In september of 1862, the civil war tilted decisively in favor of the south. The morale of the northern army dipped to its lowest point of the war. Large numbers of Union troops were in full retreat in Virginia. Northern leaders began to fear the worst. They saw no way to reverse the situation and turn the beaten, exhausted troops into a useful army again.
There was only one general with the ability to work such a miracle. That was General George McClellan. He had trained the men for combat and they admired him. But neither the war department nor the rest of the cabinet members saw this connection. Only president Abraham Lincoln recognized Gen. McLellan’s leadership skills.
Fortunately, Lincoln ignored the protests of his advisors and reinstated McClellan back in command. He told the general to go down to Virginia and give those soldiers something no other man on earth could give them: enthusiasm, strength and hope. McClellan accepted the command. He mounted his great black horse and cantered down the dusty Virginia roads.
What happened next is hard to describe. Northern leaders couldn’t explain it. Union soldier couldn’t explain it either. Even McLellan couldn’t quite explain what happened. Gen. McClellan met the retreating Union columns, waved his cap in the air and shouted words of encouragement. When the worn out men saw their beloved teacher and leader, they began to take heart once again. They were moved with an unshakeble felling that now things could be different, that finally things could be all right again.
Bruce Catton, the great civil war historian, describes this excitement that grew when word spread that McClellan was back in command. “Down mile after mile of Virginia roads the stumbling column came alive. Men threw their caps and knapsacks into the air, and yelled until they could yell no more… because they saw this dapper little rider outlined agains the purple starlight.
“And this, in a way, was the turning point of the war. … No one could ever quite explain how it happened. But whatever it was, it gave president Lincoln and the north what was needed. And history was forever changed because of it.”
The story of Gen. McClellan illustrates dramatically the impact a leader can have on the human spirit.