The most song-inspiring Northern general: McClellan?

Parade march (McClellan)Of all the songs published during the American Civil War, many are dedicated to individuals. They are mostly about generals, although Union publishers issued two tributes to captains.

It’s no surprise that the greatest number of these songs concern the best-known leaders. But who would have thought there would be more about Gen. George B. McClellan than any other general?

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George B. McClellan

When the war broke out, McClellan was a veteran of the Mexican War and former instructor at West Point, but he had resigned his commission. Governor William Dennison appointed him as major general of the Ohio volunteers and encouraged President Lincoln to commission him at the same rank in the regular army.

As major general, McClellan was second in rank only to Winfield Scott. He prevented Kentucky from seceding and was instrumental in the division of Virginia, with West Virginia remaining with the Union.

After the disastrous rout at the first Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln appointed McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. When Scott retired in November 1861, McClellan succeeded him as General-in-Chief.

Gen. McClellan's grand march:DonizettiHe proved an excellent drillmaster and turned the Army of the Potomac, demoralized and unorganized after the humiliation at Bull Run, into a well-trained fighting force. His men loved him. So did the public, encouraged by a spate of published music.

Lincoln’s primary military objective early in the Civil War was to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Unfortunately, McClellan turned out to be a weak and indecisive field commander, constantly overestimating the strength of Confederate forces.

Instead of taking the offense, McClellan fought and lost a series of defensive battles and eventually retreated to Washington, abandoning his attempt to capture Richmond. Lincoln stripped McClellan of both his posts, but John Pope, as commander of the Army of the Potomac, likewise failed to capture Richmond.

With McClellan back in charge, the next duty of the Army of the Potomac was to thwart Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland. McClellan had the advantage of a captured document that outlined Lee’s plans.

The two armies met at Antietam on September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. Lee retreated, but McClellan was too cautious to follow up his single victory. He told Lincoln that instead of moving forward, the army needed time to rest. The frustrated President soon sacked the reluctant commander.

Lincoln and the war became unpopular. His detractors rallied around McClellan and made him the Democratic nominee for President in 1864. He promised to end the war as quickly as possible by negotiating peace with the Confederacy.

By that time, however, the Union armies’ string of successes persuaded the public that the war would end successfully. McClellan lost badly, but that campaign inspired numerous new songs.

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Music to honor a popular commander

Major General McClellan's grand marchThe Library of Congress’ online sheet music collection has 82 items with McClellan as a subject heading. Some songs are dedicated to him but not strictly about him.

Others mention him in a single verse, and likely as not mention multiple other people. The library owns multiple printings of several of these pieces.

Setting aside those items still leaves plenty of music more specifically about McClellan (including piano pieces with his name in the title). Here are the piano pieces published in 1861 or 1862

  • Brave McClellan March / James Bellak (New York, 1862)
  • Gen. McClellan’s Grand March / arranged from music by Gaetano Donizetti (Cincinnati, 1862)
  • General McClellan’s Grand March / E. Mack (Philadelphia, 1861)
  • Major General McClellan’s Grand March / anonymous (Boston, 1861)
  • McClelland’s Richmond March / Chas. G Degenhard¬† (Buffalo, 1862)
  • Parade March of the Great Potomac Army / Chas. Fredel (New York, 1861)

As for songs, the Library of Congress collection has at least six that honor McClellan’s wartime leadership. Not every song has a copyright notice, and some of the undated ones may have appeared at this time.

“Brave McClellan Is Our Leader Now,” arranged by Augustus Cull (New York, 1868!) must be incorrectly dated. The fifth verse of a long poem set to the tune of John Brown’s Body could not have been written or published any time after Antietam:

Abra’m’s looking with a smile, my boys,
Abra’m’s looking with a smile, my boys,
He is thinking all the while, my boys
How firm we’re marching on

Three poems by E. W. Locke, “Army Poet and Balladist, are printed on a single page: “McClellan Is Our Man;” Song of the volunteers; We’re marching down to dixie’s land. Only the latter has music.

