FEBRUARY 1–JULY 11, 1862


WITH ENEMIES FRONT AND REAR AND THE FATE OF THE NATION IN his hands, McClellan believed that he must not risk his person or his reputation for infallibility until he could put his army in position for a decisive victory. He believed that the plan of campaign he developed in February and March 1862 would produce just such a result. Instead of making a frontal attack on the Confederate army, he would force it to retreat, and ultimately to fight him at a disadvantage, by a making a grand turning movement against its eastern flank. The plan went through several versions, all of which featured the movement of his main force by sea while a smaller force remained behind to defend Washington. The first version called for the strike force to land at Urbanna, a town on the Chesapeake Bay shore of Virginia from which McClellan could attack the supply line linking the Rebel army at Manassas to the capital of Richmond. That plan became moot on March 10 when it was discovered that the Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, had pulled his forces back from Manassas and formed a new defensive line behind the Rappahannock River, some thirty miles closer to Richmond. McClellan then developed a more daring and potentially decisive version of the Urbanna plan. He would carry his army to Fort Monroe on the Peninsula of Virginia, only fifty miles from Richmond—much closer to the city than Johnston’s army. A rapid march up the Peninsula would put him at the gates of Richmond, where he could compel Johnston to stand and fight a decisive battle.

The campaigns of Napoleon—still the ideal theoretical model for the modern strategist—had shown that an aristocratic society like the South could be defeated by wrecking the prestige and breaking the morale of the ruling class; and that could most readily be done by defeating its principal army and capturing an important city, preferably the capital. The Napoleonic example was reinforced by more modern conflicts, like Scott’s campaign in Mexico and the Crimean War. McClellan would bring overwhelming force to bear on the capital city of Richmond. Because of its importance, both material and symbolic, the Confederates were bound to concentrate the largest possible and best equipped force to defend it. By defeating that force and capturing the capital, McClellan would have demonstrated the impossibility of resisting the Federal armies. If at the same time it could be shown that the North had no disposition whatever to interfere in the master-slave relation, then those Southern leaders not utterly carried away by fanaticism might be induced to make a rational choice for peace.1

From Lincoln’s perspective, McClellan’s plan had two drawbacks. It required the army to continue its inactivity in and around Washington, since the idea was to tempt Johnston to remain in northern Virginia rather than scare him farther south. The more serious objection was that while McClellan’s troops were in transit, and even while they were on the Peninsula, Washington would be exposed to attack by the large Rebel force that was supposed to be concentrated around Manassas. McClellan rated that force as between 70,000 and 102,000 men, and the administration accepted McClellan’s estimates for want of anything better. Lincoln insisted that before McClellan made his invasion, Rebel forces must be pushed farther from the capital; and that a substantial force must be left behind to defend Washington. Although several commands were involved in the capital’s defense, the specific bone of contention was the infantry corps commanded by Gen. Irvin McDowell, the largest and best-trained of these commands.

The argument over how many troops, and which units, should be committed to the defense of Washington began when McClellan first laid out his Urbanna plan in March, and it did not end until McClellan’s army ended its retreat from Richmond on July 2. In a sense it would never end, because in his subsequent official reports and press interviews, in his 1864 campaign for the presidency, and long after the war in his memoirs, McClellan, characteristically, would blame his defeat on Stanton and Lincoln for withholding those troops. From the first, discussions of the issue were poisoned by mutual suspicions. McClellan believed that Stanton and the Radicals were conspiring to ruin his campaign and his career by starving his army of troops. Some Radicals, including Zach Chandler, suspected McClellan of a treasonable plot to hand Washington over to the enemy, in order to preserve slavery and return the Democratic Party to power.

McClellan’s standing was weakened by the retreat of Johnston’s army, of which McClellan had had no inkling because he would not let his army engage in active scouting or large-scale armed reconnaissance. When McClellan finally marched his troops out to “pursue” Johnston, the Rebels were out of reach. He also discovered that the Rebel fortifications, which had seemed so formidable to the errant citizens who reported on them and the observers who had viewed them through telescopes at a great distance, were mostly sham. Logs had been mounted at the embrasures as dummy cannons called Quaker guns. That suggested to many the possibility that the Rebel army had been generally much weaker than McClellan supposed. Republican papers mocked the futility and folly of McClellan’s excursion to Manassas, and McClellan called on his friend Barlow to activate the anti-administration New York papers, the Herald and the World, in McClellan’s defense.

To McClellan’s chagrin, he returned to Washington on March 11 to find that Lincoln had relieved him of the duties of general in chief. The president denied that the action was intended as a rebuke and said, rather, that it was necessary because McClellan was soon to take the field as commander of the Army of the Potomac, whose operations would absorb all his energy and attention. But it looked to all the world like a demotion and a rebuke. McClellan also saw it as a part of a political intrigue intended “to secure the failure of the approaching campaign.”2

It was unfortunate that no one tried to follow up the suggestion that Johnston’s force had been overrated. A closer inspection of the encampments might have yielded real intelligence on Confederate strength, which was in fact about forty-eight thousand, less than half of McClellan’s high estimate. But the failure of intelligence on that score was chronic, rooted in the combination of McClellan’s peculiar psychology and the faulty organization of his intelligence staff, and it would affect every decision and action of the Federal high command from the summer of 1861 to the winter of 1862–63.


