Lee Wins a Race Mac Doesn’t Even Know He’s Running

November 3, 1862 (Monday)

Mac: Boy I sure do have a case of the slows!

George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had finally finished crossing over their namesake river to Virginia. It was slow going, even for McClellan. The whole affair seemed more like wandering than marching. McClellan had decided not to enter the Shenandoah Valley, but to skirt the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He knew that at least Stonewall Jackson was on the other side of the passes, but seemed to have no real huge desire to battle him.

Instead, he decided to guard the passes, hoping to bottle up the Rebels in the Valley. By this date, the Union army held Snicker’s Gap and Ashby’s Gap with considerable force. Other gaps to the south, like Manassas Gap and Thoroughfare Gap, were guarded by smaller squads.

This was all well and good for dealing with Jackson. It seemed however, that McClellan was using his entire command, plus an additional corps, to cover only half of Lee’s army. He pitted, perhaps, 125,000 against 32,000 and still refused to fight.

All McClellan really had to do at this point was to move his army between Jackson and Longstreet. Lee, of course, anticipated such a move and planned to recall Jackson before it happened. But, though McClellan was lightly pushing his troops south and west, literally filling in the gaps of the Blue Ridge, a move so bold was never attempted.

Though the push was very light, it was indeed a push. On this date, Union troops under Fitz John Porter had crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and attempted to make some sort of crossing at Castleman’s Ferry on the Shenandoah River. A Georgia regiment with some artillery put a stop to it almost right away.

Any other skirmishing was slight and on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. Mostly, it involved Confederate cavalry and scouts being nudged back into and through the passes. Not all Rebels were on the western side of the mountains, however, and for the next few days, it was suspected that they would make the going even slower.

The other half of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had completely given McClellan the slip. Lincoln had implored the General to move at a decent clip to cut Lee off from Richmond. If he had moved with any sort of swiftness, this wouldn’t have been too difficult a task. But McClellan was anything but swift. While he doddled in crossing the Potomac and inched his way through Loudoun County, the other half of Lee’s army, commanded by James Longstreet, had made time for Culpeper, getting in between the Army of the Potomac and the Rebel capital, effectively saving both.

A Longstreet indeed and nothing shorter!

That McClellan get between Lee and Richmond was imperative, not only in a strategic sense, but in order to keep his job. Lincoln was giving his General one more chance. He saw that there was a great opportunity to cut Lee off from his capital. If McClellan went for it, Lincoln would allow him to remain. If he did not, McClellan would have to go.

“I began to fear he was playing false,” said Lincoln to his secretary, John Hay, “that he did not want to hurt the enemy. I saw how he could intercept the enemy on the way to Richmond. I determined to make that the test.”

Longstreet was now at Culpeper, blocking McClellan. Once this news hit Washington, Lincoln would have no other choice by to react.1

  1. Sources: ((Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, p982; Part 2, related entries for November 3 and 4; Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame; Lincoln and McClellan by John C. Waugh; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears. []

Union Army Straddles the Potomac; Lee Reacts While McClellan Complains

October 30, 1862 (Thursday)

Mac: Here’s today’s list – same as yesterday’s!

It had been four days since George McClellan begun tossing his Army of the Potomac across its namesake river. The Confederates under Robert E. Lee had reacted and moved back a bit, but appeared to be in no real hurry. Perhaps they had noticed that McClellan was in even less of a hurry.

Four days has passed and still much of his army was not yet across the Potomac. As some corps were crossing, others were jockeying for position, readying themselves to cross. Three corps were on the Virginia side and were fanning themselves out in an arc to the south of Harpers Ferry. A detached brigade under George Stoneman was hovering around Leesburg, a bit south of the rest of the army, while Franz Sigel and part of his corps (which had been assigned to the defenses of Washington) were scouting and maneuvering much father south, in the Fairfax Courthouse and Manassas area.

Though slow, and growing even slower, it placed roughly 60,000 Federal troops on Virginia soil – the most that had been there since early September.

Here’s the map of the fairly approximate location and strength of the corps of both armies. Enjoy!

During the month of October, relative quiet fell across both armies. General Robert E. Lee took advantage of the lull to bolster and reorganize his army into two large corps. He had made both James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson Corps commanders. To McClellan’s sluggish advance, the Rebels quickly reacted.

In the face of an overwhelming enemy, Lee once again divided his much smaller army. And why not? It had worked against McClellan before, there was no reason it shouldn’t work against him again. He accompanied Longstreet’s Corps south towards Culpeper, watching the movement of the Union Army through the more southern passes, like Ashby’s Gap. It was assumed that McClellan’s ultimate goal was Richmond, which he would reach by way of Manassas and Culpeper.

