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"General George McClellan’s Fatal Flaw: Cowardice" Topic

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©1994-2018 Bill Armintrout
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Tango0108 Feb 2018 11:34 a.m. PST

"The word "Coward" is a very harsh, wholly pejorative term. In the military, "coward" is the worst appellation one can apply to a person. Cowards are absolutely anathema to everything the military stands for and expects from its members, especially officers. Thus to label a military officer a coward is as strong a rebuke as it is possible to offer. The only other label that's in the same league is "traitor".

At the beginning of this thread, I asked whether any forum members thought George McClellan was a coward. By and large, the replies tended to agree with the conventional wisdom handed down through time that McClellan was a great organizer but a less-than-stellar field commander because of his delusions that he was always vastly outnumbered. I held that view for a time, but something just didn't seem right about it. I always got the whiff of something stronger and fouler about the man. In my reading, I sensed that many commentators held similar feelings, but they didn't quite dare to say it so frankly. Well, I'm not going to do that. Harsh as it is, I'm going to say it.

IMHO, George McClellan was a coward. Not only that, he was a coward with a megalomaniacal Messianic complete…"
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mwindsorfw Supporting Member of TMP08 Feb 2018 12:38 p.m. PST

Seems harsh. I think that it is one of two problems I see sometimes in litigation (I'm a lawyer). In one instance, someone is so afraid that they are not going to make the best-possible deal that they just cannot commit to entering into a good settlement agreement. In the other instance, a person is so afraid of the possible outcomes in proceeding (no matter how unlikely), that they settle a case for much less than they could by just letting the case proceed a bit longer.

"Cowardice" seems to have an element of fear of loss of life or limb (literally). The opposite of "cowardice" might be "physical courage" (as opposed to something like "moral courage"). McClellan may have lacked for physical courage, but I don't necessarily see evidence of that in his failure to bring his army to battle. Instead, I see an almost paralyzing fear of not being able to achieve the best possible outcome, and thus not committing his army at all. In contrast, Grant seems no more "brave" than McClellan, but Grant lacked the paralysis of waiting until he was guaranteed the best possible outcome.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP08 Feb 2018 1:14 p.m. PST

Did you ever spend MONTHS (actually longer) lovingly painting an absolutely fabulous army, but were terrified to actually let them take any casualties?
Do you look uneasily at the "dead pile" as the game progresses?
Mac is not really all that hard to understand.

I see a lot of Monty in McClellan and vice versa. Both superior organizers, both wanting to have everything absolutely perfect before committing themselves. Monty knew the math, how many men the British had, how many reserves, etc. and that it was not a never-ending resource. Yet, he knew that he had to do what he must do to get the job done. There's the big difference.

clibinarium08 Feb 2018 1:31 p.m. PST

I guess if wargames figures that became causalities were crushed with a hammer, there'd be a lot more McClellans around wargames tables.

Didn't Lee say the paradox of command was that you had to love your army, but that you might have to order the destruction of the thing you love? Maybe that's one difference between them.

jdginaz08 Feb 2018 2:57 p.m. PST

I don't see McClellan as a coward in that he feared for his own life but I think he was a coward fearing what he might be up against and didn't know and fearing to fail.


Personal logo Saber6 Supporting Member of TMP Fezian08 Feb 2018 3:10 p.m. PST

fearing to fail

Sums it up nicely

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP08 Feb 2018 4:47 p.m. PST

Love the comment – I don't think McClellan lacked personal courage, but he certainly was scared to death of failing

It's really the 30 second difference – when faced with a decision, he took an extra 30 second to figure out everything that could go wrong, and it paralyzed him

catavar08 Feb 2018 5:26 p.m. PST

I think McClellan believed in winning battles without taking excessive casualties and was pretty much revered by much of the rank & file for this very reason.

From what I've read he always seemed to be under the impression that he was vastly outnumbered which would have given him another reason to be less than aggressive.

How else does one explain so much of his army being uncommitted at Antietam?

d effinger08 Feb 2018 8:14 p.m. PST

His 'intelligence' service run by Pinkerton was notorious for being dead wrong. Many of McClellan's officers never had the training to look at something and analyze the data they collected. They didn't use modern analytics which Police do all the time now. If someone told them the Rebs just passed and there were 1000's of them they never corroborated this information properly. He wasn't a coward in any way, just mostly misinformed and believed any bit of information he received.

Just compare the work in which Hooker's BMI team did throughout the Chancellorsville campaign. The BMI had detailed information of every unit in Lee's army! The problem was here was that Hooker botched it up or his subordinates botched it up but he had accurate details of the enemy's army 90% of the time.

McClellan was not a coward.

