McClellan’s War with Washington

June 28, 1862 (Saturday)

General McClellan ready for battle.

After General McClellan’s bitter telegram pulsed along the wires from his headquarters outside of Richmond to the War Department’s telegraph office in Washington, Major Albert E.H. Johnson received it verbatim. Johnson, really Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s personal secretary, had been placed at the post by Stanton himself, as a sort of custodian of military telegrams.

Technically running the telegraph office was Edwards Sanford, president of the American Telegraph Company. While Johnson did the work, Sanford paid the bills, and all went along more or less swimmingly. In February, Stanton promoted Sanford to military supervisor of telegrams. It was then his duty to censor reports and messages from the newspapers. If something came across the wire that Sanford (and thus Stanton) didn’t want to go to the press, it was cut by the blue ink pen of Edwards Sanford.

When Major Johnson received McClellan’s caustic report from the battle at Gaines’s Mill, he was startled by the concluding paragraph. “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done vour best to sacrifice this army.” Without a pause, he called Sanford over to the console.

Sanford read the message and deemed the insubordinate language to be false. Since McClellan’s words weren’t the truth, there was no reason for Secretary Stanton or President Lincoln to know anything about it. The dispatch was recopied, omitting the offending conclusion, and delivered.1

But that’s not where the story ends. When General McClellan submitted his official report on August 4, 1863, he included the full message, including the conclusion. It appears that the General was unaware that the words had be struck. Lincoln’s reply to the message, thought McClellan, could simply have ignored the insubordination to focus upon the crux of the matter – that McClellan was about to put an end to the Peninsula Campaign.2

In their investigation, the Joint Committee on the Conduce of the War published their first volume on the Army of the Potomac in early 1863. Their records, using the official (censored) dispatches to and from the War Department, contains McClellan’s message in its edited form. This is important, as it shows that it was McClellan himself who first published the seemingly treasonous concluding lines.3

And that is important because after the war, he claimed he wasn’t the first to publish them. In the biographical sketch appearing as the introduction to his memoirs, author William Cowper Prime (McClellan’s biographer, who had obviously seen the uncensored dispatch) believed that Secretary Stanton saw the letter and covered it up to protect the supposed truths written by McClellan.

According to Prime, Secretary Stanton kept the dispatch a secret, hiding the offending conclusion from the Joint Committee. “It appears thus mutilated in that mass of worthless,” reasoned Prime in a bizarrely written missive (which defies all rules of grammar), “because falsified and untrustworthy rubbish which forms a large part of the printed report of that committee.”

It was, concluded Prime, a conspiracy to cover up the truth that it was Washington and not McClellan who was responsible for the defeat. That Stanton and Lincoln ignored the accusation “was the confession of its truth,” and not simply ignorance of its very existence.4

The General & Mrs. McClellan whispering back and forth.

McClellan believed not only that Stanton had read it, but that it had been published for all to see. Nearly a month after he wrote the offending dispatch, McClellan’s wife made some allusion to a message received by Stanton. Believing that she was referencing the dispatch “in which I told him that if I saved the army I owed no thanks to any one in Washington, and that he had done his best to sacrifice my army,” McClellan mused: “It was pretty frank & quite true. Of course, they will never forgive me for that – I knew it when I wrote it, but as I thought it possible that it might be the last I ever wrote, it seemed better to have it exactly true.”

The General had no regard for Lincoln’s intelligence, once referring to the President as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon,” but here, he deemed him “entirely too smart to give my correspondence to the public – it would have ruined him & Stanton forever.”5

But Lincoln never saw it. Nobody saw it until it was first published by George McClellan in his memoirs.

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Washington Reacts to McClellan’s Defeat – Not His Words

Even without knowledge of McClellan’s concluding lines, Washington was abuzz with activity. Lincoln personally took charge, sending telegrams to General John Dix at Fortress Monroe, and Flag-Officer Louis Goldsborough of the Navy, urging both to keep communications to the front open and to assist in any way they could.

“I think you had better go with any reinforcements you can spare to General McClellan,” wrote Lincoln to General Ambrose Burnside, commanding troops on the lower Peninsula.

Secretary of War Stanton wrote to General Henry Halleck, commanding at Corinth, Mississippi. “The enemy have concentrated at such force in Richmond, as to render it absolutely necessary, in the opinion of the President, for you immediately to dispatch 25,000 of your force and forward it by the nearest and quickest route by way of Baltimore and Washington to Richmond.” 6

Map signifying the new US and CS headquarters on the 28th.

Returning to McClellan, Lincoln tried to reassure his General. “Save your army at all events,” urged the President. “We will send reinforcements as fast as we can.” Though he knew that McClellan was falling back, Lincoln held a different look at the unraveling. “If you have had a drawn battle, or a repulse,” reasoned Lincoln, “it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington. We protected Washington, and the enemy concentrated on you. Had we stripped Washington, he would have been upon us before the troops could have gotten to you.” McClellan, of course, disagreed, but Lincoln wanted to make it clear that the salvation of Washington, not the capture of Richmond, was the primary concern.

Lincoln also wanted to make something else clear. While he was unaware of McClellan’s bitter accusations as they were written, he had a fairly good grasp of the General’s mind. These setbacks were “the nature of the case, and neither you nor the government is to blame.” McClellan was also not about to agree with that.7

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McClellan Gives Lee the Slip

Savage Station on the 27th.

For McClellan, this was a day of relative quiet. Only small scraps and skirmishes flared up as he prepared his entire Army of the Potomac for retreat. He ordered commanders to have three days rations prepared and for the men to have their cartridge boxes full. They were to send all of their wagons to Savage’s Station, along the York River Railroad, to await further orders.

Additionally, McClellan ordered that “all tents and all articles not indispensable to the safety or the maintenance of the troops must be abandoned and destroyed.” Whatever medical supplies the army could carry, would be taken, but the rest was also ordered to be destroyed.

To drive the point home that this was a true retreat, McClellan decreed “the sick and wounded that are not able to walk must necessarily be left.”8

As supplies went up in thick columns of black smoke, Confederate General Robert E. Lee also knew that McClellan was pulling back. All of the Federals had crossed to the southern banks of the Chickahominy River, severing contact between the bulk of the two armies.

Savage Station's field hospital on the 28th. Those who could not walk would be left behind.

Believing they would retire to the east, he sent part of Stonewall Jackson’s troops to probe in that direction. There, at White House Station, once the main Union supply depot, they found nothing but charred ruins. By the end of the day, Lee was certain that McClellan was using the James River to retreat, rather than the more northerly York River, used during the Federal approach. McClellan had stolen a day’s march on Lee, but the campaign was far from over.9



  1. Lincoln in the Telegraph Office by David Homer Bates, The Century Co., 1907. Bates interviewed Major Johnson. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, p61. McClellan wrote from his own records, and so the message was not censored. []
  3. Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 1, p340. []
  4. McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan (Biographical introduction by William Cowper Prime), C. L. Webster & company, 1887. []
  5. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1992. Oddly, the version that appears in McClellan’s Own Words, is censored and changed. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p270-271. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p269. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p272. []
  9. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
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