McClellan’s overestimate of enemy strength was fabulous in scale, and the errors that produced it were systematic. McClellan typically credited the Confederates on his front with two or three times their actual strength. Every military operation McClellan undertook, from his arrival in Washington to the end of the Antietam campaign, would be premised on the belief that the enemy heavily outnumbered him. Because the War Department did not have its own intelligence apparatus, it had no independent means of checking McClellan’s estimates.

McClellan’s earliest force estimates were based on Confederate newspaper reports and civilian rumors, but he soon put in place an intelligence service commanded by the railroad detective Allan Pinkerton, alias “Major E. J. Allen.” Pinkerton was forty-two years old in 1861. He had a full beard, dark and neatly trimmed, and even at army headquarters wore civilian garb: a frock coat, checked shirt, and bowler hat. He was born in Scotland in 1819. As a young man he had been engaged in the Chartist struggle to expand voting rights in Great Britain, and the failure of that movement led him to emigrate to the United States and settle in Chicago in 1842. There he founded the North-Western Police Agency, later known as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which soon emerged as a major presence in law enforcement in a nation that lacked professional police at any level. His agency’s forte was surveillance, and the use of operatives to infiltrate and break up criminal gangs and expose embezzlers—techniques he would use after the war to break up labor unions. In the 1850s his major clients were midwestern railroad companies, the Illinois Central prominent among them. His railroad work was well known to both Lincoln and McClellan. President-elect Lincoln had used his agents to protect him on his journey to Washington.

Although Pinkerton’s methods were effective against rear-area subversives like the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle and the Baltimore “Blood Tubs,” he was out of his depth in the field of military intelligence. His operatives did succeed in infiltrating Confederate offices, obtaining army paperwork, and gathering rumors about Rebel operations; but they did not know how to distinguish units that existed merely on paper from regiments fully manned, equipped, and ready for battle. They could tell McClellan the number of regiments officially credited to Lee’s army but not the actual strength of these units. The failure was not entirely their fault—Confederate accounting methods were so slipshod that even an army commander like Lee could not be absolutely certain of the number of troops in his command. Nevertheless, the result was an astounding overestimate of the Rebel forces in Virginia.

Pinkerton’s information might have been useful had it been subject to critical analysis by an intelligence staff and supplemented by other forms of intelligence gathering—scouting by cavalry, or the use of large units for a reconnaissance-in-force, the taking and questioning of POWs, and assessment of their state of equipment, health, and training, and so forth. An analysis of the Federal army’s own difficulties in raising troops, equipping them, and maintaining regiments at full strength would have suggested how unlikely it was that the Confederates were raising a larger army—given the fact that the North had a larger White population to draw on, and far better resources for transporting and supplying its armies. But since McClellan insisted on being his own chief of intelligence, there was no independent staff review. McClellan also read all intelligence through the distorting lens of his conviction that he and his army were the Republic’s sole hope of salvation and must run no risk of defeat. It followed that in estimating the opposition he must always err on the side of caution, basing his moves on the assumption that the enemy force was as large as it could conceivably be. Field reports that suggested the enemy in his front was at less than maximum possible strength were characteristically discounted. He never tested these strength estimates by matching them against the known limitations of Confederate manpower, production, and transportation.3

So utterly out of scale were McClellan’s estimates that he was suspected of cooking the books to justify his unceasing calls for reinforcement. However, all the evidence suggests that he and his closest advisers genuinely believed their absurd figures. He and his army were the sole reliance of an imperiled republic and the only force capable of overthrowing the rebellion. It was only logical to assume that the Rebels would concentrate every available man to oppose him and destroy the army he commanded.


In McClellan’s view, the fate of the republic absolutely depended on the triumph of the principles and policies he represented; and his fate, in turn, depended on the success of his Army of the Potomac. That army must not be exposed to a serious risk of defeat, since a reverse would be doubly fatal. It would embolden the South to continue the war indefinitely; and by discrediting McClellan it would hand the Federal government over to the Radicals. He therefore abandoned the idea of prompt action in order to build an army that would be invulnerable.

Lincoln was not mistaken in thinking McClellan a master at training raw troops. McClellan’s critics mocked the incessant drills and the grand reviews as mere showmanship. But in fact these exercises instilled high morale in the army’s units and taught officers and men the difficult tasks of maneuvering brigades and divisions on the battlefield. McClellan turned his volunteer gunners into superb artillerymen by combining volunteer with Regular batteries and putting them through long hours of practice.

