(March 7, 2018) Provided below is Chapter Eleven of my Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies book. Source citations are available in the book whereas they have been removed from this online version. Generally, modern historians condemn McClellan for what he failed to do instead of applauding him for what he did do. Among the things he did do was to take command of a panicked and demoralized army and converted it into a victorious one that stopped Lee’s first invasion of the North in less than three weeks.
Ultimately Civil War students must take a position on Major General George McClellan. It is necessary to decide whether Lincoln was correct in growing impatient with him, or whether the general was driven to a natural resentment of the President—and especially Radical Republican leaders—by their unfair treatment of him. While most modern historians side with the Republicans, McClellan apparently had powerful endorsements among experts of his time.
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One example was Helmuth Von Moltke who was the leader of the Prussian armies that won the 1870-1871 Franco Prussian War, which paved the way for the creation of a German state. George Curtis, who was co-counsel to Dred Scott when the slave’s case reached the Supreme Court in 1857, cited a conversation that Moltke had with another American whom Curtis “had no reason to doubt.” The American said, “Some of us in America do not estimate McClellan so highly as we do some of our other generals.” Moltke replied, “It may be so, but let me tell you that, if your Government had supported General McClellan in the field as they should have done, your war would have ended two years earlier.” However, since Moltke met with McClellan in 1868 when the latter visited Europe, it may be presumed that the Prussian was influenced by whatever information McClellan provided.
Similarly, during the last summer of his life Robert E. Lee visited his cousin Cassius Lee and they shared reminiscent conversations. Cazenove Lee who was Cassius Lee’s twenty-year-old son, claimed to be present. Cazenove later told Robert E. Lee, Jr. that he asked the former Rebel leader, “ . . . which of the Federal generals he considered to be the greatest.” According to Cazenove, the old general answered, “McClellan, by all odds.”
While both the Von Moltke and Cazenove Lee incidents cannot be absolutely verified, they were told under circumstances that suggest validity. But whether or not they are true, a case for McClellan or Lincoln can be made independent of the statements.
Following defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 the principal federal army in the east was in disarray. Lincoln called upon 34-year-old George McClellan to take command, bring order out of chaos and prevent the capital from being captured by the jubilant Rebels. The President chose McClellan for two reasons. First, he was familiar with him from before the war because Lincoln did legal work for the Illinois Central Railroad when McClellan was an executive in the company. Second, news reports had generally credited McClellan with winning four small victories in the western mountains of Virginia during the preceding month or so. In truth, the victories were actually won by subordinates, although McClellan had overall command. Nonetheless, they had the effect of separating the strategically important western part of Virginia from the Confederacy. Continue reading