fellow-cadet, Professor Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry Coppée, LL. D., who says: "McClellan was modest and retiring, and had withal a great self-respect, a gracious dignity. His personal magnetism has no parallel in military history, except in that of the first Napoleon; he was literally the idol of his officers and men. They would obey him when all other control had failed. In the opinion of many, he was unduly careful of his troops, so that his power to organize was neutralized by his caution in the field. He was a clear writer and an effective speaker. As a student of military history, he had no superior in his systematic knowledge of wars, battles, and tactics. He was also an accomplished engineer. His plans of campaign were just,  p255 clear, and timely; but any interference with them threw him back upon his natural caution, and caused him to take more time to reorganize and recast than the exigencies of war and the rapid movements of the enemy would permit. He believed himself the personal butt of the Administration, and that it did not wish him to succeed. He was constantly engaged in controversies, and his despatches, reports, and later papers are always in the tone of one vindicating himself from real or fancied injustice. He was a man of irreproachable character, a model Christian gentleman in every situation of life."

The Author's Note:

1 The thanks of Congress were tendered to General McClellan, July 16, 1861, for "the series of brilliant and decisive victories" achieved by his army over the Rebels, "on the battlefields of Western Virginia."

Thayer's Note:

a It's nice to see a bit of classical culture pop up here, even if almost certainly mediated by the famous passage in Milton, Paradise Lost, II.592 ff.:

A gulf profound as that Serbonian bog

Betwixt Damiata and Mount Casius old,

Where armies whole have sunk.

A swamp that swallows up armies is nicely appropriate, even if Milton himself latched onto something that was much slighter in reality, and took off with it as poets will. The Serbonian (or Sirbonian) Bog, also known in Antiquity as the Barathra or "Pits", was an area of quicksands in northeastern Egypt, near the Sirbonian Lake, which was a different feature although even ancient writers sometimes confuse them; where blowing sands settling on very shallow marshes, fine solid particles and high water table all combined to liquefy a solid-appearing soil, to the peril of any who would walk across it.

The place appears in Herodotus (II.6), who does not, however, say anything about armies being swallowed up, despite what one reads in classical dictionaries: as the reader who takes the trouble to follow the citations in them will see. Milton owed his striking image exclusively to the credulous late author Diodorus Siculus, much given to myth and miraculous phenomena, who does say at one point that the Barathra swallowed up "whole armies", although not providing a specific example (I.30.4‑9); the nearest he comes to that is to tell us vaguely (XVI.46.4‑5) that Artaxerxes Ochus, three hundred years before, had "lost a portion of his army through his lack of knowledge of the region" (μέρος τῆς δυνάμεως ἀπέλαβε διὰ τὴν ἀπειρίαν τῶν τόπων), which has happened to many commanders in swampy and ill-defined terrain without the earth having to do any swallowing. Elsewhere Diodorus merely describes the area as swampy (XX.73.3), and other ancient writers have less sensational accounts as well: Lucan, Pharsalia VIII.539; Plutarch, Life of Antony, 3.3; a confused account in Strabo, XVI.2.42, and a better one in the same author, XVI.3.4, quoting the geographer Strato.

In sum, Milton, a man who knew his classics very well, seems to have preferred the striking impossibility to the fairly straightforward and believable phenomenon; in the back of his mind he may even have had the myth of Cambyses' lost army, supposed to have been swallowed up not by a bog but by a sandstorm, in a different part of Egypt altogether, hundreds of miles away (Herodotus, III.26, and see Jona Lendering's article). In a literal sense though, even the more desolate parts of Virginia — the "Wilderness" of the War between the States — are nothing like either of these Egyptian regions, of course.

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Page updated: 29 Dec 21