The first campaign of the Civil War was the first win for the Union and was under the command of George B. McClellan.  It was a minor battle but with this battle, under McClellan’s leadership successfully drove confederate troops out of the Kanawha Valley of western Virginia in May and June of 1861.  This was described in James McPherson’s book “Ordeal by Fire” (159).  McClellan’s victory gave the region a firm grip for the Union side and kept it from becoming in control of the confederates and eventually became West Virginia.  But the first major battle was a totally different story.

This was the battle of Bull Run Creek and it was a disaster.  McClellan though helped this battle and became the savior, if even for the moment.  Because McClellan replaced McDowell who was the general at the time and this became the boost he needed to later become general in chief (Rowland, 1998 p. 86).  McClellan spent the fall and winter drilling his troops and whipping them into shape.  He was known for his slow way of doing things and this made Lincoln very agitated.

This was probably why the rumors began to fly about McClellan’s inability to be a general began and it was no secret that McClellan had such contempt for Lincoln.  On more than one occasion President Lincoln it was said that he couldn’t understand why McClellan was taking so long and insisted he go into the battle field.  Lincoln insisting he was being too slow ordered the army into action, McClellan’s slowness was mentioned several times in both required readings and was said to be cautious or meticulous.

Both books I read, “Ordeal by Fire” and “George B. McClellan and Civil War History” were written on the Civil War.  But Thomas Rowland’s book core subject was on George B. McClellan.  James McPherson’s book was more of a broader book covering the war with the central theme on the Civil War and only discussed McClellan’s generalship in a small section of the book.

The other book dealt more exclusively on the man and his abilities.  In Rowland’s book he looked at the mental abilities of McClellan’s and coined him deranged and paranoiac.  This too was mentioned in McPherson’s book but only that he had possible mental problems and possibly other problems that affected his abilities of being a general.

Some of the problems with McClellan that both books do address are his slowness and problems of exaggeration.  This exaggeration usually involved how many were in the opposing troops or in his troop’s inabilities to win a battle because of training time or supplies.  It is commonly accepted though that McClellan was considered a failure as a general, but Rowland still defends his generalship to the bitter end.

There were several bad decisions made by McClellan during his service in the Civil War.  Union forces in the West had won some very important victories before McClellan could make a move to aid the fighting troops and this was a dark cloud over his leadership.  The successes around the edge of the confederacy did not help to relieve the frustration many were feeling at the inactivity or failure of the Union forces on the eastern front and this helped to reinforce the general attitude towards McClellan’s generalship.

Lincoln, because of this frustration, relieved McClellan of his command and ordered him to take the offensive command at the head of the Army of the Potomac and forced McClellan to begin campaigning (McPherson, 1982 p. 211).  The overland route to Richmond was difficult so instead he moved his forces by water to the peninsula southeast of the confederate capital.  After landing at Fort Monroe, a Union post, McClellan began moving up the peninsula and in early April of 1862.  For months he remained at Yorktown choosing to besiege the enemy instead of attacking.

This was another sign of his slowness and stagnation (Rowland, 1998 p. 107).  Then after the fall of Yorktown he pushed ahead to a point twenty miles from Richmond and waited for troops he had expected Lincoln would send, but that didn’t happen because Lincoln believed that the troops should instead be sent to defend Washington instead.  This infuriated McClellan.

Many believe that if McClellan had moved more swiftly and decisively he probably would have captured Richmond with the forces he had available.  But with a combination of faulty intelligence reports and his own natural caution he failed.  He believed that he was outnumbered by the opposing troops and this was wrong (McPherson, 1982 p. 234).  It was by the end of May that the Confederates learned that McClellan’s army was divided on each side of the Chickahominy River and decided to attack.

This battle named Seven Pines was where McClellan was barely able to hold his ground.  Finally Corps from the other side of the river crossed and saved his butt.  It was during this battle that General Lee took command of the confederate army.  General Lee at the end of June decided to put an all out effort to expel McClellan from his position on the outskirts of Richmond.  In a series of battles that lasted seven days McClellan warded off Lee’s final assaults at Malvera hill and decided to retreat down the peninsula to a more secure point.  In doing this it convinced Lincoln that the peninsula campaign was a wasted battle (Rowland, 1998 p. 66-67).

