APRIL 1861–FEBRUARY 1862
UNION STRATEGY AT AN IMPASSE
JUNE 1–JULY 4, 1862
THE MONTH OF JUNE BRINGS SWELTERING HEAT AND HUMIDITY TO Washington, and in 1862 it also brought malaria and typhoid. For their health and comfort, President Lincoln moved his family out to a Gothic Revival cottage in the suburbs on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a government hospital and sanitarium for ill and disabled veterans. The president would dutifully ride into town on horseback or in an open carriage in order to work in his office at the White House or to sit anxiously by the telegraph in the War Department to get the latest intelligence from the fighting fronts.
For Lincoln the month was a time of frustration and forebodings of disaster. The depressive mood to which he was prone took hold. He left his meals half-eaten and remained up late into the night brooding. His dark, lean face went from gaunt to haggard.
On the surface the Union cause appeared to be riding a wave of success. The North Carolina sounds and Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina were now in Federal hands, and New Orleans had been captured. The western armies under General Halleck had driven the Rebel army out of Kentucky and the western half of Tennessee and seized Corinth as a base for further advances. In Virginia, “Stonewall” Jackson’s apparent threat to Washington had been repelled, and General McClellan with the Army of the Potomac was at the gates of Richmond. There was a general consensus among both political leaders and military professionals that the victory there, which seemed imminent, would convince the Rebels to give up their attempt to gain independence. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was so sanguine that he ordered the recruiting offices closed as a measure of economy.
Lincoln did not share that optimism. As he read the course of events, it seemed to him increasingly clear that the strategy of conciliation had failed. It had been based on the belief that the Southern people’s commitment to secession was shallow, and could be broken by the combination of swift and decisive military action, with reassurances that slavery would be protected in the states where it already existed. But the military and the political assumptions behind that strategy had demonstrably been mistaken.
It had proved to be impossible for the Union to mount effective military offensives during the first nine months of war, and that interval had given the Confederacy time to build up substantial military forces and consolidate its hold on the loyalty of the populace. Although the first six months of 1862 had seen successful Federal offensives all around the Confederate periphery, none of these had been decisive. Southern armies had escaped destruction and continued to build their powers; and Southerners had accepted the losses suffered in these campaigns as sacrifices, which actually strengthened the public’s commitment to the Rebel cause.
The slow, seemingly interminable pace of offensive operations was partly to blame. The western campaign had begun with swift victories by Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862. But the near defeat of Grant’s army at Shiloh on April 7 had given General Halleck a fright. Halleck was not an experienced field general; rather, he was a veteran of staff appointments in the prewar army, a military bureaucrat and scholar of strategic theory whose nickname was “Old Brains.” It took Halleck and his army of over 100,000 men more than a month to cover the thirty miles between Shiloh and Corinth, because he insisted on marching only half the day, and spent the rest digging entrenchments to ward off a Confederate attack—which the Rebel army, outnumbered and weakened by battle losses, was incapable of mounting.
As a result, the Rebel army—known as the Army of Tennessee and commanded by General Braxton Bragg—was able to slip away from Corinth into northern Alabama, where it spent the month of June recovering its strength and mobility. From that position the Rebels could harass and disrupt the march of General Buell’s army, which was supposed to march east from Corinth and capture Chattanooga, more than three hundred miles away. If Buell moved at Halleck’s pace it would take him ten months to reach his goal. Lincoln was also worried about the possibility that Bragg might send reinforcements over the mountains to prevent McClellan from taking Richmond.
McClellan’s advance up the Virginia Peninsula, which was nearly simultaneous with Halleck’s march on Corinth, had stultified for similar reasons. McClellan mistakenly believed he was outnumbered, and therefore paused to lay siege to every Rebel defense line. He had landed on the Peninsula in the first week of April but did not close with the main Rebel army until May 31, in the Battle of Seven Pines, a little over six miles from Richmond. It would take McClellan nearly four weeks more, until June 25, to get his troops into positions from which it would be possible to assault the city. Even then, his position was an awkward one. Four of his five army corps were south of the Chickahominy River, directly fronting the Richmond defense lines. The V Corps, commanded by General Fitz-John Porter, was north of the river, separated from the rest of the army by a rain-swollen stream crossed by a few rickety bridges. Porter’s position was both vulnerable and vital. He was exposed to attack by Stonewall Jackson’s troops moving south from the Shenandoah Valley; and his was the only substantial body of troops positioned to defend the army’s line of supply, which ran back over the Chicakahominy to the small York River port of White House.
Whatever his ideas about the likelihood of McClellan taking Richmond, Lincoln was becoming convinced that it was no longer possible for the Union to defeat the Confederacy in a short war. He did not share the troubled drift of his ideas with anyone. For all his affability he was an extremely secretive man who kept his deepest thoughts to himself until he was ready to act upon them. But the effects were visible in his dark mood and loss of appetite, his frequent outbursts of dissatisfaction with his generals, and his new willingness to contemplate a major restructuring of the army command.
On June 23 he made a trip to West Point to consult retired lieutenant general Winfield Scott, who had been general in chief until forced into retirement by General McClellan. Scott was seventy-six, broken in health, his six-five frame swollen and crippled with arthritis, but Lincoln trusted his patriotism and his professionalism. Scott had served his country for fifty years and had already been a general in the War of 1812, and his conduct of the campaign against Mexico City in the Mexican American War of 1846–48 had earned him an international reputation as a strategist and field commander. Although Lincoln would not follow all of Scott’s recommendations, the meeting did seem to clarify his ideas about the necessity of reorganizing the military commands. After his return to Washington he summoned General John Pope, one of Halleck’s successful subordinates, to assume command of the armies that had been chasing Stonewall Jackson in northern Virginia. He also seems to have begun considering the idea of bringing Halleck himself to Washington, to take up the vacant position of general in chief and bring some coordination to the movements of the Federal armies. Neither move would have been needed if Lincoln had believed McClellan’s success at Richmond would end the war.1
The event would prove worse than Lincoln had imagined. The messages that began rattling off the War Department telegraph on June 26 indicated that the Confederates had preempted McClellan’s planned assault and staged their own surprise attack on the single army corps that defended the line of supply to the base at White House. Telegrams from McClellan’s headquarters on the evening of the twenty-sixth and morning of the twenty-seventh reported the army holding firm against heavy attacks and ready to respond in kind. But by the afternoon and evening of the twenty-seventh McClellan was reporting attacks “by greatly superior numbers in all directions” that might force him to abandon his position and the White House base of supply and retreat toward the James River. That would be a costly, desperate, and dangerous move. Most of the ammunition and other supplies stored at White House would have to be destroyed, and the whole huge army would have to retreat down two narrow roads twisting through swamps and forests. They would be moving across the face of the Rebel positions in front of Richmond, and a strong offensive out of those lines could strike the retreating columns, turn retreat into rout, or even cut their escape route.
Then, just after midnight on the morning of the twenty-eighth, after Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton had both gone home to bed, the telegraph delivered a long, rambling message from McClellan. Its extreme language and highly wrought emotional tone suggested a mind made distraught by sudden and utter catastrophe. The army had been “overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers,” the last reserves had been committed and had failed to stem the attack, and the army would have to retreat with nothing intact but its honor. The message ended on a note of desperation and strident accusation: “The Government must not & cannot hold me responsible for the result. . . . I have seen too many dead & wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Govt has not sustained this Army. If you do not do so now the game is lost.” The original telegram had contained an additional paragraph whose language was so intemperate in its arraignment of the government that Thomas Eckert, the head of the telegraph office at the War Department, deleted it from the text he forwarded to Stanton and Lincoln.2
Lincoln got the news early on the morning of June 28. Instead of the imperfect victory he had gloomily anticipated, McClellan’s campaign seemed about to end in outright defeat—one that the Confederates might be able to turn into a strategic reversal of fortune.
