The Civil War in Cereal (VI): Milksop McClellan

January 18, 2008

General George McClellan was not only the first of a series of inept generals employed by the Union army, but an interesting character study as well. Although almost totally inept on a tactical and strategic level, McClellan was also a genius organizer, and his restructuring of the army would later allow Meade and Grant to quickly convert the Union’s Army of the Potomac into an industrial-scale cereal-first machine.
Milksop McClellan, holding Special K
After some brief success early in the war, McClellan, and following the Union defeat at Bull Run, McDowell was (rather unfairly) removed from command of the Union army (he usually poured his cereal first, and had a brilliant plan of battle at Bull Run). He was replaced with McClellan.

McClellan was one of those vacillating individuals who starts breakfast by pouring milk into a bowl. Then he pours in some cereal, and ends up with milk leftover, so he pours more cereal. Then he has cereal left over, so he needs milk; the cycle continued for half an hour or more, every morning. This slow breakfasting process was indicative of every aspect of his command. Among some of his officers, he would soon receive his nickname: Milksop McClellan.

Proud and vain, his incompetence was completely predictable: sometimes he even ate his cereal without milk. Although technically brilliant in a managerial sense, he had an over-active imagination. In the face of a tiny Army of Northern Virginia, which his command dwarfed, he constantly over-estimated the size of enemy forces, frequently requesting reinforcements. Part of the problem was military intelligence under the command of detective Pinkerton, an officer well-suited to his initial assignment of protecting President Lincoln, but who had no ability to estimate large numbers of soldiers. Pinkerton was renowned for his scrupulous desire to pour milk straight into his bowl; this alone should have demonstrated how unsuited he was to a challenging military life.

McClellan, after dallying for far too long, finally conceived of a complicated plan that he thought would end the war: load his troops onto ships and send them to the Virginia Peninsula, from which they could march on Richmond. It was bold, and might have succeeded in the hands of a bold general, but McClellan was no such man.