General George B. McClellan: 1826-1885

By: Brendan McGeehan

There has always been and continues to be serious debate over the accomplishments of General George McClellan. Some argue that certain decisions and actions, particularly during the Civil War and the Presidential Campaign of 1864, overshadow who he is and what he has done. However, it is preposterous to let a very few shaky judgements define a man who has given so much to his family, his soldiers, and his nation. Apparently, others feel the same way. Memorials and monuments, especially in Philadelphia and Washington D.C., books, articles, and countless other forms of honor appeared soon after his death and continue to appear even today. He is not only a role model for the city of Philadelphia; he is a role model for the entire nation. And here is his story.1

In the 1820’s and 1830’s, Philadelphia was experiencing growth in almost every facet of city life. Increases in industrial output helped boost the economic status of the city. It also helped in attracted people from around the country looking for steady work. Advances in transportation, including the appearance of canals, assisted in pushing the borders of the city further north and west. And participation in leisure-time activities such as visiting museums and attending concerts and sporting events added extra vitality to the city. This was Philadelphia at the time of McClellan’s birth.2

George Brinton McClellan’s life began on December 3rd, 1826 in a small house located at Seventh and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was born to Dr. George McClellan, a renowned surgeon and practitioner in the city and who took part in the founding of Jefferson Medical College, and Elizabeth Brinton McClellan. George was the second of three boys in the family. John Hill Brinton McClellan, the oldest of the three, followed his father’s example and became a well-respected physician. Arthur, George’s younger brother, followed George into the military and eventually served under his brother as the Union forces took part in the Peninsular and Antietam campaigns during the Civil War. The McClellan’s were also blessed to have two daughters, Frederica and Mary. As they grew older, Frederica and George became quite close and corresponded by letter to each other a great many times while George was away at school or in battle.3

In his early childhood, George was very well-educated. After four years of schooling from Mr. Sears Cook, a Harvard graduate, he enrolled at the prep school of the University of Pennsylvania and in 1840 became a student at the University, looking to study law. However, George left the University after only two years of education. In 1842, he received an appointment to West Point Military Academy, certainly an honor for any young man but in George’s case was even more remarkable due to his young age. At the time of the appointment, George was all of fifteen years and seven months. The minimum age requirement to enter the Academy was sixteen years. The admissions organization overlooked this minor modification of the rules on account of George’s "mental ability and fine physique."4

McClellan made the trip to West Point in June of 1842 and soon began classes. The first few weeks of the term were filled with much anxiety for the young cadet. Worried about the difficulty of classes, McClellan often wrote to his sister Frederica during this trying period, contemplating the possibility of leaving the Academy. However, as time moved on, McClellan became more accustomed to the level of difficulty of classes and in fact excelled in most every subject at the Academy. His sociable nature also allowed him to form close and intimate friendships with several other cadets. When McClellan was facing the most difficult times of his life, many of the friends that he met at West Point were first in line to offer a helping hand. As graduation neared, it was becoming evident that the United States and Mexico were well on their way to armed conflict and McClellan could not have been happier. He was extremely anxious to show off his the talents and skills he honed at West Point on the field of battle, where recognition and promotion were at stake. For the most part, Philadelphia felt the same way about the war. Primarily Democratic, the city backed the decisions of President Polk and later even celebrated the victories of the U.S. Army when word reached the city. McClellan graduated on June 30th, 1846. Of the one hundred and sixty four members of his class, fifty-nine graduated and McClellan ranked second among all of them. Due to this high rank, he was able to choose which branch of the service he was to serve under and after some reflection choose to serve with the Engineers, a branch of the military concerned with surveying and reconnaissance. A few weeks after graduation, McClellan was commissioned a Brevet-Second Lieutenant within his company and was ordered to West Point to prepare for the excursion to Mexico.5