Lincoln’s response was characteristic. The foreboding of disaster and the incessant turning over of alternate possibilities for action had made him sick and depressed, but the event itself clarified the choices before him and found him prepared to act decisively. His emotional anguish over McClellan’s defeat was real: “I was as nearly inconsolable as I can be and live.” But his emotional and intellectual equilibrium were not affected. His response to the distraught telegram McClellan had sent on June 28 mixed reassurances of support with admonitions intended to bring McClellan back to a proper appreciation of the actual situation—which Lincoln did not believe was catastrophic. If the army was in danger of destruction, let McClellan save it “at all events.” The government would send reinforcements with all possible speed, but the general must bear in mind that “they cannot reach you to-day, to-morrow, or next day.” In the meantime, he seems to imply, McClellan should face up to his difficulties and meet them as best he could. Nor did Lincoln forbear to rebuke McClellan for questioning the president’s commitment to provide him with adequate forces. In effect, he dismissed McClellan’s fear of military catastrophe by responding as he normally did to McClellan’s complaints. That same day he initiated the first in a series of long-term military and civil measures that would enable his forces to resume the offensive. He instructed Secretary of State William Seward to go to New York and begin a backdoor political campaign to induce the state governors to “offer” him a new draft of three hundred thousand volunteers.3
Among the strains Lincoln faced during that week was anticipation of the firestorm of criticism he was bound to face when news of the defeat reached the public. For a week after their June 28 exchange, knowledge of McClellan’s defeat was restricted to those with access to the War Office telegraph. While Lincoln and Stanton grappled with the consequences of McClellan’s disaster, newspapers across the country were printing delayed reports from the front that claimed a decisive victory for McClellan. On June 30 theHartford (Connecticut) Courant headlined: “Good News Expected! Great Military Triumph! Richmond Must Fall.” On July 1 a New York Times editorial claimed, “Our Army Before Richmond [Is] Successful”; and the Rebel capital would soon be in McClellan’s hands.4 By the most unfortunate of coincidences, most papers would not report the full story of McClellan’s defeat until July 4—which one diarist called the “gloomiest” Independence Day in our history.
Newspaper editorialists used words like “revulsion,” “misery,” and “mortification” to express their sense of outrage and dismay. There was panic selling on the stock exchange, and the value of Federal currency plummeted.5 The panic even upset the aplomb of General Montgomery C. Meigs, the normally unflappable quartermaster general of the army, the professional who had charge of the army’s finances and services of supply. Late on the night of July 4 Meigs rushed out to Lincoln’s cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, pounded on the door to gain entrance, had the president called out of bed, and demanded that the navy immediately begin evacuating McClellan’s men, all accumulated supplies to be destroyed and all horses killed to keep them from falling into Rebel hands. We must imagine Lincoln frowsy in his nightshirt and robe and worn carpet slippers, his coarse hair rumpled, looming over the agitated Meigs, hearing him out—then telling him to go home and go to bed.6
The source of Meigs’s anxiety was probably General Randolph Marcy, McClellan’s chief of staff and also his father-in-law, who had been sent to Washington to defend McClellan’s conduct of the campaign and appeal for heavy reinforcements. At a face-to-face meeting with Lincoln on either the fourth or fifth of July, Marcy had declared that the army’s condition was so desperate that if the Confederates continued to attack in their “overwhelming numbers” it would be compelled to surrender. Lincoln was furious, not only about McClellan’s stubborn refusal to accept the real limitations of possible reinforcement but about his willingness to use the threat of surrender to bully Lincoln into giving him his way. The president angrily rebuked Marcy for even suggesting such a thing was conceivable and sent him back to Virginia forthwith.7 By the night of July 4, when Meigs spoiled his rest with his tale of ruin, Lincoln was already certain that the crisis on the Peninsula had passed. Dispatches from Virginia reported that the army’s rear-guard actions had repelled Lee’s latest attacks and enabled McClellan’s force to complete its retreat to the new and strongly fortified base at Harrison’s Landing on the James River.
LINCOLN RECONCEIVES UNION STRATEGY
JUNE 28–JULY 6, 1862
Experience and assiduous study had given Lincoln a solid grasp of the military problem before him. He was no expert in military science, as he himself was the first to admit. But he was a man of extraordinary intelligence whose life had been one long intensive course of self-education from early childhood on. He had, for example, taught himself to master the principles of Euclidean geometry, as a way of sharpening his skill in logical argument. He had applied himself with the same intensity to military affairs, and by July 1862 he had achieved a solid grasp of the fundamentals and had begun to have confidence in his own judgment.
Lincoln laid out his assessment of the strategic situation in the June 28 letter to Secretary of State Seward to explain the reasoning behind Seward’s mission, which was to induce the state governors to raise three hundred thousand new troops. Seward was sixty-one, eight years older than Lincoln. His short stature, beak nose, wizened face, and disorderly shock of gray hair gave him the look of “a wise Macaw.” He was a veteran politician of the Whig Party and, after 1854, the Republican Party; had been governor of New York; and from 1849 to 1861 had been a leader of the antislavery forces in the U.S. Senate. He had been Lincoln’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination but had learned to appreciate the president’s principled intelligence and strength of character and had become Lincoln’s most reliable ally and closest confidant in the cabinet.8
As Lincoln saw it, the Confederates had defeated McClellan by moving more swiftly and efficiently to concentrate their forces for the defense of Richmond. That concentration had been possible because of the slow pace of McClellan’s offensive, which allowed the Confederates time to develop their defenses, and gave Stonewall Jackson the opportunity to threaten Washington during his Valley campaign. Lincoln had been forced to withhold troops from McClellan for the defense of Washington; and Jackson, who was much closer to Richmond, had been able to combine with Lee before Lincoln could ship reinforcements to the Peninsula. Lincoln also believed that the sluggish movements of Halleck’s armies in the western theater had allowed the Confederates to shift forces from Bragg’s army eastward, adding to the concentration of force that would defeat McClellan in the Seven Days Battles. Lincoln was wrong in that particular judgment. But he was correct in his general understanding that Confederate forces in the western theater had recovered their freedom of maneuver and, with it, the potential to stage a counteroffensive that could be coordinated with another by Lee’s army in the east.9
Lincoln was also beginning to recognize that the failure to achieve a decisive victory in the west was not simply the fault of Halleck’s excessively methodical operations. Federal armies simply lacked the manpower required for the tasks of occupying large tracts of enemy territory, securing their extended supply lines, and pursuing a highly mobile enemy through the wide expanses of the western theater. The problem was analogous in Virginia, where Federal forces were spread thin trying to meet the dual objectives of assailing Richmond and protecting Washington. Lincoln wasted neither time nor energy lamenting the facts. As he told McClellan, if the retention of troops in northern Virginia had contributed to the defeat at Richmond, “it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington.” The answer to such a dilemma was to greatly increase the military force deployed east and west. The campaign Seward was inaugurating to recruit three hundred thousand new volunteers was intended to provide the material strength required.10
Lincoln had also come to believe that there had been a fundamental miscalculation of the political character of the struggle. Like most other Northern leaders, Lincoln had generally assumed that secession was the work of a small but powerful cadre of “ultra” politicians whose demagogy had carried moderate Southerners and the nonslaveholding populace willy-nilly into revolution. The strategy of conciliation assumed that by inflicting a series of costly defeats on Southern armies, capturing a few major cities, and imposing an economic blockade, Federal forces would demonstrate the prohibitive costs of resistance. The core of the South—geographically and socially speaking—would be threatened but not attacked. There would be no massive invasion to cause economic ruin and emotional outrage, and no measures affecting the legitimacy of property in slaves. The intended result was to give moderate and economically rational Southerners and poor Whites every reason to break with the ultras and accept a conciliatory settlement.
The hard fighting of the past year had demonstrated that Southerners had a stronger commitment to secession and a higher tolerance for economic pain and military loss than Lincoln had allowed for. Moreover, a year of Confederate government and military success had reinforced the popular basis of the Davis government. The residual unionism of the upper South, on which Lincoln had counted, had never materialized beyond marginal districts like east Tennessee.
The desire to protect and perpetuate slavery was the prime motive of the rebellion, and Lincoln had seen no sign that any considerable body of Southern opinion was willing to return to a Union whose president was committed to the principle that slavery must be put on the road to “ultimate extinction.” Lincoln was not privy to discussions of slavery among the leaders of the Confederacy, but there were representatives of the slaveholding South closer at hand in the Unionists of the Border States. For the first year of his presidency he had labored to persuade Border State leaders to accept the idea of gradual, compensated emancipation. The policy was consonant with his long-held view that slavery must ultimately cease to exist, on grounds both moral and political. In this case his chief motive was strategic: if the Border States voluntarily agreed to the eventual abolition of slavery, the Confederacy would lose the leverage its agents now exerted to pry these states out of the Union. During the first two weeks of March 1862 he had pressed Border State congressmen to accept such a plan and pushed through Congress a bill supporting the project. He urged them to consider that the institution was already doomed by the spirit of the modern age and by the “mere friction of war”—the fact that wherever Federal armies passed, slaves deserted their masters. He did not have to remind them that a tide of anger against the rebellion, a desire to punish the South, was rising even among Northern Democrats. The direction of things was indicated by the passage, in April, of bills abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia and in Federal territories.
