McClellan's work in the railroad industry made him a wealthy man. But he remained interested in military matters, especially as ongoing disputes between the Northern and Southern sections of the country threatened to erupt into war. The main issue dividing the two regions was slavery. Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played an important role in the South's economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.
America's westward expansion further increased the tension between the North and South. Both sides wanted to spread their political views and way of life into the new states and territories. By 1861, the situation convinced a group of Southern states to secede (withdraw) from the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders would not let the Southern states leave the Union without a fight. The Civil War began a short time later.
McClellan lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, when the war started. As the Northern states began to raise armies for the conflict, the governor of Ohio asked McClellan to take command of that state's volunteer forces. Even though his main army service had been as an engineer, McClellan eagerly accepted the rank of major general in the Ohio Volunteers. His forces fought in some of the earliest clashes of the Civil War. They entered western Virginia—a region that remained sympathetic to the Union despite Virginia's decision to secede— in July 1861. Their successful offensive (attack) chased most Confederate troops out of the area and cleared the way for Union supporters to separate from Virginia and establish their own state, known as West Virginia. McClellan took a great deal of credit for this early Northern success. He soon came to national attention as the Union's first war hero.
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