McClellan Snubs Lincoln: Truly an Unparalleled Incident of Epaulettes?

November 13, 1861 (Wednesday)

General George B. McClellan, commander of the Union Army, was very intent on doing things his own way. Because of this, he was quickly piling on enemies. The most public was, of course, General Winfield Scott, who was, by this time, retired at his West Point home. Some were against him because he wanted the Army of the Potomac to go into winter quarters and not fight until Spring. Others didn’t care for the General because he was a democrat who didn’t care one way or the other about slavery.

Of all the detractors, President Lincoln, the staunch Republican who wished to bring a speedy end to the war, was still on McClellan’s side. This would, over time, erode, as is well known, but in the middle of November, 1861, McClellan was still Lincoln’s man.

It was not, however, a two-way street. While Lincoln believed he needed McClellan, McClellan wanted little to do with Lincoln. McClellan believed himself to be superior to Lincoln in every way. Intellectually, McClellan believed him a complete buffoon. Socially, the President’s down home “charm” and hokey stories of pigs and dogs were wearing thin. Most importantly, McClellan believed Lincoln to be an “idiot” when it came to military affairs and paid him little mind in such arenas.1

General McClellan was growing weary of Lincoln’s folksy habit of just “dropping by” headquarters for a chat, some countrified yarns and plain old snooping. In the past, to avoid Lincoln, the General would sequester himself away in someone else’s house.

In the evening of this date, General McClellan was in attendance at the wedding of Col. Frank Wheaton, held at the headquarters of General Don Carlos Buell. Even the Secretary of War Simon Cameron was there.

During the wedding, President Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward and John Hay, Lincoln’s assistant, dropped by McClellan’s house, as they so often did. The General’s servant told them that McClellan was at a wedding and wouldn’t be back for another hour. Lincoln and company decided to wait in the downstairs parlor.

An hour passed and General McClellan came home. The servant told him that the President and Secretary of State were waiting to see him, but he paid that no mind. McClellan walked up the stairs to his bedroom, on the way, passing the room where his company was waiting.

As another thirty minutes ticked by, the servant was again found and sent to remind McClellan that he had guests. The General sent the servant away, he was tired and had gone to bed.

This act deeply offended John Hay, who would, after the war, write of this “portent of evil to come,” called it an “unparalleled incident of epaulettes.” On the way back to the White House, Hay, clearly fuming, revealed his mind to Lincoln. But the President “seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better, at the time, not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”2

This custom, though possibly new to Hay, was not foreign to Lincoln. A month earlier, Lincoln had been sent away from headquarters, being told only that McClellan had gone to bed.3 A few nights earlier, McClellan, feeling unwell, cancelled an appointment with Lincoln.4

McClellan was not going to be inconvenienced, no matter how much of an inconvenience it was to others. President Lincoln was patient to the point of vacillation, understanding that McClellan was a different sort of man who needed his own space and his own time. Lincoln understood this from the beginning. After McClellan arrayed the Army of the Potomac around Washington in early October, he asked Lincoln to not let the other politicians hurry him. Lincoln then affirmed McClellan’s wishes, “You shall have your own way in this matter, I assure you.”

Much has been made of McClellan’s sleepy snub of Lincoln, Seward and Hay, some even suggesting that McClellan, who was not known to drink to excess, was drunk. This seems to be dreamed up in the 1950s, however. There’s no proof to it at all.

In fact, this entire story, from beginning to end, is from the pen of John Hay, who had already developed a distaste for the General. Neither Lincoln, nor Seward ever made any reference to it. Even more odd, McClellan, who could often be extremely harsh towards Lincoln in his candid letters to his wife, also never wrote about it (perhaps this is where the theory that “he was so drunk he couldn’t remember it” came from).5

By this time, General McClellan, following social and military custom, was not seeing anyone who did not have a prior appointment or a real reason for being there. McClellan had refused drop-by visits from, not only Lincoln, but other high ranking officers and politicians. This truly was just another day in the life of America’s Napoleon.

Lincoln did not stop dropping by McClellan’s house because of this incident. The following night, he would try again. One thing is clear: Lincoln genuinely liked McClellan. He respected him socially and militarily (though probably not politically).6

  1. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  2. John Hay: In Two Volumes, Volume 1 by William Roscoe Thayer, which quotes the diary entry in its entirety. []
  3. George B. McClellan; The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears. []
  4. Letter from General Marcy to President Lincoln, November 9, 1861. []
  5. George B. McClellan and Civil War History: in the Shadow of Grant and Sherman by Thomas J. Rowland, Kent State University Press, 1998. []
  6. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
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McClellan Snubs Lincoln: Truly an Unparalleled Incident of Epaulettes? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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2 thoughts on “McClellan Snubs Lincoln: Truly an Unparalleled Incident of Epaulettes?

  1. In researching three “true Lincoln men”–Hay, Nicolay, and Ellsworth, of course–I would say that rather than McClellan being a Lincoln man, Lincoln was still a McClellan man at this point.

    1. Oh no doubt! I completely agree. Which is why I wrote “McClellan was still Lincoln’s man.”

      But! When I read over that last night while doing my edits, I read it the way you did, too. I should have changed it. My eyes read it as “McClellan was still a Lincoln man.”


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