Yet by July 1862 none of the Border States—not even Delaware, with fewer than two thousand slaves and no plantations—was willing to accept, even in principle, the idea of emancipation, even if it were to be compensated by Federal funds and spread out over the life of two generations. If that was the response of the Unionist Border States, it would be utterly impossible to persuade the seceded states to accept “ultimate extinction” as a condition of their return to the Union, unless they were subjugated by force. For his part, Lincoln would never abandon the principle of ultimate extinction. It was his deep conviction that slavery had been, and always would be, the chief and perhaps the only source of dissension among Americans. His disappointment at the failure of his own policy of conciliation was offset by the thought that, if he had succeeded in restoring the Union at the cost of perpetuating slavery, the motives for rebellion would have continued to operate, all but guaranteeing another civil war sometime in the future. On moral as well as pragmatic grounds, it was preferable to face up to the problem and deal with it now.11
Given the proven military strength and political will of the Confederacy, it was apparent that victory would require a broader and more intense mobilization of the north’s military force and political will for a longer, harder war. Such a war would require more than three hundred thousand new volunteers. It required a strategy that directly attacked slavery, which was the root cause of the war and the basis of the South’s political and military strength. Such a strategy would also require a restructuring of leadership in the Federal army: a new and more efficient command system, capable of coordinating offensives on a continental scale; and generals personally committed to the new strategy, willing and able to carry it out.
Lincoln’s own determination to meet exigencies of a long war was absolute. As he told Seward, “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me.” He would also declare his intention not to quit the game while he had a single card left to play. What he needed was a general whose determination and commitment matched his own. What he had instead was General McClellan.12
Lincoln had “studied him and taken his measure as well as he could.” The general had done a superb job training his army and preparing for the campaign, but he moved too cautiously and slowly and, when faced with the necessity of committing his force to battle, “became nervous and oppressed with the responsibility and hesitated to meet the crisis.” These were not the qualities required for the longer, harder war Lincoln knew he had to fight.13 On the other hand, McClellan had real ability as an organizer, trainer, and motivator of volunteer troops; and it was not at all certain that Lincoln could find anyone better to replace him as commander of the Army of the Potomac. As of July 4, 1862, there was no other general in the service who had had comparable experience in the command of so large a body of troops—except for Halleck, whose weaknesses as a field commander were known and who was slated for a different role in the high command. Grant and Buell were already assigned to army commands in the West, and neither had yet proven himself in that role. Brigadier General John Pope had had some success in a minor campaign in Missouri, which led Lincoln to put him in command of the troops defending Washington on June 26; but he had yet to show he could command a large army. General Ambrose Burnside had shown promise in conducting the operations that had seized the North Carolina sounds between February and June 1862, but this had been primarily a naval campaign.
Despite his defeat, McClellan remained extraordinarily popular with his troops; and the officer corps of the Army of the Potomac was for the most part intensely loyal to their commander. Those feelings were an element of strength, enabling him to restore his army’s morale and rouse its fighting spirit—if only he would commit himself to action. The dark side of that virtue was the fact that McClellan had fostered a cult of personality in his army and among his officers that would make it extraordinarily difficult—perhaps impossible—for any replacement to command them effectively.
However, the McClellan problem went beyond merely military considerations. During his yearlong tenure in command, McClellan had become the leader of the political opposition to Lincoln and the policies of the Republican administration. Yet paradoxically, his strong support by the Democratic Party made it more difficult for Lincoln to relieve him of command. The North’s ability to maintain the war for the Union depended on the backing of the so-called War Democrats, whose loyalty to the Union moved them to serve or support a Republican administration. The general was the very personification of the War Democrat. He had served the Union cause at the highest level by personally organizing its army and fighting its battles. When Lincoln brought McClellan to Washington in July 1861, they had been substantially in agreement on the aims and methods of Union strategy. But over the ensuing year they had become increasingly estranged: partly because of their incompatible personalities, partly because of the inevitable disagreements between the military and the political leadership over the management of army affairs—but primarily because of their profound disagreement about the political character of the war and the policies needed to win it.
Lincoln and McClellan embodied the principles that governed the beliefs and actions of their respective parties, and their conflict defined the primary fault lines in the Unionist cause. These differences were fundamental, rooted in the political battles of the 1850s that had culminated in secession and civil war: Should slavery in the South be perpetuated and permitted to expand into new territories or put on the path to ultimate extinction? And did the Federal government have the power and the right to limit its expansion and regulate it toward extinction?
To understand the process of political and military analysis that drove Lincoln to radicalize Union strategy, we have to look closely at the way his conflict with McClellan developed during the year that began with McClellan’s appointment to the high command on July 26, 1861, and ended on July 1, 1862, with the retreat of McClellan’s defeated army to Harrison’s Landing.
THE INDISPENSABLE MAN:
MCCLELLAN AND LINCOLN
JULY 1861–FEBRUARY 1862
George Brinton McClellan was thirty-four years old when, on the day after the Federal rout at Bull Run, Lincoln summoned him to Washington to take command of the forces defending the capital. The two made a striking contrast when they met on July 26: Lincoln exceptionally tall and almost preternaturally lean of face and figure, dressed in a rumpled suit and worn top hat; McClellan a little under average height but built like a fireplug, his handsome face adorned with well-barbered mustache and goatee, his barrel chest proudly forward, trim and trig in his blue and brass. The strong physical contrast was offset by the warmth of their meeting. Lincoln was gratified by the belief that he had found a general fully competent to the task before him, McClellan pleased to have won at last the recognition he deserved—recognition that had been long delayed but which, when it came, had come with astonishing suddenness.
McClellan had long been considered one of the Regular Army’s best and brightest. He had ranked second in the highly distinguished West Point Class of 1846, whose fifty-nine graduates produced twenty-two future generals, twelve for the Union and ten for the Confederacy, with Stonewall Jackson heading the latter group. McClellan had served along with then Major Robert E. Lee as an engineer on the staff of General Winfield Scott in the 1847 campaign against Mexico City and was generally recognized as an officer of great energy, ability, and ambition. After the Mexican War he was favored with choice assignments by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. In 1853 he led one of the army expeditions sent to survey possible routes for a transcontinental railroad, and in 1855–57 he traveled to Europe as the army’s official observer of the Crimean War. Nevertheless, like a lot of the army’s more energetic junior officers, he found that peacetime service offered little prospect of promotion. He resigned from the army in 1857 to find more interesting, lucrative, and empowering work in the growing civilian economy, where trained engineers and managers were in high demand. He was a great success as an executive of the Illinois Central Railroad. Through his work he forged close ties to Illinois senator Stephen Douglas and to the leaders of the Douglas wing of the Democratic Party, whose distaste for abolitionism he shared. In 1859, after a long courtship, he married Mary Ellen Marcy, the daughter of Major Randolph Marcy of the army engineers. McClellan valued her opinion highly and adopted her deeply religious understanding of history and human destiny. His wartime letters to her shared his innermost thoughts and feelings and reflected his intense desire to earn and maintain her approval of his character and actions.
Despite his marital and business success he missed the army and petitioned several times for reinstatement. In 1859 and 1860 he wrote to his mentor, Quartermaster General Joseph E Johnston, later a senior Confederate general, seeking restoration of his former rank. The application failed, because the army was in a period of fiscal retrenchment and not able to increase the size of the officer corps. McClellan also asked Johnston to recommend him to the organizers of a filibustering enterprise: a private military expedition aimed at overthrowing a Latin American government and acquiring territory suitable for the expansion of slavery. There had been several controversial attempts of that kind in the 1850s, notably by William Walker in Nicaragua in 1855–58, to which the U.S. government had turned a blind eye. But by 1860 the government of President James Buchanan had banned the launching of such expeditions from U.S. soil, because they were liable to exacerbate the political conflict over slavery expansion and endanger relations with foreign governments. It is not clear whether Johnston declined to recommend McClellan because such ventures were illegal, or if the expedition (which would have been highly speculative) failed to get the needed funding. In any case, McClellan remained desk-bound at the Illinois Central. At age thirty-four he was a man both successful and disappointed.14
The outbreak of the Civil War finally gave McClellan his chance to return to the army with high rank. Within weeks after Fort Sumter, with the support of Republican governor Dennison of Ohio and General in Chief Winfield Scott, he was commissioned as major general of volunteers and assigned to command the regiments that were being formed in Ohio and Indiana. He proved to be a superb organizer and trainer of volunteer troops, with a flair for publicity and a gift for the grand gesture that makes military service seem glorious to the men in the ranks. On May 26 he received an appeal from a group of political leaders in western Virginia who intended to resist the secession of their state and wanted Federal military support. In relatively short order McClellan assembled an infantry force and organized it for an extended operation in the West Virginia mountains. In a monthlong campaign, McClellan established Union control in this vital border area. At its height McClellan’s force did not amount to more than twenty thousand troops, and the Confederate “army” that opposed it was never able to concentrate more than three thousand men in any one place. Nevertheless, McClellan’s achievement in clearing and holding West Virginia for the Union was impressive. McClellan and the press trumpeted as major victories the two small skirmishes in which he defeated Confederate forces sent against him; but it was his mastery of organization and logistics that enabled him to complete a successful offensive in that region of high mountains, deep woods, and primitive communications.