McClellan and his company left for Mexico on September 24th, 1846 and arrived at their destination, Brazos de Santiago, a short time later. The company was ordered to march onto the city of Tampico and then continue onto Vera Cruz and finally to Mexico City. McClellan’s disposition at the onset of the march was very optimistic; however, the first portion of the journey took an immense toll on him emotionally as well as physically. The incompetence of the volunteer soldiers in the company, the lack of military activity along the march, and the environmental conditions of the area all had a negative effect on the young second lieutenant. In fact, McClellan spent approximately four weeks in the hospital due to illnesses caused by these foreign conditions. They arrived at Tampico with little resistance and began their march to Mexico City. During this period, McClellan’s group was instrumental in the capture of Vera Cruz and the battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, all stepping stones to the conquest of Mexico City. For his valiant efforts in these conflicts, McClellan assumed the rank of First Lieutenant of the Engineers and won numerous accolades for his tactical and decision-making abilities. As the war drew to a close, McClellan was faced with some terrible news: his father had passed away on May 9th, 1847 and had left his family in deep financial trouble. Although living on the paltry salary of a military man, George, along with his brother John, were forced to shoulder much of this debt. With this taken care of, George arrived back at West Point, eager for his next assignment.6

When he returned to West Point, however, he assumed a very critical attitude towards his situation. He was forced to hand over command of his company of Engineers and became very tired of the same drill routine, day in and day out. In June of 1851, McClellan embarked on the first of a series of exploratory missions, a construction project at Fort Delaware in the state of the same name. The following March, he was to report to Captain Marcy, his future friend and father-in-law, for an expedition to explore the sources of the Red River in Arkansas. Between the years 1851 and 1855, McClellan led two different groups into the Pacific Northwest, one for the Pacific Railroad to discover the best rail route from St. Paul’s to Puget Sound and the other a military road from Walla Walla, Washington to Puget Sound for the United States government. Also, in April of 1855, the government sent McClellan, along with two other officers (Major Richard Delafield and Major Alfred Mordecai) to Europe to observe certain military strategies used in the Crimean War with a full report expected upon arrival back in America. The three officers spent a year in Europe and returned with very valuable information for the U.S. government.7

Without the thrill of battle, though, McClellan began to tire of routine peacetime service and its paltry salary. Against the wishes of many of his close friends, he decided to resign his position in the service in November of 1856. Soon after, he was offered a position as Chief Engineer with the Illinois Central Railroad and accepted. Within two years, he was promoted to Vice-President of that particular railroad. In 1860, he moved on to the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad Company and was elected President of the Eastern Branch of the company. In addition, during this period, McClellan was able to win the heart of Miss Mary Ellen Marcy, affectionately known as Nellie, after years of courtship. Ms. Marcy was the eldest daughter of Captain Marcy, McClellan’s superior during the exploration of the Red River and confidante during and after the Civil War. They were married on May 22, 1860. Peaceful domestic life would last for less than a year before McClellan re-entered the service to help preserve the Union in the Civil War.8

In April of 1861, McClellan was offered and accepted the post of Major General of the Ohio State Militia. Later that month his command was expanded to include troops in Illinois, Indiana, and Western Pennsylvania and on May14th, he accepted the appointment of Major General of the regular United States service. During these early stages of the war, McClellan was unlucky in his valiant attempt to save the state of Kentucky from the hands of the Confederates through negotiations but was able to command his under-trained, under-supplied troops to push the Confederates out of the Western portion of Virginia, claiming it as a Union territory. His tactics in the hills of West Virginia led many to refer to McClellan as the "Young Napoleon".9

Due to his early success, McClellan was placed in command of all troops in the area in and surrounding the capital of Washington. He officially took control of this Army of the Potomac on July 27, 1861. Within three and a half months, McClellan replaced General Winfield Scott of Mexican War fame as supreme commander of the Union troops. Although this position carried a great deal of power, McClellan was frequently limited in what he could do strategically, primarily by President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. His Peninsular Campaign was constantly halted and rerouted by the government and his repeated requests for desperately needed supplies were ignored; thus he was many times unable to move his troops. McClellan’s enemies in the White House felt that he was intentionally slowing the progress of the Union forces and pressured President Lincoln into relieving McClellan of supreme command of the Union troops. He had scored several victories on the battlefields of Maryland and Virginia and his troops adored him, but the political forces in Washington were too strong to allow him to continue in this position. 10

