Civil War General George McClellan failed in the Cascades

Mar 15, 2017, 8:03 AM | Updated: 10:10 am

It was back in March 1853 when Washington Territory was carved from Oregon Territory. That same year, Isaac Stevens was appointed Washington Territory’s first governor.

When Stevens headed west across the country to Olympia to assume his new job, he made the trip a bit of a “two-fer-one.” At the behest of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, Stevens led a team of surveyors and engineers on a government-funded expedition to explore and map a potential transcontinental railroad route from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast. While other teams examined routes to the south, Stevens’ mandate was to explore what was called the “Northern Pacific” route.

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Railroads were in their infancy, but they were already reshaping the American economy by shrinking distances between cities and regions. Opening the West via transcontinental rail would mean life for communities along the line, and, oftentimes, death for communities that were bypassed. For much of the 19th century, there was intense competition over where the rails would run.

One of the men on Stevens’ team was a man then in his late 20s named Captain George B. McClellan. That name might sound familiar, especially to Civil War buffs. A decade later, McClellan would go on to play a major role in the war and then in national politics.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

For the railroad survey back in 1853, Stevens gave McClellan a very important task: lead a detachment of men and find a route where a railroad could be built up and over the Cascades.

Wearing his “Territorial Governor hat” (if there were such a thing), Stevens had reasons for wanting the transcontinental railroad to be built as far north as possible: to benefit Washington Territory economically and politically.

The easiest and least expensive way through the Pacific Northwest to the Pacific Coast was via the Columbia Valley, which provided a natural break in the mountain range, and smooth and easy “locomotive-friendly” grades. But the Columbia Valley was also too close to rival Oregon Territory — a railroad route along the river would likely terminate in Portland and leave Washington Territory out in the cold.

Isaac Stevens knew that a route over the central or north Cascades would terminate somewhere along Puget Sound and thus benefit only Washington Territory.

So he gave George McClellan one job. Did McClellan do it right?

McClellan did a lousy job

The go-to guy for railroad history and territorial history in the Pacific Northwest is David Nicandri. He’s an author and former director of the Washington State Historical Society and Washington State History Museum.

Nicandri says that young George McClellan actually did a lousy job, and didn’t really even attempt to properly survey possible routes through the Cascades.

“McClellan went eastward through what’s now Klickitat County then turned north, made a probe up the Yakima and Tieton Rivers, then made an even more brief foray up what later became known as the Wenatchee River,” Nicandri said.

“[He] never went very far up any of them [and instead] did some kind of long distance surveying, and said, ‘This won’t do, this won’t do, that won’t do,’ and he concluded no railroad route through the Cascade Mountains was practicable without ever getting to the summit of any of them to truly find out,” Nicandri said.

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In the autumn of 1853, when Stevens met McClellan near Spokane and learned what he had done – or, really, what he hadnt done – Stevens was not happy. He needed actual information and data about elevations, slope and topography in order to properly complete his survey report for Secretary Davis.  So he sent another member of the team out to do the real work in the Cascades that McClellan had failed to complete.

This time, Stevens chose Abiel Tinkham. David Nicandri says Tinkham went up and over Snoqualmie Pass in 20 feet of snow and found a viable route for the railroad, though it would be decades before rails would cross the Cascades.

Nowadays, drivers on Interstate 90  pass the exit for Tinkham Road. In fact, that’s the exit (Number 42) to take to get to Tinkham Campground and, ironically, to the trailhead for the popular hiking destination of McClellan Butte. Abiel Peak and Tinkham Peak are nearby.

David Nicandri can reel off a list of reasons why McClellan failed so badly on the railroad survey task that Stevens had assigned.

“I think the consensus among historians is that McClellan didn’t like this assignment, he hated the Northwest, didn’t like the weather, didn’t like the topography,” Nicandri said. “And [he] showed a profound lack of ambition, which of course most historians have seen as a foreshadowing of his lack of ambition and [his] failure to execute Lincoln’s plan to combat the Confederacy during the Civil War.”

Other historians (and those Civil War buffs mentioned previously) know little of McClellan’s failure in the West and have spent decades trying to understand the eventful years after he phoned in his survey work in the Cascades.

In 1861, just after the start of the war, the political stars aligned for McClellan, who’d left military service and become a railroad executive. Upon recommendations of the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania, President Lincoln named him to lead the Army of the Potomac and defend Washington, DC. Soon after that, he was named General-in-chief of the entire US Army, replacing the legendary yet aged Winfield Scott.

It was a meteoric rise, but it was short-lived, says Lincoln historian James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.

At first, Cornelius says, McClellan had the backing of President Lincoln, and the superior manpower and industry of the Northern forces that the Confederates lacked.

“He got his troops looking good, he made them march in order, [and] the men liked him,” Cornelius said. “But then he sat and did nothing. And that’s the story of most of the rest of his one more year in Civil War combat.”

Cornelius says that rather than attacking Richmond, Virginia while the Union had the upper hand, McClellan “basically waited so long that the Confederates were able to dig in and fortify Richmond completely, while he was parading around elsewhere.”

By March 1862 – 155 years ago this week – McClellan was demoted by Lincoln. By November 1862, McClellan’s military career was all but over.

“Lincoln had it right,” said Harold Holzer, vice-chairman of the Lincoln Forum and director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York.

“[Lincoln] said, ‘This guy has the slows,’” Holzer said. “He was just very cumbersome, cautious – over-cautious –  and he drove Lincoln crazy because he was not aggressive. Inspiring to his men? Yes. Effective in battle? No.

“And I don’t think history is ever going to provide an alternative judgment.”

Before Lincoln fired McClellan for that last time in November 1862, McClellan did manage to score victory in the Battle of Antietam, and thus help set into motion one of the most sweeping acts of the Civil War.

Harold Holzer says McClellan’s victory gave Lincoln exactly what the president needed.

“Lincoln had decided that he needed a battlefield victory in order to announce Emancipation [of all slaves in the Confederate states], that he couldn’t do it from a position of weakness,” Holzer said.

“McClellan, who opposed Emancipation, somehow won the Battle of Antietam,” Holzer said. “And just a few days later, Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, and soon after that, fired George McClellan.”

McLellan rises again

But McClellan wasn’t quite finished on the national stage just yet. By the summer of 1864, the political stars would align for him once again, says James Cornelius of the Lincoln Library.

“So a year and a half later, the Democratic Party decided to run McClellan against Lincoln as the pro-war candidate,” Cornelius said.

But Cornelius says the Democratic Convention that chose McClellan as a pro-war nominee also adopted an “end the war now” platform, advocating to let slavery continue and let the South keep the land it had captured. It was a mess, and, Cornelius says, an impossible situation for any candidate to reconcile.

“Nevertheless, [McClellan] was successful enough or popular enough at one level or the other to win 45 percent of the popular vote [to Lincoln’s 55 percent] in the North in 1864,” Cornelius said.

After the 1864 election, McClellan traveled overseas, wrote and worked at various public and private jobs, and served one term as governor of New Jersey.

Meanwhile, the first transcontinental railroad route – to California – opened to train traffic in 1869. The West would never be the same again.

Isaac Stevens, McClellan’s frustrated leader on the survey team, died at the Battle of Chantilly in 1862. George McClellan died in 1885 at the relatively young age of 58 and is buried in Trenton, N.J.

The first railroad route across the Cascades, via Stampede Pass, was completed by the Northern Pacific Railroad one year later. The route over Snoqualmie Pass was built by the Milwaukee Road in 1909. It’s now a popular bike trail.

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Civil War General George McClellan failed in the Cascades