Lincoln Bows to Political Pressure, Depletes Mac’s Army

March 31, 1862 (Monday)

General McClellan

General George B. McClellan was a worried and busied man these days. By the end of March, most of his Army of the Potomac was near Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. The General himself was planning on departing Alexandria and Washington the following day to finally ready his men for an advance against Richmond.

When McClellan’s plan was approved by President Lincoln, it was allowed with two conditions. First, troops had to remain at Manassas Junction, so the Confederates could not reoccupy the works. Second, McClellan was to “leave Washington entirely secure.”1 Also of pressing need was the Shenandoah Valley, a sort of back door to Washington, where Stonewall Jackson’s force was still very much alive.

Though he had not yet submitted the figures for exactly how many men would be covering Washington, McClellan had laid out a general idea of how the areas around the capital were to be covered. The Shenandoah Valley and Manassas area were put under the command of General Nathaniel Banks. Banks’ Corps was to operate as part of the Army of the Potomac, but more as an independent command. Covering Washington and Manassas were the troops that regularly garrisoned the forts around the city.

In addition to Banks’s Corps, the division of General Louis Blenker was to also cover the Valley. This division, made up of many German-speaking immigrants, had become somewhat controversial.

General Fremont, long after the war, standing by the tree that bears his name.

General John Fremont, who had been removed from command in Missouri, had become part of the Washington social circle and was still lauded by Republicans and the press. Early in the month, he got the ear of Lincoln and proposed a plan to rescue Eastern Tennessee, long one of Lincoln’s pet projects. All Fremont needed was a corps of troops and a department. Bowing to pressure, Lincoln gave Fremont the Mountain Department, mostly comprising Western Virginia and Eastern Tennessee.

Throughout the department, Fremont had roughly 25,000 troops, and so Lincoln promised as many as 10,000 more. In the days following Lincoln’s promise, Fremont set his gaze upon General Blenker’s Division, 10,000-strong. If only he could have the division, Fremont assured Lincoln, he would assail Eastern Tennessee.2

Lincoln was torn and so went to talk to McClellan about the transfer. Meeting in a steamer off Alexandria, the President rattled off a list of reasons not to give in to the obvious political pressure from Fremont and his friends. In fact, the only reason he could think of to send the division to Fremont was political pressure. Then, according to McClellan, Lincoln promised not to detach it.3

Just as he had done when he gifted Fremont the Mountain Department, Lincoln, despite whatever he may have told McClellan, caved and gave Blenker’s Division to Fremont. McClellan learned the news when he received a message from Lincoln on this date.

General Blenker covering the retreat from Manassas.

Lincoln wrote that he “felt constrained to order Blenker’s division to Fremont,” and that he only did so “with great pain.”4

McClellan replied immediately to Lincoln, telling him that there was no way he could afford to lose 10,000 men. When he repeated the plea face to face, later in the day, Lincoln apparently promised McClellan that “nothing of the sort should be repeated.” McClellan also recalled that the President told him that he “might rest assured that the campaign should proceed with no further deductions from the force upon which its operations had been planned.”5

Before leaving for the Peninsula the following day, McClellan would submit a final tally of the troops held back from his campaign to defend Washington.

Blenker's men celebrating when Mac was put in command of the Union army.


Col. Canby on His Way! Mrs. Canby Nurses the Rebels

Col. Edward Canby, commander of all Federal troops in New Mexico, was livid. He had ordered the troops at Fort Union, north of Las Vegas, not to engage the Rebels, under General Henry Sibley, that had taken Albuquerque and Santa Fe. On this date, he received a dispatch from Col. John Slough that he (Slough) had done just that.

Col. Canby

Slough’s message from March 29 told of the Battle of Apache Canyon, which, while a Northern victory, was undertaken in direct violation of Canby’s orders.6 At this early of a date, Canby had no idea that another, larger battle had been fought at Glorieta Pass, resulting in a strange Union defeat, after which the Rebels retreated.

Hoping to mitigate whatever damage Col. Slough was about to cause, Canby decided to head north with his 1,100 troops, towards Albuquerque, 100 or so miles from Fort Craig. The fort would be left in the capable hands of Christopher “Kit” Carson.7

By this date, the Union forces under Col. Slough were marching through Las Vegas on their way back to Fort Union.8

Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, the wounded Rebels and captured Union prisoners were being seen to by the ladies of the city, headed by Mrs. Canby, wife of the colonel. She nursed the boys as if they were her own sons, even traveling the Santa Fe Trail to the battlefield to assist in bringing the wounded back to town.

A building at Fort Union, possibly the barracks.

Long after the battle, when the last group of wounded Confederates were about to leave Santa Fe, the convalescents took out an ad in the Gazette thanking the ladies of Santa Fe “for the delicate kindness which has been shown to many of us in suffering and sickness, and the attention and courtesy which has been extended to all.”

One Texan conceded that Mrs. Canby “captured more hearts of Confederate soldiers than the old general [Col. Canby] ever captured Confederate bodies.”9

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p59. []
  2. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel Beatie, Savas Beatie, 2007. []
  3. McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. It was, of course, in McClellan’s best interest to relate that Lincoln promised not to detach Blenker. []
  4. The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Vol. 9 edited by Frank Moore, Putnam, 1864, p544. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p10. Again, can we trust McClellan’s version of this? In effect, Lincoln seems to be saying to McClellan, “I have altered the deal. Pray I do not alter it further.” []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p533. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9. p658-659. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p659. []
  9. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall, University of New Mexico Press, 1960. []
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Lincoln Bows to Political Pressure, Depletes Mac’s Army by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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