George McClellan was in the wrong profession—though it didn’t seem like it at the time. He rocketed his way through West Point— in which he enrolled before he was even sixteen years old, having been classically educated already, including two years at the University of Pennsylvania—graduating second in his class (he thought he should have been first, a feeling he often had in life) in 1846 at the age of nineteen. His military career was equally meteoric. He went straight to combat in Mexico. Come the Civil War, he was, at age thirty-four, appointed a major general in the United States Army, second in rank only to Winfield Scott. And between these wars, he had been a highly paid railroad executive. Successful in academic and business pursuits, recognized as a gifted administrator, born leader, and supremely well-qualified young military officer, “chock full,” as one colleague noted, “of big war science,” McClellan seemed bound to succeed. He was the “Young Napoleon.”
McClellan himself noted, “I find myself in a new & strange position here—Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me—by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power in 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 Admirable, indeed, because he seemed well suited to the role. He was a resentful subordinate, a man convinced that, in his words, “I can do it all,”‘ but also one never to take blame for a failure, which was always someone else’s fault. Deference he accepted as his due. He had an ill-disguised contempt for his commander in chief, for General Scott (whom he forced into retirement), and for anyone else who might second-guess, interfere, offer contrary ideas, or provide anything less than blind and complaisant support of his every demand—and his every excuse.
When he married, it was to a Presbyterian who converted him to a Calvinism rather different in kind from Stonewall Jackson’s. Jackson took comfort from the doctrine of predestination that he had nothing to fear on the battlefield—God would collect him in His own good time. McClellan took predestination to affirm that he was God’s elected military savior of the Union. This messianic impulse—common amongst Northern abolitionists—perhaps should have steered Little Mac to a career in politics, a calling he did eventually heed; though, ironically, he was a political enemy of the abolitionists.
From his days at the academy, McClellan disdained Yankees and gravitated to Southerners, at least those of a gentlemanly sort. McClellan was very much an adherent to the cult of the gentleman, which is no bad thing in itself, but with McClellan, it was more the snobbery of a Philadelphia doctor’s son than it was the aristocratic poise and noblesse oblige of the Southern planter class.
Though a conservative Democrat who loathed abolitionists (on occasion accusing them of “rank & open treason”), a moderate on the issue of slavery (he took a slave-servant named Songo with him to Mexico), and a man who preferred Southern gentlemen for company, McClellan was nevertheless a firm Unionist. He once told Navy Secretary Gideon Wells that he detested “both South Carolina and Massachusetts, and should rejoice to see both States extinguished.” These two states, he argued, had always been scats of extremism, driving otherwise reasonable Americans to quarrel.
The great moral crusade for McClellan was the preservation of the Union—not the abolition of slavery. Slavery was a constitutional right, as affirmed by the Supreme Court, and so therefore deserving of every legal protection. The idea of racial equality was repugnant to him, if not just flat-out ridiculous: “I confess to a prejudice in favor of my own race, & can’t learn to like the odor of either Billy goats or niggers” (a sentiment he confessed to, incidentally, after the war). He did, however, also volunteer that he would have found—had it been in his power and been his responsibility—an equitable way to abolish slavery that both adequately compensated and protected the slave-owner while liberating and assisting the slave. But then again, McClellan always believed that he had the right plan for everything.
Apprenticeship in Mexico
Though doctors benefited much more in prestige than in pay in mid-nineteenth century America, things came easily to young McClellan growing up in Philadelphia. He had a strong family and parents who emphasized education. McClellan’s mind was quick, and he never had to study much to excel. Such precocious acuity had the downside of making him dogmatically certain of his opinions.
Originally it was assumed he would be a lawyer. But the prospect was so dull, and, to his parents, the attractions of a free education seemed so inviting, that West Point became his alma mater—and once in, he considered himself a professional soldier. One of his earliest professional prejudices, honed in Mexico watching the rabble of rowdy volunteers and citizen-soldier officers (appointed through political connections), was that war was a job for those trained to the task: civilians should butt out— or take their orders and their training from those qualified to give them. Later, Abraham Lincoln would not be among those deemed so qualified. He had, as the British say, a “good war,” seeing action, performing admirably, learning from Winfield Scott’s masterful campaigning, and leading the life of a gay young blade (he embarked for war even more fully and colorfully armed than A. P. Hill, with saber, bowie knife, pistols stuffed in his belt and a double-barreled shotgun in his hand).
