August 1862





JULY 22–AUGUST 22, 1862


THE WITHDRAWAL OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, WHICH OPENED the way for Lee’s offensive against Pope, was the perverse result of Lincoln’s decision to radicalize and intensify the Union’s offensive strategy. The political basis of that strategy would be set by the issuing of a proclamation or executive order freeing all slaves held in territory controlled by the Rebels. That act would signal the end of conciliation and the commitment of Union forces to a war of subjugation. Military operations would be reordered to give effect to this new strategy. Large offensives would have to be mounted on multiple fronts and pressed continually until the Confederacy’s capacity for military resistance was destroyed. To sustain such operations Federal forces would have to be hugely augmented, through aggressive recruitment and (eventually) conscription. Army commanders would also have to accept the necessity for such a war of subjugation and be willing to press the offensives that victory required.

Lincoln knew the political and the operational aspects of this strategy were inextricably linked, and the key decisions in each area were nearly simultaneous. On July 11, immediately after his return from Harrison’s Landing, Lincoln issued the order that would bring Major General Henry W. Halleck to Washington as general in chief of the armies. The very next day he secretly informed Secretary of State Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles of his decision to issue an emancipation proclamation. He would present a draft of that proclamation to an extraordinary session of the cabinet on July 22, before ordering Halleck, who had just arrived in Washington, to go to Harrison’s Landing, assess the state of affairs, and press McClellan to renew his offensive against Richmond. If McClellan refused, Halleck was empowered to relieve him from command. However, although the orders were clear, neither Halleck nor Lincoln was ready to face the political consequences of firing McClellan. The end result was a compromise, which left McClellan in nominal command but withdrew his army piecemeal to northern Virginia—and in the process immobilized half the Union’s combat forces in the theater.


The first version of Lincoln’s emancipation policy was prepared in secret and without consultation. Lincoln set the stage for its presentation to the cabinet at a meeting on July 21, where he read a series of executive orders that expanded the provisions of the Confiscation Act and authorized the states to enlist Blacks for militia service, not as soldiers but as laborers, cooks, teamsters, and so forth. He also showed them a draft order for colonizing the Blacks freed by these orders in some tropical country. The cabinet was not asked for its opinion on these measures, which did not radically alter existing law or policy. He then called a second extraordinary meeting of the cabinet for July 22, at which he read the draft of a proclamation of general emancipation. Before presenting it, he stated flatly that the question was “settled in his own mind.” All he wanted from the cabinet were suggestions how and when to implement the decision.1

The measure he then laid out was implicitly revolutionary, but hedged by critical silences and gestures of deference to conservative opinion. The president cited as authority for his action the Confiscation Act of July 17, and his inherent power as commander-in-chief to take all measures needful for the suppression of the rebellion. “[A]s a fit and necessary military measure for effecting this object” he ordered that as of January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized, submitted to, and maintained, shall then, thenceforward, and forever be free.” By this act, all slaves held in states and districts not under Union control were confiscated and declared free, without any civil or judicial proceeding. By making them “forever” free, Lincoln precluded the possibility that postwar action, by courts or legislatures, could restore them to slavery. No distinction was made between loyal slaveholders and Rebels within those districts. This was collective punishment, imposed on all those who submitted to Rebel jurisdiction, whether willingly or not. His assertion of the power to make such a broad and categorical confiscation of property was radical; and its social effects, if realized, would be revolutionary. To ameliorate the latter implication, the lengthy middle paragraph of the draft advocated the colonization of freed slaves outside the United States and compensation for slaves emancipated by the loyal states.2

The draft proclamation also stopped short of authorizing the enlistment of Blacks in the combat arms of the military and said nothing about the legal consequences of emancipation for slaves in Confederate territory. Were slaves freed by the proclamation permitted to disobey their masters and/or the laws of the states in which they resided? And if they disobeyed or resisted—or rose in rebellion—were Federal officers permitted or obliged to come to their aid? The possibility of “servile insurrection” was feared in the South but also detested by most Whites in the North.