If he was frustrated in his attempts to gain leverage within the cabinet, McClellan could take great satisfaction in his ability to build the Army of the Potomac into a powerful and efficient military force. But the army McClellan created was also a political instrument.4

McClellan tried to maintain direct control over every part of his vast army from his own headquarters, which was manned by staff officers personally chosen for their loyalty as well as their expertise. McClellan’s headquarters was a closed circle, an echo chamber filled with followers and acolytes who praised his every decision as masterful but also echoed and amplified his rage at the supposed bad faith of the president, and his fear that enemies in the administration were continually conspiring against him. In the army at large McClellan favored his loyalists and ignored or neglected his critics, which divided the officer corps into pro- and anti-McClellan camps.

His closest colleague was Fitz-John Porter, a close friend from prewar days, who became McClellan’s primary counselor on military and political affairs. Porter had graduated from West Point a year ahead of McClellan, had won promotion for gallantry during the Mexican War, and had served as an instructor at West Point. He was often described as the ideal soldier, erect in carriage, handsome, and full-bearded. He would serve on the staff while McClellan was organizing his army, before being promoted to divisional and finally to corps command.

McClellan also did his best to bind the ordinary soldiers to him by a strong and personal bond. He made frequent tours of the camps and presided at drills and reviews, displaying in a thousand ways his interest in his men and concern for their welfare. He frequently addressed them, in person and through general orders and proclamations. The style of these is revealing. McClellan speaks as if no intermediaries exist between the enlisted men and himself as their leader, teacher, and benefactor. Although the training and supply of the army, and the maneuvering of men in battle, was the work of hundreds of staff, division, brigade, and regimental officers, McClellan never used the word “we” when addressing his men. He presented himself as a superior intelligence, an all-seeing father who had full control of everything concerning the army. He honored his “boys” by making them worthy of his comradeship. His General Orders No. 1, of February 2, 1862, is characteristic. Explaining the long delay before he would commit them to action, he wrote: “I have long held you back my comrades, at first that from a mass of brave but undisciplined citizens I might cement you into an Army. . . . I have restrained you for another reason also. I wished you to strike when the time arrived for giving the death blow to this accursed rebellion. The task of discipline is completed—I am satisfied with you.” The time is near “When I place you in front of the rebels.”5

More than obedience, McClellan needed the adulation of his soldiers. In his dubious battle with political enemies, the cheers of his men, their hero adulation, was balm to his wounded ego. His letters to his wife are filled with anecdotes of soldiers, singly and in masses, cheering him, praising him as the savior of the nation.6

Yet the love he so often professes for his men is sentimental rather than authentic. He rarely visited his wounded in the field hospitals or shared the risks of the battle line. What he loves about his men is their love for him, the way they idolize him as a godlike figure. In a world of enemies, the Army of the Potomac was McClellan’s hearth and refuge, a perfect social order created by himself, an extension of his identity. His love for it was self-love—no less real and powerful for that. As an extension or projection of McClellan’s identity, the Army of the Potomac could not risk taking the field until it had been made indestructible.


In his attempt to make his army an irresistible force McClellan turned it into a nearly immovable object. He had spent eight months training and equipping the Army of the Potomac, during which time he had refused to undertake any significant military action. In the first week of April his lead elements landed at Fort Monroe and made contact with the enemy. But McClellan remained risk-averse, refused to advance until success was assured. His method would reduce to futility the brilliant maneuver by which he transferred his army by sea to the Peninsula only fifty miles from Richmond—a good deal closer than General Johnston, whose army was still waiting for McClellan up on the Rappahannock.7

In the opening weeks of the campaign sixty thousand to seventy thousand Union troops (with another thirty thousand on the way) faced no more than fifteen thousand Confederates at Yorktown. Johnston’s main force of forty-five thousand would take three weeks to reach the scene. Had McClellan struck hard with his whole force and followed up with energy, he would have found Richmond defended by fewer than sixty thousand troops, disorganized and perhaps demoralized by defeat and the hasty withdrawal from northern Virginia. Instead he spent one month besieging Yorktown, and another working his way up the Peninsula. By the time he reached the outskirts of Richmond in early June, Johnston’s whole force and substantial reinforcements were waiting to oppose him. After Johnston was wounded in an engagement at Seven Pines on June 1, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Confederate force. The change pleased McClellan, who thought Lee was “a timid general.”8

Yet even with this supposed advantage he still hesitated to attack. The rivers were too high, the weather was bad, the roads not suited for the passage of his heavy guns. He needed still more reinforcements before he could put at risk the army and the reputation on which the fate of the republic depended. To order his troops into battle was to pass a point of no return—he would not pass that point without assurance of victory.

