By Karl K. Gruber


Tuesday, October 4, 2011 5:53 PM EDT

On July 27, 1861, General McClellan rode into Washington to assume command of the capital and its army. McClellan was returning from recent victories in West Virginia and was a hero.

General Lincoln welcomed him formally at the White House. For a city reeling from the recent defeat at Bull Run, he was treated deferentially by both politicians and military leaders. He was seen at the solution to bring about a quick resolution to the war.

Apparently this inside-the-beltway experience quickly went to his head, as he wrote to his wife:  “I find myself in a strange and new position here:  President, cabinet, General Scott, and all deferring to me … I almost think that was I to win one whole success now I could become dictator or anything else that might please me.” This was a bad sign.

Within mere weeks, McClellan had taken it upon himself to propose a grand new strategy for total defeat of the South. His plan was ambitious, calling for a force of 225,000 men to march forth and take Richmond. In August, McClellan issued a letter calling the defense of Washington inadequate and demanding an additional 100,000 men. General Scott, commander of all union armies, was indignant. In his opinion Washington was well defended and he was tiring of being bypassed and overridden by his junior.

In further letters to his wife, McClellan relays his impression of General Scott as “either a dotard or a traitor” and the president as an “idiot.” At this point, McClellan had been at his new assignment less than a month. The Washington politics and atmosphere were clouding the judgment of a megalomaniac under the best of circumstances. His perspective on military and political issues had become delusional.

McClellan assessed General Beauregard’s Confederate force opposing him at 150,000, when they were less than 30,000. Further, Beauregard had abandoned any thoughts of an offensive when it was determined he would only be able to field 60,000 men.

General Scott had finally had enough of McClellan’s political carping and issued a formal order demanding daily reports on troop movements, positions, etc. and ordering that all requests proceed through his office. McClellan sat on the order for three weeks, after which he issued a casual inadequate response.

General Scott considered having McClellan arrested and court-martialed, but contemplated the downside of such a high-profile dispute to be too great, as it would encourage enemies and demoralize his troops. This was a mistake that would cost thousands of lives as McClellan’s personality flaws would persist. Without a doubt, General Scott would have done the nation a great service had he put McClellan before a court martial.

On November 1, 1861, McClellan succeeded General Scott as Union general-in-chief of all armies. When asked about McClellan after the war, General Grant responded, “For me he remains one of the great mysteries of the war.”

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