Spotlight: George B. McClellan

Published:June 2, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe


I grew up in a neighborhood of Davenport, Iowa, called McClellan Heights. I delivered papers along McClellan Boulevard. George B. McClellan, in his day, was the man, and I’m sure that neighborhoods and streets across the country still bear his name. (Just as there is a Pershing Street in Davenport and an Eisenhower Elementary School.) Our new entry on the Civil War general suggests that he peaked early:

Still, battlefield success put McClellan’s name in the papers, especially after the Union defeat at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21[, 1861]. Lincoln summoned McClellan to Washington, D.C., to take command of the defeated Union troops there on July 26. His train from western Virginia attracted enthusiastic crowds of well-wishers who already considered him to be a national hero and potentially a military savior. McClellan’s meteoric rise, fueled by political connections and an early battlefield victory, may have been intoxicating for a man not yet forty years old, but it also marked a high point in his life that, arguably, would never be equaled.

In fact, McClellan went on to become one of the war’s most controversial figures. He was a determined foe on the battlefield and conservative; his view of the war was that it should be waged with restraint lest the breach with the South become irreconcilable. But his critics, including Abraham Lincoln, saw him as slow, arrogant, unwilling to take casualties, messianic. He was at times politically clumsy and his legacy has suffered from comparisons to Robert E. Lee, “whose romance and daring—polished and shined by the Lost Cause view of the war—seem to have distracted many from his ultimate defeat.”

Such are the complications of George McClellan. He was not from Virginia, of course, any more than he was from Iowa. But to understand the war in Virginia, one must understand McClellan, and our entry helps you do just that.

IMAGE: George B. McClellan, Major General Commanding, U.S. Army, lithograph by J. H. Bufford, c. 1862 (Library of Congress)


2 Comments on “Spotlight: George B. McClellan”

  1. tichur

    I know the area as I was a college student there years ago. A friend lives on McClellan.

    I also know that the general became very famous and had a large following. So many that he ran against Lincoln in the 1864 election and got 45% of the popular vote.

    My wonders about the beautiful boulevard to the river are:

    why McClellen Blvd? was he that well supported ?

    I know that one of the major newspapers of the quad cities was the Times Democrat…McClelland ran on the Democratic ticket. Did he live here?

    Not a word of him was mentioned in my first semester course in US History about a Davenport / McClellan connection.

    Finally, is McClellan Boulevard named for the famous Gen George McClellan or some other McClellan?

  2. Brendan Wolfe

    Thanks for the questions. I own a history of Davenport and the Quad Cities, but I can’t place my hands on it at the moment. So this will be off the cuff and subject to further verification.

    But McClellan Boulevard and the neighborhood it traverses, McClellan Heights, were indeed named for George B. McClellan. This area of east Davenport (actually, once officially the Village of East Davenport) was, during the Civil War, the site of Camp McClellan, a mustering ground for Iowa and other Midwestern troops deploying south. (Across the river, on Arsenal Island, was a large prisoner-of-war camp.)

    No McClellan connection to Iowa or Davenport is necessary; McClellan was the first big Union hero of the war and briefly commander in chief of all Union forces; I would not be surprised if the Northern landscape were not dotted with similar honors to “Little Mac.” Still, it is true that there was a substantial number of Democratic voters in the area, and it’s likely they supported him in his run for president in 1864.

    I hope that helps.

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