July 26, 1861: If At First You Don’t Succeed, Hire a New General

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A Brief History

On July 26, 1861, Major General George McClellan was appointed the commander of the Army of the Potomac, a move President Lincoln hoped would instill professionalism and competence to that Army.  McClellan was outranked only by Winfield Scott, the 75 year old relic who was increasingly under fire from a public that demanded a quick and thorough victory.

Digging Deeper

Scott advocated a plan of siege and blockade called “The Anaconda Plan” by which the Confederate States would be squeezed and starved into submission.  As the Union Army and Navy at that time did not have the means to make this happen, it would obviously take time to develop those forces.  Politicians and the public did not understand, and Scott became perturbed by the pressure for fast results.

1861 characterized map of Scott’s plan.  Map by J.B. Elliott.

Lincoln replaced Scott with the well educated and connected McClellan in November of 1861, but his tenure was marked by disaster, indecision, and defeat.  McClellan’s pathetic time in charge ended in March of 1862, and led to the Democrat soldier to face off with Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.  McClellan is generally described as a poor general, and was somewhat insubordinate as well, causing Lincoln to can him and elevate General Henry Halleck to overall command of the Army in July of 1862.

Halleck fared a bit better than McClellan, and lasted almost 2 years as top general.  Major battles such as Gettysburg were won by the Union Army during his tenure, but too many lost opportunities and a war weary nation demanded more decisive leadership.

Map of Confederate territory losses year by year.  Map by Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army – American Military History, Army Historical Series Perry-Castañeda Library Map of the Civil War 1861-1865 Map Collection.

Lincoln finally found his decisive leader in General Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant) who was appointed as Army commander in March of 1864.  Grant stayed at the helm throughout the rest of the war, as his Union Army marched inevitably toward victory.  Unlike his predecessors, Grant remained popular and was elected President in 1868 and 1872, having been appointed “General of the Army” in 1866 by President Johnson.  As such, Grant was the only officer of that rank in the US Army and wore 4 stars indicating his rank.  William T. Sherman succeeded Grant as “General of the Army” and Philip Sheridan was the third and last man to have that particular rank.  The rank was later revived in a different form during World War II and was given 5 stars, the equivalent of a European Field Marshall.

Generals have always faced an impatient and sometimes unrealistic public and politicians and have always been one step away from being replaced or even executed for not delivering success quickly enough.  Lincoln was positively patient compared to Josef Stalin before and during World War II, for example.

Lincoln in McClellan’s tent after the Battle of Antietam (1862).  Photograph by Alexander Gardner (1821–1882).

Question for students (and subscribers): Which generals in history that were not fired do you think should have been replaced?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Marszalek, John F.  Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies : A Life of General Henry W. Halleck.  Belknap Press, 2004.

Sears, Stephen W.  George B. Mcclellan: The Young Napoleon.  Da Capo Press, 1999.

The featured image in this article, a patriotic cover honoring the arrival of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 1861, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.  Attribution: Centpacrr at English Wikipedia.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.