McClellan Refuses to Divulge His Plan (If He Even Has One) to Lincoln

January 13, 1862 (Monday)

The events of the Washington weekend laid the ground for Monday morning. In the span of two short days, Secretary of War Simon Cameron was harshly fired by Lincoln, General McDowell, taking advantage of General McClellan’s illness, tried to push his plan to attack the Rebels near Manassas, and, due to McDowell’s attempted take over, McClellan miraculously got better.

Secretaries William Seward and Salmon Chase, after a bit of needless shenanigans, caught up with President Lincoln and urged him to change the harsh wording of former-Secretary of War Cameron’s letter of dismissal. Lincoln decided that they were right and wrote another letter, suggesting that Cameron had resigned and that Lincoln had accepted the resignation.1

Lincoln’s kind letter, as well as Cameron’s response, were antedated to January 11, 1862, the date of the original, terse letter. As in Lincoln’s original letter, he gave Cameron the position of Minister to Russia, which was actually a fairly coveted position, previously occupied by Cassius Clay.

I therefore tender to your acceptance, if you still desire to resign your present position, the post of Minister to Russia. Should you accept, you will bear with you the assurance of my undiminished confidence, of my affectionate esteem, and of my sure expectation that, near the great sovereign whose person and hereditary friendship for the United States, so much endears him to Americans, you will be able to render services to your country, not less important than those you could render at home.2

With that bit of drama out of the way, Lincoln could focus upon the next move in the war. Since General McClellan had recovered and would be at the afternoon Cabinet meeting, perhaps Lincoln believed that he would finally learn in detail of the commanding General’s plans.

If Lincoln entertained such thoughts, he was wrong.

The meeting between Lincoln, several Cabinet members, and Generals Franklin (a McClellan supporter, though fair minded), Meigs, McDowell and McClellan, began as the President asked McDowell to explain the plan that was discussed over the weekend in the absence of McClellan. General McDowell had two plans. One, which could be launched in a mere three weeks, was the plan to march on the Rebels near Manassas. The other, which would take six weeks to launch, involved sailing the troops to Fortress Monroe for a campaign upon the Virginia Peninsula.

The Small Politicians in Congress CACKLING at GENERAL McCLELLAN.
McDowell also explained that the only reason he had formulated any plan at all was because McClellan had fallen sick and nobody was sure just when (or if) he would recover. It was during this justification that General McClellan interrupted, telling McDowell that he was “entitled to have any opinion you please.”

Probably in an attempt to appease McClellan, McDowell stated that he thought the Peninsula plan was the best. Franklin, who favored McClellan, accused McDowell of pandering. McDowell denied it, saying that he never had a clue as to McClellan’s own Peninsula idea. The meeting then broke down a bit, with various parties whispering amongst themselves.

It was then that General Meigs, the quartermaster for the entire army, quietly whispered to McClellan.

“Can you not promise some movement towards Manassas?,” asked Meigs.

“I cannot move on them [the Rebels at Manassas] with as great a force as they have.”

Meigs reminded McClellan that he had nearly 200,000 men in and around Washington, but McClellan countered, saying that the Rebels had at least 175,000 (in actuality, Confederate General Joe Johnston had just over 55,000 men near Manassas). Still, Meigs urged McClellan to say something.

“If I tell him my plans,” replied McClellan, “they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can’t keep a secret.”

Just then, Treasury Secretary Chase broke the mumbling silence and stated that the whole reason for his meeting was so that General McClellan could explain his plan so that it could be approved or disapproved.

McClellan, however, was having none of that. This reason which Chase spoke of, said McClellan, was something completely new to him. Not only that, but McClellan also let it be known that he did not recognize the Treasury Secretary as his superior and openly denied Chase’s right to question him. He would only take such interrogation from the President and the Secretary of War.

Again the meeting broke down for what seemed like a great amount of time. There was no Secretary of War at the moment, so Lincoln himself finally spoke up. “Well, General McClellan, I think you had better tell us what your plans are.”

I'm super serious, guys. Trust me...

“If you have any confidence in me,” McClellan countered, “it is not right or necessary to entrust my designs to the judgment of others, but if you confidence is so slight as to require my opinions be fortified by those of other persons, it would be wiser to replace me by someone fully possessing your confidence. No general commanding an army would willing submit his plans to the judgment of such an assembly, in which some are … incapable of keeping a secret so that anything made known to them would soon spread over Washington and become known to the enemy.”

He followed up by saying that the President already knew his plan, and that the invasion of Eastern Tennessee had to happen before anything happened with the Army of the Potomac. In conclusion, he restated that he would not divulge the plans any further unless directly ordered to do so by the President. Lincoln backed down and the meeting was adjourned.3

After the meeting concluded, both Lincoln and McClellan wrote to Generals Buell and Halleck in Kentucky and Missouri, expressing just how important it was to move on Eastern Tennessee.4

__________________

Burnside Arrives into a Perfect Hurricane

Curiously absent from the discussion was Burnside’s Expedition to North Carolina. The news, if they could have somehow learned of it, was dire.

As the fleet of eighty ships rounded Cape Hatteras, they hit a storm. The cold wind blew with such force that anything not tied down was swept overboard. According to General Burnside, “the men, furniture, and crockery below decks were thrown about in a most promiscuous manner.” Those ships that could cross the bar into relative safety, did so and were saved from the brute force of the weather.

Just before noon, with the smaller ships inside Pamlico Sound, Burnside’s small flagship, the Picket, led the larger ships inside the harbor. The propeller of the City of New York, heavily laden with supplies, became stuck and was smashed apart by the waves. Another ship, the Pocahontas, carrying over 100 horses, was also lost. A troop transport ship grounded, but was freed by several tug boats.

This storm was but the first of many for Burnside’s fleet. The winds, terrible seas and churning waves would persist until early February.5



  1. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Also, Abraham Lincoln and Men of War-Times by Alexander Kelly McClure, 1892, shed some light on this subject. McClure’s book, though interesting, does get a few things wrong. []
  2. This, along with Cameron’s response, is printed in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, p96-97. []
  3. The bulk of this comes from General Meigs’ account, as relayed by Russel H. Beatie in Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command. The figures for the Confederates near Manassas come from the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p1015. []
  4. Official Records Series 1, Vol. 7, p547-548 for McClellan’s letters. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, p98 for Lincoln’s letters. []
  5. North Carolina in the Civil War by John G. Barrett, as well as Burnside’s Expedition by Ambrose Burnside. []
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McClellan Refuses to Divulge His Plan (If He Even Has One) to Lincoln by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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