Meet Union General George Brinton McClellan

Discussion in 'Coin Chat' started by johnmilton, Jan 19, 2021.

  1. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    George Brinton McClellan is best remembered as one of the most prominent of the long of failed generals who commanded the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Although McClellan failed as a battle field commander many other aspects of his life were highly successful. Unfortunately his failures on the battlefield have become his historical legacy.

    George McClellan was born on December 3, 1826 to an old and distinguished family. After studying for a short time at the University of Pennsylvania, he transferred to West Point in 1842 where graduated second in his class. He served with distinction in the Mexican War where he won two brevets for distinguished service. Later he taught at West Point, observed European tactics during the Crimean War and designed a comfortable saddle that was named after him.

    During the 1850s McClellan appeared to be an up and coming young officer, but the Army was small at that time, and chances for rapid advances were few. After marrying into a prominent family McClellan resigned his commission and accepted positions as chief engineer and then vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad at the then substantial annual salary of $5,000 per year. When the Civil War broke out, McClellan was appointed as a major general in the Ohio volunteers. Always a self promoter, McClellan used his superior administrative abilities and took credit for victories in two minor battles in western Virginia to gain national attention.

    Little Mac All.jpg

    George McClellan was affectionately known as "Little Mac" among the soldiers who served under him. His portrait and nickname appear on this Civil War token, which as priced at "one cent" to give it value. McClellan was 5 feet, 8 inches tall.

    On July 27, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed McClellan to head the Army of the Potomac. “Little Mac” whipped the dispirited army that had been routed at the First Battle of Bull Run into an effective fighting force. The rank and file troops greatly admired him, and the training that his administrative efforts provided to the Army of the Potomac would pay huge dividends in future years of the war, long after McClellan no longer was in command. Yet the next phase of McClellan’s military would prove to be his undoing.

    GMcC 1864 - 86 All.jpg

    The impressive medal celebrated nearly all of the McClellan's Civil War Battles, both his wins and his losses.

    In March of 1862 McClellan moved his force 118,000 men in an amphibious operation to Fort Monroe, which was an installation at the southern tip of the Virginia peninsula. His plan was attack the Southern army from the south and capture Richmond, the Rebel capital. Lincoln believed that a direct assault on the Rebel capital made more sense, but he deferred that judgment to his military experts.

    McClellan was convinced that the Rebel forces he faced far outnumbered his men although the situation was quite the opposite. This unreasonable assumption was bolstered by the Pinkerton detectives who provided the general with his intelligence. McClellan spent several unproductive weeks in the Yorktown area believing that he was pinned down by a much large Confederate force. When the Confederates decided to withdraw, McClellan learned that the “cannons” that had been ominously pointed toward his forces were “Quaker cannons,” logs that had been painted black. Yet McClellan continued to be overly cautious as he inched his way up the Virginia peninsula. Some in the press began to call him, “the Virginia creeper.”

    McClellan’s men won several battles during the peninsula campaign although his excessive caution gave the Rebels time to re-group. At one point the Union forces were close enough to the Confederate capital to hear the Richmond church bells yet McClellan never made a serious move toward the city.

    On May 31 the Rebel commander, General Joseph Johnson, was wounded during the battle at Seven Pines and forced to retire from the field. His replacement was Robert E. Lee. Lee struck back the Union invaders and chased them all the way back to the tip of the Virginia peninsula. McClellan was forced to withdraw and Lincoln replaced him with General John Pope. Pope promptly lost the Second Battle of Bull Run, and Lincoln was forced to turn to McClellan again.

    Antietam All.jpg

    The Battle of Antietam commemorative half dollar commemorated the bloodiest day of the Civil War. The concluding phase of the battle was fought at Burnside's Bridge which is depicted on the reverse of the coin. The bridge is named for Union general Ambrose Burnside, who ironically enough could have taken it easily if he had ordered his forces to cross the river further upstream.

    In September 1862 Robert E. Lee launched his first invasion of the North. Lee’s plan was to terrorize the northern population and perhaps even launch an attack on a major northern city, such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. McClellan carefully monitored Lee’s forces as they marched north.

    At one point one of Lee’s generals dropped a bundle of cigars that were wrapped in a piece of paper that contains Lee’s battle plans. The plans showed that Lee had divided his army on his march north and was very vulnerable. For 24 hours McClellan held information that could destroy Lee’s army, yet he did not act upon it.

    Finally the armies clashed at a location just outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The insuring battle would be called Antietam by northerners and Sharpsburg by southerners. Instead of attacking Lee’s forces with his entire army McClellan chose to fight the battle piecemeal. That allowed Lee to shift is forces to various parts of the battlefield while McClellan held his forces in reserve.

    The third and final phase of the battle took place at a stone bridge on Antietam Creek. The bridge, which has since become a major landmark for coin collectors because of its depiction on the reverse of the Antietam commemorative half dollar, became known as Burnside’s Bridge, named after the Union general who led the forces who attacked it. Just when Burnside was about to gain the upper hand, Rebel reinforcements from Harper’s Ferry arrived to save the day for the Confederates.

