Ulysses S. Grant Reflects on George B. McClellan

Many people often contrast George B. McClellan to Ulysses S. Grant.  In most cases, the comparison favors Grant, although there’s a hearty minority of folks (including some folks at the time) who believed that McClellan was the superior general.  What did Grant have to say about it?  Here’s a comment made to reporter John Russell Young during his trip around the world following his presidency:

McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war. As a young man he was always a mystery. He had the way of inspiring you with the idea of immense capacity, if he would only have a chance. Then he is a man of unusual accomplishments, a student, and a well-read man. I have never studied his campaigns enough to make up my mind as to his military skill, but all my impressions are in his favor. I have entire confidence in McClellan’s loyalty and patriotism. But the test which was applied to him would be terrible to any man, being made a major-general at the beginning of the war. It has always seemed to me that the critics of McClellan do not consider this vast and cruel responsibility—the war, a new thing to all of us, the army new, everything to do from the outset, with a restless people and Congress. McClellan was a young man when this devolved upon him, and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying. If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman, Thomas, or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us.

What do you make of Grant’s observation?

26 thoughts on “Ulysses S. Grant Reflects on George B. McClellan

  1. cyd May 11, 2011 / 12:20 pm

    I think Grant is giving too much credit. The obvious objection to his explanation for McClellan’s failure is just Lincoln’s earlier observation to McDowell: “you are green, it is true; but they are green also. You are all green alike”. Being thrust into responsibility early in the war didn’t seem to hurt the general opposing McClellan.

    BTW, why didn’t Grant include himself in that list of generals who had benefited from fighting their way up?

    • kcoracle November 25, 2017 / 8:24 am

      Grant did include himself when he said “any of us.”

  2. KarlGottschalk May 11, 2011 / 1:55 pm

    Maybe they just should have left Scott in charge, while McClellan was out learning his job. As it was, Scott devised the Anaconda plan, which some would say was the strategy that the Union actually used to win the war.

  3. Matt McKeon May 11, 2011 / 2:21 pm

    Grant is being generous. But his point is valid. Being a commander at the beginning of a war can be a dangerous thing.

  4. Ray O'Hara May 11, 2011 / 2:32 pm

    Grant as always being the gentleman in declining to comment on a predecessors campaigns. He does sneak a subtle dig in there though.
    And his description of the younger McC has a ring of truth gleaned from first hand experience.

  5. James F. Epperson May 11, 2011 / 5:47 pm

    I agree he is being generous and diplomatic. There is some truth to what he says—if Mac had learned his craft as a subordinate before getting the big job, he might have done better, but USG ignores Mac’s “inability to play well with others.”

  6. Stephen McCullough May 11, 2011 / 7:14 pm

    I think Grant was being diplomatic with his comments on McClellan. I suspect that his personality, his quirks and demons would have remained the same.

  7. Noma May 11, 2011 / 9:27 pm

    Cyd asks, “BTW, why didn’t Grant include himself in that list of generals who had benefited from fighting their way up?” Perhaps he doesn’t include himself here, but he definitely does in other contexts, including a later conversation with Young:

    “Speaking of McClellan,” said the General, ” I should say that the two disadvantages under which he labored were his receiving a high command before he was ready for it, and the political sympathies which he allowed himself to champion. It is a severe blow to any one to begin so high. I always dreaded going to the army of the Potomac. After the battle of Gettysburg I was told I could have the command; but I managed to keep out of it. I had seen so many generals fall, one after another, like bricks in a row, that I shrank from it. After the battle of Mission Ridge, and my appointment as Lieutenant-General, and I was allowed to choose my place, it could not be avoided. Then it seemed as if the time was ripe, and I had no hesitation.”
    “Around the World with General Grant” (Japan) p. 463

    Along these same lines is a letter Grant sent while closing up the situation in Vicksburg:

    “…Had it not been for Gen. Halleck & Dana I think it altogether likely I would have been ordered to the Potomac. My going could do no possible good. They have there able officers who have been brought up with that army and to import a commander to place over them certainly could produce no good.

    “Whilst I would not possitively disobey an order I would have objected most vehemently to taking that command, or any other except the one I have. I can do more with this army than it would be possible for me to do with any other without time to make the same acquaintance with others I have with this. I know that the soldiers of the Army of the Ten. can be relied on to the fullest extent. I believe I know the exact capacity of every General in my command to command troops, and just where to place them to get from them their best services. This is a matter of no small importance…”
    Letter to Elihu B. Washburne
    from Vicksburg, Mississippi
    August 30, 1863

  8. Noma May 11, 2011 / 9:55 pm

    Another point to be considered in this discussion is Grant’s profound modesty, combined with an apparent tendency to see the best in everyone. In various contexts, you see him speaking up in defense of the capabilities of Confederates such as Longstreet, Joseph E. Johnston and even Jefferson Davis.