During the long months of his slow march to Richmond, McClellan barraged Washington with demands for reinforcement by McDowell’s Corps, the largest and best of the commands that had been retained to defend Washington from Confederate Stonewall Jackson’s menacing operations in the Shenandoah Valley. Ironically, Lincoln’s reluctance to send McDowell was based in part on his acceptance of McClellan’s overestimate of Confederate strength—he thought Jackson’s command was twice its actual size. To McClellan, however, the denial was deliberate sabotage, proof that Lincoln and his cronies were “traitors who are willing to sacrifice the country & its army for personal spite and personal aims. The people will understand the matter and woe betide the guilty ones.” He intensified his contacts with political supporters in the Democratic Party and the New York press, to make them more active in defending him against Lincoln and Stanton. He sent Allan Pinkerton to Washington to spy out the shifting alliances within Lincoln’s cabinet, and who might now favor his cause. He cultivated the correspondents attached to his headquarters, some of whom were also political operatives, and he used some of his officers as surrogates in letter-to-the-editor campaigns.9

Fitz-John Porter, the McClellan confidant, was the most prominent and active of the surrogates, and he corresponded frequently with Manton Marble of the New York World, the semi-official organ of the New York Democratic leadership. On June 20 he alerted Marble that the army faced the prospect of defeat on the Peninsula because “The secy [Stanton] and Prest ignore all calls for aid . . . I wish you would put the ­question—Does the President (controlled by an incompetent Secy) design to cause defeat here for the purpose of prolonging the war.”10

Though McClellan may have supposed that his direct connection with Marble and Barlow was not generally known, by the end of June 1862 it was generally assumed that McClellan was the White hope of the New York Democratic Party leadership and shared its views on compromise with the South. On July 1 the New York Times characterized a Democratic mass meeting at Cooper Union as a gathering of “The Submission Party,” organized by “The Haters of Negroes and Yankees.” The writer mockingly claimed they had but three principles: “that they are white men, that they hate black men, and that they have confidence in mcclellan.”11

Despite his concern about Lee’s supposed advantage in numbers, McClellan anticipated success in the battle for which he was preparing, and he had begun thinking about how he might use the prestige of victory against his enemies in the administration and the Radical Republicans in general. A campaign of slow movement and infrequent combat had left him leisure to begin drafting the master plan for the reorganization of national policy. On June 20 he wrote to Lincoln, asking “permission to lay before your Excellency by letter or telegram my views as to the present state of military affairs throughout the whole country.” Lincoln said he would welcome those views but thought it unwise to use the telegraph for exchanging so much military information; and since neither he nor McClellan could leave his post of action with battle imminent, perhaps it was best done by letter.12

Before McClellan could complete or send that letter, “unforeseen disaster” suddenly overtook the general and his army.


JUNE 25–JULY 1, 1862

McClellan’s reluctance to close with the enemy—his refusal of risk, his belief that he was outnumbered—had produced precisely the situation he most feared. Since the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31–June 1, he had done nothing to pressure Lee’s army in front of Richmond. Stonewall Jackson had completed his disruptive campaign in the Shenandoah Valley on June 10, having defeated two of the Federal commands sent against him while evading a third. On June 16 Lee sent orders for Jackson to leave the Valley and march for Richmond.

With the addition of Jackson’s three divisions Lee had amassed the largest force he would command in battle, roughly 90,000 as against McClellan’s 105,000—as close to battlefield equality as he would ever get. Lee then split his force, sending nearly two-thirds of it to fall upon and destroy Porter’s V Corps of perhaps 16,000 men, which was north of the Chickahominy River, separated from the rest of McClellan’s army. This left only 30,000 Confederates south of that river to face the bulk of McClellan’s force. But active feints and diversions—their significance magnified by McClellan’s inflated estimate of their numbers—kept McClellan from immediately reinforcing Porter.

The Rebel onset struck him with the force of a realized nightmare. He told Washington, and genuinely believed, that he was being assailed front and flank by overwhelming numbers. Porter’s Corps was saved from outright destruction by the fact that Lee’s army was not yet properly organized for so large an offensive operation. Confederate attacks on June 26 were poorly coordinated, and Porter was able to retreat to a better defensive position around a hamlet called Gaines’ Mill. McClellan sent reinforcements piecemeal, which eventually raised Porter’s strength to about 34,000. But the Confederates had 57,000 at hand, and when they finally organized a proper attack late on June 27 they broke Porter’s line and forced all Union troops to retreat south of the Chickahominy.

That retreat exposed their base of supply at White House to capture by the Confederates, and it seemed to leave McClellan no choice but to burn his supply dumps and retreat to a new base on the James River, where the navy could reopen the line of supply. To reach safety the Army of the Potomac had to fight a rear-guard action at Savage’s Station (June 29), stave off a major Confederate offensive at Glendale (June 30) that threatened to cut the retreating column in two, and fight off a last heavy assault at Malvern Hill (July 1).

Most historians and military analysts have faulted McClellan for failing to respond aggressively to Lee’s attack on June 25–27 and for a pre­mature decision to retreat to the James. In his defense, his June 27 decision to retreat to the James and establish a new base of operations actually made good tactical sense, especially considering his gross over­estimate of enemy strength. It surprised Lee and delayed his pursuit of the retreating army, and the new base of operations was better in every way than the old one at White House on the York River. However, even the ever-faithful Fitz-John Porter was dismayed by McClellan’s decision to retreat, rather than counterattack, after Union troops backed by massed artillery had slaughtered Lee’s last frontal assault at Malvern Hill.13