DJCoaltrain08 Feb 2018 11:21 p.m. PST

We often fprget to factor in GBM's observations in the Crimea War. And, he would certainly have been aware of the horrendous casualtie of Solferino. Perhaps he was worried about the casualties he knew were certain when the two armies closed to battle. He might have been more sensitive to casualties than popularly thought. He also may have been deeply worried by the tought of the Army under him being routed from the field and Washington at the mercy of the rebels. When he was fighting without the vast defences that Meade/Grant had to protect Washington. And, Lincoln did keep an entire Corps from the Peninsula to grd DC. Poor George saw too many things to worry about and I think (as mentioned above) it wore on him and may have caused a bit of mental thrashing wherein he couldn't prioritize anything because everything was P-1. :)

AussieAndy Supporting Member of TMP09 Feb 2018 2:50 a.m. PST

I've never been in the military and have obviously never had to make decisions about sending men out to be killed and maimed. I have wondered how someone can make those sorts of decisions. There have been plenty of generals who appear to have had few if any qualms about such matters. In the worst cases, vanity, egoism, envy, stupidity and any number of other ridiculous factors have influenced their decisions. I guess that it takes a form of courage to make the necessary decisions in war, but I think that you can also make the argument that many of the generals that have sent men into battle had serious issues. I think that McClellan was a contempible human being in many ways, but I'm not sure that I would condemn him as a human being for his reluctance to fight. Personally, I struggle with the concept of regarding ACW generals who repeatedly ordered frontal assaults as "brave".

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP09 Feb 2018 4:32 a.m. PST

I've often had the feeling that McClellan lacked physical courage. You never read about him getting up close to the front lines or coming under fire the way you do pretty much every other commander in the war. There is never an instance of him 'leading from the front'.

I've often felt that if on the afternoon of September 17th he had personally appeared among the men of the corps which had fought on the right wing during the morning and urged them to make one more attack, if they would not have followed him to victory. But such a thing would never occur to him.

Trajanus09 Feb 2018 9:31 a.m. PST

I've often wondered if Pinkerton hadn't been around would McClellen have acted differently.

Of course someone would have had to sack Pleasonton and one or two of his subordinates as well, as they would have just supplied rubbish Intel the same as Pinkerton did.

On balance I think the two "Ps" just told McClellen what he wanted to believe.

There's a good lecture in the series of annual talks at Gettysburg on You Tube. Where a guy, who's name I forget, makes a good case for McClellan show some inspired Generalship in the early part of the Antietam Campaign.

It revolved around his actions in moving the army to cut off Lee even before the finding of the famous Cigar Wrapper orders.

As I recall it was pretty convincing but it still didn't change what happened at the Battle in terms of missed opportunity.

Bill N09 Feb 2018 10:15 a.m. PST

I am not convinced that McClellan was personally a coward, but I don't think that is relevant. I see a big difference between personal cowardice and an unwillingness to see something entrusted to you personally be destroyed.

McClellan came to command the U.S. armies and then the Army of the Potomac right after First Manassas. That action demonstrated to both commanders and politicians that a disastrous defeat in Virginia could put the capital and the union at risk. Battles are risky. McClellan was an engineer. His engineering training taught him that risk could be minimized or even avoided if enough resources were brought to bear, and if they were applied in just the right way. I don't think he ever grasped how expensive, politically as well as financially, it was for the U.S. to pursue McClellan's strategy, and when he went up against Lee and Jackson he had opponents who were willing to roll the dice on battles rather than wait around while McClellan could "stack the deck" by bringing overwhelming resources to bear. If Johnston had remained in command I suspect McClellan would have been more successful.

Or maybe that is just psychobabble.

I don't agree that Porter was hesitant. Porter had commanded at Hannover Court House and was field commander at three of the Seven Days battles where he was up against numerically stronger Confederate forces. Porter's rep is based his unwillingness to blindly follow Pope's order to launch an attack when Porter's own information showed it would not work, and on a comment which Porter may or may not have made at Antietam. The ideal command structure might have been something similar to what the AoP had in 1864, with McClellan playing a supervisory roll and Porter being the battlefield commander, but there were too many more senior generals for that to happen in 1862.

Quaama09 Feb 2018 10:44 a.m. PST

I don't see any real evidence to call McClellan a coward: although almost certainly a procrastinator. However, I suspect the success of the CSA cavalry may also have helped create an overestimate of the forces opposing McClellan and others for at least the first half of the war.

In any case, would his life have been in any real danger whether he committed his forces or not. I agree with AussieAndy's "struggle with the concept of regarding ACW generals who repeatedly ordered frontal assaults as "brave"." I have a fairly low opinion of McClellan's ability as a General but most accounts show that the men under his command had a great respect for him.

goragrad09 Feb 2018 11:38 a.m. PST

Well, as I recall, Ney was 'the bravest of the brave' and we see how that worked at Waterloo.