    I guess this could be written off as simple diplomacy, but I don’t think that’s the explanation. Part of the mystery of Grant is how could such a modest man be such a capable military commander? Particularly in the modern age, such modesty and aversion to fault finding is practically incomprehensible.

    One of his staff officers, Colonel Ely S. Parker (later commissioner of Indian Affairs) explains it thus:

    “Our conversations would sometimes become of a personal nature, but I have never heard Grant refer to any man in the way of sneer or detraction. He always sought to speak of the good in men rather than the evil, and if he had to speak of the bad qualities in a man he would close his remarks with the mention of his good points, or excuses why he did not have them. In his talk with others I have never heard him say or do anything which might embarrass or mortify them.”


    If anything, Grant might be found praising others behind their backs at the same time they are disparaging him behind his back. The following passage is an entertaining example:

    In December 1864, after Grant has assumed command of all the armies, General George Meade writes to his wife (upon Sheridan’s promotion):

    “[I do] not see anything I can do but bear patiently til it pleases God to let the truth be known and matters be set right…Now, to tell the truth, [Grant] has greatly disappointed me, and since this campaign I really begin to think I am something of a general.”

    and later:

    “It is the same old story, the inability to appreciate the sensitiveness of a man of character and honor.”

    And what is Grant thinking of Meade during all this? He writes to Washburne trying to get his help in getting Meade’s confirmation as major general:

    “What the objections are I do not know, and therefore cannot address myself to them. I am very sorry this should be so. General Meade is one of our truest men and ablest officers. He has been constantly with that army, confronting the strongest, best-appointed and most confident army in the South. He therefore has not had the same opportunity of winning laurels so distinctively marked as have fallen the lot of other generals. But I defy any one to name a commander who could do more than he has done with the same chances.”

    (from William E. Brooks “Grant of Appomattox”)

    His staff o

  9. Charles Bowery May 12, 2011 / 5:15 am

    I think Grant’s comments about McClellan are accurate and reasonable; we tend to view the war’s outcome through the lens of hindsight. The longer I personally spend in military service, the more I come around to Grant’s view of McClellan and his situation. Military enterprises are the product of a vast number of human beings, with all of their foibles, abilities, and shortcomings.

    It would be nice to hear Ethan Rafuse opine here. As Ethan points out in his book (*shameless plug*), McClellan was a product of a particular political culture.

    • Ray O'Hara May 12, 2011 / 8:16 am

      McClellan’s problems weren’t his philosophy or political leanings, nor any want of military skill.
      He lacked heart,whether it was fear of failure or the inability to face the responsibility of the dead he just didn’t have it in him to just commit”root hog or die” to a battle.
      He displayed it at Rich Mt and again on the Penninsular and at Sharpsburg and no amount of grooming can fix a lack of heart.

  10. John Foskett May 12, 2011 / 8:00 am

    I think Grant is indulging in Victorian manners. I’m also not certain how much he knew about McClellan’s clearly insubordinate writings and comments when he wrote this assessment. Nor do I know how immersed Grant was in an analysis of the details regarding McClellan’s handling of the Seven Days (including his bizarre, unforgivable, and perhaps cowardly retreat to the Galena while his army was fighting for its survival, rudderless, at Glendale), his less-than-enthusiasric efforts to support Pope’s srmy, or his decision-making at Antietam. I’m fairly confident that had Grant been in McClellan’s place things would have been handled in a fundamentally different way on all scores. In the end, that’s how I have to evaluate whether Grant was revealing his truly-felt beliefs or was being polite at the expense of the former – unless he was simply unaware of the facts I rely on..

  11. Tony Gunter May 12, 2011 / 11:19 am

    I find it interesting that Grant openly blames “a restless people” and “Congress” for the pressure on McClellan but fails to include Lincoln in the mix. I realize that the Joint Committee had a way of nudging generals via the press, but the first report from the Joint Committee wasn’t published until 1863 … Lincoln was blindly applying pressure to his generals to attack well before then, with no expression of any kind of overall strategy. Grant himself had experienced the anti-midas touch of Lincoln’s meddling during his first Vicksburg Campaign.

    The real genius of Grant is his ability to navigate through this toxic political environment successfully. It’s ironic that he mentions Sherman, Thomas, and Meade … all of whom were shielded to some extent from the slings and arrows of the Joint Committee and Lincoln by Grant.

    • Ray O'Hara May 12, 2011 / 7:26 pm

      Grant certainly received his share of prodding so he would be sympathetic on the point.
      His “experiments” in the winter of 62-63 were geared as much to placating DC as looking for any possible strategic gain.

      I think Grant’s opinion is to be found when talking about the young Mac with grand plans in the sly “if he got but a chance” that is a subtle saying he was an empty suit and all talk,

      • Tony Gunter May 18, 2011 / 8:36 am

        No, his “experiments” were designed to try and get south of Vicksburg in any way possible. In that light, I wouldn’t call them “experiments” and given the fact that Grant eventually did move south of Vicksburg, I certainly wouldn’t call them “failed experiments.” In fact, the Lake Providence route was made viable, but the war department couldn’t supply Grant with enough boats to get the XIII Corps to Banks through Bayou Macon.

