Lincoln Gives McClellan One Last Chance

October 13, 1862 (Monday)

George McClellan fighting the throngs of fans rather than the Rebels.

Getting through to George Brinton McClellan was no simple task. The man was self-assured, self-congratulatory, and self-centered. Since the battle of Antietam, nearly a month ago, President Lincoln had tried numerous times to convince his General that moving against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, positioned near Winchester, was incredibly important.

With every request, suggestion, and order came excuses from the pen of McClellan. When Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac, he and McClellan had numerous talks as the President reiterated the necessity for him to move.

Since that time, Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart had raided to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and circled the Union Army, centered near Harpers Ferry. This was the second time it had happened. It was humiliating. Though this latest embarrassment would not be specifically addressed by the President until he had all the details, Lincoln thought it once again time for a letter to General McClellan.

During the meeting at Antietam, Lincoln had termed McClellan as “over-cautious.” Perhaps it was the nicest way he could think of to put it. In the letter dated “October 13,” Lincoln continued this line of thought.

“Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing?” asked the President. “Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?”

Abe: Get a move on, Mac!

Both Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck wanted McClellan to move the army to Winchester, forcing what they believed to be the smaller enemy force out into the open. McClellan’s reasoning was that getting supplies to Winchester from Harpers Ferry without a working railroad line would be impossible.

To counter the excuse, Lincoln suggested that “the enemy does now subsist his army at Winchester at a distance nearly twice as great from railroad transportation as you would have to do without the railroad last named.” Lincoln wrote that he would love for McClellan to have a working railroad built all the way from Harpers Ferry to Winchester, “but it wastes all the remainder of autumn to give it to you; and, in fact ignores the question of time, which can not, and must not be ignored.”

The Rebel army sat in a strange position. From Winchester, they could either move south to Richmond or north into Pennsylvania – a threat that Lincoln was taking all the more seriously with Stuart’s latest raid. Lincoln had a plan for both.

If the Rebels moved north, they would necessarily cut communication with Richmond. This could work to McClellan’s advantage. If General Lee invaded Pennsylvania, wrote Lincoln, “you have nothing to do but to follow, and ruin him; if he does so with less than full force, fall upon, and beat what is left behind all the easier.”

Should Lee move towards Richmond, McClellan’s army was closer to the Rebel capital than the Confederate army, “I would press closely to him, fight him if a favorable opportunity should present, and, at least, try to beat him to Richmond on the inside track.” To further drive this point home, Lincoln mused, “Why can you not reach there before him, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on a march.”

The point of this whole thing was that the Confederate army needed to be defeated. “We should not so operate as to merely drive him away. As we must beat him somewhere,” reminded Lincoln. If McClellan could not beat Lee in the field, there really wasn’t a chance that he could beat him once behind the defenses of Richmond.

From the letter, it was clear that Lincoln wanted McClellan to make a move towards Richmond. He detailed the roads and the mountain passes across the Blue Ridge which the Rebels might take. “I should think it preferable to take the route nearest the enemy,” advised the President, “disabling him to make an important move without your knowledge, and compelling him to keep his forces together, for dread of you.”

To sweeten the pot, Lincoln knew that he would have to promise McClellan troops – all the troops he could ever imagine that he would need. “For a great part of the way, you would be practically between the enemy and both Washington and Richmond, enabling us to spare you the greatest number of troops from here.”

If the Federal army moved against Richmond and the Rebels made a play for Washington, all McClellan had to do was fall upon the rear of the enemy. “But,” reminded Lincoln, “I think he should be engaged long before such point is reached.”

In closing, Lincoln boldly asserted that this was all easy “if our troops march as well as the enemy; and it is unmanly to say they can not do it.”

The letter was biting, but, it was “in no sense an order.” It was merely a suggestion that McClellan should probably follow – and quickly.

