Among the condolences received by my Gr-gr-great grandmother on the death of her husband, John Owen Stearns, was a letter from Capt. Theodore Read, a staff officer serving with the Union Army of the Potomac. The last three pages are preserved in our family archive, and describe the despair felt by the soldiers serving under General George Brinton McClellan when he was relieved of his command by Lincoln after failing to follow up on the northern success at Antietam.
I have often wondered at the disconnect between the deep affection the Army of the Potomac had for its ill-starred commander and the verdict of history. His men by their own accounts adored him. Lincoln was certain the soldier votes of McClellan's veterans would cost him re-election in 1864 when "Little Mac" ran on the Democratic ticket. Yet armchair generals and Civil War buffs alike condemn McClellan as a failed and self-promoting army commander who may have been an efficient administrator but who consistently over-estimated his foes and was outgeneraled time and again on the Peninsula.
McClellan's own private letters to his wife, and public letters to his commander in chief, betray arrogance, self importance, even venality in his character, but this is not the man his soldiers saw. Despite the failure of the peninsula Campaign, McClellan's soldiers overwhelmingly reaffirmed their faith in their commander, so much so that when the rumor spread up the line of Union columns on the March to Gettysburg that McClellan had once again been recalled to lead them, they erupted in spontaneous cheers.
Soldiers may not be able to see battlefields as widely as their commanders, or with the long view and hindsight of historians, but they are not stupid. Theodore Read, Capt. and A.A.G. on General Brooks staff, 6th Army Corps, spoke for many of his comrades when he wrote of the despondency they felt at McClellan's farewell in November, 1862:
"Symptoms of a conflict have been heard for several days in the roar of the Artillery of our advance guard reverberating through the mountains. When the fury of the Storm will burst upon us God only knows. A gloom has settled on every camp and sorrow is at the heart of every Officer and Soldier because of the loss of their beloved chieftain McClellan. Never was man more loved than he. His soldiery loved him almost to idolatry. He was of strict integrity, pure of heart, a true patriot and an able general. It is the feeling in the camp that a deep act of injustice has been done, purely from political motives, and there is a general indignation manifested. The demonstrations of affection with which little "Mac" was received by his troops as he paid them a farewell visit it is beyond the power of pen to describe. He is gone from us, but he has left a void. An apathy is upon the army. They care not to win laurels unless they can share them with the leader who has shared their dangers heretofore. Yet I hope for the best and that no harm will result to the cause of our country from this act of the government."
History cannot dismiss out of hand the primary record of hundreds if not thousands of soldiers like Theodore Read who expressed similar devotion to McClellan despite the setbacks experienced by his army. Compared to his subsequent successors, the hopelessly out of depth Burnside and paralytic Hooker, McClellan's qualities - ponderous, calculated, conservative - were those of an efficient engineer and administrator but not a nimble, offensive commander. Nonetheless there were battlefield victories for the Union even as McClellan withdrew his army intact from the Peninsula.
McClellan is a complex figure. His tactics may have been unsuccessful, but the love of his troops is beyond question. McClellan cared for his soldiers. He may well have cared for them too much to risk the army he had built and use it for its full purpose. Yet war aims in 1862 were evolving dramatically, and it is doubtful that the tactics of attrition employed by Grant in 1864 would have been politically possible in the Spring of the War when the North depended on an army of volunteers; there was no draft until 1863, and it was not yet a total war. Had Lincoln been up for re-election in 1862, he would almost certainly have lost the soldier vote, but by 1864 the veterans knew that only a ruthlessly aggressive campaign against the South would bring the war to a close, and the majority voted for Lincoln.
Theodore Read continued to win promotions on General Brook's staff, rising to the rank of Colonel, and near the end of the war was brevetted a Brigadier General. On April 6th, 1865, he lead a mixed command to destroy bridges over the Appomattox and was killed at High Bridge, Virginia. He was the last Union general killed in the Civil War.