War Is Politics By Other Means: The Reputational Demise of Civil War General George B. McClellan

James M. Ridgway, Jr.
9 min readMay 19, 2019

On March 11, 1862 general-in-chief of the Union armies, General George B. McClellan, was summarily removed from his command, being reduced to command of the Army of the Potomac only, it being the primary federal army in the east. On behalf of what were known as the radical Republicans, the very treacherous and domineering Sectary of War Edwin M. Stanton in effected executed what amounted to a coup.

The radical Republicans in Congress held strong abolitionist sentiments. They hated Southerners and their “peculiar” institution of slavery. As such they wanted the war fought on the basis of destroying the South and putting an end to slavery. They did not feel that the general-in-chief shared their same intensity of hatred toward the South nor their true war objectives.

They were correct. While McClellan was somewhat sympatric to the abolitionist cause, he saw beyond all else stopping the breakup of the American Union as his top priority. In his view, (it was early in the war before much had been revealed about the true nature and purpose of the fighting) to ensnare military matters with slavery issues would only complicate the process of putting down the rebellion. Moreover, as another black mark against him in the eyes of the radicals, McClellan did not hate Southerners in general. In fact he held numerous personal friendships among Southerners. This caused many Republicans to fear him to be a potential traitor to the Union cause.

The result of the dastardly machinations Secretary of War Stanton’s and his virtual usurping of the post of general-in-chief of the army was to cause the entire federal military posture, which was just then beginning to gather moment, to become unraveled. This was exactly as the Radicals wished to see it happen, contrary to their pubic protests that McClellan was dragging his feet in going after the Rebels. The last thing the Radicals wanted to see was the war ended before the abolition of slavery was publically acclaimed to be a major war aim.

Moreover, Republicans didn’t wish it seen by the public that Democrat generals were the ones that had won the war, especially because hero generals made for potential presidents. So stating it crudely from the radical perspective: what was the point of fighting a war that cost them political power? (So you see things haven’t changed all that much over the years,) Therefore removing…

James M. Ridgway, Jr.

Jim Ridgway, Jr. military writer — author of the American Civil War classic, “Apprentice Killers: The War of Lincoln and Davis.” Christmas gift, yes!