It was on July 11th, 1862 that Lincoln appointed General Henry W. Halleck who had been in command in the western theater, to be the new general in chief.  Halleck was ordered by Lincoln to command McClellan to withdrawal his army from the peninsula and join forces under General Pope that was preparing to move on Richmond by the overland route.  Again McClellan was slow in responding and the confederates got to Pope before he did.  Pope was badly beaten before McClellan could arrive.  This pissed Lincoln off and McClellan was ordered back to Washington where he was stripped of his command, but later out of desperation he was reappointed to the head of the army of the Potomac (McPherson, 1982 p. 255-260).

Meanwhile Lee and his troops went on to invade Maryland in hopes of isolating Washington from the rest of the North.  Soon McClellan caught up with him near Sharpsburg and this became the bloodiest one day battle of the Civil War.  At Antietam on September 17th almost five thousand solders were killed on both sides and another eighteen thousand were wounded.

The battle ended in a draw forcing Lee to withdraw south of the Potomac River to protect his low supplies.  McClellan again was slow in his pursuit of the general and Lincoln blamed him for letting the enemy escape (Rowland, 1998 p.176).  This lead to Lincoln believing he needed a stronger general because McClellan was so slow that he appointed Ambrose B. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.  A mistake on Lincolns part because Rowland believed he was “replacing someone slow with someone that was considered dense” (Rowland, 1998 p. 223).

In Rowland’s book he argues the war was divided with each having demands on the commanders that fought the battles.  In Rowland’s book it depicts McClellan as overly cautious, proud, psychologically impaired, yet having an aristocratic air about him.  This aristocratic officer was very apt at fighting very formidable commanders such as Lee and Jackson.  With the battle of Seven Pines and Antietam campaign he had to face what Rowland says were very tough troops that gave McClellan every reason for caution.  Other reasons for McClellan’s failures were the troops he was given.  Thrown together hastily and unprepared.  He said the nation was expecting quick wins and fast victories that just didn’t happen.  This too is why McClellan’s slowness was brought up so many times in each book.

Sources used to write the books included historical documents, letters and diaries, but one thing that Rowland differs from McPherson is that he gives more weight to writings by other professionals that are considered quite controversial on the subject.  Rowland used those sources for the basis of his thesis, which I believe gives a little less credibility to his work.  McPherson on the other hand used a large amount of historically accurate documents, letters and diaries.  His use of reference and his bibliography was quite impressive.  In Rowland’s book he wrote more of feelings than on giving facts.

I know Civil War history relies heavily on personal letters and notes, but I think taking these documents for face value is what McPherson did instead of adding his own personal beliefs.  Letters between McClellan and his wife were used a lot in Rowland’s book and this is fine but letters like these, to a wife during war, really aren’t the best use for facts.  I think that at times of war many of the letters to family and friends leave much details out so they would not be worried about their family members so much of the writings need to be taken with a grain of salt.

If asked which book I would put more stock into it would be McPherson’s book.  It dealt more with black and white facts and was more of a historically timetabled book.  After seeing all the research he had put into his book he won hands down.  He did an excellent job of sifting through the tons of papers and historical documents to write a very clear and interesting book on the Civil War.

Both authors agree that McClellan wasn’t the best general nor do they believe he was the worst.  McPherson mentioned others that were just as bad or worst.  McPherson did mention something that Rowland failed to mention and that was McClellan’s problem with chronic exaggeration (McPherson, 1982 p. 212).  This was quite a problem that he had affecting his abilities and image as a general.  I agree with Roland that he wanted to give a more balanced look at the man General George B. McClellan and I think he did an excellent job in giving him overdue recognition for some of his achievements.

He gave excellent reasons as to why he thought McClellan did what he did and thought he did a good job.  “McClellan’s strategy, though reflective of the unrealistic war aims of the years 1861-1862 was cogent, reasoned, and consistent with conventional military wisdom and his personal views of the nature of the conflict.  It was not hallucinatory or deranged; it mirrored the views of the administration and of a sizeable, if not shrinking, majority” (Rowland, 1998 p. 237).  Rowland goes on to say that because McClellan didn’t have great or a large amount of wins is the only reason he was given a bad reputation and wasn’t credited with any of his accomplishments.


McPherson, J.M. (1982).  Ordeal by fire: The Civil War and reconstruction. New York: Knopf.

Rowland, T.J. (1998).  George B. McClellan and Civil War history: In the shadow of Grant and Sherman.  Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press.