Why didn't McClellan get another assignment?

MikeyB

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Sep 13, 2018
Other army commanders of the East were given second chances and allowed to continue to serve the Union (Burnside, Hooker, McDowell, even Pope). Why not McClellan? Was Lincoln viewing him as a political threat even in 1862? Or he just had enough of this guy and didn't think he could use him in another theater or in an administrative capacity? Or did he ask and McClellan refused anything else as being below him?
 

Zack

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This is an excellent question! I was intrigued enough to do some digging, and here is what I found.

From Sears biography of McClellan on Google Books - after being commander in chief of all Union armies, there simply was no where to put McClellan after his final dismissal in November 1862. Burnside, Hooker, Pope, etc. commanded only the Army of the Potomac. McClellan had (however briefly) been commander of all Union armies.

Pope was sent to command armies in the Dakota War, Burnside got his corps back, Hooker got a corps. None of these were nearly as harsh a "demotion" as any position McClellan could have been offered would have seemed.

Furthermore, and more speculatively on my part, Burnside and Hooker both offered to resign after what could only be understood as catastrophic defeats. Pope was relieved of command after what again could only be seen as a catastrophic defeat.

Antietam was a mixed bag. It could be argued to have been a Union victory. McClellan had not offered to resign - in fact, did not see any reason why he shouldn't retain command. He was being fired, and he knew it. He could not graciously save face by accepting demotion. The only course to save face was the stiff upper lip. As indicated in his letter to his wife, "Of course I was much surprised; but as I read the order in the presence of Gen. Buckingham I am sure that not the slightest expression of feeling was visible on my face, which he watched closely. They shall not have that triumph. They have made a great mistake. Alas for my poor country!" (quoted in Landscape Turned Red). If he held his head high and marched off out of the military, victim of the evil scheming Republicans, he would still be the hero of the story.

And this maneuver catapulted him to Democratic nominee for President.

In short - Lincoln had no desire to offer it, Stanton couldn't think of anywhere to put McClellan that wasn't an insult, and McClellan probably wouldn't have accepted it anyways.

From Sears's biography:
Screen Shot 2021-06-27 at 10.38.50 PM.png

https://www.google.com/books/editio...dq=biography+of+mcclellan&printsec=frontcover
 

JeffBrooks

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As already pointed out, having served as commander-in-chief, any position Lincoln or Grant might have placed McClellan in would have seemed a demotion. And a man with McClellan's sense of pride (and ego) would not have been able to tolerate it.

Given his particular skillset, McClellan might have made an ideal chief-of-staff. But this would not have worked. It would have required working closely with Lincoln, which neither man could have tolerated. Moreover, McClellan would inevitably tried to take control of the direction of the war and would have inevitably stepped on Grant's toes too many times.
 

jackt62

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There was no way that Lincoln could or would have granted McClellan another command. The radical Republican faction and several of Lincoln's cabinet secretaries had long schemed to get rid of McClellan for his political views on the nature of the war. By late 1862, McClellan's views on a "soft" war and his resistance to emancipation were already being overtaken by the understanding that the future of the Union and slavery were intertwined and that McClellan's time had passed.
 

Joshism

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It's worth noting Don Carlos Buell was also relieved in 1862 for military reasons, but never given another command for political reasons. Buell, like McClellan, had very conservative politics that were at odds with the Union war effort in 1863.

Another issue with McClellan (and possibly Buell?) was seniority. They didn't simply need to accept a demotion from army command, but accept serving under someone they technically ranked. Burnside was willing to do this, but I'm dubious McClellan or Buell would (also a problem with Fremont if he hadn't left in a tizzy).

McClellan's ego and politics weren't the only issue. There was also the concern that McClellanism had "infected" the AOTP - a slow, overly cautious mindset. Even Grant in 1864 thought this was something he was struggling against. You can argue this wasn't actually McClellan's fault or that the "disease" didn't exist, but there was definitely a perception at the time that it didn't. If you assign McClellan somewhere else he's just going to spread it.

I think the one way McClellan might have been effectively used in 1863-1864 would be to create a new command for him whose purpose was to drill and train all new regiments entering the Union Army. It plays into McClellan's strengths as a charismatic organizer and keeps him away from combat operations. There were probably other officers would could have been optimally employed in a training role. However, the idea is probably ahead of the time and I don't feel confident Mac would have accepted it.
 
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Pete Longstreet

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Lincoln wanted fighting men... not politicians. Grant was a fighting general, McClellan was a political general. Lincoln did not want politicians in his army, and saw McClellan's views as a threat to himself and the cause for which he believed this war was being fought. Same goes for Butler... Lincoln needed to be careful with Butler, because he was next in rank I believe, and if something were to happen with Grant, it was Butler in command. Lincoln needed him for political reasons. But after the election of 64, Butler was gone, because as I stated above, Lincoln wanted fighters, not a politician in uniform.
 

