After the Union defeat at First Manassas, President Abraham Lincoln began what would seem like an all too common occurrence during the Civil War. On July 27, 1861, Lincoln replaced Brigadier General Irwin McDowell with Major General George B. McClellan. While Lincoln’s new general was destined to build the Army of the Potomac into a fighting force, he also became a pain in the President’s neck.
McClellan never lacked confidence, excelling in military and civilian business endeavors. Prior to the Civil War, McClellan served as an engineer with Robert E. Lee during the Mexican War and ran a railroad business.
Since McClellan opposed federal intervention over slavery, some southerners spoke to him about a command in the Confederate army. Although McClellan was not an abolitionist, he was also not a secessionist. Therefore, he remained with the Union.
Initially, McClellan served as major general of volunteers of Ohio militiamen. He enjoyed initial success protecting a loyal portion of western Virginia, which eventually became the state of West Virginia. McClellan won victories at Philippi and Rich Mountain.
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These successes led to McClellan being awarded a major general’s rank in the regular army and being considered one of the first Union heroes of the war. The New York Herald hailed, “Gen. McClellan, the Napoleon of the Present War.”
In July 1861, McClellan left Wheeling, W. V., in route to Washington D. C. Along the way, crowds of people welcomed McClellan as his train passed through Pittsburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Up to this point, McClellan had won the only Union victories of the war.
On July 26, 1861, McClellan was appointed commander of the Military Division of the Potomac, which served as the main Union force protecting Washington D. C. This force later became known as the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan proved to be a great builder of armies. Aside from organizing the Army of the Potomac, McClellan also created a defensive network to protect Washington D. C., making the capital virtually impregnable.
McClellan’s fatal flaw was actually using the army once it was built. He often overestimated the size of his foe and always wanted more troops before committing the Army of the Potomac to battle.
This set him on a collision course with Lincoln, who wanted to quickly subdue the southern rebellion. McClellan didn’t have any use for those who disagreed with him. He and Lincoln rarely saw eye-to-eye. At one point, McClellan referred to his commander-in-chief as “nothing more than a well meaning baboon.”
While the Lincoln-McClellan controversy was yet to play out, “Little Mac” celebrated his new found power and popularity.
In a letter to his wife Ellen, he confided, “I find myself in a new and strange position here --- Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me --- by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. . . I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me --- but nothing of that kind would please me --- therefore I won’t be Dictator. Admirable self-denial!”