Lincoln to McClellan: “You Must Act”

April 9, 1862 (Wednesday)

General McClellan

While the Battle of Shiloh raged for two days in the west, General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac moved not an inch. Four long days has passed since McClellan learned that the Confederates had fortified across the entire Virginia Peninsula. He had expected them to retreat to Yorktown, which he felt could easily be taken. The same day, he discovered that President Lincoln was withholding General McDowell’s First Corps, keeping it near to Washington.

McClellan had decided to besiege Yorktown. This siege would take time. Lincoln was growing increasingly short on such a commodity. On the sixth, Lincoln had wired McClellan, urging him to move. “You now have over 100,000 troops with you,” reasoned the President, “I think you better break the line from Yorktown to Warwick River at once.”

McClellan argued that he had only 85,000 men (of which only 53,000 were on hand). When McClellan first landed on the Peninsula, by his own calculations, the enemy before him consisted of no more than 15,000. Things on that end, however, seemed to have changed. As he took in Rebel prisoners, he heard again and again that General Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Potomac (very soon to use the moniker “Army of Northern Virginia”) had left their works along the Rappahannock to reinforce their comrades on the Peninsula.

This meant, according to McClellan, that the enemy now had “probably not less than 100,000 men, probably more.” Since the loss of Blenker’s Division and McDowell’s First Corps (a loss he somehow totaled to the sound of 50,000 men), his force “was probably less than that of the enemy.”1

General and Mrs. McClellan

Writing to his wife that evening, McClellan complained that Lincoln “thought I had better break the enemy’s lines at once! I was much tempted to reply that he had better come & do it himself.”2

The truth was that many of Johnston’s Rebels had come to Yorktown. However, the prisoners McClellan relied upon for information greatly exaggerated things. Manning the Confederate defenses, they had few more than 34,000, doubling the original Army of the Peninsula, commanded by General “Prince” John Magruder, who was blissfully surprised that McClellan had not yet attacked.3

Also surprised, though less than blissful, was President Lincoln, who, upon this date, donned his lawyer’s cap and sent McClellan a very stern note, arguing why the General had to pick up the pace. With all the skill of a master attorney, Lincoln deftly punched holes in each of McClellan’s complaints and excuses.

Union troops march to Yorktown, but would go no farther for a long, long time.

Lincoln’s biggest concern was that Washington be left protected. McClellan originally placed General Banks’ Corps at Manassas to do the job, but then moved them to the Shenandoah, leaving nothing in their place. “And allow me to ask,” jabbed Lincoln, “do you really think I should permit the line from Richmond via Manassas Junction to this city to be entirely open except what resistance could be presented by less than 20,000 unorganized troops?”

As McClellan claimed to have only 85,000 men, Lincoln wondered how that could be so. According to McClellan’s own returns, he had 108,000 men total. “How can the discrepancy of 23,000 be accounted for?”

Lincoln was not finished. He figured that however many men McClellan had en route to the Peninsula had already arrived. The enemy, however, would only grown stronger. While Lincoln ultimately approved McClellan’s Peninsula plan, it was not his first choice. “You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted that going down the bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting and not surmounting a difficulty,” explained the President, “we would find the same enemy and the same or equal intrenchments at either place.”

McClellan's tent outside Yorktown.

Now was no time for regrets. It was time for action. Several places throughout the letter, Lincoln insisted that McClellan do something. “I think it is the precise time for you to strike a blow,” penned Lincoln only two lines before he wrote: “And once more let me tell you it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow.”

He concluded in much the same manner: “I beg to assure you that I have never written you or spoken to you in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as, in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can. But you must act.”4


Federals Slip Away from Albuquerque

Union Col. Edward Canby had hoped to take Confederate-held Albuquerque, holding it until he could form a junction with the troops coming south from Fort Union. Combined, with a force of 2,200, he planned to defeat the Rebel Army of New Mexico, commanded by General Henry Sibley, roughly 2,000-strong.

It's today's New Mexico map!

Canby and his column arrived before Albuquerque the previous day, but had met with a stiff resistance put up by the 120 Rebels left in town. Sibley, who had concentrated most of his force to the north, at Santa Fe, was currently doing everything he could to rush them back to Albuquerque.

