July 30, 1862 (Wednesday)
Union General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was far from defeated. It was true, the Peninsula Campaign had not gone as planned. The slow crawling towards the Confederate capital had allowed the Rebels to successfully defend it. The siege that came to exist was developed gradually, and McClellan seemed to have no real idea how to take Richmond. The whole affair seemed utterly amateur. Still, McClellan’s Army was nearly 100,000-strong, while General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia wasn’t even 60,000 in number.
The catch was that McClellan believed himself to be out-manned two-to-one. Even knowing that Stonewall Jackson’s force had broken off to protect the northern approaches to Richmond, McClellan still credited the Rebels with twice his own number.
Writing an early morning message to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, McClellan understood Jackson’s army to be as great as 35,000 and that General A.P. Hill was still in Richmond. In truth, Jackson’s original force was only 11,000. They had recently been augmented by 18,000 of General Hill’s troops, no longer in Richmond.
McClellan’s indecision had plagued the entire campaign. Now that General Halleck were in charge, however, he soaked in his irresolution, leaving the bigger issues to his superior. The biggest issue was, of course, what to do with the Army of the Potomac.
“I hope that it may soon be decided what is to be done by this army,” wrote McClellan to Halleck, “and that the decision may be to reinforce it at once.” He had asked, begged and pleaded for more and more reinforcements throughout the entirety of the campaign. But now, he thought, time was quickly slipping away.
In a follow up letter written later the same day, he admitted that the Rebels in his front were fewer in number, and that if he had more men, he could advance. A paragraph later, he was singing a different tune.
“Heavy [Confederate] re-enforcements have arrived in Richmond and are still coming,” he wrote, reiterating that he still felt that Washington should “re-enforce the army by every available means and throw it again upon Richmond.” With a bit of insight, McClellan closed with a warning: “Should it be determined to withdraw it, I shall look upon our cause as lost and the demoralization of the army certain.”1
General-in-Chief Henry Halleck had been reflecting on his recent trip to Harrison’s Landing, where he met with General McClellan. He understood that if anything were to be accomplished, he would need to somehow manage and get along with the commander of the Army of the Potomac.
To that end, Halleck wrote McClellan an almost heart-felt letter, hoping to bridge whatever awkward gap his new promotion had dredged to the surface.
“You are probably aware that I hold my present position contrary to my own wishes,” confided Halleck, “and that I did everything in my power to avoid coming to Washington; but after declining several invitations from the President I received the order of the 11th instant, which left me no option.”
Halleck despised the mingling of politics and the military, had no use for Washington, and liked it even less now. He still believed that he could be more useful in the West. He commiserated with McClellan, explaining that he disagreed with how he had been railed in the press for choosing “to serve the country instead of party,” fully understanding that in a few weeks he would, no doubt, also fall victim to that outcry.
To smooth things over, Halleck found it essential to give McClellan his “full approbation and cordial support.” As he had admitted to his wife earlier in the week, Halleck having McClellan’s old job was awkward. Not long ago, McClellan was giving orders to Halleck. Now it was the other way around.
“There was no one in the Army under whom I could serve with greater pleasure,” wrote Halleck, addressing delicate situation, “and I now ask from you that same support and co-operation and that same free interchange of opinions as in former days. If we disagree in opinion, I know that we will do so honestly and without unkind feelings.”
This wasn’t personal. Halleck had a job to do, just as McClellan had, and whatever disagreements that might arise, they would be dealt with in a friendly way. “If we permit personal jealousies to interfere for a single moment with our operations,” warned Halleck, who had no apparent sense of irony, “we shall not only injure the cause but ruin ourselves.”2
Halleck knew that constantly fighting with McClellan would be completely unproductive. He, along with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, had batted around the idea of replacing McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside, but ultimately, Burnside declined. For the time being, McClellan was staying. But was his army?3
Something had to be done with it. The Army of the Potomac couldn’t stay at Harrison’s Landing all summer. If McClellan’s figures were true, attacking Richmond, defended by 200,000 Rebels, was asking for a bloodbath. Since they could not stay put and could not advance, there was only one other option that could be chosen.
Halleck had tried to reinforce McClellan to the tune of 20,000 troops. But, McClellan, demanded 55,000.
From General John Pope, who was facing off against Stonewall Jackson’s troops north of Richmond, Halleck learned that Lee’s Rebel army was moving southeast of Richmond, leaving the city scantly defended. He urged McClellan to press the enemy and find out if that was true.
At the same time, however, he also ordered McClellan to send all of his sick and wounded back to Fortress Monroe. Though he said that it would better enable the Army of the Potomac to move in any direction, it was becoming obvious what the direction was going to be. Still, with Pope’s intelligence, which was gleaned from Rebel deserters, and Halleck’s prodding a forward movement, McClellan may have thought Washington wanted him to push back the Rebels at Malvern Hill (six miles from his position) and make another move on Richmond – all without reinforcements.4