Personal logo John the Greater Supporting Member of TMP10 Feb 2018 12:58 p.m. PST

I don't see McClellan as a coward. The description of fear of failure is more apt. Worse, he infected the high command Army of the Potomac with that disease. They never recovered, which showed up repeatedly during the Overland Campaign. Much to grant's distress.

coopman Supporting Member of TMP10 Feb 2018 6:03 p.m. PST

Pinkerton's intelligence always made Little Mac's forces appear to be outnumbered by quite a bit, if memory serves me well. He was certainly hesitant to commit his forces to battle, and his attacks at Antietam were not coordinated well and went in piecemeal.

Stephen Miller11 Feb 2018 5:49 p.m. PST

I don't see any connection between Alfred Pleasonton and GBM's indecisiveness. Up until after Chancellorsville, Pleasonton was a brigadier general commanding a cavalry brigade. He was made commander of the Cavalry Corps of the AoP after Chancellorsville when Hooker relieved George Stoneman. Pleasonton performance leading up to Gettysburg was at least competent, although certainly not with the aggressiveness brought to the C Corps by Phil Sheridan in 1864.

Trajanus12 Feb 2018 2:19 a.m. PST


In the Antietam Campaign, McClellan removed Stoneman from command of the AoP Cavalry and formed a Cavalry Division which originally was assigned to John Buford. McClellan had doubts about him and replaced him with Pleasonton.

At first Pleasonton was on the ball reporting on the 4th September, 45,000 Confederates moving on Frederick, then he went off the rails, exaggerating the strength of Jacksons force moving on Harpers Ferry.

Then the day after reporting the 45,000, he reduced it by 15,000 and said that Jackson with 60,000 men was heading for Baltimore.

The next day an unknown commander was reported as heading for the same place with 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.

By the 8th September the invaders had grown to 100,000 still heading for Baltimore but via York and Gettysburg.

By the 9th there were 110,000 of them.

On the 13th Joseph E. Johnston had 150,000 men at Poolsville ready to block the Union advance northwards and co-operate with Lee.

Need I go on?

Pleasonton was later dubbed the "Knight of Romance" as a result of these fantasies.

67thtigers16 Feb 2018 6:21 a.m. PST

Pinkerton's numbers are much closer to reality than the Lost Cause likes to pretend. It was generally as accurate as the BMI was. Lee really did have a much superior force at Richmond.

In Maryland, Lee crossed the Potomac with ca. 76,000 PFD or about 90-100,000 present. People confuse the 40,000 or 50,000 combat effectives who made a stand on the Antietam with the strength of the whole force.

Pinkerton's estimate of ca. 120,000 present was an overestimate, because they didn't know how where GW Smith's division was. It wasn't in Maryland but remained around Richmond, and it's strength (actually ca. 10,000 present) was overestimated significantly. Once this mistake is removed the rest of the estimate is essentially absolutely correct.

"On the 13th Joseph E. Johnston had 150,000 men at Poolsville ready to block the Union advance northwards and co-operate with Lee."

Not quite. A civilian named Lotz passed on a rumour that he'd heard Joe Johnston was at Poolesville days ealier with 150,000, which was obviously a distortion of Lee's crossing. It was discounted of course.

67thtigers16 Feb 2018 6:24 a.m. PST

"Pinkerton's intelligence always made Little Mac's forces appear to be outnumbered by quite a bit, if memory serves me well. He was certainly hesitant to commit his forces to battle, and his attacks at Antietam were not coordinated well and went in piecemeal."

Hardly. By ca. 0700 McClellan committed every formation on the field except one division (Richardson's) to attack, although Sumner had gotten lost because he'd gone to the wrong place, and so McClellan was busy bypassing Sumner when he was found sitting on the Pry House steps, a mile north of McClellan's HQ. That they were not coordinated is just friction.

1968billsfan Supporting Member of TMP18 Feb 2018 4:44 a.m. PST

My view: You often have to make decisions based upon 50% that you know and 50% that you are guessing about. He was afraid of making a mistake that could be thrown into his face so the 50% that he didn't know was defined NOT by what was most likely, but upon what could be the worst it could be. Therein lies paralysis. It didn't help that the politics of the army was full of back stabbing people, a screwy intelligence service, and a McClellen inflated ego that couldn't accept the chance of failure.

Grant took the "f-em" approach. If he pushed forward strongly, that 50% became smaller because the enemy would have to respond to him. So if the enemy was planning some subtle, elegant tactical move, he would not have the time to develop it or complete it because Grant would have his hand near the enemies throat and would have to respond to him. that made the unknown 50% definable.

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