George B. McClellan. Portrait by Mathew Brady, 1861
CMH Artifacts - Pieces of History
McClellan's Field Glasses
By Alan Bogan, Curator
The Civil War field glasses displayed below belonged to General George Brinton McClellan during his tenure as Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Most likely of French manufacture, these binocular are of japanned brass with pebbled leather on the tubes and sliding sun shades.
McClellan (1826–1885) graduated second in his class from the U.S. Military Academy in 1846. He participated in the Mexican War and was awarded brevets to first lieutenant and captain. In 1857, he resigned his commission.
In 1861, McClellan returned to service as a major general of the Ohio volunteers and soon attained the same rank in the Regular Army. His success at Rich Mountain in western Virginia brought him to the public eye at a critical time and he was assigned command of what would become the Army of the Potomac, which he organized into eleven 10,000-man divisions, each with three brigades of infantry, a cavalry regiment, and four six-gun batteries of field artillery. McClellan proved an adept trainer, forging a volunteer army into a disciplined military force. By November, he became General in Chief of the Army, replacing Major General Winfield Scott.
In the spring of 1862, McClellan landed his army at Fort Monroe, Virginia, as part of a bold plan to drive west along the Virginia Peninsula to capture Richmond. Immediately, McClellan showed himself wanting as a field commander, tending to be too cautious. Robert E. Lee who replaced Joseph Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, fought McClellan to a series of tactical draws that led McClellan to withdraw his force to the James River and eventually back to Washington, D.C.
In September, General Lee crossed the Potomac River into Maryland and McClellan led the Army of the Potomac north. Meeting the Confederates along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg on September 17, the armies fought to a draw in the Battle of Antietam. Two days later Lee withdrew to Virginia. McClellan failed to pursue the Confederates and remained in place until early November, reorganizing and requesting reinforcements. This delay prompted his dismissal as army commander. He retained his commission as major general, but held no further command during the war.
General George Brinton McClellan