The Peter Principle and George B. McClellan

By Dan Zeiser
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2007, All Rights Reserved

We are all familiar with the business theory known as the “Peter Principle.” According to this concept, a person continues to rise in an organization until he or she reaches a level that requires more ability than the person has. Put another way, a person advances until reaching a level of incompetence. This principle applies in more areas than just business, and the Civil War is one of those areas. George Brinton McClellan is perhaps the perfect model of this theory in the Civil War.

We love to bash our generals. In the Civil War, there are many to bash — Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood, Benjamin Butler — all good targets. McClellan, though, proves the Peter Principle best of all. McClellan was an intelligent and talented man with a lot of ability. Raised and well-educated in Philadelphia society, he attended West Point and graduated second. A hero of the Mexican War, he had a successful military career until he left the Army in 1857 to enter business. McClellan became a successful railroad executive, where he met Abraham Lincoln, one of the railroad’s lawyers. He gained a reputation for bringing intelligence and thoroughness to all he undertook.

George B. McClellan

When war broke out, McClellan, with the aid of William Stark Rosecrans and Jacob D. Cox, organized the troops raised by the states of Ohio and Indiana. When events in northwestern Virginia (soon to be West Virginia) required troops, McClellan (with Rosecrans’s and Cox’s help) was largely responsible for victory at Rich Mountain. Called to Washington to head the Division of the Potomac, McClellan showed his greatest skills — the ability to organize, train, and prepare troops for battle. He improved their discipline and morale and, when Winfield Scott retired as commander of all troops in late 1861, Lincoln promoted him to overall commander. It was here that McClellan was exposed to his level of incompetence.

As head of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan was a brilliant organizer and morale builder. He trained the troops and made them one of the most effective fighting forces on the face of the earth. They loved him and would follow him everywhere. However, for some reason, he had difficulty leading them into battle. It certainly was not a lack of confidence in his own ability. McClellan’s ego rivaled that of anyone in history. Anyone who has the temerity to tell the president to sit back while he took care of the country does not doubt one’s self. Nor did he doubt the ability of his men. After all, he trained and led them.

I believe McClellan suffered from an affliction shared by many generals throughout history, an affliction that is deadly to a leader of men. He hated to see his men die in battle. He could train them to die, he could lead them to battle, but when it came to ordering them to die, he hesitated. Not that any general wants to see his men die in battle, none do. But the great ones know that wars cannot be won without men (and women these days) dying. They understand that, sometimes, the sooner men die, the fewer that do. Grant was one of these. In 1864 he understood that his greatest advantage was in men and materiel. He realized that, if he pressured Lee, kept him fighting, costing him casualties, he would win. While many saw the casualties that mounted during the summer of 1864 as evidence that Grant was a butcher, it was exactly the opposite. The more he fought, with the resultant casualties, the sooner the war would be over.

McClellan being cheered by his men

McClellan failed to realize this. It was almost as if McClellan thought that, if he did not fight, the war might simply go away. He rarely fought of his own accord, doing so when it was forced upon him by events, such as Lee’s invasion of Maryland, or by politics, when Lincoln pressured him. He simply could not comprehend that winning the war meant sending young people to die and that, by not doing so, the war would be lengthened, eventually costing even more casualties. He could lead men. He loved to lead men and hear their cheers as he rode by inspecting them. He loved being the commander of all the armies. With his ego, he loved the attention and adulation his soldiers heaped upon him as the savior of the country. He simply could not lead them to their deaths.

Of course, such a fault is mortal to the commanding general. Promoting him to overall commander raised him to his level of incompetence. The question remains, what was his highest level of competence? I believe McClellan would have served well in the Army’s 20th century position of chief of staff. With his intelligence and thoroughness, he would have served well someone like Grant, someone who could lead troops in battle. Whether he could have, with his ego, is another question.