The first, and the only one specifically about McClellan, is “to the tune of “A Little More Cider, Too,” and the second apparently to “John Brown’s Body.” It was apparently intended as a proof sheet and probably printed in Portland, Maine in 1861 or 1862.

The songs specifically about McClellan early in the Civil War are

  • Come at Your Country’s Call, or Join Brave McClellan’s Boys / Words by Kate Moncrief, “adapted to a favorite melody” (Philadelphia, 1862)
  • Marching Along / Words by M. A. Kidder, Music by Wm. B. Bradbury (New York, 1862)
  • McClellan’s Battle and Victory at Antietam / Words by A. Anderson, song sheet without music (Philadelphia, 1862)
  • The Noble George McClellan / Words by Rev. Edwin H. Nevin, “adapted to a favorite melody” (Philadelphia, 1862)

“Marching Along” is not specifically about McClellan, but it has the line “MeClellan’s our leader, he’s gallant and strong” in the chorus and two of the verses. The popularity of the song enhanced his reputation.

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Musical responses to McClellan’s dismissal

Give us back our old commander (McClellan)Almost immediately, Septimus Winner, best known at the time for the sentimental favorite, “Listen to the Mockingbird,” wrote and self-published “Give Us Back Our Old Commander” (Philadelphia, 1862)

It was not the only song that protested McClellan’s dismissal, but it was certainly the most controversial.

The text not only praised McClellan, but criticized his replacement, General John Pope. McClellan may well have been more popular than the President by that time. The song was immediately successful, selling several thousand copies in less than a week. Union soldiers stalled around Fredericksburg especially liked it.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, feared that the song could cause a mutiny and charged Winner with treason. Although he received minimal punishment, he was ordered to destroy all unsold copies of “Give Us Back Our Old Commander.”

Music stores were forbidden to sell it. It became illegal to perform the song, and soldiers who sang it were punished. No other Northern song faced such severe censorship.

Music published in 1863 is ambiguous.¬† “Gen. McClellan’s Farewell to the Army of the Potomac” / words by H. E. W., music by H. Coyle (Philadelphia, 1863) is certainly a response to his dismissal.

“The General, the Sergeant and the Flag” / words by C. Birch Bagster, music by Stephen C. Massett (1863) speak of the grief of a sergeant at McClellan’s final speech, in which he asked the troops to support General Burnside.

Some time during that year, however, titles start to sound more like campaign songs.

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McClellan’s Presidential campaign

McClellan for PresidentMcClellan quickly found himself at the head of Lincoln’s most vocal opposition, the Peace Democrats, also known as Copperheads.

Most of the popular patriotic music of the day generally favored Lincoln and the war. The Democrats couldn’t use it.

War opponents issued plenty of anti-war songs, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Many openly appealed to fear of racial mixing. Titles included “The Negro the Rising Man” (not in the Library of Congress collection) and “I Am Fighting for the Nigger” / words by Wm. Kiernan, songster without music (New York, 1863).

These were also published in various Democratic campaign songsters, such as Copperhead Minstrel, Democratic Presidential Campaign Songster, The Little Mac Campaign Songster, and McClellan Campaign Melodist.

The Library of Congress’ sheet music collection includes many other campaign songs more explicitly about McClellan.

Four appear in a collection: “Forward March for Little Mac,” “Little Mac and Pendleton,” “The Head of the Nation McClellan Shall Be,” and “Little Mac Is on de Track.” (New York, 1864).