McClellan’s behavior during the retreat has led some historians to conclude that the sudden reversal of fortune, the emotional stress and physical exhaustion of days of intense activity, produced a psychological breakdown that eventually left him incapable of exercising command. The telegrams he sent to Stanton on June 25 and 28 certainly seem increasingly desperate and even hysterical in tone. Then on June 30, with his rear guard preparing to fight the most critical battle of the campaign at Glendale, McClellan effectively abandoned his army. He rode away without appointing anyone to command the fighting force in his absence, ostensibly to choose a final defensive position on the James—a task that could have been left to his highly competent engineering staff. McClellan’s contemporaries found his action either inexplicable or discreditable, and even the most sympathetic of his recent biographers sees it as a “dereliction of duty,” brought on by extreme physical and emotional exhaustion.14

On the other hand, most of the officers and newspaper correspondents who observed or worked with McClellan thought his manner calm and even self-assured, up to and including the hour in which he rode away from Glendale. His telegram to Stanton on June 25 seems overwrought: he speaks as one faced with imminent defeat by a superior force and declares that “I will do all that a General can do with the splendid Army I have the honor to command & if it is defeated by overwhelming numbers I can at least die with it & share its fate.” Yet McClellan’s actions were not actually governed by this prophecy of disaster. Porter had repulsed the attack on the twenty-fifth, and McClellan thought enough of his chances to keep him fighting north of the Chickahominy for two more days (June 26–27). During that time he would confer frequently with staff and line commanders, and hold one general council of war at which the retreat was decided upon. Not all of the officers and newspapermen who attended these meetings were “McClellan men,” but none reported any signs of panic or desperation in McClellan’s manner. It appeared to the reporters that McClellan was eager to counterattack by throwing his whole force into battle and had to be talked out of his daring by more cautious subordinates.15

In fact, the council was a charade: he had already given orders for the retreat. He would arrange the same sort of drama after his troops had repulsed Lee’s attack at Malvern Hill, playing the fighter for the press when his real purpose was to escape the chaos of a battle he could not control. However, the success of this performance indicates that McClellan was in control of his emotions, and thinking intelligently about the way in which his behavior would be presented to the public. He did not know how to fight Robert E. Lee, but he thought he knew how to fight Lincoln and Stanton. Perhaps he had been defeated on the Richmond front, but that could be mended so long as he maintained his strong position in Washington and New York.

Nevertheless, in the telegram he sent on June 28 to Stanton just after the council of war McClellan does sound like a man unhinged and enraged by a catastrophic defeat. He stridently denies any personal responsibility for the disaster and accuses Stanton and Lincoln of betraying not only the army but the nation:

The Government must not & cannot hold me responsible for the result. . . . I again repeat that I am not responsible for this & I say it with all the earnestness of a General who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed today. . . . I know that a few thousand more would have changed this battle from a defeat to a victory—as it is the Govt must not & cannot hold me responsible for the result.

I feel too earnestly tonight—I have seen too many dead & wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Govt has not sustained this Army. . . . If I save this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington—you have done your best to sacrifice this Army.16

Much of the telegram is an extended rant, and the accusations McClellan makes go well beyond the complaints of ill-treatment in his earlier official correspondence. In effect he accuses the president and secretary of war of something like treason—connivance in the deliberate destruction of their own army. The last sentence (“If I save this Army now . . .”) seems to threaten an open break between McClellan and the civilian government. McClellan’s language so obviously crossed the line of permissible disagreement that the telegraph officer who received it at the War Department omitted the sentence from the text he passed on to Stanton. The suppression of this sentence would lead to a critical misunderstanding between Lincoln and McClellan when the two men met only a week later, on July 8.17

It is possible that, after putting up a brave front for the reporters, McClellan succumbed to an emotional reaction that made him indiscreet. Certainly the rage and sense of grievance he expresses were genuinely felt. However, it is also possible that, like his disingenuous display of combativeness at the council of war, the telegram was a histrionic performance designed to dramatize the contrast between his righteous heroism and the treacherous pusillanimity of the administration. The statement functioned both as a paper record of his claim that Stanton was responsible for the defeat and as a rhetorical device meant to persuade the public that he must not be held responsible for this terrible defeat—must not because he is the only one who can save the republic frombothsecessionism and Radicalism.18

His belief that he alone could save the Republic also underlies his questionable decision to leave the field of Glendale before the battle was joined. It is certainly true that by June 30 McClellan was physically and emotionally stressed, getting little sleep and suffering from diarrhea, perhaps dysentery. Officers who saw him after he left Glendale said that he looked “used up” and “cut down.” Even so, his departure was not marked by any display of anxiety or distress, although the action itself was an “astounding” breach of military custom and practice. Generals Franklin and Heintzelman, two of the corps commanders who were left to fight the battle on their own hook, thought McClellan acted out of confidence in his troop dispositions; and a staff officer who was with McClellan said the army commander believed the task of defending Glendale was “straightforward & plain work” that did not require the master’s hand to direct it. McClellan’s biographer Stephen Sears sees his behavior as evidence that he had lost “the courage to command,” and perhaps his physical courage as well, so that he “deliberately fled the battlefield.” Yet McClellan never expressed any embarrassment about his action, and never felt the need to justify it until it became a political football during his presidential campaign in 1864. Although many of his colleagues thought his decision questionable, he was able to retain his reputation for courage among an officer corps that would have treated cowardice with merciless contempt.19