Before sending the letter to the army, Lincoln shared it with is Vice-President, Hannibal Hamlin. At the Soldiers Home just north of the city, he and Lincoln stayed up all night discussing the McClellan issue. There were many, including his Cabinet, who wanted to see McClellan removed from command. Lincoln, however, wanted to exhaust all possibilities before coming to that conclusion.

Dear Abe, thank you for remembering that I exist.

Hamlin gave McClellan the credit he deserved for organizing the Army of the Potomac. But that is where the praise ended. McClellan, in Hamlin’s eyes, was by nature not a fighter. There were numerous times, especially on the Peninsula, where McClellan could have done more, but instead chose not to fight.

Interestingly, Hamlin contrasted this behavior with another general in the field: Ulysses S. Grant. While McClellan had been given all the resources that Washington had to offer, he still had to be coaxed into fighting. Grant, on the other hand, was out West, where the resources were limited, at best. And yet, Grant was always ready for a fight. While McClellan meddled in politics during his long stretches of military inactivity, Grant did no such thing.

To sum upon his opinion of General McClellan, Hamlin told Lincoln that the General was “the first man to build a bridge, but the last man to cross it.”

Lincoln agreed completely, but decided that McClellan deserved one more chance. This letter, it appears, was that final chance. It was the last opportunity McClellan would have to prove himself to Lincoln.

It wouldn’t arrive in Harpers Ferry until the 16th. When it did, McClellan’s only response was that he was too busy to give “the full and respectful consideration which it merits at my hands.” He promised to give the President’s views “the fullest and most unprejudiced consideration.” It was apparently his intention to “advance the moment my men are shod and my cavalry are sufficiently remounted to be serviceable.”

And that was all. It wasn’t that McClellan was too busy to consider the letter. He seemed to know that this was his last chance. “Lincoln is down on me,” he told one of his generals. “I expect to be relieved from the Army of the Potomac, and to have a command in the West.” Maybe part of him wished this to be. A western command would put him farther away from the coaxing and prodding Washington. But none of him seemed to believe there was even the most remote chance he would simply be fired.1

  1. Sources: Diary of Gideon Welles; The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 6; McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan; The Life and Times of Hannibal Hamlin by Charles Eugene Hamlin; George B. McClellan by Stephen W. Sear. []
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5 thoughts on “Lincoln Gives McClellan One Last Chance

    1. Wow! Thank you so much!

      Training? By “historian” do you mean “person with an expensive piece of paper that tells folks he’s a historian”? 🙂

      Honestly, I’m not really sure (apart from my snarky definition above) what a historian is and is not. I have friends who are philosophy professors who might argue that to be a philosopher, you have to have a degree in philosophy (which I think is silly).

      But no, I’m not studying to attain a history degree. I’m a lowly and happy fellow who wears many, many hats. An interest in history is but one of them.

      That said, I’m certainly *not* anti-academia. If I could do it all over again, I would probably go for a history degree. Or at least not drop out at the end of my first semester. Thinking back on it, however, I’ve had one hell of a fun life thus far, so it’s hard to have regrets.

      1. OK–truth time here! I am 63–I will be 64 in January. I don’t regret much in my crazy life, but I do wish I had gotten a B. A. in History, and gone on from there. I really have, if I’m lucky, 20 or so good years left. I have the Ellsworth book, a good idea for my Master’s thesis, a book on Ward Hill Lamon, and a book on Bee & Bartow, plus an assorted list of other ideas.

        Just don’t wait as long as I did. The paper is totally worth it–I learn so much, daily!! My writing is better than ever, and I will about die of pride when I get to walk across a stage somewhere for that piece of paper. I am going to APU, online. See? U R never 2 old!

  1. Eric:
    I had a two week vacation at the OBX during Sandy so I got behind. To me this and the Stuart ride account from the last two days may be your best efforts so far. Keep up the great work! You have an appreciative audience! – Mac

    1. Thanks Mac! I really do try to keep things interesting, even as far as the writing itself goes. I swear, sometimes I’m on autopilot. Usually, however, I try to see it as a craft. I’m really happy it’s appreciated! Thank you!

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