The significance of the West Virginia campaign became magnified by the contrast between McClellan’s swift and efficient operations and the shameful rout of the army commanded by Irvin McDowell at Bull Run. At Lincoln’s call McClellan was suddenly translated from the West Virginia backwater to the nation’s capital and the center of the War for the Union. On the four-day train trip from Wheeling to Washington, crowds gathered on every station platform to hail him as the nation’s hope. On arrival he was received as the incarnation of military professionalism, which precisely matched his self-conceit. He expected the civilian leadership to defer to his judgment, and for a time it did. Lincoln in particular—his nominal commander in chief—seemed ready to grant him far wider authority over operations and appointments than would ever have been permitted in the hidebound and hierarchical prewar Regular Army. It was astonishing. In the last six months McClellan had gone from unhappy railroad vice president to putative savior of the Republic. The president and General Scott, the cabinet and senators, “give me my way in everything, full swing & unbounded confidence. All tell me that I am responsible for the fate of the Nation.” Some men might have been awed by the adulation or oppressed by the weight of expectation that went with it. McClellan let his ego swell till it matched those expectations. He assumed from the first a perfect self-confidence: “It is an immense task that I have on my hands, but I believe I can accomplish it.”15
The Mexican War had taught him to despise the incompetence of the politically connected amateurs who commanded volunteer regiments. He believed with all his heart that victory for the Union would require that control of everything from preparations to operations be entrusted to professional soldiers like himself. He would come to see his elevation as providential and would interpret his successes and failures as signals of God’s intentions toward the American republic: “I feel that God has placed a great work in my hands.” He confided to Mary Ellen his sense that “by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me—but nothing of that kind would please me—therefore I won’t be Dictator.” His sense of power is conveyed by his emphasis on “therefore”: if he does not assume the dictatorship, it is because it does not please him to do so.16
The idea of a military dictatorship was not an idle or passing fancy. Demands for dictatorship would regularly recur whenever the war seemed to take a turn for the worse. It had proponents in both political parties as well as the army and was advocated from time to time by important journals in the national press. The recurrence of the dictatorship theme, and the seriousness with which it was advocated, is a significant measure of the depth and complexity of the political crisis with which Lincoln had to deal; and the possibility of dictatorship would define the stakes in the personal and political conflict between President Lincoln and General McClellan.
We are used to thinking of the president’s standing as commander in chief as embracing powers clearly defined by the constitution, and as extensive in scope—indeed, according to some recent interpretations, even “unlimited.” But those principles were not at all settled in 1861. Although the Constitution designates the president as commander in chief of the armed forces, at the start of the Civil War there was no clear precedent for how that command should be exercised. In the most recent case, the Mexican War, President Polk had used his power to authorize the invasion of Mexico, approve in a very general way the strategic offensives proposed by his senior generals, and appoint army commanders and several of their senior subordinates. The commanding generals, operating thousands of miles from Washington, were able to conduct operations and even peace negotiations as they saw fit. The present war would take place on home ground, and in a country with excellent rail and telegraphic communications, which meant the president and secretary of war in Washington had the ability to exercise close supervision or control of operations if they chose. But this war would also require the mobilization and operational use of forces on a scale infinitely larger than any previous war. There was certainly good reason to doubt the capacity of any civilian leader to muster and master so large and complex a military machine. Lincoln had no military or executive experience, and even many supporters believed that he lacked the great force of character his task would require.17
The most basic premises of Lincoln’s warmaking policy were held questionable. There was a considerable body of Northern opinion, not exclusively Democratic, which doubted the constitutionality of his plan to coerce the seceding states or questioned the wisdom and/or morality of trying to pin the Union together with bayonets. In such a setting, with a revolution already commenced, with civil authority fragmented and social violence spreading, the traditional constraints of political imagination are loosed, and radical actions and political transformations of all sorts become conceivable and plausible, even appealing. If one state or group of states could secede, why not others? There were secessionist organizations at work in Missouri and the Border States, in Illinois and Indiana, and even in New York City. In the late summer of 1861 General John C. Fremont, commanding Union forces in the West, had threatened to lead a secession of western states, with himself as dictator. He was resisting an order from Lincoln to rescind a proclamation freeing large numbers of slaves in his district, which was itself a usurpation of presidential authority. Fremont had backed down and Lincoln eventually relieved him from command, but the threat of further secessions and of a military putsch remained.18
In his own capital city, Lincoln was confronted with a host of opposition factions and movements whose members not only criticized his conduct of the war but attempted to usurp his authority. The leading men in his cabinet were also faction leaders who used their power and standing to influence Lincoln’s policies. The most powerful and ambitious cabinet officers would try to wrest control of military and/or civil policy out of Lincoln’s hands. Secretary of State Seward tried the trick with a presumptuous memorandum during the first days of the administration; but when Lincoln quashed the attempt, Seward backed off and became the president’s closest colleague. On the other hand, Treasury Secretary Chase never stopped angling for control of the administration. Chase was an impressive figure, tall and burly, with the high forehead that was supposed to be the sign of great intellect, a founding leader of the Republican Party, a former senator and governor of Ohio, a strong antislavery man who was the cabinet voice of the Radicals. He thought Lincoln weak-minded and vacillating and rather blatantly promoted himself as the president’s replacement in the next election.19
A more explicit threat of usurpation came from the Radicals in Lincoln’s own party. Their chief instrument was the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which used its powers of investigation to intimidate the army and the executive branch, subjecting generals to days of unfriendly inquisition—and getting one brigadier, the unfortunate Charles Stone, thrown into prison on mere suspicion of disloyalty. The temper of the Committee is indicated by the character of its chairman, Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan. Chandler was New Hampshire born, but in 1833, at age twenty, he moved to the Michigan frontier, where he opened a general merchandise store. From earliest youth he had detested the very idea of slavery, and his early political activities were devoted to that cause rather than to any specific party. However, in Michigan the Democrats were more closely identified with support of slavery than the Whigs. When Chandler formally entered politics, as successful candidate for mayor of Detroit in 1851, he did so as a Whig; and when the Republicans emerged as an antislavery party in 1854, Chandler became a charter member. He made his bones, so to speak, organizing gangs of antislavery roughnecks to fight it out with the mobs of bully-boys that Democrats sent to intimidate voters at the polls. After serving as mayor of Detroit, he won election to the Senate as a Republican in 1857. There he espoused militantly antislavery views. He disapproved of Lincoln’s early efforts to negotiate a peace and his hope of conciliating Southern Unionists. To those “traitorous States” he would offer “no concessions, no compromise,” nothing but “strife unto blood before yielding to the demands of traitorous insolence.”20
Lincoln and his confidential secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay privately referred to Chandler and his colleagues as “the Jacobins,” determined to figuratively guillotine those suspected of lacking enthusiasm for the cause. For some Radical leaders, the work of the Joint Committee was merely the prelude to a more revolutionary reorganization of constitutional government. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts believed, and in June 1862 would assert in open debate, that the Constitution vested the power to wage war in Congress, not the president, and that the legislature’s war powers were virtually unlimited. Sumner was the intellectual leader of the Radicals, a true Boston Brahmin, a graduate of Boston Latin School and Harvard—a scholar and orator in the classical mode, who had been a leader of the antislavery forces in the Senate since 1851. The Radicals wanted to use the authority implicit in the war powers to annul the constitutional standing of the seceded states, reducing them to territorial status, and to abolish slavery. If successful, their effort would have fundamentally altered the constitutional division of legislative and executive authority.21
The confusion and mismanagement that characterized the early days of mobilization, coupled with the embarrassing defeat at Bull Run, magnified doubts about Lincoln’s competence to the point where some in Congress and the press were willing to consider the appointment of a professional soldier as “dictator.” Powerful faction leaders, including Senator Chandler and Treasury Secretary Chase, supposed that a dictator put in place through their influence would look to them, rather than the president, for advice on policy. Such a dictatorship would be the result not of a coup but of deliberate legislation, which would limit its duration and powers. The dictator’s appointment would terminate with the end of hostilities, and his powers would be restricted to “purely military” affairs, leaving civil policy and authority in the hands of the president. It was supposed that this could be done without compromising the republican character of the government—though all historical precedents, from Caesar’s Rome to Napoleonic France, suggested the contrary.
