The following is a guest post from Head of Acquisitions & Processing Denise Gallo.
After Southern troops defeated his army at the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, Abraham Lincoln realized that he would need someone dynamic to take charge, especially in efforts to protect Washington, D.C. and its surroundings. At 75, the current head of Union forces, General Winfield Scott, simply was no longer up to the task, so the President called on the one man who had consistently led the North to victory thus far – George B. McClellan. Traveling by train to Washington, McClellan was hailed by crowds along the way, finally entering the Capital more as the reigning victor rather than the Union’s hope.
McClellan bolstered defenses around the Nation’s Capital by forming the Army of the Potomac, assuming its command on 20 August. In November, he took charge of the entire Union Army when Scott retired. Yet McClellan’s tactics turned out to leave much to be desired. Lincoln grew more and more impatient at his habit of entrenching troops defensively but neglecting to use them to attack. The President’s frustration was palpable when, at a meeting at the White House the following January, he told advisors that “if McClellan is not going to use the Army anytime soon, I would like to borrow it.”
The parlor song “Brave McClellan is our leader now” reflects the initial optimism that the North felt when it appeared that they would surely be led to victory in his care. Although the text itself is repetitive and uninspired, the selection of the tune is telling: the refrain “Glory, glory Hallelujah” from the abolition hymn “John Brown’s Body.” At just about the same time, the same melody inspired a far more memorable version with Julia Ward Howe’s potent lyrics: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” While the former is remembered only in connection to McClellan’s narrative, the latter went on to become an anthem for the Union throughout the war and beyond.