150 years this week, George B. McClellan was dismissed as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. He had built the army from when he came to Washington in the summer of 1861; it was in many ways a reflection of him and his ideas on how to fight a war. It is no secret that McClellan was much loved by his men; many of the officers were loyal to him as well.
All of this leads to a very important question, one that might seem very simple. Was McClellan simply a bad general who deserved to be dismissed? Certainly, that is a refrain often heard when discussing "Little Mac." When I wrap up my talks or tours at the battlefield, I can usually expect to have a visitor or two who want to debate the merits of McClellan as a commander. I can't tell you how many times myself and my colleagues at Antietam have heard, "McClellan was just a bad general, and Ole' Lincoln got rid of him just as he should have."
Here is my short and simple take on McClellan's dismissal. As a military commander in the Maryland Campaign, McClellan delivered one of the finest leadership performances of the war for any commander on either side. He built an army out of a mess, moved his men through Maryland, fought two difficult offensive battles against difficult terrain, and significantly damaged Lee's army, forcing an end to the Confederate invasion of Maryland. However, because of his political views and strong disagreement with Lincoln on matters of policy, he had to go.
McClellan favored a conciliatory war, one that was seeking to restore the old Union with no major changes. After Antietam, Lincoln was ready to boldly lead the country toward a new and better future, one where freedom applied to millions more than it previously had. To do this, Lincoln needed generals willing and able to faithfully execute his policies. McClellan was not one of those men. This is not to suggest (although many have) that McClellan was disloyal or a traitor; in fact, he was faithfully devoted to the Union and to preserving the Constitution. However, after Antietam, and after the Emancipation Proclamation, McClellan was no longer the man Lincoln needed to carry through on his policies of moving the nation toward "a new birth of freedom."
McClellan's dismissal served as a watershed moment for Lincoln and the nation. From that point onward, Lincoln would come into his own as a military leader. The "Hard War" that Northern forces waged against the Confederacy was driven not by political generals, but by Lincoln himself. The Emancipation Proclamation signaled that the war would be anything but conciliatory; it would remake the country. Because of his disagreements with Lincoln, McClellan was not the right general to lead Union forces in this task.
McClellan was not a bad general, in fact, on the battlefield at Antietam, he was a good one. However, McClellan was too much of an overtly political general, and for that, he had to go.
These are my rather quick two cents on the matter. What do you think? Was McClellan fired for being a bad general or because he was no longer the right man to enact the policies of the Lincoln administration in the Civil War?
Our Country's Fiery Ordeal
A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)
Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.
"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)