The idea appealed for several reasons, apart from the fear that Lincoln was inexperienced or inept. It is worth noting that Confederate leaders were also drawn to the idea of dictatorship, despite the fact that President Davis was a West Point graduate, a combat veteran, and a former secretary of war. Behind such proposals was the assumption that military and political affairs could be treated as distinct and separate realms of activity; and that military measures were best conducted by politically disinterested professionals, without the interference of politicians. In fact it is neither possible nor desirable to separate the operational conduct of war from consideration of political questions, since every war is ultimately political in its causes and objectives—especially a civil war. Nevertheless, military professionalism is of real value in war-fighting, and Lincoln acknowledged this by persistently searching for a general in chief to whom he could entrust the management of military operations. McClellan seemed perfectly cast for the role.
At first it appeared that Lincoln and McClellan agreed on the basic elements of Union strategy. McClellan declared that “military action . . . prompt and irresistible” and in “overwhelming strength” was necessary “to convince all our antagonists, especially those of the governing aristocratic class, of the utter impossibility of resistance.” He also shared Lincoln’s expressed belief that the shortest and least costly path to reunion required the conciliation of Southern slaveholders.22
This apparent agreement masked serious and fundamental differences, which would become more pronounced as the war itself was prolonged and intensified, and it would threaten to fracture the political unity of the Unionist cause. Lincoln’s support of conciliation was pragmatic: it seemed to offer the least destructive path to reunion. But he remained convinced that the Union was unsafe so long as slavery was free to expand and states insisted on a right of secession, and he would not accept terms of conciliation that left either question unresolved. In contrast, McClellan described himself as a conservative and “a strong Democrat of the Stephen A. Douglas school.” The conflict that developed between them was, in a sense, a continuation of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which set the terms for the Union’s wartime debate over slavery and states’ rights.
To understand the significance of McClellan’s identification with Douglas, we have to look briefly at the three-sided political struggle among Republicans, Southern Democrats, and “Douglas Democrats” that had raged from 1854 to 1860 and culminated in secession and civil war.
THE CONFLICT OF PRINCIPLES, 1854–1860
The issue that first divided the parties arose in 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Bill promoted by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois broke the terms of prior compromises and opened previously “free” territories to settlement by slaveholders. The question that then divided the major parties, and factions within the parties, was whether or not the Federal government had the power and the right to exclude slavery from the unsettled western territories acquired by the nation through the Louisiana Purchase of 1804 and the Mexican War. The newly formed Republican Party held that the Federal government did have that power under the Constitution; and that it ought to use it to prevent the spread of slavery and the aggrandizement of “the Slave Power”—the Southerners whose dominance of the Democratic Party had given them control of Congress and of the presidency. Among Republicans, antislavery sentiment ranged from abolitionists who detested slavery on moral grounds and wanted it extinguished everywhere to westerners solely interested in preserving the new territories for White men.
Abraham Lincoln became the Republicans’ representative man because he was able to articulate a set of common principles on which the whole party could agree. His core principle was the belief that the United States could not continue as a “house divided,” half-slave and half-free. Slavery was both morally wrong and radically inconsistent with the democratic principles on which American nationality was founded, and for that reason it must be put on the path to ultimate extinction. Preventing the spread of slavery to the western territories was the essential first step toward that goal, and the Federal government had the power to exclude it.
This statement of policy was based on a deeper principle, which would become more crucial during the war as the slavery issue came to the fore. Lincoln insisted that the principle of equality enunciated in the Declaration of Independence was the moral compass of the nation and the implicit promise of the Constitution. Although neither he nor his party was prepared to advocate immediate universal abolition or the granting of full civil rights to Black people, they were committed in principle to freeing Blacks from economic servitude. As Lincoln put it, during his 1858 debate with Senator Douglas, “in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”23
The Democrats were divided between a “Southern” wing, comprising slave-state politicians and their Northern allies, and a Northern wing led by Douglas. The Southern faction held that slavery was a beneficent institution, necessary to the maintenance of White supremacy; and that the Federal government had neither the power nor the right to exclude it from territories acquired by and for the whole nation. The Republican claim that slavery was “immoral” was both an insult to Southern honor and an unacceptable form of agitation likely to foment social violence. Extremists within the Southern wing also held that Federal attempts to exclude slavery would violate the Constitution and justify secession.
The Douglas Democrats occupied a middle ground between Southern Democrats and Republicans. Douglas himself represented the interests and ideas of Democrats in the region then known as the Northwest, the states north of the Ohio River formed out of the old Northwest Territory. His constituents favored the Democratic Party’s positions on trade, tariffs, and westward expansion and were virulently anti-Negro. But they had no love for slavery as such, and wanted the western territories reserved for White family farmers; and they resented the fact that their party was controlled by the Southern wing, which denied the presidential nomination to the Northwest’s favorite son, Stephen A. Douglas.
Douglas’s platform was given its definitive shape during his classic debates with Abraham Lincoln, during the Illinois senatorial election campaign of 1858. He denied the Republican premise that either slavery or freedom must become universal. The nation had been half-slave and half-free for generations and could continue so indefinitely if extremists on both sides would cease agitating the issue. He refused to engage the morality of slavery. Such questions were matters of conscience; statesmen must only concern themselves with the law and the public interest. While he did not explicitly endorse the Southern view that slavery was a “positive good” and enslavement the natural and necessary condition of the Negro, he did emphatically endorse the principle of White supremacy on which the defense of slavery was based. In his debates with Lincoln, Douglas specifically rejected the idea that the principles of the Declaration of Independence applied to Negroes. He declared his belief that the American government had been founded “on the White basis . . . by white men, for white men”; and that Negroes or Indians, while they deserved decent treatment, had no claim to civil equality.24
However, Douglas broke with the Southern wing of his party on the critical issue of the territories. While he accepted the South’s view that the Federal government could not exclude slavery from the territories, he held that the people of the territory could vote to exclude it. The principle was known as “squatter sovereignty,” and Douglas adopted it because the people he represented were independent farmers who saw the territories as a land of opportunity and did not want to have to compete with the owners of large, slave-worked plantations. The Southern wing of the party saw Douglas’s policy not only as a blow to their economic interests but as an implicit endorsement of the Republican view that slavery was “wrong,” morally and/or economically, and ought to be restricted and ultimately extinguished. It therefore did Douglas no good to insist that neither Christian morality nor the principles of the Declaration was at stake in the 1860 election. At its presidential nominating convention the Party split, with a bare majority supporting Douglas and a Southern faction nominating John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. With the Democrats divided against themselves, Lincoln and the Republicans won the election, and the threat of Republican antislavery measures drove the South into secession.
Douglas had always been a staunch Unionist and opponent of secession, and after the firing on Fort Sumter he would support the use of military force to end the rebellion. Lincoln could not have mustered the required political support or the recruits for the war effort without the backing of Douglas and other “War Democrats.” However, despite the fact that secession had carried the Southerners out of the Democratic Party, its ranks still contained a substantial number of so-called Doughfaces, or “Northern men of Southern principles,” who wanted to settle the conflict on Southern terms. Moreover, even War Democrats like Douglas still held to the principles Douglas had enunciated in 1858: that the nation had been founded on “the White basis,” by and for White men exclusively; and that slavery was both a constitutionally protected institution and the guarantor of White supremacy. They therefore worked for the restoration of a Union in which slavery remained intact; and they wanted the seceded states restored to the Union with their political rights largely intact, so that a reunited Democratic Party could regain control of the government.