He scoffed at danger, ate and drank the best Mexico could provide (when not in the field), and romanced a sefiorita named Nachita, who, a friend reported, “cried uninterruptedly for the space of a week” after he left Mexico City, “but as she has done the same thing several times before for others, don’t cut your throat.” He also continued his military education—something he would do throughout his life, even while a railroad executive—picking through the volumes in the library of a Catholic seminary, looking “for something readable among their shelves of bad theology” (a very McClel-lan comment), and latching onto Bernal Diaz’s riveting first-person account of Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, reading it in the original Spanish.
McClellan found peacetime service dull, though he was given far more special assignments than most young officers, in no small part because one of his patrons was the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, who, like most people, thought highly of this young lieutenant who radiated professionalism. Even when he botched an assignment, as he did while investing a northern route for the transcontinental railroad, he did so in a way that stood on his dignity, or rather on his assumption that whatever he believed to be true was true. In this case, without adequate scouting, he believed there were obstacles in his path—only there weren’t—a failing that would repeat itself during the War.
More to his taste, perhaps, was an assignment that took him to Europe with two officers much his senior (he dismissed them as old fuddy-duddies). The party had hoped to inspect the armies of both sides in the Crimean War, but had to make due with the Allied forces, and with some other travels. It was from this jaunt that George McClellan came back with a design for “the George McClellan saddle” (based on a Hungarian model as adapted by the Prussians) that became standard issue to the U.S. Cavalry for the rest of its existence. He also taught himself Russian well enough to translate Russian books. George McClellan, indeed, was something of a linguist. He could read books in German, Spanish, or French, and translated a book on French bayonet tactics.
When he left the service to become a railroad executive, he was more than once tempted to resign (if he had been allowed to) in order to rejoin the colors to fight Mormons (in the bloodless “Mormon War”) or to join a mercenary unit that might independently extend America’s manifest destiny farther south, as filibusters like William Walker attempted to do. But the circumstances were never right—not until the war to restore the Union.
Before that occurred, however, he made one last peacetime conquest. After nearly six years of diligent wooing, he married Miss Ellen Marcy in May 1860. She had rejected his proposal of marriage in 1854, been compelled by her parents to break her engagement to A.P. Hill in 1856, and had enjoyed many suitors in between, most of them military swains, as her father was himself an officer. The marriage was an extremely happy one; whatever his other failings, George McClellan was an admiringly loyal husband. They had two children, a girl, Mary (“May”), and a boy named after his father, but as there could only be one “Little Mac,” the other became little Max.
The price of generalship
Men often become more cautious in their forties, as life experience, family responsibilities, and physical decline set in. War, too, is a sobering experience, and McClellan had seen war, though he gave every appearance of not being in the least traumatized by it. McClellan was still only in his thirties when he reached high command. He believed he was predestined by Providence to save the Union. He was certain that only he knew what to do in the crisis. But it was what he knew that perhaps was the problem. “There is only one safe rule in war,” he said: “to decide what is the very worst thing that can happen to you, & prepare to meet it.”10 Compare this principle to Robert E. Lee’s contrary one that Richmond was never so safe as when it was undefended (that is, rather than wait and prepare for the worst to happen, seize opportunities to upset the balance of your opponent). Lee. like George McClellan. believed in defensive entrenchments. He was not imprudent, but his goal was ever and always to drive the enemy back and threaten him where he felt he was vulnerable, and to use fortifications as pivots for offensives.
George McClellan had various grand offensive strategies as well, of course, though Scott thought them impractical, and Lincoln, though generally supportive of George McClellan, doubted them too. More important than this, however, was George McClellan’s consistent magnification of the enemy, often to three times its actual size. His evidence for these miscalculations seemed based less on actual intelligence than either on his own fears or his own grandiose imagination: if he was to save the Union, surely it would have to be against nearly insurmountable odds. The battles of the Young Napoleon would be among the greatest in history.
They were anyway—certainly in American history. But there is no excuse for not seeing things as they are (at which Lee excelled) and for taking the counsel of one’s fears (an apothegm of Stonewall Jackson’s). George McClellan consistently saw things as he imagined them to be and, as he himself said, thought the only safe rule was to prepare oneself to meet the very worst that could happen.