Union crossing at Berlin, Maryland

Meanwhile, the other half of Lee’s Army, under Stonewall Jackson, was to stay in the Winchester area, covering the gaps across the Blue Ridge so that McClellan wouldn’t cut Lee’s Army of 75,000 in two. If it seemed like the Federals would get between the two Rebel corps, Jackson was to move south, up the Shenandoah Valley, cross at Swift Run Gap and join with Longstreet somewhere southwest of Culpeper.

All throughout this, detachments of infantry and Jeb Stuart’s Cavalry would raid and embarrass the Federal right flank and advance.

General Lee had a clear vision of what he must do to counter what he knew General McClellan would. This is curious, since General McClellan had no idea what he himself was going to do, let alone what Lee would do to counter it.

On the 25th, the eve of his crossing, he asked General-in-Chief Henry Halleck if he should protect the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry to Washington with his army, or should he just consider the river crossings protected by his move south. Either way, he mentioned, Pennsylvania would be left unprotected.

Halleck’s reply was vague, simply telling McClellan that it was all up to him. And so McClellan almost made a decision on his own. Once fully across, he would leave behind brigades at Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, Cumberland, Hancock, and cavalry to cover the B&O Railroad. This, according to McClellan, was insufficient and all he could do.

Union cavalry patrolling and skirmishing in Louden County

He suspected (incorrectly, as it turned out) that Confederate cavalry would remain in the Shenandoah Valley, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And though thousands upon thousands of infantry troops would be left to guard the Potomac crossings from cavalry raids, McClellan did not see these numbers “as sufficient to prevent cavalry raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania.” The reason was, of course, that he did not have enough cavalry – a complaint that he had mentioned a good number of times.

On this date, Halleck made his reply. He promised troops to guard the more southerly passes as McClellan moved south. As for the Potomac River, “no new regiments can be sent from here [Washington] to the Upper Potomac. The guarding of that line is left to your own discretion with the troops now under your command.”

Disgusted, McClellan cut off communication with Halleck, preferring (if that’s the proper word) to deal directly with that “Gorilla” President Lincoln, who was, as McClellan explained in a recent letter to his wife, his inferior “socially, intellectually and morally.”

On this night, however, McClellan would play the politics of fear. He turned to Pennsylvania’s Governor, Andrew Curtin, and explained the situation. He repeated the line he sent to Halleck that he did not “consider the force [left behind along the Potomac] sufficient to prevent raids and have so represented to General Halleck, who informed me that he has no more troops to send.”

He warned Curtin that Pennsylvania must hurry along its conscription, filling the militias and sending them “with the least possible delay to Chambersburg, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, and Hancock to prevent the possibility of raids.”

Gov. Andrew Curtain – Mac sends his deepest apologies…

If he would have gotten the reinforcements he wanted, wrote McClellan, “I could have left men enough to have made your frontier reasonably safe. As it is I cannot do it with due regard to the success of the main Army, and beg to warn you in time.”

McClellan was coming to the realization of an important shift in how the Federal government was handling new recruits and conscripts. Rather than filling the old regiments back to strength, they were creating new regiments. About this, he complained to anyone who would listen.

To Governor Curtain, he left it as the excuse as to why he couldn’t save Pennsylvania. To Lincoln he exclaimed that “no greater mistake has been made than the total failure to reinforce the old regiments.” He also reminded Lincoln again of the need for more cavalry horses.

To his wife, he was, as usual, even more candid. “I have just been put in excellent humor by seeing that instead of sending the drafted men to fill the old rgts (as had been promised me) they are forming them into new rgts. Also that in the face of the great want of cavalry… they are sending the new cavalry rgts from Penna to Louisville instead of hither!! Blind & foolish they will continue to the end.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 1, p85; Part 2, most of the Union entries for October 28, 29, 30 and 31, also p687. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter edited by Gary Gallagher; From Manassas to Appomattox; Memoirs of The Civil War in America by James Longstreet. []

McClellan and Lincoln Almost Make Up after Lincoln Almost Apologizes

October 27, 1862 (Monday)

It was finished. Well, at the very least it was started. General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had finally begun crossing over the Potomac in hopes that they were about to chase down General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Pontoon bridge spanning the Potomac at Berlin, Maryland.

Most were crossing at Berlin, Maryland, (now Brunswick) thirty miles south of Antietam. There, a pontoon bridge had been constructed and regiment after regiment tramped across as cold autumn winds and chilling rains greeted them. The temperatures plummeted and a thick frost coated the ground in the mornings.

