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. []
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4 thoughts on “Lincoln Asks McClellan What his Horses have Done that Fatigues them So

  1. He has a point concening calvary mounts. The Federals experienced great difficulties in obtaining sufficient quality mounts not only for its calvary but also for its artillery. It was in the next year, if I remember correctly, that divisions set up horse hospitals. Nonetheless, battles must be fought with assets on hand and McClelland did not have a killer instinct.

  2. Lee seems to have, about this time, the idea McClellan would go into winter quarters. Lincoln, I am supposing had the same thought after Mac began fixating on building a bridge at Harper’s Ferry and securing more horses and supplies.

    What confuses me, though, is this from the 25th by Lee:

    “The enemy will, doubtless, make his attack in the present winter south of the James River, and will make strenuous efforts to cut off our communication with the South by obtaining possession of the Petersburg, Weldon and Wilmington Railway. Should they succeed in this, hopeless disaster might ensue, unless we could rely on the interior connection, via Greensborough and Danville.”

    This seems to imply if McClellan moved he would move again to the Peninsula. I can’t imagine it. For one, the administration wasn’t enamored of that route when it was first tried and surely wouldn’t permit it again.

    But what this highlights, for me at least, is the idea Lee saw Petersburg (in 62′) as a point, if taken, which could cause “hopeless disaster”. Which, by late 64′ it became for the South.

    1. Richmond, Lee included, was always looking over its shoulder at the troops left on the Peninsula. I don’t think that Lee necessarily thought that Mac’s next move would be back to the Peninsula. Petersburg was in danger during the latter bits of the Peninsula Campaign, though it was never actually threatened.

      You’ll see things really get panicky there when Hooker lops off the IX Corps after Fredericksburg and sends them to Fortress Monroe.

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