Well before dawn on Nov. 2, 1861, an elderly, white-haired general was driven in a carriage through the rain-lashed streets of Washington to the B&O railroad station near the Capitol.
He was a big man: 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. But he was so infirm that he couldn’t walk more than a few steps unaided and hadn’t been able to ride a horse in years. He had been an Army officer a half-century, a national hero and, once, a presidential candidate.
But at 75, he had been forced by circumstances to resign as the Army’s commanding general. And as he made his way to the waiting room, his handsome young replacement was splashing through the storm with his cavalry escort to bid the old man goodbye.
The farewell meeting that morning between the aged warhorse, Winfield Scott, and his former subordinate, the new national hero, Gen. George B. McClellan, 34, was one of the most poignant of the Civil War.
The two men, who had been feuding since McClellan’s summons to Washington in July, appeared to represent the old and the new, past and present, bygone glory and newfound hope in the current emergency.
Indeed, Scott’s fame stretched back to the War of 1812. But the martial saga of the “Young Napoleon,” as McClellan came to be called, was to last only a little over a year — his tenure in command marked by controversy, infighting and recrimination.
On that rainy Saturday, though — just six months into the war — silence fell over the waiting room when McClellan entered and sat down beside Scott.
McClellan had eased the tension with a conciliatory, and calculated, statement the day before calling Scott a hero. Scott offered best wishes to McClellan’s wife and new baby.
He then rose, shook hands and was helped to the luxury rail car that had been sent for him. McClellan rode back to his quarters and recounted the scene in a letter to his wife.
“It may be that at some distant day I too shall totter away from” Washington, he wrote, “a worn out old soldier. . . . Should I ever become vainglorious & ambitious remind me of that spectacle.”
An army in tatters
Exactly a month before, Scott, McClellan, President Abraham Lincoln and a parade of other dignitaries had attended the funeral at Congressional Cemetery of Gen. George C. Gibson, an old friend of Scott, who had died Sept. 30 at age 86.
There was much pomp as the body of Gibson, the oldest general in the army, was borne along Pennsylvania Avenue, escorted by infantry, cavalry and artillery.
But a newspaper correspondent in the crowd was disturbed by what he saw. “No part of the cortege was in full regulation uniform,” he wrote in the Washington Evening Star. “I doubt if there is such a thing in existence as a full regulation uniform.”
“The officers’ horses were not well-groomed or decently equipped,” the correspondent reported. One horseman “rode past with a parcel in a newspaper strapped behind his saddle.”
And elsewhere across the city, where the broken Union army was being reassembled, he found soldiers “most astonishingly shabby, careless and inexact in every respect.”
In the weeks after the North’s humiliating July 21 defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, its army was in a state of near collapse. The nation’s survival seemed to rest with McClellan.
The doctor’s son from Philadelphia had finished second in his class at West Point, and he had served under Scott in the Mexican War. He had been part of a small delegation sent to observe the Crimean War in the 1850s. And he had had some modest military success against the rebels in western Virginia.
He was cultured, smart and confident, and seemed to be a winner. Plus, he looked like a general. Dignified, with dark, carefully combed hair and a thick moustache, “he was built for riding a horse,” said biographer Stephen W. Sears. “He was a very good horseman. And he had very good horses.”
McClellan is one of the most fascinating figures in Civil War military history and perhaps one of the most thoroughly known.
Married just over a year when he took command, he wrote to his wife, Mary Ellen — “you, who share all my thoughts” — almost every day. His letters contained his most private musings and often-intemperate opinions, written in haste, anger and chronic exhaustion. They included things a man might only tell his spouse and would never want preserved for posterity.
But they were.
Although scholarship has periodically softened its view, McClellan is generally portrayed as one of the war’s great, failed generals — proud, sensitive, overwrought, tentative, quick to exult and to despair.
He opposed emancipation and had a strained relationship with Lincoln, privately calling him a “gorilla.”
His offensive against Richmond in spring 1862 was thrown back by the Confederates under Gen. Robert E. Lee, and he was shortly supplanted by a rival general, John Pope.