The first campaigns
George McClellan started his Civil War service, it is sometimes forgotten, in the West. In April 1861, he became a major general of Ohio volunteers (he was at the time a resident of Ohio, as an executive with the Ohio and Mississippi railroad). By May he was commanding the Department of the Ohio, which included Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana for starters, but soon began annexing other neighboring areas into its responsibilities, which is what brought George McClellan to western Virginia, and his first shift from raising, supplying, and training troops to fighting them.
Western Virginia was sympathetic to the Union. It was also crucial to Federal transportation and communications, because the Baltimore and Ohio railroad passed through it. When reports reached George McClellan’s desk of Confederate activity in the area, with Johnny Rebs threatening to burn the railroad bridges, he was authorized to act. Entering slave-holding Virginia, he issued a proclamation stating that he would not only not interfere with slavery, which was no more illegal now than it had ever been, but pledged that “with an iron hand,” he would “crush any attempt at insurrection” by the slaves. The burnt bridges were rebuilt and a small detachment of Confederates at Philippi was scattered (and six were killed) by Federal artillery, prompting Northern newspaper headlines about “the Philippi Races.” To cap it all, pro-Union politicians in western Virginia organized to have their counties secede from the state—one act of secession of which Lincoln approved.
As commander of an army of occupation, George McClellan reaffirmed his commitment to defending the property rights of all, whether secessionist or Unionist, and he maintained a strict discipline. There was no winking at depredations against slaveholders. He also sounded a note that seemed right and proper, but would prove frustrating to his commander in chief: he promised “not to move” into action “until everything is ready” and he would not “depart from my intention of gaining success by manoeuvring rather than by fighting; I will not throw these men of mine into the teeth of artillery & intrenchments, if it is possible to avoid it.” To be fair, he also pledged to “move with the utmost rapidity & energy” when “everything is ready.”
George McClellan was very popular with his troops. He turned them into fine model soldiers, and he was immensely careful with their lives. He was not, however, careful in his judgments of others. George McClellan, of all people, severely rebuked one of his brigadier generals in the Rich Mountain campaign in western Virginia for accurately reporting that the enemy force he was assigned to divert outnumbered him. He added, “I confess I feel apprehensive unless our force could equal theirs.” George McClellan responded with abuse, threatening to replace Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris—who had already proven his worth in the successful surprise attack at Philippi—telling him, in another George McClellan turn of phrase, “I propose taking the really difficult & dangerous part of this work on my own hands.” George McClellan’s column would “decide the face of the campaign___I have spoken plainly—I speak officially—the crisis is a grave one, & I must have Generals under me who are willing to risk as much as I am.”
As George McClellan’s authoritative biographer Stephen Sears acknowledges, George McClellan’s “risk was in fact slight.” But the self-dramatization and the rush to blame others—even before anything has gone wrong—these are very much the George McClellan touch that President Lincoln later came to know so well. In fact, a reinforced Morris (George McClellan gave in with an extra regiment) faced an equal number of Confederates, about 4,000 troops on either side. George McClellan and his column of 7,000 men, meanwhile, met 1,300 Confederates (less than half the number George McClellan expected) at Rich Mountain.
He confessed his nervousness to his wife: “I realize the dreadful responsibility on me—the lives of my men, the reputation of the country, and the success of the cause___I shall feel my way and be very cautious, for I recognize the fact that everything requires success in my first operations. You need not be alarmed as to the result; God is on our side.”14
Needless to say, the Battle of Rich Mountain (11 July 1861) was not the epochal event George McClellan thought it was, though it was a Union victory, affirming, for the newspapers anyway, George McClellan as the Young Napoleon. To Brigadier General William Rosecrans, George McClellan was a good deal less than that. Rosecrans had led the assault on Rich Mountain and thought McClellan had abandoned him by not committing the rest of the column to the attack. In a subsequent Federal pursuit of the enemy, McClellan himself was free in assigning blame to every officer not named McClellan: “Unless I command every picket & lead every column I cannot be sure of success.” Were he alive today, George McClellan would no doubt be in favor of cloning.