Single publications of Democratic campaign songs late in the Civil War include

  • The Constitution as It Is, the Union as It Was / Words and music by Will S. Hays (Louisville, 1863)
  • The Constitution Our Platform: McClellan Our Choice / Words by John C. Cross, song sheet without music (New York, undated, but 1863 or 1864)
  • Gen. McClellan’s Quickstep / A Young Lady of Maryland (Philadelphia, 1863)
  • Genl. McClellan’s Grand March / anonymous (Cincinnati, 1864)
  • The Head of the Nation McClellan Shall Be / “Written to the stirring melody ‘Bonnie Dundee’ by C. O. Clayton (New York, 1864)
  • Mac Will Win the Union Back / Words arranged to the music by A. Oakley Hall, music by Dan. Emmett
  • McClellan & Pendleton / Words by W. H. Biddle, composer and publisher unidentified (1864)
  • McClellan for President / Words by John C. Cross, song sheet without music (New York, undated, but 1863 or 1864)
  • McClellan Is the Man / Words by Charley Leighton, music by Henry Cromwell (Boston, 1864)
  • McClellan Is the Man, Quickstep / Henry Cromwell (Boston, 1864)
  • McClellan Mazurka / T. Edwin Bayley (Louisville, 1864)
  • McClellan Schottisch / A. Neuman (Cincinnati, 1864)
  • McClellan Will be President / two separate songsters with this title (New York, 1864), one each by J. F. Feaks,¬† and M. J. Million (two different printings)
  • McClellan Campaign Song / two separate songsters with this title, one by John A. McSorley to the tune of “Wait for the Wagon” (New York, 1864) and one by “Our Ned” to the tune of “Who Will Care for Mother Now” (Philadelphia, undated, probably 1864)
  • Old Abe, They Said, Was an Honest Man / Words by J. W. Jarboe, music by F. Fayette (New York, 1864)
  • The Presidential Combat / Words and music by E. L. Kurtz (place of publication not identified, 1864)
  • We Will Follow Him Forever / Anonymous words, music arranged by A. W. Lawson (Boston, 1864)

McClellan MazurkaAlthough the Republicans already had the support of the best and most popular war-related music, they issued campaign music of their own.

Most of it favored Lincoln, but “Chicago Copperheads” by James G. Clark speaks derisively of McClellan.

Most of these songs are trite and unworthy of serious attention. On the other hand, Will S. Hays was a very prolific and important songwriter.

Whether any of these songs have musical merit is beside the point. They explored war issues in an accessible way and helped establish each candidate’s public persona.

Although the Copperhead movement was strongest in the Ohio River valley, publishers across an impressive geographic area issued its songs.

As many titles as I have listed, there are still at least half a dozen songs, undated and with ambiguous titles, that I can’t categorize.

The Library of Congress actually has more music related to Ulysses Grant than McClellan, but he went through two successful presidential campaigns of his own. When it comes to music published during the Civil War, McClellan inspired more than anyone else on either side of the conflict.

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George B. McClellan / Civil War Trust
Performing Arts Encyclopedia, search results for McClellan / Library of Congress
Christian McWhirter, Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). Kindle Edition.


The most song-inspiring Northern general: McClellan? — 2 Comments

  1. It is factually wrong to say that “McClellan turned out to be a weak and indecisive field commander” and that instead of taking the offensive he “lost a series of defensive battles and eventually retreated to Washington, abandoning his attempt to capture Richmond.”

    McClellan did not “retreat” to Washington. He was forced to return to Washington against his will by Lincoln and Stanton–and this after he had beaten Lee in the Seven Days Battles, had successfully relocated his army to Harrison’s Landing so he could continue to threaten Richmond, and had forced Lee to return to Richmond.

    And McClellan was anything but indecisive. There is a big difference between ensuring your troops are ready and your supply lines are secure and being indecisive. McClellan was perfectly willing to launch ferocious attacks when he felt there was a good chance of success. However, unlike Grant and others, he would not use his men as cannon fodder by needlessly hurling them to their deaths by the thousands against fortified, entrenched positions.

    The Smearing of General George B. McClellan

    • I read a summary of your post on the American Civil War Forum and knew that if you came here, you would defend McClellan. Septimus Winner, I’m sure, would applaud you after all the trouble his song cost him. I haven’t done the research you have done, so I can’t comment, but of course historians constantly reassess historical figures. Thank you for your input.

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