With those ends in view, Douglas and his Democratic colleagues in the period between the first secessions and Fort Sumter (January–April 1861) tried to restore the Union by offering the South extremely generous terms of compromise. These included the passage of constitutional amendments guaranteeing the perpetuation of slavery, the opening of some western territories to slavery, and even the restructuring of the government to allow Southern states to veto Federal legislation. Since all of these ideas required the Republicans to abandon the core principles and planks of their platform, the compromises failed. Nevertheless, they indicated the extent to which Democrats might be willing to go to conciliate the South should the strategy of conciliation succeed in bring the Confederate leadership to terms.
McClellan had been close to Douglas during his years as vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad, and he strongly and actively supported Douglas against Lincoln in both the 1858 Senate campaign and the 1860 presidential canvass. As a railroad executive he had also made contacts among a group of financiers in New York City who were also active in the Democratic Party and supporters of Senator Douglas. Chief among them were two men who would become McClellan’s political mentors and his link to the Party leadership: Samuel L. M. Barlow, a corporate lawyer who often represented railroad interests, and William Aspinwall, a wealthy merchant and railroad entrepreneur. Through them he became acquainted with August Belmont, the German-born international banker and financier who had been Douglas’s most effective fund-raiser. Belmont was the financial bulwark of the wartime Democratic Party. In 1863 he would be elected as its national chairman, and with Barlow’s aid he would mastermind the movement that would nominate McClellan for president in 1864.
However, in 1861 neither Belmont nor Barlow was thinking about the presidency. Nor was McClellan himself. In the summer of 1861 the party was in total disarray. Senator Douglas, its leader and chief presidential aspirant, died suddenly of typhoid, on June 3, 1861. Not until May 1862 would the Democrats’ congressional caucus be able to formulate the rudiments of a national platform. In the interim Belmont and Barlow and other New York Democrats assumed leading roles in the task of reorganizing their diminished party as a strong and conservative opposition. From their perspective, McClellan was the conservatives’ best-placed and most powerful instrument of political influence. They were eager to make use of him, and McClellan had a great deal to gain from their support.25
AGENT OF INFLUENCE:
MCCLELLAN AS GENERAL IN CHIEF
McClellan embraced his role as the conservatives’ man at the top because he sincerely believed in their principles and because he thought that as general in chief his responsibilities included civil as well as military policy. Throughout his service as military adviser to the president and commander of the army, McClellan would confer and consult with his New York advisers, seeking their guidance about his own course of action and asking them to use the party’s newspapers and its congressional delegation to support him against his opponents in the administration. This they were more than willing to do, since it furthered their efforts to rebuild their party as a viable opposition and regain control of Congress and crucial governorships in the next midterm election in November 1862.
McClellan tried to use his position as army commander to make himself the leader of his own powerful conservative faction, and to contest with Chase and Seward and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War for the power to direct a weak and incompetent president. He would benefit from the fact that he was also the object of desire for faction leaders in the Republican Congress and for members of the “Team of Rivals” who comprised Lincoln’s cabinet. The more ambitious among them saw in the young professional a cat’s-paw to diminish or effectively displace Lincoln as commander in chief. At one time or another McClellan would be courted by Radicals like Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler, of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and by cabinet officers seeking to control the president’s councils, including Treasury Secretary Chase (Radical), Secretary of State Seward (moderate), and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair (conservative).26
Although he was willing to court and be courted by the likes of Chase and Seward, McClellan was committed in principle to the conservative cause. The basis of his political ideology was Douglas’s premise that the American government had been founded “by white men, for white men” and that Negroes were unfit for citizenship. McClellan thought slavery an anachronistic economic system, with many unsavory features that needed reform; but he thought the “best men” of the South could be trusted to improve the system while preserving White supremacy. McClellan, and the Democratic leaders who supported him, hoped to see the Southern wing of the party, chastened by defeat and diminished in power, reconnected to the national Democracy in a conservative coalition that would once again dominate U.S. politics. The general asked his political mentor Samuel L. M. Barlow to use his influence with the press to discredit the Radicals and “Help me to dodge the nigger—we want nothing to do with him. I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the Govt—on no other issue. To gain that end we cannot afford to raise up the negro question.” He believed that conciliation was the only way to restore the Union without compromising the republican character of the American government. To attempt the military subjugation of a free people (the South) would transform the republic into a despotism, and drive the Rebels to a defense so desperate it could never be overcome.27
In contrast, Lincoln’s commitment to “conciliation” of the South was conditional rather than absolute. He did hold that the Constitution restrained the power of the president and Congress to alter slavery in a state by executive order or simple legislation. He was indeed reluctant to deal with the revolutionary consequences that would follow from large-scale abolition. But the fundamental principle of his political program was the insistence that slavery must be started down the road to eventual extinction; and this, as McClellan rightly believed, was something the South would never accept. If conciliation failed, Lincoln was not only prepared but determined to fight a war of subjugation, to restore the Union and begin the destruction of slavery by force if nothing else would suffice. And while he did not underestimate the difficulty of such a task, he considered it within the realm of possibility, if the North was willing to put out its full strength and bear the costs of total war.28
In August 1861, however, these differences were not yet material. Lincoln immediately brought McClellan into his circle of close advisers and solicited his advice on grand strategy. McClellan presented a comprehensive plan on August 2 that showed his grasp of the big picture as well as the military details. He was soon more valued than Secretary of War Cameron, and coequal with Lieutenant General Winfield Scott in managing army operations. When Scott disagreed with and opposed McClellan’s views, McClellan began a bureaucratic campaign to discredit Scott and force his relief or retirement. It was easy to deride the pomposity of a proud old general whose nickname, even in younger years, was “Old Fuss and Feathers,” and to imply that Scott’s expertise was out of date. But McClellan went beyond that ploy with statements that defamed Scott’s character and intelligence and questioned his loyalty. On November 1 Winfield Scott, who had been for fifty years the nation’s most distinguished military commander, was compelled to accept the indignity of an enforced retirement, and McClellan was appointed to replace him as general in chief.
The press nicknamed him “The Young Napoleon” and photographers demanded he act the part, standing with chest thrust out and right hand tucked into the front of his uniform coat. Accordingly, he trimmed his mustache and goatee in the Imperial style established by Napoleon III, who had become emperor of France through an 1852 coup d’etat. The dark side of being a young Napoleon was that if dictatorship did become necessary as a means of saving the nation, was he not obliged to assume it? But if he did, might he not also become the destroyer of republican institutions? On August 9 he wrote his wife, “I receive letter after letter—have conversation after conversation calling on me to save the nation—alluding to the Presidency, Dictatorship, &c. As I hope one day to be united with you forever in heaven I have no such aspirations—I will never accept the Presidency—I will cheerfully take the Dictatorship & agree to lay down my life when the country is saved.” Less than a month after assuming command he imagines himself refusing the offer of the presidency—he was too young for the office in 1862, and the next election was two years away. But he can “cheerfully” accept the proffer of immediate dictatorship—though now the fantasy includes a patriotic suicide, acknowledging the fact that the resort to dictatorship would imperil the future of republican government. “I have no choice,” he confided to his wife, “the people call upon me to save the country—I must save it & cannot respect anything that stands in the way.”29
His sense of himself as a superior man, and his unswerving belief that he was uniquely qualified to be the savior of the republic, made it hard for him to bear the constraints of working within Lincoln’s circle of advisers and having to explain and justify his actions to men he considered his intellectual inferiors or political enemies. The great outpouring of public support that he enjoyed during his first six months in power was, as he saw it, a kind of symbolic election, by which the people had chosen him during this hour of darkness to vindicate the national cause. In his first official message to Congress Lincoln himself acknowledged that “the nation seemed to give a unanimous concurrence” with McClellan’s promotion, and his appointment to command is “in considerable degree the selection of the Country as well as of the Executive.”30 But McClellan’s popularity fostered the illusion, abetted by his friends and advisers in the Democratic Party, that there was a kind of moral equivalence between himself and Lincoln; that he represented in some unofficial yet real way the “conservative” views held by a putative majority of Northern people.
