The Smithsonian
Slavery & Abolition
Abraham Lincoln
First Blood
Life & Culture
Winslow Homer
Mathew Brady
Site Index

See more

McClellan with his division commanders, fall 1861

McClellan, circa 1862

McClellan and wife Ellen Marcy McClellan, circa 1862

McClellan and wife, 1862

McClellan, circa 1862



George Brinton McClellan (1826–1885)

After the Union army’s defeat at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, Abraham Lincoln sought a promising commander to direct federal operations in Virginia. His choice was General George B. McClellan. Just thirty-four years of age, McClellan had already garnered military laurels: at West Point he graduated second in his class, and just recently he had sent Confederates scurrying at Rich Mountain, Virginia. Within weeks after taking command in Washington, “Little Mac” transformed the remnant of a demoralized armed mob into a disciplined fighting machine. He christened it the Army of the Potomac, a name that has become legendary in the annals of war.

But achieving victory required more than spit-and-polish discipline. McClellan had to engage the enemy, and in this he procrastinated, much to Lincoln’s exasperation. When he did lead his troops into battle, he was slow to advance and quick to retreat. Finally, after McClellan failed to pursue Robert E. Lee’s army following the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln relieved him of his command. McClellan reemerged briefly in national politics in 1864 as the Democratic party’s unsuccessful presidential peace candidate.

Julian Scott (1846–1901)
Oil on canvas, not dated
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Transfer from the National Museum of American Art; bequest of Georgina L. McClellan, 1953


Home SI