On this bike ride, I stopped by the Major General George B. McClellan Memorial, which is located on a median at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue, Columbia Road, and California Street (MAP), directly in front of The Washington Hilton in northwest D.C. The statue is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city. They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.
After being named General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan drew praise for his military initiatives. However, he also quickly developed a reputation for his arrogance and contempt toward the political leaders in D.C., including toward the President who had named him to the top army post. The general began openly associating with Democratic leaders in Congress and showing his disregard for the Republican administration. In a letter to his wife, McClellan wrote that Lincoln was “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”
During McClellan’s brief tenure as General-in-Chief, Lincoln made frequent evening visits to the general’s house to discuss strategy. The most famous example of McClellan’s cavalier disregard for the President’s authority occurred on a day in 1861 when Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and presidential secretary John Hay stopped by to see the general. McClellan was out, so the trio waited for his return. After an hour, McClellan came in and was told by a porter that the guests were waiting. McClellan headed for his room without a word, and only after Lincoln waited another half-hour was the group informed that McClellan had retired for the evening and had already gone to bed. Hay felt that the president should have been greatly offended, but Lincoln replied that it was “better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”
Lincoln made no more visits to the general’s home. However, approximately four months later, the President removed McClellan as General-in-Chief of the army. How much the general’s abrasiveness played a part in his removal is open to debate. Many regarded McClellan as a poor battlefield general. Others maintain that he was a highly capable commander, whose reputation suffered unfairly at the hands of pro-Lincoln partisans who needed a scapegoat for the Union’s setbacks. His legacy therefore defies easy categorization. After the war, Ulysses S. Grant was asked to evaluate McClellan as a general. He replied, “McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war.” But Robert E. Lee, on being asked who was the ablest general on the Union side during the late war, replied emphatically: “McClellan, by all odds!”
Interestingly, McClellan later ran as the Democrat party’s nominee for the 1864 presidential election against Lincoln. He was soundly trounced in the election, obtaining only 21 electoral votes to Lincoln’s 212 electoral votes. McClellan subsequently held several positions, including governor of New Jersey, before retiring to spend his final years traveling and writing his memoirs.