October 6, 1862 (Monday)
Since the battle of Antietam, General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had hardly moved. For the most part, it was encamped between Harpers Ferry and the recent battlefield. Lincoln had hoped, requested and finally visited McClellan in an attempt to make his General understand just how important it was to follow up the battle with a pursuit.
During the visit McClellan and Lincoln reviewed the troops, toured the battlefield and engaged in long talks concerning the next move. The talks were private and the only one to really write about them was McClellan. His accounts are probably not the most reliable.
During a rest after visiting one of the battlefields, Lincoln, according to McClellan, was sitting upon a hillside with his legs folded up and knees about his chin. “General, you have saved the country,” said the apparently star-struck President. “You must remain in command and carry us through to the end.”
McClellan wrote his wife that Lincoln believed him to be “the best general in the country.” In his memoirs, McClellan remembered Lincoln telling him not to stir an inch until he was ready, that he would defend him against all who wished to hurry him along.
When the President left McClellan’s headquarters, oddly enough, that was the last time either would see the other alive. Though Lincoln would live until the very end of the war, and McClellan until 1885, this was the last time the two would meet.
Lincoln never left any recollections of the meetings near Antietam in early October, but a friend of his did. Ozias Hatch, who had traveled with Lincoln to visit the battlefields, remembered that he and Lincoln walked up a hill overlooking the encampment. “Do you know what this is?” asked the President.
“It is the Army of the Potomac,” replied Hatch.
“So it is called, but that is a mistake,” corrected Lincoln. “It is only McClellan’s bodyguard.” This may have been said in exasperation, but there’s little doubt that this is how Lincoln felt.
The President arrived back in Washington on the 4th and spent the next day, a Sunday, no doubt thinking over what he and McClellan had talked about. On this date (the 6th), rumor around Washington was that McClellan wished to retire from the service if he could do so without disgrace. When the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, heard of this, he dismissed it as a ploy by McClellan to become General-in-Chief, to replace Henry Halleck, whom everyone but McClellan seemed to favor.
Later, during the Cabinet meeting, Lincoln shared the stories of his trek to the battlefield, but never gave his opinion on McClellan’s generalship or the results of the battle. The talk then turned to other matters, such as the colonization of blacks, who should be the naval chaplain, and ironclads, proving that McClellan wasn’t necessarily the center of the known universe.
After the meeting, however, Lincoln returned to the issue with McClellan. He ventured to the War Department to speak with Henry Halleck, ordering him to telegraph McClellan. He then dictated the message:
The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good. If you cross the river between the enemy and Washington, and cover the latter by your operation, you can be re-enforced with 30,000 men. If you move up the Valley of the Shenandoah, not more than 12,000 or 15,000 can be sent to you. The President advises the interior line between Washington and the enemy, but does not order it. He is very desirous that your army move as soon as possible. You will immediately report what line you adopt and when you intend to cross the river; also to what point the re-enforcements are to be sent. It is necessary that the plan of your operations be positively determined on before orders are given for building bridges and repairing railroads.
Whether Lincoln had approved of McClellan’s leadership during the battle of Antietam was no longer on the table. Whether he President stared longingly into the General’s eyes and told him that he was the best General in the whole wide world no longer mattered.
All that mattered was that Lincoln now wanted him to move. He outlined two very basic plans, and gave McClellan the choice between them. Sitting idle was not among them, but neither did the President describe what would happen if McClellan did nothing.1
- Sources: The Civil War Papers of General McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears; Lincoln and McClellan by John C. Waugh; McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan; Diary of Gideon Welles; Diary and Correspondence of Salmon P. Chase; Abraham Lincoln: Collected Works, Vol. 5. [↩]