    Lincoln by Bovy All.jpg

    This medal by Swiss engraver Hugues Bovy, which was issued circa 1865, commemorated Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

    The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. At the end of battle, 4,710 lay dead, 18,440 were wounded and 3,034 were missing. Although the battle was technically a draw, Lincoln used it as a justification to issue the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves living in states that were still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863. Lincoln’s Proclamation placed the North on higher moral ground than the South and virtually precluded European intervention of the southern side for the duration of the war.

    Lincoln pushed McClellan to attack the southern army after Battle of Antietam, but he refused. McClellan stated that his men and his horses were tired and were in no condition to launch an offensive. Finally Lincoln had had enough. He relieved McClellan of command and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside. McClellan would wait for a new assignment that would never come.

    GMcC 1864 51 All.jpg

    McClellan won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1864. He was forced to run a pro-peace platform, and his running mate was George Pendleton, who was a copperhead member of Congress. The candidates are shown on this ferrotype political piece that was issued during the campaign.

    GMcM 1864-10 All.jpg

    A fair number of Democrats who supported McClellan hoped that the war would end with the Union restored and slavery intact. That message is presented on this token which features a document labeled "Constitution" and a quill pen. The full slogan was "The Union as it was" (restored); "constitution as it is" (with slavery still legal)

    McClellan remained active in politics. In 1864 he won the Democratic presidential nomination and opposed Lincoln for re-election. At first it appeared that McClellan was leading in the race, but then General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta and Admiral David Farragut captured the port of Mobile, Alabama. The improved military picture provided Lincoln with the boost he needed, and he handily defeated McClellan in the presidential election.

    McClellan Satire All.jpg

    Not every medalist was impressed with George McClellan's abilities. This medal was issued during his run for New Jersey governor in 1878. The "gun boat" reference may have been inspired by the political cartoon from 1864 shown below. The cartoon satirizes McClellan's performance at the Battle of Malvern Hill. Cartoon image courtesy Wikipedia.

    McClellian Satire Gunboat.jpg

    McClellan returned to politics in 1878 when New Jersey Democrats unexpected nominated him for governor. McClellan was caught by surprise, but he accepted the nomination and won the election. He served from 1878 until 1881. His time as governor was marked by conservative management and avoidance of political rancor.

    In his later years McClellan traveled and wrote his memoirs. He died unexpected of a heart attack in 1885 at age 58. His memoir, “McClellan’s Own Story” was published posthumously in 1887.

    There are many numismatic related McClellan items that are available to collectors. The Antietam commemorative half dollar, which was issued in 1937 to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle, features the conjoined busts of Robert E. Lee and McClellan on the obverse. In addition to the half dollar there are also several Civil War tokens that depict the Union general. Several of them are fairly common and inexpensive. There are also a number of campaign medalets that the Democratic Party issued during McClellan’s unsuccessful bid for the White House. In recent years the growth in interest in this area of numismatics has stimulated higher prices for these pieces.
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  3. scottishmoney

    scottishmoney Я люблю черных кошек Supporter

    McClellan accomplished more for the Confederate army than most of the latter's generals did. He made their armies massive - like ten times the actual size etc. But he somehow managed to curry favour with the average soldier which was not something a lot of Union generals did during the war.
    johnmilton likes this.
  4. Danno44

    Danno44 Member

    He was a good administrative general, and an absolutely terrible battlefield general.
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  5. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    Some people said he held back his forces to help the South. He had no respect for Lincoln. He called him "the original gorilla.” On one occasion he went to bed rather than meet the president who had been waiting to meet with him.
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  6. Robidoux Pass

    Robidoux Pass Well-Known Member

    Very well written and presented. Thanks for sharing. Your post brings back to life my memories of a couple of visits to Antietam.
    johnmilton likes this.
  7. ksparrow

    ksparrow Coin Hoarder

    Very well written! Nice tokens and medals for illustrations. McClellan took good care of his men but he really hated to send them into combat. Lee had no such reservations.
    johnmilton likes this.
  8. alurid

    alurid Well-Known Member

    Very nice medals, coins and story. Thank you for sharing them.
  9. markr

    markr Active Member

    Fascinating essay. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a LOT.

    I recently won a McClellan CWT. I don't recall if I have posted it before, but it seems relevant to this thread, so here it is. PCGS graded MS64.

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  10. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    Here is a picture I took of Burnside's Bridge. I still with the coin in my hand to catch the right angle. The designer, William Marks Simpson, moved the tree which was there during the battle to the other side for his reverse design.

    Antietam Burnside Bridge.jpg

    Robidoux Pass, ldhair and markr like this.
  11. markr

    markr Active Member

    I have never visited Antietam, so I envy both @Robidoux Pass and @johnmilton. It definitely would be cool to visit! In the meanwhile, I can share my Antietam commemorative, PCGS MS67. 36747935_large.jpg
    ldhair and johnmilton like this.
  12. scottishmoney

    scottishmoney Я люблю черных кошек Supporter

    I have visited Antietam a few times - it is one of the better Civil War battle sites to visit because it is still in a rural area and not plastered with Wal-Marts Burger Kings etc. It really is a lovely and peaceful place to visit especially in the early to mid springtime. There is a tall memorial tower there where you can climb up and get a perspective of the battlefield. Occasionally during a visit there you can get somewhere and feel what it must have been like in 1862 because as noted it is still a rural undeveloped area and not to overdone with memorials and crass commercialism like Gettysburg.
    Robidoux Pass likes this.
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