McClellan’s behavior was not the result of psychological collapse but of a flawed approach to command, and a flawed character as well. He had told his wife, nearly a year earlier, that he must not risk defeat until his political position was unassailable. On the Peninsula, just before the Seven Days, he would write to her: “I feel too that I must not unnecessarily risk my life—for the fate of my army depends upon me and they all know it.”20 But it was not just his physical life that had to be kept out of harm’s way. If he was to save the republic from the twin menaces of secessionism and Radicalism, he had to maintain his prestige as the nation’s preeminent military genius and his command of the Army of the Potomac. The motives that led him to separate himself from the fighting at Glendale were the same as those that informed his June 28 telegram: to protect himself against an attack from the enemies in his rear, from Lincoln and Stanton and the Radicals. Without his presence, a local defeat would be the fault of the local commanders, as the general defeat was the fault of the administration. It was McClellan’s good fortune that Lee’s army was too poorly organized to exploit its opportunity at Glendale; and that his corps and division commanders, acting on their own, were able to improvise a successful defense. If any praise is due to McClellan, it is for the coherence and high morale he instilled in his infantry regiments, which enabled them to win the fight despite his absence.

THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC made a miserable, rain-soaked retreat from Malvern Hill to the encampment McClellan had prepared for it at Harrison’s Landing. The mood in the ranks was chiefly one of bewilderment at the swiftness with which preparation for triumph had been turned into desperate retreat. McClellan issued a statement congratulating them on having fought well and maintained their honor, and this jibed with their knowledge that, with the exception of the fight at Gaines’ Mill on July 27, they had repulsed every enemy attack. Yet these tactical victories had somehow ended in the essentially shameful fact of their own retreat, with heavy loss of prisoners and equipment. McClellan’s claim that they had made a strategic “change of base” rather than a retreat was not entirely credible, although the vast majority of the enlisted men continued to vest full reliance in their beloved commander.

This was a remarkable testimony to McClellan’s hold on their emotions, especially since conditions in the Harrison’s Landing camp were demoralizing. Over ninety thousand men and at least as many horses, mules, hogs, and cattle were crammed into a space only four miles long by one mile deep. The ground along the James River bank was soggy and marshy, which made setting up tents and finding bedding problematic. Drainage was poor, so the men lived in a fetid stench, swarmed over by lice, which not only spread disease but which the men regarded as a social humiliation. Bad water, bad sanitation, and mosquitoes out of the nearby swamps bred camp fevers and malaria. Everywhere was the dispiriting sight of “the barefooted boys, the sallow men, the threadbare officers and seedy generals, the diarrhea and dysentery, the yellow eyes and malarious faces . . . mud, mist, and rain.”21

However, with his army safe in its fortified camp, McClellan recovered his aplomb, self-regard, and sense of destiny with remarkable speed. He pitched his headquarters tents on the grounds of the Berkeley Plantation, one of the grandest of the old Virginia estates, showing his respect for gentility by refusing to occupy the elegant great house, built of brick in the Georgian style in 1726. The cheers of his men reassured him of their love and admiration. He set about cleaning up the encampment, resupplying his men, and restoring their morale with the efficiency he always displayed with such tasks. The Confederates could no longer threaten him, and he had reason to think that, despite his defeat, he had actually gained ground on his second front.

It seemed highly significant to him that neither Lincoln nor Stanton had challenged the accusation of deliberate betrayal in his June 28 telegram. Lincoln’s response, sent as well on July 28, did not blame McClellan for what he termed a “misfortune” rather than a defeat: “If you have had a drawn battle, or a repulse, it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington. We protected Washington and the enemy concentrated on you.” From McClellan’s viewpoint, this was an acknowledgment that the withholding of McDowell’s troops had caused McClellan’s defeat. Instead of rebuking McClellan’s insulting accusations, Lincoln mildly chided McClellan for misunderstanding his intentions, and he assured the general that “I feel any misfortune to you and your Army quite as keenly as you feel it yourself.” On July 5 Stanton sent McClellan a personal note, in which he tried to revive the friendship they had shared before Stanton joined Lincoln’s cabinet. McClellan read these responses as the acts and words of men conscious of their guilt, fearful of having to answer McClellan’s charges before the people. As he told his wife, “The Presdt was entirely too smart to give my correspondence to the public—it would have ruined him & Stanton forever.”22

