McClellan Turns Politician, Tells Lincoln Why to Fight the War

July 7, 1862 (Monday)

Mac might need a good laugh, but he does look dashing in those epaulettes.

What Union General George B. McClellan apparently needed was a good laugh. Just as the Seven Days Battles were getting started, he had written to Washington asking for reinforcements, as he so often did. “If I had another good regiment,” said the General, “I could laugh at Jackson.”1 Though Jackson’s performance over that week had been less-than-stellar, McClellan could hardly even chuckle about it.

McClellan still wanted reinforcements, even though he was growing more and more stable and secure in the Army of the Potomac’s Harrison’s Landing position. “My position is very strong and daily becoming more so,” McClellan wrote on this day to Washington. “If not attacked to-day I shall laugh at them.”2 To General John Pope, still nestling into his new command as head of the Union Army of Virginia, he relayed much the same idea. “I am in a very strong natural position,” wrote McClellan truthfully, “rendered stronger every day by the labor of the troops, and which in a few days will be impregnable.”3 Just how McClellan’s Army went from immediately needing reinforcements numbering in the thousands to being able to laugh at General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, is anyone’s guess.

With his Army growing stronger and only a day away from 90,000 belly-fulls of uncontrollable guffawing, McClellan decided to turn to other matters. Taking pen in hand, he outlined for President Lincoln the true political meaning of the war.

President Lincoln, who apparently needed a bit of McClellan's guidance.

McClellan began his letter explaining how the Rebel army before him was attempting to overwhelm his force. “I cannot but regard our position as critical,” warned McClellan, completely unable to spot his own irony, “and I earnestly desire, in view of possible contingencies, to lay before your excellency, for your private consideration, my general views concerning the existing state of the rebellion, although they do not strictly relate to the situation of this army or strictly come within the scope of my official duties.”

True to his immediate word, McClellan shook off the urges to ask for more troops, broadened his horizons, and expounded upon a variety of subjects that a General in charge of an army in the field would more typically leave to the exploits of Congress and the Executive Branch.

“The time has come,” preached the General, “when the government must determine upon a civil and military policy covering the whole ground of our national trouble.” The Constitution must be preserved. Secession much be beaten back. This Southern Rebellion had devolved into a war, “and it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian civilization.”

According to McClellan, this war should not be looking to subjugate the Southern people. “Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of States, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.”

Sorry, slaves, Mac's war is apparently not about you.

Already in the war, several Union Generals, Butler and Hunter, specifically, had used the conflict to free the slaves in their areas of command. Congress had passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, which declared slaves used by the Confederate Armies to be no longer indebted to their former masters. This year’s Congress was already debating a new version.

McClellan defended the property rights of the Southern people. With the enslaved being no more than fairly useful property, the continuation and protection of the institution of slavery was the logical conclusion. While McClellan would allow slaves seeking military protection to receive it, he recognized “the right of the owner to compensation.”

“A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery,” cautioned McClellan, “will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

In closing, McClellan outdid himself in an arrogant display of contemptuousness false-humility: “In carrying out any system of policy which you may form, you will require a commander-in-chief of the army, one who possesses your confidence, understands your views, and who is competent to execute your orders by directing the military forces of the nation to the accomplishment of the objects by you proposed. I do not ask that place for myself. I am willing to serve you in such position as you may assign me, and I will do so as faithfully as ever subordinate served superior.”4

Gov. William Sprague.

Immediately after telling Lincoln that his (Lincoln’s) politics and policies were, at best, misguided (and, at worst, about to destroy the entire army), he kowtows for a promotion.

The promotion sought by McClellan was that of General-in-Chief, a position he held until Lincoln revoked the responsibility so that he (McClellan) could focus upon commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Perhaps getting some insider information that Washington was about to do some hiring, McClellan let it be known that he might just be the man for the job after all. Lincoln, however, already had somebody else in mind.

Lincoln needs Halleck's "Old Brains."

On this date, Governor William Sprague of Rhode Island set out from Washington for Corinth, Mississippi and the headquarters of General Henry Halleck. Accompanying the Governor was a letter from the President asking again for Halleck to send troops east to help McClellan’s faltering Army.

While this seemed little different from the several other requests for troops, Lincoln this time put it in a different light. The President, through Sprague, wished “to get you and part of your force, one or both, to come here.” Prior to this, Lincoln asked only for men, first 25,000 and then 10,000. When Halleck told him that it was not possible, Lincoln backed down and essentially asked for only one: Henry Halleck.

Governor Sprague would not arrive in Corinth for another three days. With him, he carried not just the letter, but verbal instructions from Lincoln to convince Halleck to become the new General-in-Chief.5

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p254. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p73. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p306. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p73-74. []
  5. Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders, Emmis Books, 2002. []
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McClellan Turns Politician, Tells Lincoln Why to Fight the War by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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4 thoughts on “McClellan Turns Politician, Tells Lincoln Why to Fight the War

  1. Kicking Halleck upstairs was likely one of Lincoln’s best moves, for it freed Grant for more aggressive action.

    I should mention this is also the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cotton Plant in Arkansas, where Texas cavalry attempted to overrun Union infantry. The Confederates suffered lopsided losses (245 troopers to only 63 bluecoats), but they seem to have delayed the Union army enough that they missed a rendezvous with their supply ships and had to call off an advance on Little Rock until 1863.

    1. Too true. Though, after Halleck left, they didn’t have much for Grant to do. He had to go looking for a fight.

    1. It was nearly impossible to get rid of him. Even after Lincoln finally did, Mac still came back to haunt him.

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