Later in 1862, Lincoln called on McClellan for a second time to defend the city of Washington against a possible invasion by Confederate troops. During this period (September 1862), McClellan faced General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war. The Union General and his troops forced Lee’s Confederate soldiers to retreat back across the Potomac River. McClellan again came away with a great victory, but again disputes with the White House over supplies and troop movement caused McClellan’s removal of command entirely in November of 1862. He was sent to Trenton, NJ to await further orders from the army. Ultimately, he and his family, which now included a daughter Mary who was born during the war on October 12th, 1861, ended up in Orange, New Jersey. 11

Philadelphia was a hotbed of political activity, especially within the Democratic Party, during the Civil War. Early on, Democrats were mostly in favor of the war, not on the basis of the elimination of slavery but on preserving the Union, a principle to which McClellan subscribed. However, as weeks and months passed and no end of armed conflict in sight, members of the party began to tire of the war. Support for the war itself as well as the administration that they had elected hit an all-time low when Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac. Democrats looked for an immediate end of this terrible war at any cost. If that meant the instantaneous emancipation of slaves, then so be it. This stance proved to be McClellan’s downfall in the pursuit of the Presidency later on in 1864 because he refused to change his beliefs simply to end the war.12

Throughout his life, McClellan tried to the best of his ability to avoid politics. The only issue he was adamant about was the immediate prosecution of the war. However, as McClellan began his life away from the military, he was steadily being pushed into the political circles of the time. His political views most closely resembled those of the Democrats and the party was looking to nominate him as their candidate to oppose Lincoln in the upcoming election of 1864. McClellan was able to avoid this situation for a time, but a fateful letter he wrote endorsing a Democratic candidate, Judge George Woodward, for governor of Pennsylvania was all the party needed to secure their man for the nomination. McClellan reluctantly accepted the nomination but soon realized that the platform he was running under was created by the "peace men" of the party who viewed the war as a failure and sought peace at any cost. He continued to promote the prosecution of the war and this discrepancy with the party platform was a huge reason why Lincoln defeated McClellan handily at the polls in 1864.13

Tired of public and military life in the United States, McClellan scraped together enough money for he and his family to tour Europe. They visited England, Scotland, France Italy, and Germany and in each of these countries, they were received like royalty on account of the General’s reputation. While in Dresden, Germany, the McClellans welcomed a new member into the family, George Jr., on November 23rd, 1865. They spent a total of three years overseas before arriving back on American Soil in Orange, NJ in September of 1868.14

During the years after his tour of Europe, McClellan held several different business-related positions and his income rose, a dramatic increase from his days in the military. In 1878, he was elected governor of New York. While in office, "He mainly turned his attention to three things – taxation and public expenditures, public education, and the National Guard. In the first place, he succeeded in lessening the state taxes and in large part in abolishing them. In the second place, he especially favored and advanced commercial, industrial, and agricultural training, and took great interest in the technical training for industries such as glass-making in the southern part of the state, silk and cotton manufacturing in the northern part, and the potteries in Trenton. In the third place, he improved the discipline, marksmanship, and organization of the state militia, so that it ranked among the best of the National Guard organizations in the United States." 15

After a three-year term, McClellan again returned to domestic life where he spent the rest of his days. In October, he began experiencing sharp pains in his heart and his health steadily deteriorated until October 29th, 1885. On that date, General George Brinton McClellan passed away, leaving instructions for the doctor to "tell her [Nellie] that I am better now." 16 A funeral service was held in New York at the Madison Square Presbyterian Church on November 2 and he was buried in the McClellan-Marcy family plot at Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, NJ.17

Although he did not spend a significant time in the city in which he was born, General George Brinton McClellan’s accomplishments in both his public and private lives have certainly made Philadelphia proud. In his public life, he worked to the best of his ability and succeeded at many of the tasks asked of him.. Away from the public spotlight, McClellan was able to be a wonderful husband, father, and friend even during the most trying times of his life. Certainly "Little Mac" has earned a place among the finest that Philadelphia has had to offer.18

Tour Sites

The McClellan House

There is very little known about the early childhood of McClellan in the city; what is known is that his family home was located at 912 Walnut Street. At this site, there stands a historical marker that explains how long he and his family occupied the house. As the sign shows, McClellan himself resided in the house from his birth until 1842, the year that he left the city for West Point Military Academy. His father lived at the address until his death in 1847. The original building does not stand there anymore. Instead, 912 Walnut Street is now part of a large brown building that continues from the middle of the block until 10th Street and houses none other than a WaWa food market, among other stores and offices.