The soldiers were poorly clad, hungry, and took to scavenging to deal with both. McClellan had authorization from General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to shoot anyone caught looting, but he turned a blind eye to such privations.

Getting McClellan to move had been a tiring feat for President Lincoln. He had coaxed, pushed and nearly ordered his general to cross the Potomac since the battle of Antietam nearly a month an a half prior. The most recent exchange between the two proved that the relationship was, at best, strained.

When McClellan told Lincoln that he couldn’t move due to his cavalry horses being too fatigued, the President sarcastically shot back, asking “what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”

McClellan tried to shame Lincoln into an apology by playing the “you don’t support the troops” card, and by this date, Lincoln was ready to come somewhat nearer to an apology.

“Most certainly I intend no injustice to any, and if I have done any I deeply regret it,” said the President, stopping short. Lincoln went on to explain that they had sent McClellan’s very unmoving army every horse they could throw a saddle across. The fact that, after so many new horses and so much inaction, they are somehow too fatigued “presents a very cheerless, almost hopeless, prospect for the future, and it may have forced something of impatience in my dispatch.” If they were not rested now, when would they ever be?

In his reply, McClellan ignored Lincoln’s near apology and moved on to another subject. Since (and because of) the battle of Antietam, the number of men in McClellan’s regiments had dwindled to mere “skeletons.” It was now necessary, “to fill up these skeletons before taking them again into action.” Now, forty days after the battle, McClellan was officially requesting “that the order to fill up the old regiments with drafted men may at once be issued.”

Lincoln, of course, saw no real reason that the regiments couldn’t be filled up with the new recruits and draftees. But he knew McClellan. There was more to this than a simple request for more men. There always was.

Mac: I never said the things I said!

And so Lincoln just had to ask: “Is it your purpose not to go into action again until the men now being drafted in the States are incorporated into the old regiments?”

When McClellan received Lincoln’s question, he must have shook his head in wonderment. The President had it all wrong. Though McClellan’s dispatch plainly said that Washington had “to fill up these skeletons before taking them again into action,” what it actually meant was that Washington had “to fill up these skeletons.” The bit saying that it had to be done “before taking them again into action” was added by a staff officer believing that’s what McClellan would have said. He apparently never bothered to have the General proof read it for content.

“This phrase was not authorized or intended by me,” explained the red-faced McClellan. “It has conveyed altogether an erroneous impression as to my plans and intentions.”

Answering the question directly, McClellan stated that he had not had “any idea of postponing the advance until the old regiments are filled by drafted men. […] The crossing will be continued as rapidly as the means at hand will permit. Nothing but the physical difficulties of the operation shall delay it.”

Lincoln was “much pleased” with the news, but was probably waiting for the other shoe to drop. This would soon happen, but who would be dropping it and upon whom would it land?1

  1. Sources: Lincoln’s Darkest Year by William Marvel; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p496-498, 504. []

Lincoln Asks McClellan What his Horses have Done that Fatigues them So

October 25, 1862 (Saturday)

Nearly two weeks had passed since Lincoln wrote to General George McClellan, not quite ordering him to move his Army of the Potomac from its cozy resting place between Antietam and Harpers Ferry. In it, he countered many of McClellan’s excuses with well reasoned logic.

Mac: “Look here, Abe!…”

In reply, McClellan acknowledged that he received the letter, but had been “unable to give to your Excellency’s letter that full and respectful consideration.” He promised to give Lincoln’s views “the fullest and most unprejudiced consideration.” He would move when his men and his cavalry were ready.

A week had passed since his reply. No further mention was made of Lincoln’s ideas. During that time, McClellan had done his best to gather more supplies for his army and to figure out just how many horses he had. Quartermaster-General Montgomery Meigs claimed that he had sent McClellan 1,500 horses and filled every single requisition for supplies that he received.

Finally, on the 22nd, McClellan decided it was time to get ready to move his army across the Potomac River, but needed all the cavalry Washington could muster. As a day passed, and then another, McClellan continued to hint and imply that he needed more horses.

Meigs: “See here, Mac…!”

To support this claim, McClellan forwarded a report from Col. Robert Williams of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. His regiment had 267 horses. However, 128 of them were “positively and absolutely unable to leave the camp” due to various equine ailments, such as “sore-tongue, grease, and consequent lameness, and sore backs.” Fifty of those remaining, believed Col. Williams, could not trot more than eighty miles.