McClellan’s correspondence offers a unique insight into his state of mind and his way of responding to the political and personal tensions around him. During the nine months he spent in Washington, his official correspondence with Lincoln and other administration figures is on the whole formally correct and duly respectful. But his letters to his wife and to Samuel Barlow are filled with angry fulminations and vicious aspersions on the character and intentions of Lincoln, the cabinet, the Republican Party, and any politician or fellow officer opposed to his policies or interests. The general tenor of these opinions, also shared with close colleagues and officers of his staff, gradually became public. Lieutenant General Scott, the most distinguished soldier of his age, had once been hailed by McClellan as his hero and mentor. But when Scott disagreed with McClellan’s plans, or his assessment of enemy strength, he became “that confounded old Genl . . . a perfect imbecile. He understands nothing, appreciates nothing & is ever in my way. . . . I do not know whether he is a dotard or a traitor! . . . If he cannot be taken out of my path I will . . . resign & let the admn take care of itself.”31
McClellan’s sense of self-worth, which had butted in vain against the constraints of the prewar army and the business world, was suddenly invited to spread itself. The cost of that expansion was also a terrible concentration and isolation of the self, which distorted his personality, his relations with the administration, and ultimately his ability to understand and deal effectively with the strategic problems he faced as a military commander. He felt himself to be at once uniquely and terribly empowered, and uniquely and terribly vulnerable. If he believed himself capable of winning the war in a single campaign, he also had to fear that he might lose it in one campaign. For all his real expertise and immersion in practical affairs, McClellan was living in a military and political fantasy world—of his own devising, abetted by his supporters—in which he was the central figure in a two-front war to save the Union from the Rebels in front and the Radicals in the rear. On August 16 he wrote his wife, “I am here in a terrible place—the enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force—the Presdt is an idiot, the old General [Scott] in his dotage.” He was then in Washington, DC, surrounded by a ring of fortifications and the camps of his own army, a hundred thousand strong.32
Before he could risk his standing by moving against the enemy in his front he needed to secure himself against the enemies in his rear. He labored and schemed to force Scott into retirement, feeling sure he would succeed him “unless in the mean time I lose a battle—which I do not expect to do.” The only way to be certain of that was to avoid battle entirely. But after Scott was gone other enemies appeared to threaten his position—rival generals, Radical senators, hostile cabinet members. For more than eight months after he assumed command he would refuse to lead the Army of the Potomac into battle.33
Instead, from his appointment in the summer of 1861 till his departure for the Peninsula in April 1862, McClellan waged a series of political and bureaucratic battles, first to gain exclusive control of military affairs, and then to hold the civil policy of the government to a conservative course. McClellan thought Lincoln was weak-minded: essentially conservative and “sound on the nigger,” but susceptible to pressure from the Radicals. McClellan believed that he could dominate the president’s councils, draw him away from the Radicals, and win his support for conservative positions espoused by the Democratic Party. Despite his occasional alliances with Chase and Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, the most conservative Republican in the cabinet, was the only consistent supporter of McClellan and of the conservative program he espoused.34
The most immediate obstacle to McClellan’s control of military affairs was General Scott. From August to the end of October 1861, McClellan conducted a systematic campaign intended to undermine Scott’s authority and drive the “Grand Old Man of the Army” into retirement. McClellan spread rumors about Scott’s physical and supposed mental incapacity, ignored or bypassed the old general in issuing military communications, and treated Scott with studied rudeness. When Scott resigned and McClellan succeeded him as general in chief, Lincoln expressed concern that McClellan was taking on too many tasks: exercising strategic command of all the Union armies while he was also closely engaged in organizing and commanding the huge Army of the Potomac. McClellan confidently replied, “I can do it all.” Having struggled to achieve what he thought would be the exclusive control of military affairs, he was not inclined to invite outside assistance, least of all from a president he despised.
McClellan’s self-confidence was unjustified. At that stage of the war, with Federal armies still in process of formation, it was probably impossible for any general to succeed in the dual tasks of creating his own huge army from scratch and commanding it in the field, while at the same time developing and ordering the execution of a grand strategy for several large field armies operating across the entire breadth of the nation. The only Civil War general to successfully combine the functions of strategic generalissimo and army commander was Ulysses S. Grant; but when Grant took charge in 1864, the Federal armies were all veteran forces, under commanders with three years of experience behind them. McClellan seems to have been overtaxed by his dual role, and his labors were set back for several weeks in December 1861 and January 1862 when he came down with typhoid.
There was also increasing discord during the fall and winter of 1861–62 among McClellan, the administration, and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. There had been criticism of McClellan’s inaction on the Potomac front during September and October; and after McClellan was appointed general in chief, he was also held responsible for the inaction of Halleck’s and Buell’s armies in the western theater. The political leaders believed it was vital for military operations to begin as soon as possible, preferably in the fall of 1861 before the onset of winter made operations in Virginia impossible. Their reasons were sound. The lack of Federal action was undermining the confidence of American and European financiers in the feasibility of the war for the Union, frustrating the administration’s efforts to float loans and raise money to support the armies. Northern public opinion was also discouraged, seeing the lack of action as a sign that effective action was impossible. The longer the Confederacy stood unassailed, the stronger its forces grew, the more credible were its claims to have established its independence, and the better its case for recognition by Britain and France.
McClellan, Halleck, and Buell agreed it would be a grave mistake to take the offensive until their troops were properly trained and their armies properly organized and supplied. There was merit in these objections. It was far more difficult to conduct offensive operations than to stand on the defensive, especially with raw troops and untested systems of command, communication, and supply. The disaster at Bull Run demonstrated the danger in moving prematurely. That lesson was reinforced on October 21, 1861, when a Union brigade was virtually destroyed at Ball’s Bluff while conducting a reconnaissance across the Potomac.
However, even if a strategic offensive was not possible in the fall of 1861, there were a number of important tactical objectives close to Washington with which McClellan’s forces might well have coped. For example, the Rebels had planted batteries along the lower Potomac which prevented shipping from using the river and subjected Washington to an embarrassing blockade. Given the Union navy’s dominance of the waterways, a Federal division could easily have taken and held these outposts. McClellan’s refusal to undertake even so limited a mission reflects something more than concern about the rawness of his troops and his army’s incomplete organization. He refused to risk even a minor a setback that might strengthen his critics and his enemies.
McClellan was not wrong in seeing his position as vulnerable, although his own inaction was partly responsible. In early December the Joint Committee subjected him to close and, he believed, hostile questioning. His testimony was not made public, which allowed McClellan to try to preempt its bad effects by leaking his own highly inaccurate version to the press. However, the Committee struck back by investigating the conduct of General Charles Stone, the division commander who had ordered the reconnaissance that had ended in disaster at Ball’s Bluff. Stone was a close associate of McClellan, shared his commitment to the conciliation of Southern slaveholders, and had ordered his troops to return fugitive slaves to their masters—which was in accordance with both Federal law and current policy, but anathema to the Radicals. The committee would decide that Stone was guilty of sympathy for and perhaps collusion with the enemy, and order his imprisonment without trial. McClellan believed the attack on Stone was the prelude to a move against himself, and he may have been right.35
During the fall of 1861 McClellan found an important ally in Edwin M. Stanton, one of the best-known and most successful trial lawyers in the country and a lifelong Democrat. Stanton had served briefly in President Buchanan’s cabinet as the secession crisis was breaking and had done his utmost to make Buchanan act firmly in defense of Unionist principles. After Sumter he emerged as a leading War Democrat, respected by both parties and often consulted by members of Lincoln’s cabinet, who trusted his loyalty and his judgment. Stanton was forty-eight years old, clean-shaven about the cheeks and mouth but with a full beard along the jawline that flowed down from chin to mid-chest. He glared at the world through round, rimless spectacles: a man of choleric temperament, strong convictions, and violent expression. Samuel Barlow had urged Stanton to help McClellan, who was being dogged by the whole “abolition pack” because of his opposition to their “anti slavery schemes.” In August of 1861 he became an intimate of McClellan, with whom he shared party loyalties and principles as well as contempt for the person and politics of Abraham Lincoln, dubbed by Stanton “the original gorilla.”36
McClellan delighted in that description, which he would use repeatedly in his private correspondence. The pleasure he took in it expressed the most dangerous aspect of McClellan’s state of mind, which was his instinctive and unjustified disdain for Lincoln. Some of this was simple snobbery. McClellan’s social origins were upper-class, though not aristocratic as Americans understood that term. His father was a well-to-do physician, his mother a daughter of one of Philadelphia’s social elite. But his sense of status was shaped by West Point, where Southern officers and cadets defined the category of “gentleman” and drew a strict line between themselves and cadets of insignificant lineage or breeding. McClellan’s sense of himself as a gentleman, living by a code of honor superior to ordinary morality, was directly tied to his ideal of the professional soldier—the privilege accorded the man of superior training was as necessary, and as justified, as the privilege accorded the man of superior social standing. His outrage at the appointment of “political” officers blended the professional’s disdain for the amateur with the gentleman’s disgust for the parvenu. On both scores, Lincoln was unacceptable: a man of low birth and small education, lifted by vile politics above his social and intellectual superiors. McClellan therefore found his subordination to Lincoln nearly intolerable. His attitudes ranged from a patronizing acknowledgment of Lincoln’s dim-witted honesty and good intentions to vicious contempt for the President’s person, manners, intellect, morals, and patriotism. When Lincoln did something that pleased him, McClellan might offer some condescending praise: “The Presdt is perfectly honest & is really sound on the nigger question. I will answer for it now that things go right with him.” More often he dismissed Lincoln as a “well-meaning baboon” or “the original gorilla.” When Lincoln opposed or criticized McClellan, the general branded him as either a traitor or the witless tool of traitors. This was a dangerous notion for a man who believed he was the country’s chosen savior, who could not, in duty, “respect anything that is in the way.”37
McClellan’s manner toward the president was often disrespectful. The gentleman’s code laid great stress on the power of the snub to put an inferior in his place or compel an equal to either challenge you or give way. He used it on Lincoln to rebuke the president for his continual interference. On returning to his headquarters one day, he was told the president was awaiting him in the drawing room—and without a word he went upstairs to bed. Lincoln took the rudeness in stride, remarking that he would hold the general’s horse if he would only win victories. One of Lincoln’s strengths as a commander was his ability to set such petty insults aside. With McClellan, however, that virtue became a flaw: a true gentleman resents an insult, and by bearing this one Lincoln merely confirmed his inferiority in McClellan’s eyes.38
Lincoln tolerated McClellan’s rudeness, intransigence, and disregard of presidential pleas and directives because he still thought McClellan was the general best qualified to command in Virginia. To get the job done Lincoln was willing to use whatever tools were at hand, however problematic. But his pattern of alternately pushing McClellan to act, then settling for an assurance of future action, merely reinforced McClellan’s belief that the president was weak-minded, succumbing first to the influence of McClellan’s enemies then bowing to the superiority of McClellan himself. That view reinforced McClellan’s belief that it was possible for him to gain control of the administration—and necessary for his own sake that he do so.
