Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

GEORGE BRINTON MCCLELLAN
(December 3, 1826–October 29, 1885)

Thomas J. Rowland

Union commander of the Army of the Potomac until October 1862, General George B. McClellan was born on December 3, 1826, in the comfortable surroundings of his family home in Philadelphia. His father, Dr. George McClellan, a renowned physician, had founded the Jefferson Medical College and enjoyed a successful ophthalmological practice. His mother, Elizabeth Steinmetz Brinton, came from a leading Philadelphia family and was viewed as a woman of considerable grace and refinement. Despite Dr. McClellan’s evident stature, the practice of medicine was not so financially rewarding in those days, a circumstance that only compounded the outstanding debts he had inherited from his own father. Moreover, the financial constraints placed upon the family by sending the eldest son John to medical school played a role in guiding his second son, George, to a free education at West Point.

George McClellan was the middle sibling among five. In addition to John, there was an older sister, Frederica, and a younger brother and sister, Arthur and Mary, respectively. Personal fortunes notwithstanding, the McClellans saw to it that no expense was spared in young George’s education. As a child he benefited from instruction in private school and was tutored by a trained scholar of the classics. Prior to his admission to West Point, he enrolled in a preparatory academy at the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later, at the tender age of thirteen, he entered the university itself. Excelling in school, McClellan had nearly completed the curriculum in the spring of 1842 when his father engineered his nomination and eventual acceptance to West Point. When academy officials waived the minimum age requirement for entrance in McClellan’s favor, he arrived there as the youngest cadet in his class, six months shy of his sixteenth birthday.

After a brief bout of homesickness, McClellan flourished at the Point. By all accounts, he was well liked and respected, and most of his classmates believed he was the most promising of all in the class of 1846. One of his instructors,

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