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“Nothing but rascally white people”: George B. McClellan Returns to Texas, 1852–1853

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 1, July 2013
pp. 26-46 | 10.1353/swh.2013.0071

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Just after the Civil War began, George B. McClellan returned to the army from civilian life and was appointed as a major general. Here he poses with his wife, Ellen “Nellie” Marcy. LC-DIG-cwpb-05665. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

On May 2, 1852, Second Lieutenant George Brinton McClellan rode out of Fort Belknap, Texas, second-in-command of an expedition charged with locating the sources of the Red River. This was McClellan’s second time in the Lone Star State; six years earlier, he had joined Major General Winfield Scott’s army at Brazos Santiago as it assembled to invade Mexico. Following the breakup of the Red River expedition nearly two months later, Lieutenant McClellan would be reassigned to Texas for another ten months, first as a staff officer for the Eighth Military Department and subsequently as an engineer assigned to duties associated with the Harbors and Rivers Act of 1852.

During his yearlong tenure in the Lone Star State, McClellan wrote nearly three dozen personal letters and official reports in addition to keeping a journal and an engineer’s notebook. Though scholars typically view McClellan through the narrow lens of his more famous military and political actions during America’s bloodiest war, his writings from Texas offer important insights about his character and activities away from the battlefield. Rather than portraying “the Young Napoleon” as a good administrator but overcautious fool, his communications indicate that he was an attentive and devoted son, a caring and generous brother, and a skilled soldier not above occasional bouts of homesickness. The correspondence from his service in Texas illuminates often-overlooked aspects of his character and personal life, exemplifies the army’s importance to antebellum development—or the lack thereof—throughout the American West, and highlights the inconsistent, often contentious relationships between civilians and the federal government’s most visible instrument in the western borderlands.

The third of five children of a prominent Philadelphia doctor and his wife, McClellan graduated second in his United States Military Academy class of 1846. Fluent in French, proficient in the classics, and a member of the elite Corps of Engineers, McClellan seemed bred for greatness: West Point officials had waived the minimum entry age requirement of sixteen to admit him, and during the U.S.-Mexico War he won two brevet promotions for his distinguished service in the battles of Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. As he rode tall in the saddle, McClellan’s self-possessed appearance gave him an aura that others would admire for the rest of his life.1

In February 1852, McClellan requested a transfer to Texas, hoping to serve as an aide to Brevet Major General Persifor F. Smith, commander of the Eighth Military Department. As Smith was then on leave, the army delayed that assignment in favor of duties related to Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s upcoming expedition into the upper reaches of the Red River. Acclaimed for having blazed an emigrant trail from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1849, the forty-year-old Marcy was a West Pointer, a veteran of the U.S.-Mexico War, and the married father of two daughters. In tribute to Marcy’s experience and consistent with contemporary army practice, the War Department’s instructions left details to his judgment, calling upon him to gather as much knowledge as he could about as many things as he could. Scientists of the time—Army engineers among them—saw the universe in cosmic terms: since everything was interrelated with everything else, one could not understand anything in the absence of contextual information. The orders thus asked Marcy to “collect and report everything that may be useful or interesting in relation to resources, soil climate, natural history, geography, &c” even as he assessed the region’s ability to support a large Indian population and demonstrated the power of the United States government. To handle the job, Marcy had the assistance of four officers, a six-pound fieldpiece, fifty-five enlisted men, Dr. George G. Shumard (who acted as the column’s surgeon and natural scientist), civilians J. R. Suydam and J. H...

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