Far more serious was McClellan’s refusal, through December and January, to discuss with Lincoln his plans for the 1862 military campaign. McClellan had outlined a general plan of campaign in a report to the president back on August 2, but the plan was short on specifics, and in the interim changing conditions had rendered it useless. McClellan considered a number of possible plans after becoming general in chief, but these were very tentative and indefinite. He remarked to Secretary Chase that he expected to capture Richmond in February, but he made no preparations for such a move. He had begun considering a plan that called for the navy to rapidly shift his army to a point on the Virginia coast from which he could strike at the line of communication between the Confederate army at Manassas and its base of supply in Richmond. But the plan was unsettled, and his bout of typhoid prevented his developing it from December 20 through January 7. Lacking a definite plan, he was reluctant to consult the president and so invite the suggestions Lincoln was bound to force upon him.
Faced with the inaction of his armies and McClellan’s refusal to confer with him, Lincoln chose to force the issue. He called a council of war on January 12, to which he invited cabinet secretaries Chase and Seward and an assistant secretary of war, and for the army Quartermaster General Meigs and Generals Irvin McDowell and William Franklin. Franklin was an engineer, top of his West Point class in 1843, a longtime friend and associate of McClellan, now a senior member of his staff and presumably able to speak for his ailing commander. McDowell was the general who had lost Bull Run, uninspired and uninspiring, a dull man who had risen in the Regular Army thanks to his competence as an artilleryman and the operations of seniority. McClellan regarded him as a rival, an enemy, and a tool of the Radicals. At the meeting, McDowell proposed a direct advance against the Rebel army at Manassas, while Franklin hinted at McClellan’s idea for a move by sea. Lincoln asked the generals to consider the possibilities in more detail and return for a second meeting on the thirteenth.
McClellan learned about the meeting through his friend Stanton, and both men recognized the “grand conclave” as a potentially fatal usurpation of McClellan’s command prerogatives. McClellan had actually been recovered from his illness for a week—he had been feigning to forestall presidential consultations—and he invited himself to the January 13 meeting.
The conference was held in Lincoln’s White House office and attended by most of the civilian and military officers who constituted the Federal high command. In addition to Lincoln and McClellan, General Meigs attended, along with Secretaries Seward, Chase, and Blair representing the cabinet. Secretary of War Cameron was absent—he was being forced to resign and had not yet been replaced. Generals McDowell and Franklin, whose advice on the offensive Lincoln had sought, were also present.
McClellan’s demeanor was hostile and sullen throughout the meeting. Each of the generals spoke in turn, laying out the ideas they had earlier presented to the president. McClellan said nothing. When General Meigs attempted to summarize the views of the council, “McClellan replied somewhat coldly . . . ‘You are entitled to have any opinion you please!’ ” He refused to say anything more. He saw himself as alone in a room full of conspirators who consulted in whispers between bouts of inquisition and addressed him with what he thought was “uncalled-for violence of . . . manner”—though Meigs thought the hostility was all on McClellan’s side. When Lincoln pressed McClellan for his plans, he refused in terms insulting to the cabinet officers and the president: “[N]o general commanding an army,” he said, “would willingly submit his plans to the judgment of such an assembly, in which some were incompetent to form a valuable opinion, and others incapable of keeping a secret.” With what seemed deliberate rudeness McClellan added that he would not tell Lincoln his plans because the president would blab them to the Herald, a newspaper that shared McClellan’s antipathy for antislavery Republicans. The meeting ended without an agreement on future operations.39
McClellan’s insulting accusation of Lincoln’s supposed propensity for blabbing things to the press was the more egregious, considering that the next day McClellan himself would arrange to leak his plans to the Herald in order to build public support for his position. He owed that connection to his friend Stanton, who had arranged for McClellan to meet with a reporter named Malcolm Ives. Through Ives, McClellan arranged to plant stories favorable to his interests in the Herald. He also asked his father-in-law and chief of staff, General Marcy, to meet in New York with James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the Herald, and confirm McClellan’s intention “to keep Mr B. well posted” with the inside story of military affairs.40
On his return from the January 13 meeting, McClellan received the welcome news that Stanton had been appointed secretary of war, succeeding Simon Cameron. The two friends had actually helped bring that change about through a dubious bureaucratic ploy. In December, just after McClellan’s triumph over General Scott, Cameron had asked them for advice in preparing his annual report, and they had suggested Cameron make a strong statement in support of emancipation and the recruiting of Black troops—policies that neither Stanton nor McClellan actually favored but which they knew were contrary to Lincoln’s policy. Cameron’s report embarrassed Lincoln; and since there was also ample evidence of Cameron’s incompetence as an administrator, Cameron was forced to resign.
For a few weeks McClellan enjoyed the luxury of having a true friend in the president’s inner circle. Then Stanton abruptly changed sides. His devotion to the Union was real, and he was fiercely determined to make the Federal war effort efficient and energetic. As secretary of war he was frustrated by McClellan’s reluctance to act, when action was politically and militarily imperative. As McClellan’s former confidant, he was also aware of the general’s desire to control the conduct of the war, and saw him as a rival. Only two months after his appointment he joined Lincoln in criticizing McClellan’s prolonged inaction, mocking one mismanaged field exercise as “another damned fizzle.” Stanton would become McClellan’s chief opponent in the cabinet, and forcing Stanton to resign would be McClellan’s chief political project for the rest of his active service. The most outrageous aspect of Stanton’s betrayal was his transfer of loyalty from McClellan, an officer and a gentleman, to the man Stanton himself had called “the original gorilla.” His sense of victimization was extreme, and expressed in language that reflected McClellan’s inflated sense of significance: he wrote his wife that Stanton was “worse than Judas,” which made McClellan a kind of Christ.41
Through February and into March McClellan persisted in his refusal to take the field, even for such minor operations as clearing Confederate batteries from the lower Potomac or testing Rebel strength at Manassas by a reconnaissance-in-force. His inaction seemed all the more egregious after February 4, when U. S. Grant, of Halleck’s command, began the rapid and effective offensive that culminated in the surrender of fifteen thousand Rebel troops at Fort Donelson on February 16.
But in the weeks following the January 13 council, McClellan had developed a new strategic plan whose centerpiece was the movement of his own Army of the Potomac by sea to the Virginia Peninsula. The development and execution of that plan would complicate and intensify the conflict between the civil government and its most powerful military leader.