17. The Battle of Philippi and Rich Mountain made George McClellan a national hero
In the late spring of 1861, George McClellan, who had been working as a railroad executive since 1857, returned to service with the United States Army. Commissioned as a major general in May, McClellan assumed command of the Department of Ohio, with his headquarters initially at Cincinnati. Aware of several of the western counties of Virginia’s desire to remain in the Union, McClellan began assigning troops there in June. He positioned his units to both secure the vital bridges of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and to influence the anti-secessionists in the region. On June 3, 1861, units under McClellan’s ostensible command (he was not present at the battle) engaged the Confederates at the Battle of Philippi, in what is now West Virginia. It presented the first Union victory of the war in an organized land battle.
On July 11, McClellan personally commanded the Union troops at the Battle of Rich Mountain. As with the Battle of Philippi, it was little more than a skirmish. But it was another Union victory and McClellan, once described as a man who could strut while sitting down, made sure his role was known in the east. Though McClellan was just 34 years of age, he was recommended to President Lincoln to command the main Union Army of the Potomac. McClellan proved instrumental in building, equipping, and training the Army of the Potomac. He also proved hesitant to use it; overly cautious and desirous of superiority in all things prior to engaging the enemy. Lincoln eventually fired him, rehired him, and fired him again, the latter time permanently. The Battles of Philippi and Rich Mountain thus had an outsized influence on the rest of the Civil War.