        The only attempt that doesn’t fit into this mold is the Yazoo Pass Expedition, which originally was designed to be a raid on the railroad bridge at Grenada. However, the route turned out to be so viable and so completely undefended that Grant decided to explore the route further using a larger force. Certainly a failed attempt to get at Vicksburg from a different route, but the unintended consequence was that Pemberton’s scouts were all deployed into the Yazoo River delta region where they could not be easily recalled.

        • Ray O'Hara May 18, 2011 / 10:07 am

          He didn’t bother to rouse the Army and ever move it on one of these experiments. a small show force to generate some buzz was sent.

          the only real attempt was the “Holly Springs” attempt ended by Van Dorn & Forrest’s raid.

          • Tony Gunter May 18, 2011 / 1:24 pm

            Grant’s move south was ended by Lincoln and Halleck well before Holly Springs. Grant was under preremptory orders not to proceed any farther south with his campaign.

            Hence, Lincoln’s anti-midas touch when meddling with things of a military nature.

    • Tony Gunter May 18, 2011 / 8:22 am

      Brooks … in lieu of the publication of your book on the eastern theater, can you give some feedback on why Grant left Lincoln off the list of offenders?


      • Ned Baldwin May 18, 2011 / 10:19 am

        Could be because Lincoln was Commander in Chief; could also be becuase Lincoln was relatively easy on McClellan.

    • Ned Baldwin May 18, 2011 / 10:56 am

      Tony, I think the main way that the Joint Committee had of nudging generals was through its subpoena power and the holding of hearings. The Committee had started questioning people as soon as it was formed.

  12. Chuck Brown May 12, 2011 / 12:04 pm

    Grant is being too kind to McClellan. McClellan’s personality was the major factor in his failure as an army commander. He was incapable of taking risks, which great generals must be willing to do. Lincoln was right when he said McClellan had the “slows.”

    His nadir as an army commander was Antietam. There he squandered an opportunity to crush Lee’s much smaller army by launching piecemeal attacks. Even when the Army of the Potomac seemed poised to break Lee’s lines, he failed to exploit the situation.

    McClellan was arrogant, disrespectful to Lincoln, and petty. His pettiness helped to ensure Lee’s victory at Second Bull Run.

    McClellan’s own memoirs seem to me an unintended indictment of himself as an army commander.

    The best I can say about McClellan is that he was better than most Confederate army commanders.

  13. TF Smith May 12, 2011 / 3:38 pm

    Late to the party, but the differences between the Eastern and Western/Central theaters in terms of oversight from the C-in-C and Cabinet were very real.

    Attaway and Jones make the point that at the same time Halleck was able to serve as what amounted as a theater commander (for good and for ill, of course) or s an army group commander, his headquarters provided an echelon between the national command authority (Lincoln, etc.) and the army commanders in the field (Buell, Grant, and Pope), there was no one at the same level between McClellan as AOTP commanding general and the NCE.

    Hitchcock was unable to function as a theater commander and Halleck did not reallly do so, even when he had both Pope’s Army of Virginia and McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in the field at the same time.

    But given that caveat, I think the points about McClellan’s unwillingness to proceed upon a calculated risk (contrast Mac at Antietam, for example, vis a vis Grant during the Vicksburg Campaign); his utter inability to provide reliable information on enemy strength to his chiefs; and his personal courage and ability to take charge on the battlefield as demonstrated during the Galena affair make a very clear case that he was out of his element as a combat commander.

    He would have made an excellent adjutant general in place of Lorenzo Thomas, I’d wager…


  14. alan November 27, 2012 / 12:53 pm

    George McClellan would have been a good training general during World War Two, under let’s say General Marshall. Training the army, putting forth doctrine, etc. would have been up his alley, remember he ran a railroad, the Prussians would have loved McClellan. Seeing the battlefields, the carnage of military hospitals revulsed “Little Mac” and caused delay in his actions on the field. In Vietnam there was a saying amongst reportes that William Westmoreland would have fit in a boardroom as well as battlefield. Boardrooms have anger, but the carnage is missing, and that is what being a “field commander” entails.

  15. Anthony May 12, 2013 / 5:43 am

    George McClellan was a great leader and trainer of men, who was able to gain the love and admiration of his soldiers, as the best led, uniformed, fed, an supplied Army of the time. Lincoln was frustrated with the Generals need of more time to fight, and would attack when ready, hence Lincoln said he had the slows. Instead McClellan as time went on as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, he delayed in the blooding of both the North an South pending a political solution to end the war. a general involved in politics could not be trusted, and he was relieved of his command. Until Lincoln found the man who would fight that would be proved to be very costly in men and material. US Grant was the man, who became know as the Butcher, but it won the war. Even Grant admitted at The Battle of the Crater, and Cold Harbor as the saddest days of his career.

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