He also had reason to think that his views enjoyed wide public support. From the start of the Peninsula campaign, McClellan had cultivated the sympathies of newspaper correspondents attached to the army and fed privileged information to papers hostile to the administration. Even Samuel Wilkeson, correspondent for the Republican Tribune, affirmed the accusation that “the refusal to reinforce McClellan” had led to defeat, and constituted “a crime against the nation.” The Republican New York Times also agreed, and in its editorial of July 10 would suggest that if Stanton were fired, McClellan should replace him. An editorial in the independent-conservative New York Herald praised “The sagacity which marked [McClellan’s] original plan” and excoriated “the criminal folly” of those who questioned, obstructed, or refused to support the campaign. The chief criminals were Stanton, “the abolitionist radicals of Congress,” and the “Traitor Journals” of the Republican press. The Herald demanded the “reconstruction” of the cabinet for the “prosecution of this war for ‘the integrity of the Union,’ and not for the extirpation of slavery.” These views were, point for point, the same as those in the letter McClellan had prepared for Lincoln.23

Thus for McClellan a defeat on one front was balanced by victory, of a sort, on the other. Defeat seemed not to have diminished his importance to the war effort but rather to have enhanced it. Who but McClellan could organize the army’s recovery from the disaster caused by the administration’s malfeasance? He still even felt himself to be an agent of divine Providence, and was drawn to the notion that there was even something providential in his defeat. He would write his wife on July 10, “I think I begin to see [God’s] wise purpose in all this & that the events of the next few days will prove it. If I had succeeded in taking Richmond now the fanatics of the North might have been too powerful & reunion impossible.”24

When McClellan learned of Lincoln’s intended visit to Harrison’s Landing on July 7, McClellan was prepared to meet him, not as a general asking pardon for a defeat but as the indispensable man, entitled and indeed obliged to show the president the error of his ways and his willingness to turn his policies in the right direction. He put in final form the comprehensive review of military affairs, which he had proposed to Lincoln on June 20. On July 8 he told his wife that if Lincoln would read his letter and “[act] upon it the country would be saved.” He thought the record would show that “I understood the state of affairs long ago, & had my advice been followed we should not have been in our present difficulties.”25

He could hardly have been more mistaken about the president’s attitude and intentions. McClellan was unaware that the telegrapher had censored the most provocative sentence in his June 28 telegram, in which he explicitly accuses Lincoln and Stanton of deliberately betraying their nation’s army. Lincoln was not at all abashed by his own role in the campaign. He was coming to judge for himself whether McClellan was capable of prosecuting the war with the intensity, energy, and commitment that his new strategy would require.


The weather was insufferably hot and humid. McClellan paraded his troops, and Lincoln was surprised and pleased by the numbers of men around the regimental colors, by their physical condition and spirit—loud cheers spread along the ranks as the two leaders rode past. McClellan’s efforts at restoring at least the semblance of health and high morale had been effective. After the review, the two men returned to Lincoln’s steamer and met under an awning on its deck. The contrast between them was, as always, extreme. Lincoln was uncommonly tall and lanky, his weathered brown face all bones and hollows, shaggy brows lowering over ice-blue eyes, his clothes ill-cut and rumpled. McClellan was stocky and full of face, his dark eyes wary or disdainful in Lincoln’s presence, his powerful chest in blue and brass puffed out above the gold sash of his rank.

Their physical difference was matched by their difference of character. McClellan was self-vaunting and egocentric, unable to see the war except in terms that centered on himself. Lincoln was haggard and humorous, with a sense of irony and proportion that allowed him to set his ego aside, to refuse to quarrel over inessential points, over displays of bad manners or verbal tirades like McClellan’s June 28 telegram. Still, as his secretary John Hay observed, it soon became clear to his sharper opponents that he preferred his own thought to theirs, and would follow the course of action he thought best in spite of everything.

McClellan was not one of Lincoln’s sharper opponents. His self-absorption made him an execrable judge of character: he had thought Lee was a “timid” commander, and he condescended to Lincoln, whom he thought weak-minded and malleable. The first misjudgment had cost him a battle; the second would cost him his command.

Lincoln wanted to know when McClellan would be ready to resume the offensive, and what kind of operations he planned. Instead of answering, McClellan begged leave to submit his ideas in a letter, which he handed across to Lincoln. The president opened and read it right there, and if its contents astonished him he kept his poker face. The letter said nothing about the army’s defeat; did not explain why it had been driven from its lines in headlong retreat, with great losses of men and materiel; did not propose a plan for renewing the offensive. It was instead a political manifesto, laying out McClellan’s grand design for the future civil and military policy of the country.26

It began by asserting that the country desperately needed an authoritative statement of “civil and military policy, covering the whole ground of our national trouble”—implying that Lincoln’s yearlong efforts to coordinate military and civil policy were either negligible or wrongheaded. McClellan called for a “conservative” approach to three basic policy issues: the legal and military consequences of secession; the status of slavery; and the division of power between the president and a proposed military “Commander in Chief of the Army.”

McClellan first set forth a political theory that explicitly rejected the principles on which Lincoln had based his defense of the Union. It was fundamental to Lincoln’s constitutional theory that secession was entirely illegitimate, that there was no “Southern Confederacy” but only a violent and unjustified rebellion against a legally constituted government. McClellan asserted that what had begun as “rebellion,” led by a disaffected aristocracy, had become a full-fledged “War,” supported by the masses and by the whole civil polity of the seceded states. The Confederacy had thus acquired a kind of natural-law legitimacy, as the consensual government of a “people.” By the canons of American democratic theory, it was impermissible for the U.S. government to prosecute “a War looking to the subjugation of the people of any state,” because a government capable of fighting such a war would be, by definition, a despotism. Conciliation was therefore the only legitimate way to end the conflict; and to fully conciliate the South the Federal government had to accommodate the peculiar interests and beliefs that were the motives for secession, and forswear all attempts, whether rhetorical or substantial, to undermine or abolish slavery.

