Biography of Brig. Gen. George Archibald McCall (1802-1868)


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     George Archibald McCall, Major-General of volunteers, the first commander of the Pennsylvania Reserve corps, was born in Philadelphia, on the 16th of March, 1802. He received the appointment of a Cadet at West Point in 1818, whence he graduated in due course [USMA: 1822, class rank: 26/40]. In April, 1831, he was made Assistant Adjutant-General on the staff of General Gaines, then at the head of the Western Department of the United States. In September, 1836, he was promoted to Captain of the Fourth infantry, and in that capacity distinguished himself under Colonel Worth in Florida, being recommended by that officer for the brevet rank of Major, for gallant conduct in the battle of Pelalicaha, who said: "He will do more honor to the rank than the rank can confer on him." He was with General Taylor in his march to the Rio Grande, and for "gallant and distinguished services" in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma he was brevetted Major and Lieutenant-Colonel. On the 7th of July, 1846, he was made Assistant Adjutant-General with the rank of Major, and on the 26th of December, 1847, Major of the Third infantry. His fellow-citizens of Philadelphia, justly glorying in his gallant bearing in recent battles, presented him with an elegant sword, as a token of their appreciation of his services, on his return from Mexico.

     His health having been impaired by active duty, he determined to spend a year in Europe, and, both in England and upon the Continent, visited military schools, and minutely inspected fortifications, camps, and hospitals, gaining a large acquaintance with the improvements in modern warfare. On his return he was placed in command of the Third infantry, stationed at Santa Fe. Before joining his regiment he was requested by the War Department to prepare a historical account of the territory newly acquired from Mexico, accompanied by statistical tables of population and resources, which was published by Congress. On the 10th of June, 1850, he was appointed Inspector-General of the United States Army, with the rank of a Colonel of cavalry, and as such made a personal examination of military posts and the troops in New Mexico, California, and Oregon. His health, which was never robust, again failing, on the 29th of April, 1853, he resigned his commission, determined to retire permanently to private life. Being well read in natural science he prosecuted his studies in this department, and made valuable contributions to its literature. In 1855, he removed from Philadelphia to a farm in Chester county, and here prepared and published a work entitled Letters from the Frontiers, in which he gave an account of his services in the Department of the West. At the breaking out of the Rebellion he was called to Harrisburg by Governor Curtin for advice and consultation. While there he was elected Colonel of the Tenth Reserve regiment, which position he declined. He was shortly after appointed Major-General by Governor Curtin, and given command of the Pennsylvania Reserve corps, consisting of twelve regiments of infantry and one each of cavalry, artillery, and riflemen. He planned the movement on Dranesville, which resulted in the first victory gained by the Army of the Potomac. When McClellan moved to the Peninsula, McCall remained before Washington, and soon after marched along the line of the Alexandria railway and thence to Fredericksburg. He had thrown a part of his force across the stream, and his cavalry was moving down the Richmond railway, the purpose being to join McClellan overland, when he was ordered back and taken down the Potomac by transport. He arrived just as the Seven Days' battle was opening, and was thrust out to the fore-front, where he received the first shock at Beaver Dam Creek, on the 26th of June. McCall was here almost alone pitted against thrice his number. But he had chosen well his position and had thrown up earthworks - a lesson which the Potomac army was slow in learning - and against him the tide of battle beat in vain. The victory was signal and complete, and attained at little cost, though immensely destructive to the foe.

     Having but a small force, and his right flank liable to be turned, he was recalled during the night, and moved back without loss, in the face of a vigilant enemy. On the 27th, at Gaines' Mill, McCall was held in reserve till the front line of battle was broken and being driven back, when he was ordered forward. But here there had been no systematic and continuous earthworks thrown up, and a fragment of the Union army having been caught at a disadvantage, was over whelmed, and his command suffered severely. At Charles City Cross Roads, on the 30th, was enacted the great military exploit of his life. It was next to the last of the noted Seven Days. Here it was that the rebel leaders had determined to fall upon the flank of the Union army and cut it in twain. But the vigilant McCall was there; and though the onsets of the foe were terrible and oft repeated, yet he withstood the brunt of their assaults, and by the aid of Hooker and Sumner, who came to his assistance, totally defeated the cherished purpose of the foe, though not without great loss and a terrible breaking and scourging of his gallant corps. Just at dusk, while reconnoitering with Major Stone of the Bucktail regiment, he was taken prisoner.

     "General McCall," says Stone, "had come out of the woods, wounded and alone, and taken his place at the head of the column. After the halt, the General took me forward a few paces with him, and in the darkness we suddenly found ourselves close upon the leveled muskets of a hostile column which filled the road in front of us. We were ordered to halt and dismount, but I turned and escaped, only slightly hurt, drawing two volleys from the enemy. General McCall was not so fortunate, and is in their hands." He was taken to Richmond and incarcerated in Libby Prison. After his release, having suffered from his wound and the unusual severity of the campaign, he resigned his place in the army, and returned to his home in Chester county, where he remained in private life until his death, which occurred on the 25th of February, 1868.

Source: MARTIAL DEEDS OF PENNSYLVANIA by SAMUEL P. BATES. PHILADELPHIA: T. H. DAVIS & CO., 1876. Part II, CHAPTER VI, pp. 624-627.