As originally formulated, the proclamation resembled an ultimatum, which in principle allowed Southern states a little less than six months to end the rebellion and avert the effects of the proclamation. It is highly unlikely that Lincoln expected any appreciable number of states or counties to accept the ultimatum. His failed negotiations with Border State unionists had convinced him that slaveholders were immovable on that issue, and secessionists would never rejoin a union com­mitted in principle to “ultimate extinction.” Moreover, he would make no adjustment of the deadline after agreeing to postpone its issuance until a military victory had been won. Even if that victory had been gained (as he hoped) by Pope’s army in August, the deadline would have been shortened to something over four months. As it happened, the victory was not won until September 17; and when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, the January 1 deadline was retained—allowing the South barely three months to comply.

Thus it seems clear that the Emancipation Proclamation was not an ultimatum at all but a reformulation of war aims implying a change in strategy. Lincoln had abandoned the hope that a quick series of impressive victories could demoralize the South into negotiation. Instead he was now ready to commit the nation to a war of subjugation, aimed at destroying the South’s ability to resist and uprooting its fundamental institution. In Lincoln’s mind, the Civil War had already passed the point of no return. The Proclamation made compromise impossible and guaranteed that even if the Union were restored it would not be “the Union as it was.”

The responses of Lincoln’s cabinet officers reflected the persistent divisions among his own party’s various factions. They were, as Doris Kearns Goodwin has called them, a “Team of Rivals” representing the major factions and voting blocs that contended for control of the Republican Party.

Montgomery Blair spoke for the conservative and Border State element. Clean-shaven and handsome, with a high, broad forehead, he was a West Point graduate, Class of 1835, and a veteran of the Seminole War who had left the army for a career in law and politics. His father, Francis P. Blair Sr., had been one of Andrew Jackson’s chief advisers. Like Jackson, the family owned slaves but was militantly Unionist, and it had helped found the Republican Party. The Blairs were Free-Soilers, opposed to slavery in the territories but also to the idea of general emancipation or any measure that threatened the exclusive political prerogatives of the White race. Blair opposed issuing such a proclamation, on the ground that it might drive the Border States out of the Union and would throw the midterm elections to the Democrats.

Attorney General Bates was also a Border State conservative, at sixty-nine the oldest man in the room. He had been Missouri’s favorite son candidate for the 1860 nomination, and Blair had backed him. But Missouri politics had long been marked by violence between pro-slavery and Free-Soil partisans, which made Bates more willing than Blair to hurt the slaveholders—so long as White privilege and exclusivity were maintained. He favored issuing the proclamation, but only if it included the compulsorycolonization of freed Blacks outside the United States.

Secretary of War Stanton wanted the Proclamation issued at once. Although he had been a Democrat and had shared his party’s distaste for abolition and racial equality, since his appointment to the cabinet he had allied himself more and more closely with the Radicals. His intense feud with McClellan undoubtedly strengthened this tendency. Stanton also understood that in an extended conflict the Union would need the additional military manpower that free and freed Black men could provide.

Secretary of State Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles were Lincoln’s most loyal and consistent supporters in the cabinet. He had trusted them with the secret of his emancipation plan on July 12, and they had kept it. Welles was a moderate Connecticut Republican noted for his full fluffy beard and a fools-nobody hairpiece. Though he had absolutely no preparation for his job, he proved to be an extraordinarily competent naval administrator and policymaker. He favored the proclamation on practical grounds: if the Union did not make use of the slaves, the South would.

Seward favored the proclamation but strongly advised against issuing it now, after the Union’s military defeats. He feared it would appear, not as a measure of liberation, but as our “last shriek on the retreat.” He also feared that the positive effect of emancipation on British public opinion would be negated if it seemed to be linked with a call for servile insurrection—the English still had raw memories of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

The most surprising and complicated response came from Treasury Secretary Chase. As the cabinet’s Radical member he ought to have jumped at the prospect of immediate emancipation. Instead he questioned the president’s constitutional authority to act and expressed the fear that a general declaration of “universal emancipation” would lead to “depredation and massacre.” Although “I am not myself afraid of the negroes,” he thought it better to let military commanders in the field use their authority under martial law to confiscate and emancipate slaves as required for their operations, while using military force to prevent uncontrolled outbreaks. This last idea closely resembled McClellan’s advice in the Harrison’s Landing letter. So McClellan may have been right in thinking that, in addition to Blair, he had a sometime cabinet ally in Chase.3

