October 27, 1862 (Monday)
It was finished. Well, at the very least it was started. General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had finally begun crossing over the Potomac in hopes that they were about to chase down General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Most were crossing at Berlin, Maryland, (now Brunswick) thirty miles south of Antietam. There, a pontoon bridge had been constructed and regiment after regiment tramped across as cold autumn winds and chilling rains greeted them. The temperatures plummeted and a thick frost coated the ground in the mornings.
The soldiers were poorly clad, hungry, and took to scavenging to deal with both. McClellan had authorization from General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to shoot anyone caught looting, but he turned a blind eye to such privations.
Getting McClellan to move had been a tiring feat for President Lincoln. He had coaxed, pushed and nearly ordered his general to cross the Potomac since the battle of Antietam nearly a month an a half prior. The most recent exchange between the two proved that the relationship was, at best, strained.
When McClellan told Lincoln that he couldn’t move due to his cavalry horses being too fatigued, the President sarcastically shot back, asking “what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”
McClellan tried to shame Lincoln into an apology by playing the “you don’t support the troops” card, and by this date, Lincoln was ready to come somewhat nearer to an apology.
“Most certainly I intend no injustice to any, and if I have done any I deeply regret it,” said the President, stopping short. Lincoln went on to explain that they had sent McClellan’s very unmoving army every horse they could throw a saddle across. The fact that, after so many new horses and so much inaction, they are somehow too fatigued “presents a very cheerless, almost hopeless, prospect for the future, and it may have forced something of impatience in my dispatch.” If they were not rested now, when would they ever be?
In his reply, McClellan ignored Lincoln’s near apology and moved on to another subject. Since (and because of) the battle of Antietam, the number of men in McClellan’s regiments had dwindled to mere “skeletons.” It was now necessary, “to fill up these skeletons before taking them again into action.” Now, forty days after the battle, McClellan was officially requesting “that the order to fill up the old regiments with drafted men may at once be issued.”
Lincoln, of course, saw no real reason that the regiments couldn’t be filled up with the new recruits and draftees. But he knew McClellan. There was more to this than a simple request for more men. There always was.
And so Lincoln just had to ask: “Is it your purpose not to go into action again until the men now being drafted in the States are incorporated into the old regiments?”
When McClellan received Lincoln’s question, he must have shook his head in wonderment. The President had it all wrong. Though McClellan’s dispatch plainly said that Washington had “to fill up these skeletons before taking them again into action,” what it actually meant was that Washington had “to fill up these skeletons.” The bit saying that it had to be done “before taking them again into action” was added by a staff officer believing that’s what McClellan would have said. He apparently never bothered to have the General proof read it for content.
“This phrase was not authorized or intended by me,” explained the red-faced McClellan. “It has conveyed altogether an erroneous impression as to my plans and intentions.”
Answering the question directly, McClellan stated that he had not had “any idea of postponing the advance until the old regiments are filled by drafted men. […] The crossing will be continued as rapidly as the means at hand will permit. Nothing but the physical difficulties of the operation shall delay it.”
Lincoln was “much pleased” with the news, but was probably waiting for the other shoe to drop. This would soon happen, but who would be dropping it and upon whom would it land?1
- Sources: Lincoln’s Darkest Year by William Marvel; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 19, Part 2, p496-498, 504. [↩]