To this point, George McClellan’s war had been one of distant musketry, heard, not seen or felt; of plans achieved or miscarried, not executed on a hot battlefield. He had done every task of preparation and planning skillfully and well. But for one so liberal with criticism, he had not yet himself been in the firing line against the Confederates. This was unusual for Civil War generals, who actually had a 50 percent higher chance of being killed or wounded than enlisted men. He might have been wise to keep himself back from the action, but it was certainly unusual.
More important than the Battle of Rich Mountain and its aftermath, however, was the Federal defeat at First Manassas. The government in Washington was in panic. Who else could they turn to but the Young Napoleon? He accepted their summons and became the commander of the Army of the Potomac, a name that he gave the army.
George McClellan told his wife, “Who would have thought, when we were married, that I should so soon be called upon to save the country?” The key words being, of course, “so soon”; in the long run, it was inevitable that George George McClellan should save his country. He rode on cap-waving excursions (or inspections) among the men, eliciting huzzahs and raising morale (both theirs and no doubt his), but he was also a diligent administrator, orderly in his methods, and decisive in enforcing discipline. When it came to organization and preparation, he was everything he thought himself to be.
His signal failing was his system of intelligence. Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective, was the man charged by George McClellan to gather and report news of the enemy. Pinkerton and his men proved better at passing on wild rumors and the ingratiating exaggerations of deserters than anything else. But Pinkerton’s consistent inflation of enemy numbers was exactly what George McClellan wanted to hear, because it fit his own vision of the challenge before him. Winfield Scott was entirely more skeptical, and accurate, in assessing the size of the Confederate army, and confident that it posed no risk to Washington.
George McClellan, typically, regarded him as either “a dotard or a traitor... he is a perfect imbecile. He understands nothing, appreciates nothing & is ever in my way/’ Lincoln was no better. McClellan dismissed him as an “idiot” and took up calling him “the Gorilla.” Both men were con demned for not recognizing that “the enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force” (in fact, McClellan outnumbered the enemy, and would always do so, usually by odds of at least two to one) and for not seeing “the true state of affairs,” which was actually a false state of affairs.
McClellan threatened that “if he [Winfield Scott] cannot be taken out of my path, I will resign and let the administration] take care of itself…. The people call upon me to save the country—I must save it and cannot respect anything that is in the way.” McClellan won the dispute, Scott was retired, and in November 1861, the commander of the Army of the Potomac became also general in chief of the army. When the president asked him if he felt capable of performing two such weighty jobs at once, McClellan reassured him, “I can do it all.”
McClellan could do it all, but believed that Lincoln and his cabinet could do next to nothing, and needed to be kept far away from his areas of responsibility. He repeatedly snubbed the president, refusing to meet with him whenever the great general thought it inconvenient or tiresome. He was surly to congressmen and cabinet members (and anyone else) who pressed him for his plans… unless of course he was himself leaking these plans to the New York Herald. He was as ever, quick to assign blame to others, whether for military defeats (such as the ill-attempted Federal attack at Ball’s Bluff on 21 October 1861) or even for the fact that the Army was becoming extremely adept at parading, but of little proven use at fighting. “If it is so the fault will not be mine/’20 might well serve as the emblematic McClellan quote, a motto for his personal coat of arms.
George McClellan as commander
Of McClellan’s great on to Richmond drive, advancing up the Peninsula, one might wish to say as little as possible-—for McClellan’s sake. But of course, the great commander wouldn’t quite see it that way. For him, it was a tremendous struggle against politicians in Washington who continually connived against him because he was a Democrat and not an abolitionist radical, against overwhelming Confederate numbers (which were, in fact, much smaller than his own), and pulled off one of the greatest tactical withdrawals of all time from the gates of Richmond (in other words, was handily defeated by Robert E. Lee’s smaller army).
McClellan had his supporters in the press (chiefly among Democrat-leaning papers) and certainly in the ranks. But Lincoln and his cabinet and many of the Republican-leaning newspapers and even some of McClellan’s officers and men were beginning to have their doubts about a commander who was so cautious, so full of contempt for his civilian masters (though he stopped well short of countenancing a military coup, which was sometimes—perhaps merely to blow off steam—discussed by others), and who, while dutiful in the hours he spent in preparing his army, was rarely on the field of battle.
