McClellan Orders Invasion of Virginia

Sunday, May 26, 1861

Union General George B. McClellan was busy “maturing” plans that he and General Winfield Scott had communicated about over the past week when he received a telegram that Rebels had burned two bridges on the B&O Railroad in western Virginia the previous night. From Cincinnati, he ordered the 1st Virginia (US), some companies of the 2nd Virginia and the 16th Ohio to advance from Wheeling (and Bellaire, Ohio) towards Fairmont (roughly 30 miles northwest of Grafton, where the Rebel troops were based) by rail. The 14th and 18th Ohio were to occupy Parkersburg and advance towards Grafton.

To Col. Kelley, commanding the troops near Wheeling, he ordered that he “be careful to run no unnecessary risk, for it is absolutely necessary that we should not meet even with a partial check at the outset.” If the Union troops found themselves “in front of any hostile force that, either by superiority of numbers, position, or artillery, is likely to render an attack doubtful,” Col. Kelley was to “remain in observation, and at once send for assistance, which can be promptly rendered to any desirable extent.”

Kelley’s objective was not to engage Rebel forces, but to protect the railroad and its bridges to Fairmont. He was not to move on Grafton unless he had heard from the Ohio troops that they were already there, and only then if the bridges to his rear were fully repaired.

Col. Steedman, commander of the two Ohio regiments based in Marietta, received similar orders. He was to occupy Parkersburg and move on Grafton by rail. He was not, however, barred from bringing on a battle. “If you have to fight,” McClellan urged, “remember that the honor of Ohio is in your hands.”

In Indianapolis, Brigadier-General Thomas A. Morris was ordered to be ready to move with two regiments (6th and 7th Indiana) to either Wheeling or Parkersburg.1

That same day, McClellan issued two proclamations. One was to the Union sympathizers in western Virginia, the other was to his soldiers about to invade.

“The General Government has long enough endured the machinations of a few factious Rebels in your midst,” McClellan told the loyal Virginians. “Armed traitors have in vain endeavored to deter you from expressing your loyalty at the polls.” Since they could not silence the Unionists at the ballot boxes, “they now seek to inaugurate a reign of terror, and thus force you to yield to their schemes, and submit to the yoke of the traitorous conspiracy dignified by the name of Southern Confederacy.”

Most of the western Virginia population was pro-Union and because of that, “the General Government cannot close its ears to the demand you have made for assistance.” He told of the troops being sent across the Ohio River and how they had come “as your friends and brothers, – as enemies only to the armed Rebels who are preying upon you.”

In case they feared that the Union troops would interfere with their slaves, McClellan assured them that “not only will we abstain from all such interference, but we will, on the contrary, with an iron hand, crush any attempt at insurrection on their part.”2

The soldiers’ mission was to “restore peace and confidence, to protect the majesty of the law, and to rescue our brethren from the grasp of armed traitors.” If the Union soldiers had to battle these armed traitors, they were to “show mercy even to them when they are in your power, for many of them are misguided.”3

The men of the 1st Virginia (US), camped near Wheeling, received their orders around midnight during a violent thunderstorm. Despite the weather, the troops stayed up all night drilling and firing, preparing for their advance into enemy territory.4


Following the arrest of John Merryman for “various acts of treason” outside of Baltimore the previous day, he was taken to Fort McHenry. His friends quickly got him a lawyer who then went to see United States Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

Though Taney had sworn Lincoln into office, he was no friend of the Union. Lincoln had suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus (the revocation of which allowed the army to arrest people for what they said or believed rather than what they did) for the Baltimore area, which irked Taney to no end. Getting the opportunity as a Chief Justice to do something about it, Taney jumped at the chance.

He requested that General Cadwalader, commander of the Department of Annapolis (which contained Baltimore), appear before him on the 27th with Merryman so he could officially be charged with a crime.

Cadwalader replied to Taney that he was authorized by the President to make such arrests and that Taney “postpone further action upon this case” until further instructions were received from the President.

The order to appear before Taney the next day, however, was still an appointment that would be, in a way, kept.5

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p44-48. []
  2. “To the Union Men of Western Virginia,” proclamation by George B. McClellan, May 26, 1861. As found in Campaign in Western Virginia by George B. McClellan. []
  3. “Proclamation to the soldiers invading Virginia, May 26, 1861.” As found in Campaign in Western Virginia by George B. McClellan. []
  4. “A Day at the Races; The First Virginia (U.S.) Infantry at the Battle of Philippi” by Mark E. Bell from the collection: Civil War; The Early Battles, Savas Publishing Company, 1997. []
  5. American State Trials: Volume 9 edited by John Davison Lawson, Thomas Law Books, 1918. []
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