The Federals spent most of this day skirmishing with the Confederates. No casualties were recorded, but the fire, including artillery, was kept up for hours. At dusk, Canby ordered that his men build campfires and that his drummer boys and buglers remain behind while the rest of his force moved east under the shroud of nightfall.

The deception worked, and not a day too soon. The first elements of Sibley’s Rebels began to arrive at 10pm. South of their position, they saw the Federal camp, lit with fires, and could hear the bugle strains and beats of the drum. Meanwhile, Canby slipped to Carnuel Pass, near San Antonio. There, he would wait for the troops from Fort Union, under Col. Gabriel Paul.5

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol 11, Part 1, p14; 11-12. []
  2. Lincoln and McClellan; The Trouble Partnership Between a President and His General by John C. Waugh, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. []
  3. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol 11, Part 1, p15. []
  5. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall, University of New Mexico Press, 1960. []
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Lincoln to McClellan: “You Must Act” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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5 thoughts on “Lincoln to McClellan: “You Must Act”

  1. Ahem … uh …. gee … look at all the fighting now going on between Darth Lincoln and his Sith Apprentice McClellan over where to put people, how many they have, and the utter failure of Pinkerton and the other Blue Devil contractors in gathering intelligence. All because Darth Lincoln is utterly afraid of Stonewall Jackson’s Army, which by the way, the Yanks have no clue as to where it is. LOL! That First Battle of Kernstown … we concluded time and again at Marine Corps University … was the MOST important battle of the entire Valley Campaign … the opening punch and the fear of God it put into the faithless rogues in blue. But hey, what would the Marines know about battle tactics and maneuver warfare? Probably nothing. The war’s over now, so the Neo-Yankee historians can put as many scratch-marks in the W-column as they want. But 1862 belonged to the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederates, from Kernstown to Sharpsburg. What a year this was for Lee’s Lieutenants. LOL! I enjoy your column, so I hope you don’t mind the occasional splash of reality. Now I know how the CSA veterans felt in the 1870’s/1880’s with all the “memoirs” coming out, stocked full of baloney. All in all you do a great job in your over-views, despite taking Wiki or Robertson or whomever as the source for calling the wins & losses. Good day!

    1. Let’s get a couple of things straight. If anyone is going to make Star Wars jokes here, it’ll be me. Also, my sources are all sited. Wikipedia is not and will never be among them. It’s a fine site for random trivia and even has some surprisingly well-researched (and documented) articles now and then. But I don’t use it.

      That’s all. I’m through feeding the resident troll for today.

    2. Oh, actually, one more thing. If you have some weirdass problem with the sources I use, please feel free to suggest others. I’m also open to different things. Keep in mind that I’m currently writing/researching the war four months from now. I’m just heading into 2nd Bull Run/Manassas and the Maryland Campaign. I most definitely need some fine sources for the latter. Also, fall/winter of ’62.

      I try to shy away from memoirs, though they do come in handy for color commentary.

  2. I’m still working my way thru, trying to get current but I sure don’t understand David’s comments. Of course I AM an Ohioan, but most of the history that I know does not speak well of the Union armies thru 1862. I dont see you, Eric, placing many laurels on McClellan either so I dont understand David’s isues.
    Anyway… I think this is GREAT Eric, keep up the good work. and @David: you are giving the Marine Corps University a bad rap by your constant negative comments.

    1. Ohh David has been banned for precisely this reason. His attacks got weirdly personal and I blocked him. A few months later, after checking my spam folder, I noticed that he was still commenting. A lot. It seemed like he would comment and not check back to see if anyone replied (or if it even posted).

      So I emailed him directly, telling him that he was blocked, why he was blocked, and that he would be welcome to comment again if he could keep it civil and back up his opinions with some sort of primary (or even respected secondary) references. He never replied to my email.

      He has, however, continued in attempting to comment. I just checked again a couple of nights ago, and four wacky comments were sitting in my spam folder. He’s probably tried to comment twenty or so times in all. None have gone through since he was warned and banned.

      In short – I’m not biased against the South or biased for the North. Both sides had ideas that I can respect and both sides had ideas that I despise. Same goes for their leaders. That said, I believe the right side won the war since it meant the end of slavery. Few would argue any differently.

      It’s a weird situation, and thankfully, he’s the only problem I’ve had thus far.

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