Jefferson Medical College

The General is not the only famous member of the McClellan family. His father, Dr. George McClellan, is credited with co-founding Jefferson Medical College, which is now part of Thomas Jefferson University. Dr. McClellan and his colleagues founded the college with the philosophy that student participation is the key to higher learning. Each student was to help doctors with the care of real patients, under correct medical supervision of course. Jefferson’s first class was held in 1825 in Dr. McClellan’s own office and the first class graduated on April 19th, 1826. The college moved out of McClellan’s office and into the Old Trivoli Theater at Fifth and Locust Walk and moved to 10th and Sansom for space purposes in 1828. The college was given university rights in 1838 and in 1877 built its own hospital building. Fast forward to 1969, when Jefferson Medical College became part of the Thomas Jefferson University system along with the College of Graduate Studies and the College of Health Professions. Between 1996 and 1997, faculty members from the University were allotted more than seventy-five million dollars for various research projects. Today, Jefferson, located at around Tenth and Walnut Streets, is considered the largest and arguably the best private medical school in the country.19

The College and University have produced some of the finest medical men and women in the nation. Carlos Finlay, a graduate in 1855, discovered the carrier of yellow fever. Silas West Mitchell and William W. Keen, 1850 and 1862 graduates respectively, were instrumental in the founding of the modern study of neurology. And Robert C. Gallo, a member of the class of 1963, isolated the Interluken-2 and was the first to discover that HIV leads to full-blown AIDS.20

The University of Pennsylvania

While still a young child in Philadelphia, George McClellan attended the University of Pennsylvania, enrolling in 1839 and remaining a student until 1841 when he left to accept an appointment to West Point Military Academy.

The University itself began as the result of British Loyalist influence that forced the trustees of the Then College of Philadelphia to hand over controls of the school and incorporate into a university. The institution was to be called the University of the State of Pennsylvania and it was to hold classes in the buildings of the old College on Fourth and Arch Streets. However, financial troubles and continuing protests against the takeover eventually led the State Assembly in 1789 to re-instate the old trustees, provost (Reverend William Smith), and name. This act of the Assembly failed, however, to eliminate the charter of the university and it continued to hold classes. It was forced out of the buildings on Fourth and Arch Streets but managed to secure available space on Fifth Street before eventually moving to its current location in West Philadelphia on Thirty-Fourth and Walnut Streets in 1872.21

The University over the years has grown into an exceptional institute of higher learning. Not only is it America’s first university, it is also one of its best. It boasts four undergraduate colleges: the College (School of Arts and Sciences), the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, and the Wharton School. Many feel that the Wharton School is one of the finest business schools in the nation. The University also has twelve graduate and professional schools.22

Penn is not solely known for academics. "Penn’s 262 acre campus in West Philadelphia includes a number of notable landmarks, including Houston Hall, the nation’s first student union, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, one of the finest archaeology and anthropology museums in the country, and Franklin Field, the oldest collegiate football field still in use and the country’s first double-decked college stadium."23

During its over two-hundred-year existence, the University of Pennsylvania has proved its worth as one of the nation’s finest universities and looks to continue this tradition for many more years to come.

General George B. McClellan Monument – City Hall

Heading down Broad Street towards City Hall, a monument dedicated to the memory of General McClellan greets motorists, bikers, and pedestrians alike. The monument stands fourteen feet and six inches high and stands on a granite base. It depicts the General on horseback with numerous intricate decorations around the base. The horse has all four feet firmly planted on the ground, which means that McClellan survived the battle that the statue is depicting. On other equestrian statues of the time, a horse with one foot off the ground meant that its rider was killed in battle while a horse with two feet in the air meant that its rider was wounded in battle.24

McClellan’s memorial was commissioned by the Grand Army of the Republic and then given as a gift to the city of Philadelphia. Its sculptor, Henry Jackson Ellicott, was known for producing several equestrian statues and monuments around the nation. It was completed in 1894 and originally stood at the Northern Plaza at City Hall before it was moved to its present resting place alongside General John Fulton Reynolds at Penn Square in 1936.25