He therefore stipulated that as the civil authority of the Federal government was reestablished in Southern territory, Union military officers and magistrates should be required to respect not only the property rights of Rebels and their supporters but their “political rights” as well—that is, their right to elect their own officials and govern themselves. Nor should any oath of loyalty be required of those seeking to exercise their political rights. If put into effect, such a policy would have left Southern voters in conquered territory free to reconstitute the Confederacy in all but name behind Yankee lines, and to withhold allegiance from the national government, thus reducing to absurdity the whole project of restoring the Union by force. However, as McClellan well knew, restoration of an unreconstructed South to the body politic would also restore the Democratic Party’s national majority, and put an end not only to abolitionism but to every plank in the Republican platform, from unconditional unionism to the tariff to the banning of slavery from the territories.

McClellan also wanted Lincoln to repudiate the substantial and growing antislavery element in his own party and adopt the conservative and Democratic position espoused by Douglas that Negro slavery must be protected. “Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude.” This was necessary to reassure ­Southerners—and Northern Whites as well—that the government would not revolutionize race relations and imperil White supremacy by a general emancipation of slaves. McClellan piously hoped that “A system of policy thus constitutional and conservative, and pervaded by the influences of Christianity and freedom, would receive the support of almost all truly loyal men, would deeply impress the rebel masses and all foreign nations, and it might be humbly hoped that it would commend itself to the favor of the Almighty.” McClellan warned Lincoln that if he took the opposite course, “A declaration of radical views, upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.” Coming from the commander of the nation’s most powerful army, in which McClellan had inculcated a cult of loyalty to his person, such a warning had baleful implications.27

Finally, McClellan wanted the nation’s military forces concentrated in one or two crucial theaters rather than being “dispersed in expeditions, posts of occupation and numerous Armies.” While reasonable on its face, this recommendation was really a reiteration of McClellan’s perennial demand that his own force be increased at the expense of other theaters. It treated as mismanagement Lincoln’s well-considered and largely successful use of amphibious expeditions, and in general suggested that the president had neglected vital matters in the pursuit of ephemera. Assuming the president would acknowledge his errors and limitations, McClellan wanted him to turn over control of military operations to “a Commander in Chief of the Army; one who possesses your confidence, understands your views and who is competent to execute your orders. . . . I do not ask that place for myself. I am willing to serve you in such position as you may assign me.” Behind the display of self-abnegation, McClellan was clearly self-nominating for commander in chief, a title constitutionally applied to the president alone.

What was most disconcerting to Lincoln about the “Harrison’s Landing letter” was the fact that McClellan delivered it with such self-­assurance in the aftermath of defeat. Did the general somehow believe that defeat rather than victory would enhance his standing, and make it possible for him to demand a degree of power within or over the administration that he had labored vainly to acquire for the past year?

McClellan left their meeting under the impression that his letter was a triumph in itself, a perfect statement of the proper way to go about winning the war. His first reaction was that Lincoln had been favorably impressed, though he doubted whether the president was capable “of rising to the height of the merits of the question.” Two days later he began to have second thoughts: the president’s manner when he left “seemed that of a man about to do something of which he was much ashamed.” But the encouragement he was receiving from his political allies and newspaper supporters gave him reason to hope: on July 11 he wrote delightedly to his wife, “I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!” It was an idea to which he would return.28

LINCOLN’S REACTION TO MCCLELLAN’S letter was swift and decisive. Over a two-week period following his return to Washington he made a series of decisions, which together constituted a transformation of Federal strategy—and a total repudiation of the “conservative” platform espoused by McClellan.

McClellan had urged Lincoln to appoint a single commander to direct all the nation’s military operations, supposing himself to be the preeminent candidate for the position. And he had demanded the concentration of all military reserves in the theater under his direct supervision. On July 11 Lincoln ordered General Henry W. Halleck, commander of Federal armies west of the Appalachians, to come to Washington and assume command, under the president, of all Federal armies including McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. His first assignment would be to see whether McClellan was willing to renew his advance on Richmond with his available force; and if McClellan refused, to relieve him and withdraw his army to Washington to begin an entirely new campaign.

McClellan had urged Lincoln to commit his government to protecting the institution of slavery and the “political rights” of the Rebels. On July 12, in a private conversation with Secretary of State Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Lincoln did the reverse, unequivocally declaring his intention to issue a proclamation, freeing all slaves in the rebellious states; and on July 22 he would present a draft of the proclamation to an astonished cabinet. He did so with full awareness that such a proclamation would effectively repudiate the strategy of conciliation, and commit the Union to an all-out war of subjugation.29

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