Whether humbugged by “Prince John” Magruder, whose humble Confederate outpost convinced McClellan that he faced the bulk of the Confederate army (inspecting Magruder’s positions, Joe Johnston quipped, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack”21) or making ludicrous assessments of his enemy whose audacity and daring with inferior numbers would drive him to abandon his march on Richmond (“I prefer Lee to [Joseph E.] Johnston—the former is too cautious & weak under grave responsibility—personally brave and energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action”22), McClellan’s record is frankly embarrassing to consider.
It is one thing to have arranged a battle as best one can and fail. It is quite another, however, to bleat, as McClellan did before the Battle of Mechanicsville (26 June 1862), “I am in no way responsible… as I have not failed to represent repeatedly the necessity for reinforcements If the result… is a disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders.” Or take this dispatch, written in the early morning hours of 28 June, after the Confederates had driven his men back in a desperate frontal assault of the sort the McClellan would never have dared contemplate, “I have lost this battle because my force was too small. I again repeat that I am not responsible for the result [T]he government has not sustained this army. If you do not do so now the game is lost. If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”
One cannot imagine Grant or Lee writing such words. They had neither the ego, nor the self-deception, nor the weakness of character, nor does the submission to panic that lie behind them. And it is surely, at a minimum, a lack of gratitude, if not an unbalanced sense of conspiracy, to assert that the Secretary of War for the Union wanted the army to be sacrificed, either out of bullheaded civilian stupidity or in order to discredit McClellan politically. Despite McClellan’s complaints—driven in part by Lincoln’s withholding of troops to protect Washington—the Army of the Potomac lacked for nothing, thanks to the generosity and resources of the Federal government. Though he hardly gave him credit for it, Lincoln was McClellan’s great defender, even if an exasperated one. It was he who returned McClellan to command the Army of the Potomac after General Pope’s defeat at Second Manassas, and it was he who recognized that even if McClellan could not lead men into battle, he was a genius at organizing them and preparing them for it. But McClellan did not raise his own units the way a Bedford Forrest did, equipping the men with supplies paid for out of his own pocket. It was the Confederate army that was always strapped for resources, yet Confederate generals didn’t bemoan their fate, the way McClellan did, as a spoiled, egocentric child.
Where some saw failure—for which he blamed others—he saw himself as a grand strategist and masterful tactician extracting chestnut victories from the fire of war: “the officers & men feel that I saved the day,” he said at Williamsburg, as his army slogged its way up the Peninsula. Whether they did or not, McClellan always knew that this was true: he had saved the day from the “utter stupidity & worthlessness” J of his corps commanders and the treacherous, two-faced, conspiring, interfering politicians in Washington. In McClellan’s mind there was no man so indispensable as himself: “I feel too that I must not unnecessarily risk my life—for the fate of my army depends upon me & they all know it.”
One wonders if he ever needed to remind them. It is certain that Lincoln had to remind McClellan that his constant appeals for more troops would leave the Federal government with no more than 25,000 troops to cover every other theatre of the war.
The fate of the Army of the Potomac under McClellan’s command was to skedaddle from Richmond. Even when McClellan was privy to Lee’s plans, outnumbered him more than two to one, and had every possible advantage over him, as at the Battle of Sharpsburg, the daring Confederate commander fought McClellan to a draw, or perhaps a tactical Confederate victory. When Lee withdrew from the field, McClellan declined to pursue him save for a half-hearted, pro forma attempt. He was too relieved to have had his army survive the battle. He reported that “at that moment—Virginia lost, Washington menaced, Maryland invaded—the national cause could afford no risks of defeat.” To his wife he was more effusive, content that “God has in his mercy a second time made me the instrument of saving the nation.” McClellan’s record is thus one of bluster and recrimination, failure and refusal to confront failure, leavened only by his capacity for organization and training, at which he was indeed expert. It was fighting at which he lacked. Rather than a general, he should have been a bureaucrat…
Or perhaps a politician. In the political arena, his enormous ego put him at one with many another seeker of public office. And as a politician, his ideas were not ones easily dismissed. As a general he had been appalled by the way General John Pope had waged war on Southern civilians as well as on Southern troops. He thought that to restore the Union meant to fight the war in such a way that respected Christian values and that presented the Union as something the people in the South would want to rejoin. That meant treating civilians with every proper consideration. It meant fighting solely to preserve the Union, not to wage a radical, ideological war to extinguish an institution recognized as legal by the Constitution and the Supreme Court and that was, however unfortunate, a cornerstone of Southern life.
