While McClellan was running Confederate forces out of western Virginia, the main Union Army was suffering an embarrassing defeat in July 1861 at the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Manassas) in the eastern part of the state. Poorly prepared and terribly disorganized, the Army of the Potomac ended up making a panicked retreat back to Washington, D.C. President Abraham Lincoln reacted to the defeat by naming McClellan commander of the Army of the Potomac. At the age of thirty-four, McClellan took control of the North's largest army. He became the second-highest ranking officer in the American military. The only soldier who outranked him was General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see entry), the commander of all U.S. armed forces.
Within a short time, McClellan proved himself to be a great organizer and trainer of troops. He used tough training schedules and strict discipline to improve the army's preparation and confidence. He made sure his men had the best arms and equipment, were well fed, and got paid on time. He also mingled with the troops and showed that he cared about them, which helped raise their morale. Over time, McClellan turned the inexperienced and demoralized Army of the Potomac into a strong fighting force. Thanks to the general's personal style of leadership, the soldiers in the ranks almost worshiped him. In fact, he was more popular among his men than any other Civil War general.
Unfortunately, McClellan was not as popular among Northern political leaders. He tended to be arrogant and boastful, and he resented having civilian (non-military) officials tell him what to do. As a result, he clashed with President Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869), and General Scott on many occasions. In fact, he actively worked against Scott and ended up forcing the elderly general to retire in November 1861. McClellan then took his place as general-in-chief of all the Union armies. By this time, Northern newspapers were calling McClellan the "Young Napoleon," after the famous French military leader and emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821).
Once McClellan had trained and supplied his troops, Northern political leaders expected him to launch an offensive strike against the Confederates in Virginia. But McClellan continually found excuses to delay the attack. "So soon as I feel that my army is well organized and well disciplined and strong enough, I will advance and force the Rebels [Confederates] to a battle on a field of my own selection," he stated. "A long time must elapse before I can do that."
Part of the problem was that McClellan consistently overestimated the size and strength of the opposing forces. He became convinced that the Confederate Army waiting for him in Virginia consisted of 250,000 men, when in fact it was more like sixty thousand. By November 1861, he decided that he should wait for the end of winter before moving against the enemy. In December, he became ill with typhoid fever, which led to another delay of several weeks. But the main reason behind McClellan's extreme caution and indecision was that he was unwilling to commit troops to battle unless he was guaranteed of success. "McClellan was capable and skilled in creating an army, but he had too much of a mother's instinct in him, too much of the protective instinct," according to William C. Davis, Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani in Civil War Journal: The Leaders. "He was creating an army, and he wanted that army to be as good as any that had ever taken a battlefield, but at the same time he wanted no harm to come to it."
Was this article helpful?