The Smith Memorial Arch – Fairmount Park

Located a little ways down from Memorial Hall on North Concourse Drive in Fairmount Park is the Smith Memorial Arch, a monument honoring Philadelphians who served in the Civil War. It includes statues, busts, and lists of names of these brave souls, including McClellan, General George Meade, and General Fulton.26

The memorial was the idea of Richard Smith, the founder of electroplate and type. He allotted half a million dollars for the arch to be built and gave full reign of the design to James H. Windrim. Windrim asked artists and sculptors for ideas for the project and received fifty-nine possibilities, of which thirteen designs were selected. This group of thirteen included four local Philadelphians and two women. The arch was begun in 1897 and took fifteen years to complete because several artists chose to drop out for personal and business reasons.27

McClellan’s statue was designed and completed by Edward C. Potter, an artist who was added when another decided to leave the project. It sits on the far-left end of the arch if one is facing Memorial Hall and again depicts the General on horseback. In addition, McClellan’s horse has four hooves on the ground, again meaning that he was able to survive all of his battles.28



  1. Thomas J. Rowland, George B. McClellan and The Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1998), 1-3.
  2. Nicholas B. Wainwright, "The Age of Nicolas Biddle, 1825-1841," in Russell F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982), 258-306.
  3. William Star Myers, A Study in Personality: General George Brinton McClellan (New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1954), 1-19
  4. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan – The Young Napolean (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 3-6
  5. George Stillman Hillard, Life &Campaigns of George McClellan: Major General of U.S. Army (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1864), 1-10.

    Quotation: Myers, 6

  6. Elizabeth M. Geffen, "Industrial Development and Social Crisis," in Russel F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982), 361-362.
  7. Myers. 1-19

  8. Myers, 20-54
  9. Sears, 13-27

  10. Myers, 55-103
  11. Myers, 104-156
  12. Sears. 50-67

  13. Myers, 157-229
  14. Myers, 230-330
  15. Myers, 331-375
  16. Nicolas B. Wainwright, "The Loyal Opposition in Civil War Philadelphia" in Nicolas Wainwright and Louis V. Given, ed., The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography-July, 1964-Volume 88 (Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1964), 294-315.
  17. Myers, 404-467

  19. Myers, 468-484
  20. Sears, 387-392


  21. Myers, 485-502
  22. Sears, 396-397

    Quotation: Myers, 500-501

  23. Myers, 509
  24. Sears, 401-402
  25. The McClellan Society. "The McClellan Society’s MG George B. McClellan Pages." 29 January 1999, (7 October 1999).
  26. Kathleen Brown. "Jefferson Medical College: History and Development." February 1998, (13 November 1999).
  27. Kathleen Brown. "Jefferson Medical College: History and Development." February 1998, (13 November 1999).
  28. The University of Pennsylvania. "About Penn." 25 September 1999, (28 October 1999).
  29. The University of Pennsylvania. "About Penn." 25 September 1999, (28 October 1999).
  30. The University of Pennsylvania. "About Penn." 25 September 1999, (28 October 1999).
  31. Penny Baldwin Bach, Public Art in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 44, 207-208.
  32. Bach, 44, 207-208.
  33. Bach, 44, 207-208.
  34. Bach, 44, 207-208.
  35. Bach, 44, 207-208.


Books and Articles

Bach, Penny Balkin. Public Art in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Geffen, Elizabeth M. "Industrial Development and Social Crisis." In Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, edited by Russell Weigley, 307-362. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1982.

Hilard, George Stillman. Life and Campaigns of George McClellan: Major General U.S. Army. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1864.

Myers, William Star. A Study in Personality: General George Brinton McClellan. New York: D.Appleton-Century Company, 1954.

Rowland, Thomas J. George B. McClellan & the Civil War History: In the Shadow of Grant and Sherman. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1998.

Sears, Stephen W. George B. McClellan – The Young Napolean. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988.

Wainwright, Nicolas B. "Loyal Opposition in Cicil War Philadelphia." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 88 (1964): 294-315.

Weigley, Russell F. ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982.

Electronic Resources

Brown, Kathleen. "Jefferson Medical College: History and Development." Feb 1998, (13 November 1999).

The McClellan Society. "The McClellan Society’s MG George McClellan Pages." 29 January 1999, (7 October 1999).

The University of Pennsylvania. "About Penn." 20 September 1999, (28 October 1999).


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