“The horses, which are still sound, are absolutely broken down from fatigue,” wrote the colonel in closing.

When the War Department received this report, which had been addressed to Halleck, President Lincoln personally made the reply.

“I have just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatiegued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”

It was one of the most biting and sarcastic missives ever sent by Lincoln. But he was making very clear his opinion of McClellan’s constant and unwarranted complaints.

Treating McClellan in such a way only angered the man. “I was mad as a ‘march hare,'” he wrote to his wife about the message. “It was one of those dirty little flings that I can’t get used to when they are not merited.”

To prove there was no merit for Lincoln’s dirty little fling, McClellan shot back a quick overview of what his cavalry had done in tracking down Jeb Stuart’s Rebel cavalry on their recent raid into Pennsylvania. Six regiments had marched fifty-five miles in one day, while another marched seventy-eight! Other than that, they had been busy picketing the Potomac. If any other cavalry had ever done more work than his since the battle of Antietam, he had never heard of it.

Mac: “You want to know how mad I am? THIS is how mad I am!”

But Lincoln had heard of it. Coming the following day, Lincoln reminded McClellan that “Stuart’s cavalry outmarched ours, having certainly done more marked service on the Peninsula and everywhere else.”

McClellan feigned outrage, as usual. How could Lincoln make such a statement, doing such “injustice to the excellent officers and men?” He went on to describe in detail exactly what his cavalry had done over the past month or so.

Nevertheless, McClellan was about to move his entire Army of the Potomac, 116,000-strong, across its namesake river. Before they left camp, however, McClellan had a few questions for Halleck. He would cross the river, but wanted to know if it wouldn’t be better to cover Harpers Ferry and the Potomac, rather than advancing so far south?

If he covered Harpers Ferry, wouldn’t that still leave a path open for the Rebels to invade Pennsylvania? And what about Bragg’s Army in Tennessee? McClellan was convinced of “the fact that a great portion of Bragg’s Army is probably now at liberty to unite itself with Lee’s command.”

Halleck’s reply was simple. McClellan had not been charged with defending any particular piece of ground. “The Government has entrusted you with defeating and driving back the rebel army in your front.” As he drove the enemy farther south, he could fortify those cities, as he occupied them. As for Rebels coming from the west, Halleck didn’t think “that we need have any immediate fear of Bragg’s army. You are within 20 miles of Lee’s, while Bragg is distant about 400 miles.”

And so McClellan began to move his Army across the Potomac, still believing his questions unanswered, his requisitions unfilled and his cavalry in shambles.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19. Part 1, p84-84; OR, Vol. 19, Part 2, p484-485, 490-491; The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears. []

McClellan is in Command Again! Three Cheers!

September 2, 1862 (Tuesday)

Stanton: Mac must go!

While John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia beat a hasty path back into the defenses of Washington, the Federal capital was abuzz with rumors – some apparently spread by Pope’s rival, George McClellan. As McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was returning from their ill-fated tramp up and back down the Virginia Peninsula, Confederates under Robert E. Lee moved north, defeating Pope’s Army on the plains of Manassas.

For that fight, McClellan’s Army was given to Pope in the field. During the battle, McClellan, who was without a command, asked General-in-Chief Henry Halleck if he could be with his troops. He was denied such a privilege and specifically forbidden to have any control over any of Pope’s troops, including the units from his own Army of the Potomac.1

This was due in part to a growing rift between McClellan and pretty much everyone in Washington. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, specifically had it out for him. When McClellan made an offhand suggestion that Lincoln “leave Pope to get out of his own scrape” at the Battle of Second Manassas, Stanton flew into a fury. He wanted McClellan gone.

Chase: Quite right, Edwin! Be gone, Mac!

Immediately, Stanton went to Halleck and asked him if McClellan acted too slowly in following the orders to remove his men from the Peninsula. Halleck conceded that his order “was not obeyed with the promptness I expected and the national safety, in my opinion, required.”2

When Stanton received Halleck’s opinion, the battle had ended and McClellan was getting much of the blame. According to his detractors, he had withheld troops that should have gone to Pope’s aid. Additionally, McClellan was spreading the rumor that there were 20,000 of Pope’s stragglers between Centreville and Washington. Pope and McClellan’s adversaries in Washington, insisted otherwise. When Stanton received Halleck’s opinion, the battle had ended and McClellan was getting much of the blame. According to his detractors, he had withheld troops that should have gone to Pope’s aid. Additionally, McClellan was spreading the rumor that there were 20,000 of Pope’s stragglers between Centreville and Washington. Pope insisted otherwise.