Dead Parrott

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It's worth noting Don Carlos Buell was also relieved in 1862 for military reasons, but never given another command for political reasons. Buell, like McClellan, had very conservative politics that were at odds with the Union war effort in 1863.

Another issue with McClellan (and possibly Buell?) was seniority. They didn't simply need to accept a demotion from army command, but accept serving under someone they technically ranked. Burnside was willing to do this, but I'm dubious McClellan or Buell would (also a problem with Fremont if he hadn't left in a tizzy).

McClellan's ego and politics weren't the only issue. There was also the concern that McClellanism had "infected" the AOTP - a slow, overly cautious mindset. Even Grant in 1864 thought this was something he was struggling against. You can argue this wasn't actually McClellan's fault or that the "disease" didn't exist, but there was definitely a perception at the time that it didn't. If you assign McClellan somewhere else he's just going to spread it.

I think the one way McClellan might have been effectively used in 1863-1864 would be to create a new command for him whose purpose was to drill and train all new regiments entering the Union Army. It plays into McClellan's strengths as a charismatic organizer and keeps him away from combat operations. There were probably other officers would could have been optimally employed in a training role. However, the idea is probably ahead of the time and I don't feel confident Mac would have accepted it.

I often wonder if McClellan would have done better first by commanding a little longer in a more obscure theatre, gaining true confidence and decisiveness from the experience, without the immediate limelight of the Big Show. He might then have come in a different general (maybe). Grant thought it might have made a difference in him.

I agree Mac would have been the ideal Army Builder (as he proved) rather than combat decision commander. But at the start of the war, so many generals were truly unknown qualities - only actual experience would prove them out. With hindsight, we can say General X was best at this and worst at that; at the time, you didn't know until their real-time trail by fire.
 

Zack

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I often wonder if McClellan would have done better first by commanding a little longer in a more obscure theatre, gaining true confidence and decisiveness from the experience, without the immediate limelight of the Big Show. He might then have come in a different general (maybe). Grant thought it might have made a difference in him.

There was the Western Virginia Campaign of 1861.
 

James N.

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Perhaps he could have been sent off as the Minister to the Ottoman Empire?
If this seems to anyone like a "farfetched" idea, recall that was essentially what happened to McClellan's onetime superior, War Secretary Simon Cameron, who was sent by Lincoln to be Ambassador to Russia in order to replace him with Edwin Stanton. Of course I imagine that only England or - likely preferably - France would've suited McClellan's fastidious tastes!
 

Dead Parrott

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If this seems to anyone like a "farfetched" idea, recall that was essentially what happened to McClellan's onetime superior, War Secretary Simon Cameron, who was sent by Lincoln to be Ambassador to Russia in order to replace him with Edwin Stanton. Of course I imagine that only England or - likely preferably - France would've suited McClellan's fastidious tastes!

He could have become another William Hicks .................................
 

jackt62

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I often wonder if McClellan would have done better first by commanding a little longer in a more obscure theatre, gaining true confidence and decisiveness from the experience, without the immediate limelight of the Big Show. He might then have come in a different general (maybe). Grant thought it might have made a difference in him.

I agree Mac would have been the ideal Army Builder (as he proved) rather than combat decision commander. But at the start of the war, so many generals were truly unknown qualities - only actual experience would prove them out. With hindsight, we can say General X was best at this and worst at that; at the time, you didn't know until their real-time trail by fire.
That is the big question! McClellan was thrust into high command almost immediately, without any time to effect a "learning curve" (notwithstanding the minor sideshow in western Virginia.) He had great talent and was one of those officers like AS Johnston and RE Lee, whose pre-war reputation was extremely high to begin with. But unlike Lee (but perhaps similar to AS Johnston), McClellan was placed in an almost unrealistic situation in which he was expected to organize, train, equip, and fight a force that was supposed to defeat the enemy within a period of months, not years. At least Lee had a year to gain some kind of experience, and even his performance in western Virginia was not considered stellar. On top of which McClellan's prima donna personality was such that the adulation that was given him by the public and the administration, went to his head. McClellan's hesitancy in offering battle may have much to do with his reluctance to sully his reputation if he failed to obtain resounding victories. So all in all, this was not a recipe for long term military success. Had he been promoted more methodically, McClellan's situation may have been very different.​
 

Joshism

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There was the Western Virginia Campaign of 1861.

McClellan's WV campaign was lopsided against very poor opposition. His only setback was arguing with Rosecrans.

Consider Grant faced setbacks at Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. Sherman was probably nearly cashiered because of his breakdown. Lee was on the other side at WV and sidelined to SC/GA for awhile.

Overcoming some setbacks before coming to Washington might have humbled him a bit and tempered his messiah complex.
 
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