If you sift through the history books of former generals of the Civil War you will see that most of them tend to fit into one of two groups, either they were born into a well off family and began their military careers at West Point, or they had humble beginnings and went through an atypical route towards prominence. George McClellan was the former, being born into an elite family in Philadelphia on December 3, 1826. McClellan was admitted into West Point at the age of 15, which went against the minimum age requirement of 16, and still went on the finish second in his class in 1846. Like many of the era, George McClellan came to military prominence during the Mexican-American War, where he was promoted to captain for showing gallantry under fire. After the war, McClellan returned to West Point, then went to Europe to study military techniques from the Crimean War, and eventually left the military in 1857 to become chief engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad.
McClellan had mixed viewpoints when the Civil War was beginning. He certainly wasn’t opposed to slavery, but his desire to keep the Union intact took precedent, leading him to accept command of the volunteer army of the state of Ohio, where he was quickly promoted to the rank of major general in the regular army. The commander would become known as “The Young Napolean” after winning a series of small battles in western Virginia in 1861, and was given command of the forces that would become the famed Army of the Potomac after the sobering Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run lost General Irvin McDowell his command. His promotion was well deserved. By November 1861, McClellan had put together an army of 168,000 troops and solidified the Union capital of Washington D.C.
All was not well though as The Young Napolean tended to disagree with his authorities in the early part of 1862. McClellan wanted to be wary of the Confederate Army, who he believed was far stronger than it actually was. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wanted McClellan to push his forces south on an attack of the Confederate Army. With McClellan being wary, Lincoln demoted him from his short lived position of general-in-chief. An opportunity for redemption would come for McClellan however as a few months later he proposed the amphibious maneuver of landing his forces on the Virginia Peninsula (Lincoln wanted him to push towards Richmond via land, but eventually agreed to the plan) in March. McClellan had an opportunity to push into the Confederate capital of Richmond, and got within a few miles before his indecisiveness got to him again and he lost the Seven Days Battle against Robert E. Lee, who was able to recover due to the Union Commanders wariness. The moment McClellan was waiting for would come when General Lee would push north into Maryland. Young Napolean’s troops met Lee’s at the Battle of Antietam, a decisive victory for the Union that was the single deadliest day of the entire war. However, because McClellan was unable to push forward and not let Lee escape due to McClellan’s inefficiencies as a commander, it was essentially a tactical draw. No longer able to contain his frustrations, President Lincoln removed McClellan from command in November of 1862.