Stanton, armed with Halleck’s opinion, helped draft a plea to President Lincoln, urging him not to put McClellan back in command of anything as he was a disloyal traitor. The letter was drafted by Stanton, with help from Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. Soon, Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith was on board. When Attorney General Edward Bates saw the missive, he agreed with it, but thought it too loud and penned his own version omitting the bits about disloyalty.3

Welles: Perhaps, but then again, maybe not.

Naval Secretary Gideon Welles liked it better than Stanton’s draft, but refused to sign it. William Seward, Secretary of State, was suspiciously absent, probably trying to avoid this whole fiasco. Nevertheless, Stanton and Chase planned to present the written protest to Lincoln at the Cabinet meeting held on this date.4

But word was flowing into Washington that Pope was whipped, and Stanton knew that he had lost his ground. If Pope would have been victorious, McClellan’s ouster would have been an easy decision. But with the defeat came the fear that Washington would be taken by the Rebels. The city flew into a frenzy. Thousand left town, while many more packed their bags just in case. Even Stanton gathered his papers in preparation to flee. All of this, according to Stanton, was McClellan’s fault. It was he who refused to reinforce Pope.

Stanton’s clerk, A.E.H. Johnson, later wrote “that if McClellan had been present when the news of Pope’s defeat came in, the Secretary would have assaulted him.”5

Smith: Why doesn't anyone ever remember me?

At breakfast on this date, Lincoln met with Halleck and McClellan. Halleck, at McClellan’s request, had sent a member of his staff on General Pope’s retreating army to ascertain the rumors of 20,000 stragglers. When Halleck received the confirmation, McClellan was proven right, while Stanton, Chase and the rest were proven wrong. And though it was merely one point of many, it suddenly clouded all.6

In Lincoln and Halleck’s eyes, Pope was clearly the braggart and liar many had accused him of being. It would do nobody any good to keep him in command of the army. Since McClellan was a fine organizer, he was the man to take command of the troops coming into Washington.7

This order gave McClellan command of both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Virginia. Before long, everyone, including Secretary of War Stanton, knew that McClellan was back in command.

Stanton’s plan to present the written protest at the Cabinet meeting was foiled and pointless. Just as it was opening, Lincoln had to leave for a bit. The discussion quickly turned to Pope’s recent failures. For this, McClellan and others from the Army of the Potomac, got much of the blame, though Pope was hardly held in high regard.

Lincoln: Oh he's not THAT bad!

Then, in a quiet voice, Stanton took over. He was absolutely livid over the news that McClellan was given command of all the troops. Those who had not yet heard were equally shocked. During this talk, Lincoln returned. When he caught wind of what was being said, he interjected.

He took full responsibility for whatever travesty might happen next, but added that Halleck agreed to it. He then built his case. McClellan knew well the ground around Washington. He was a find defensive commander, engineer, and organizer. This task would draw upon all of this good qualities, while avoiding his worst, which Lincoln referred to as “the slows.”

There was little the Cabinet could do but acquiesce, and even with that, some believed McClellan’s appointment would prove a national calamity.8

McClellan: Too true, Abe, watch this!

For General Pope, this was a very bad day. As he and his army marched towards Washington, he was engaged in a conversation with Irvin McDowell, one of his corps commanders. As they approached Munson’s Hill, they came across General George McClellan, bedecked in a new, clean uniform.

McClellan explained to Pope that he (McClellan) had been put in command of the troops entering Washington, and gave Pope orders where to place which units. Pope said nothing, but gave a salute in return.

General John Hatch, however, could hardly contain himself. He had been bitter since Pope had demoted him from the cavalry to infantry. Hatch was leading a column of his troops past where McClellan and Pope were meeting. As McClellan took command, effectively relieving Pope of his duty, Hatch rode to the front of his column.

“Boys!” bellowed Hatch, “McClellan is in command again! Three cheers!” The men all around them erupted into spirited huzzahs, while bands struck up jaunty tunes in celebration.9

  1. McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan, C. L. Webster & Company, 1887. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p706, 739. []
  3. Edwin McMasters Stanton by Frank Abial Flower, Geo. M. Smith, 1905. []
  4. Diary of Gideon Welles by Gideon Welles, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911. []
  5. Edwin McMasters Stanton by Frank Abial Flower, Geo. M. Smith, 1905. []
  6. Letter from George McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, September 2, 1862, as printed in The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1989. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p807. []
  8. Diary of Gideon Welles by Gideon Welles, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911. []
  9. Military Reminiscences of the Civil War by Jacob Cox, 1900. []