Replaced as commander following the Battle of Antietam

As the losses continued to mount for the Union Army, many Northerners became concerned that the Confederates might win the war. President Lincoln knew that the lack of success in battle had left Union soldiers feeling fearful and discouraged. Recognizing the intense loyalty the troops felt toward McClellan, Lincoln made the difficult decision to return him to command of the Army of the Potomac. Once again, the young general turned the army around, improving the men's discipline and morale.

In the meantime, Confederate general Robert E. Lee decided to take advantage of his recent victories to invade the North. He believed that if the Confederate Army proved that it was capable of seizing control of Northern territory, Lincoln might be forced to negotiate an end to the war. Lee led fifty-two thousand troops across the Potomac River into Maryland in early September. A few days later, McClellan left Washington with seventy-five thousand troops from the Army of the Potomac. On September 13, McClellan received an incredible stroke of good luck. One of his men found a copy of Lee's orders to his army. The papers had been dropped by a careless Confederate officer.

McClellan's discovery of Lee's orders spurred him to close on the Confederate Army more quickly. But many historians claim that he was still too slow to act. Although his army reached Antietam Creek in western Maryland on September 16, McClellan decided to wait until the following day to launch an attack. The delay allowed Confederate troops under General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824-1863; see entry) to arrive and reinforce Lee's position. On September 17, the two armies finally met in a vicious day-long battle that killed or wounded more than twenty-three thousand Union and Confederate soldiers. This one-day casualty total marked the single bloodiest day in Civil War history.

By September 19, Lee decided to retreat back to Virginia. But it took his men some time to cross the swollen Potomac River. Some historians claim that if McClellan had launched another attack, he could have destroyed the Southern army. But the Union general was shaken by the high casualties his troops had suffered. "This Army is not now in condition to undertake another campaign nor to bring on another battle," he stated. "I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield with its mangled corpses and poor, suffering wounded. Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such a cost." As a result, McClellan did not pursue Lee's army when it retreated. He thus gave up another opportunity to bring an earlier end to the war.

In November 1862, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command for good. The young general had demonstrated great skills as an organizer and motivator. But when it came to leading troops into battle, he was a failure. "The tragedy of McClellan," Davis, Pohanka, and Troiani wrote, "is that he failed to utilize his greatest strengths. His army would have done anything for him. . . . Yet he did not grant them that opportunity because it would mean that his beloved army would suffer."

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