Early in their relationship, McClellan had said of the “well-meaning baboon,” the president of the United States: “The Presdt is perfectly honest & is really sound on the nigger question.” In fact, of course, the president proved far less “sound” than McClellan hoped, which was one reason why he ran against him for president in 1864 as the nominee of the Democratic Party. But there were other more admirable reasons. He was shocked when, two days after the Battle of Sharpsburg, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imposed military courts on civilians accused of hindering the war effort or assisting the enemy.
McClellan believed that the Emancipation Proclamation violated the Constitution as did Lincoln’s suspension of traditional American civil rights. Such overthrowing of the Constitution made a mockery of McClellan’s cause of restoring and preserving the Constitutional Union (as he saw it). He was committed to fighting secession, not to forcing through the wants and desires of an abolitionist cabal. McClellan believed that the “infamous” Emancipation Proclamation and the suspension of habeas corpus had “at one stroke of the pen” changed America’s “free institutions into a despotism.”
Nevertheless, he allowed himself to be persuaded that, as a serving soldier, the course of duty required him to keep his opinions private, and to address the army on the need of submitting to civil authority.
The president, however, had lost patience with McClellan, as well as the political will to defend the Democrat general from his Republican enemies. On 5 November 1862, just after the midterm elections, Lincoln ordered him relieved from duty. McClellan was now free of military constraints. If he wished, he could oppose Lincoln as a rival politician—and that is exactly what happened.
Lincoln resisted all efforts—after the humiliation of Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg and Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville—to restore McClellan to command, though he recognized that among many in the army there was a strong sympathy for Little Mac. Such “McClellanism” was regarded as a threat, but not so great a one as to risk restoring a commander in whom the president had utterly lost confidence.
In the summer of 1864, the Democratic Party elected General McClellan as its candidate for president. McClellan was a pro-war Democrat— that is, one who believed that the Union must be restored before there could be peace. But the party’s platform and its chosen vice presidential candidate were in favor of an immediate armistice, to be followed by negotiations to restore the Union. McClellan refused to budge from his principles, while simultaneously trying to fudge the differences between the wings of the Democratic Party.
The Democrats had expected that by nominating McClellan, they would win the soldier vote. But the peace plank of the Democratic platform made that impossible. In the event, Lincoln defeated McClellan handily, with the general capturing only three states: New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. The margin in the electoral college was 212 votes for Lincoln to 21 for Little Mac. It was a trouncing defeat, though to the general’s credit he had taken the high road in the campaign, doing as little electioneering as possible, behaved as a gentleman, and accepted the electoral voice of the people as the voice of God’s will. He was indeed a better politician than he was a soldier.
He finally resigned his commission only to find that his political notoriety made it impossible for him to resume his role as a railroad executive. He considered becoming a mercenary, including putting himself at the service of the French Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, which would have been an outcome devoutly to be wished—had he been more success ful in French uniform than Federal blue.
But instead of returning to arms, he relied on his investment income to live the life of a European exile, a role that suited him better still. He delighted in interviews with Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian general staff, and the famed Swiss military strategist Antoine-Henri, Baron de Jomini, marveled at Rome, and enjoyed the high reputation he had in the cities of Europe. He did not return home until 1868, in time to see Ulysses Grant elected president. He also found that he was now again employable, and so pursued engineering and railroad work. He did not return to politics until 1876, when he enthusiastically endorsed and campaigned for the Democratic Party candidate for president, Samuel J. Tilden, against the Republican (and eventual winner) Rutherford B. Hayes. That, in turn, led to New Jersey’s Democratic; Party electing McClellan as its gubernatorial candidate in 1877—and this was an election he won.
Moreover, he governed well, trimming spending, abolishing direct state taxes on individuals, and bringing to bear all the skills of organization and management that he had developed as a general and businessman. This was his metier. He served but a single term, and then returned to private life. His last political hurrah was campaigning for Grover Cleveland, though political rivals denied him his hope of being appointed Cleveland’s secretary of war. McClellan died at age fifty-eight in 1887. His son, George B. McClellan Jr. (“Max”), took up the profession that should have been his father’s, becoming a congressman from New York and the mayor of the Big Apple (1904-09). That bloodless field of conflict was McClellan’s true home.