Lincoln Visits the Army, Ignores McClellan’s Political Aspirations

July 8, 1862 (Tuesday)

West Point - Where McClellan was educated and Lincoln was not.

It wasn’t quite a manifesto that Union General George B. McClellan penned the previous day. In the letter to President Lincoln, he made no threats or accusations, as he had previously. He wrote ideas, his ideas, on the political meaning of the war. They were important. He was a field-tested commander, a well-educated politico. Since Lincoln could claim neither, his only salvation, the county’s only salvation in this Civil War, obviously was to listen to McClellan. Anyone could see that.

“I have written a strong, frank letter to the President,” wrote the General to his wife mere hours before Lincoln was to land on the Peninsula to see McClellan’s Army of the Potomac for himself. “If he acts upon it, the country will be saved.” Believing he could already see the future, McClellan asked his wife to keep this strong and frank dispatch. It would be proof, he told her, “that I understood the state of affairs long ago, and that had my advice been followed we should not have been in our present difficulties.”1

McClellan had originally planned to send the letter to Washington, but since Lincoln was dropping by for a visit, he saw fit to deliver it in person. While he waited for the President to arrive, there was some smoothing over to do with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Stanton: We're going to be pals.

Throughout the campaign, McClellan and Stanton had been at terrible odds and at each others throats via verbose letters passed to and from Washington. With the campaign grounded, Stanton reached for an olive branch. One of his children had fallen gravely ill and was about to pass away. Perhaps this coming death, a force so active in his earlier life, showed him that the momentous squabblings between a military commander and his government were hardly important enough to continue.

Stanton, in his letter to McClellan, banished the blame for their tumultuous relationship to the “wicked men” who had raised a cloud “between us for their own base and selfish purposes.” In his short note, he assured the General: “No man had ever a truer friend than I have been to you and shall continue to be.”2

General McClellan’s reply was strong and frank, but first detailed their cordial friendship when Stanton first came to Washington, telling him, “Of all men in the nation you were my choice for that position.” But soon, the tone changed.

Not so fast! I'm off to save the nation!

McClellan learned the hard way that Stanton’s conduct towards him “was marked by repeated acts done in such manner as to be deeply offensive to my feelings and calculated to affect me injuriously in public estimation.” His repeated calls for reinforcements had been, in McClellan’s mind, unheeded. This, wrote the General, “led me to believe that your mind was warped by a bitter personal prejudice against me.”

However, McClellan conceded that he might have been “mistaken in regard to your real feelings and opinions, and that your conduct, so unaccountable to my own fallible judgment, must have proceeded from views and motives which I did not understand.” McClellan would now “resume the same cordial confidence which once characterized our intercourse.”

But there was yet another matter. With Stanton again on his side, he thought that he might use the Secretary as leverage against Lincoln’s corruption by the Radical Republicans. Of course, McClellan used no such language, instead he made this appeal: “You have more than once told me that together we could save this country. It is yet not too late to do so.”

Union camp at Harrison's Landing

How could the country be saved? “There must be between us the most entire harmony of thought and action,” insisted McClellan. “I have briefly given in a confidential letter to the President my views (please ask to see it) as to the policy which ought to govern this contest on our part.”

The past summer, McClellan and Stanton had discussed these very policies and ideals. Throughout their talks, both were in complete agreement.

“The nation will support no other policy,” wrote McClellan in closing. “None other will call forth its energies in time to save our cause. For none other will our armies continue to fight. […] Let no cloud hereafter arise between us.”3

The USS Ariel (here pictured as she was attacked by the CSS Alabama in Dec. of 1862)

And so with the strong and frank letter (and, he hoped, Stanton) in his pocket, he went to greet President Lincoln, who had just arrived at Harrison’s Landing aboard the USS Ariel. The utterly sweltering Virginia day had turned to a relatively cool and pleasant evening. As the moon shined over the James River, Lincoln and McClellan met face to face – the first time in three months.

After the exchange of pleasantries, still on the deck of the Ariel, McClellan handed Lincoln the letter from his pocket. The President immediately read it, but made no comments as he read. When he finished, he looked up to the General and told him he had finished and thanked him for writing. Lincoln never again mentioned the letter that would save the Union if only Washington would hear the words of General McClellan. And with that silent evasion, McClellan was forced to place his political aspirations on indefinite hold.4

Lincoln had not come to Harrison’s Landing to be taught political rhetoric by a military commander. He had come to learn the condition of the army. The President had prepared a series of questions for General McClellan and his five corps commanders. He would visit with each of the five the following day, but on this evening, he cornered McClellan.

Lincoln: I see your political rhetoric and I raise you my silence and a change of subject.

Asking him how many men were in the army, McClellan answered that there were 80,000. Rethinking, however, he allowed that it might be 5,000 less. McClellan told Lincoln that the encampment was the healthiest they had since arriving at Fortress Monroe.

Where was the Confederate army, asked Lincoln. “From four to five miles from us on all the roads,” replied the General, “I think nearly the whole army — both Hills, Longstreet, Jackson, Magruder, Huger.”

Thinking to the future, Lincoln asked if it would be possible to remove the army from the Peninsula. “It would be a delicate and very difficult matter,” McClellan answered, recalling where he believed General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to be.5

But Lee’s army was no longer four or fives miles from the Union camp. That night, as Lincoln ignored McClellan’s politics, General Lee ordered his army to fall back towards Richmond, leaving General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to watch over the Federal position. Lee probably knew that McClellan was defeated, or at least neutralized. However, there were other Union forces stirring in the north that would soon need to be met.6

  1. Letter from George McClellan to his wife, July 8, 1862, as printed in McClellan’s Own Words by George B. McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. []
  2. Letter from Edwin Stanton to George McClellan, July 5, 1862, as printed in McClellan’s Own Words by George B. McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. []
  3. Letter from George McClellan to Edwin Stanton, July 8, 1862, as printed in McClellan’s Own Words by George B. McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. []
  4. McClellan’s Own Words by George B. McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. []
  5. The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 6 edited by Arthur Brooks Lapsley, G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1906. []
  6. The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey, University of Nebraska, 1964. []
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3 thoughts on “Lincoln Visits the Army, Ignores McClellan’s Political Aspirations

  1. I first read of the hand delivered letter from McClelland to Lincoln in “Disunion”, the NY Times volume published in 2010. Google led me here. But where is the letter? Is there any documentation supporting its existence and message? It seems to be very important to any evaluation of McClelland and of the administrations decision to remove the Army of the Potomac from Richmond.

    1. Hi Bob! There sure is evidence. In McClellan’s memoirs called McClellan’s Own Story, he reprints it in its entirety on p487-489. You can find it here.


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