George Brinton McClellan


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George Brinton McClellan (December 3, 1826 – October 29, 1885) was a major general during the American Civil War and the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1864. A native of Philadelphia and a University of Pennsylvania graduate, George Brinton McCllellan achieved notoriety in engineering and was an accomplished organizer.

Graduating from West Point in 1846, just as the Mexican War began,, fifty-three of the fifty-nine members of this class (the largest in the Academy's history to that time) fought in Mexico. Four of them lost their lives there. Two more were killed fighting Indians in the 1850s. Ten members of that class became Confederate generals; twelve became Union generals; three of the Confederates and one of the Unionists were killed or mortally wounded in action during the Civil War. Although he was a West Point graduate, McClellan did not excel in military prowess.

After the June 3, 1861 Battle of Philippi (by some reckonings the first land battle of the Civil War), the Confederate forces, having been routed by the Union Army in Philippi, retreated south. Confederate General Robert S. Garnett moved about 3,500 troops to Laurel Mountain. The Confederates made camp at the foot of the mountain near the Laurel Mountain Road (today a winding single lane dirt road that crosses the mountain and connects the towns of Belington and Elkins).

On July 6, General George B. McClellan ordered General Thomas A. Morris to advance from Philippi to Belington with about 5,000 Union troops. Skirmishing began on July 7 and lasted for five days (the "Battle of Laurel Hill"), with the Union routing the Confederate troops. Upon hearing of the simultaneous defeat of forces at Rich Mountain, General Garnett retreated with his troops to Corrick's Ford near Parsons where he soon became the first general officer to be killed in the war.

Gen. McClellan organized the famous Army of the Potomac and served briefly (November 1861 to March 1862) as the general-in-chief of the Union Army. Early in the war, McClellan played an important role in raising a well-trained and organized army for the Union. Although McClellan was meticulous in his planning and preparations, these characteristics may have hampered his ability to challenge aggressive opponents in a fast-moving battlefield environment. He chronically overestimated the strength of enemy units and was reluctant to apply principles of mass, frequently leaving large portions of his army unengaged at decisive points.

McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in 1862 ended in failure, with retreats from attacks by General Robert E. Lee's smaller Army of Northern Virginia and an unfulfilled plan to seize the Confederate capital of Richmond. His performance at the bloody Battle of Antietam blunted Lee's invasion of Maryland, but allowed Lee to eke out a precarious tactical draw and avoid destruction, despite being outnumbered. As a result, McClellan's leadership skills during battles were questioned by President Abraham Lincoln, who eventually removed him from command, first as general-in-chief, then from the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln offered this famous evaluation of McClellan: "If he can't fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight." Indeed, McClellan was the most popular of that army's commanders with its soldiers, who felt that he had their morale and well-being as paramount concerns.

General McClellan also failed to maintain the trust of Lincoln, and proved to be frustratingly derisive of, and insubordinate to, his commander-in-chief. After he was relieved of command, McClellan became the unsuccessful Democratic Party nominee opposing Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election. His party had an anti-war platform, promising to end the war and negotiate with the Confederacy, which McClellan was forced to repudiate, damaging the effectiveness of his campaign. He served as the 24thGovernor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881. He eventually became a writer, defending his actions during the Peninsula Campaign and the Civil War.

Another claim to fame was McClellan’s saddle. He designed this item that was made during the Crimean War. Gen. Robert E. Lee was on the board that reviewed and tested the saddle in 1859. Another distinguished member of the board was Jeb Stuart’s father-in-law. When the horse cavalry disbanded in 1945, the saddle was no longer in use.

The majority of modern authorities assess McClellan as a poor battlefield general. However, a small faction of historians maintain that he was a highly capable commander, whose reputation suffered unfairly at the hands of pro-Lincoln partisans who needed a scapegoat for the Union's setbacks. His legacy therefore defies easy categorization. After the war, Ulysses S. Grant was asked to evaluate McClellan as a general. He replied, "McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war.

When asked why he fired George B. McClellan for the SECOND time as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Potomac, President Abraham Lincoln said, "Because he has a terminal case of the slows." McClellan was a great administrator and organizer, but he lacked the stomach for warfare.

For a fifteen year period, beginning in 1996, a production of a "Battle of Laurel Hill Reenactment" was undertaken at the site of the Laurel Hill Battlefield on its anniversary dates.

In 2004, the City of Belington assumed ownership of 50 acres of the old camp and battlefield, then owned by the Al Griffith family, by way of state funding which was secured by members of the Laurel Hill Foundation.


 — Lynne Llewellyn Snyder