Lincoln adopted Seward’s view that the proclamation should not be issued until a Union victory had been won. Because that could not happen unless Union armies resumed offensive operations in Virginia, Lincoln had already ordered General Halleck east to take charge of military operations, with the hope that under his orders Pope and McClellan would cooperate in a grand offensive against the Confederates defending Richmond. Once again, McClellan proved to be the chief difficulty. Because he would not fight, the general could not execute Lincoln’s strategy, but he was also too powerful politically and within the army for Lincoln to fire him outright.4

In moving toward a stronger stance on emancipation, Lincoln was reverting to values and positions he had long espoused, acting on a hatred of slavery that was visceral as well as principled. There was also a new strain of anger in the feelings that drove him, a rising sense that vindication of the rule of law, and the principles of justice, required that unjust rebellion be punished, not merely suppressed. On July 26 Lincoln impatiently dismissed the complaints of Border State Unionists that the military government was emancipating slaves in occupied Louisiana. Louisianans had rebelled against the government, although they knew “full well, that I never had a wish to touch the foundations of their society.” If they had now to endure a military government, “it is their own fault.” If they wanted to be rid of it, “they also know the remedy”—abandon the rebellion. Failing that, “If they can conceive of anything worse . . . within my power, would they not better be looking for it?” What would the Border State men do if they were in his place? “Would you drop the war where it is? Or, would you prosecute it in future, with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water? Would you deal lighter blows rather than heavier ones?” “I am a patient man,” he told them, “but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender the game leaving any available card unplayed.”

Even more to the point was his response to August Belmont, national chairman of the Democratic Party, who had urged Lincoln to adopt a program essentially the same as that laid out in the Harrison’s Landing letter. Lincoln’s response, on August 31, was brusque. The harm already done to slavery by the war to date was past mending. The only way to prevent further harm was for the South to return to its allegiance, and “The sooner she does so, the smaller will be the amount of that which is past mending.” If the rebellion were to continue, then the damage to Southern institutions would become punitive. “This government cannot much longer play a game in which it stakes all, and its enemies stake nothing. Those enemies must understand that they cannot experiment for ten years trying to destroy the government, and if they fail come back into the Union unhurt.”5

Lincoln’s anger was in harmony with the public mood in the North. There was a growing rancor toward Confederate slaveholders for having precipitated an unnecessary and unjust war, causing so much bloodshed and grief, disrupting the prosperous and progressive course of national history. The desire to punish slaveholders by attacking their property interest did not necessarily guarantee support for a general emancipation, but it made Lincoln’s new policy politically feasible. However, public opinion also identified General McClellan as the man best suited to press the more vigorous military measures, which made it difficult for Lincoln to remove or even entirely control McClellan’s actions.6

The complex and (from Lincoln’s perspective) contradictory state of public opinion can be read on the editorial pages of the four large New York daily newspapers.

The Tribune was edited by Horace Greeley, who had been a major figure in American journalism and literary culture for more than twenty years. Greeley had made the Tribune a vehicle for some of the most interesting and creative writers and thinkers of his time, from the feminist Margaret Fuller to Karl Marx; had lent its pages to his own progressive enthusiasms for reform in politics, culture, and education. Democrats and conservatives mocked and castigated him as a sponsor of free love, vegetarianism, and “nigger equality.” He was eccentric and mercurial but also a powerful spokesman for the Radicals, and his paper reached beyond New York City to subscribers across the nation.

The Times was edited by forty-two-year-old Henry Raymond, who had founded the paper in 1851. Like Lincoln, he had belonged to the Whig Party before 1854, and he was one of the founding members of the Republican Party in New York State. His editorials reflected the views of moderate Republicans.

The World was edited by Manton Marble, a professional journalist with no strong political allegiances. Marble had been hired by the leaders of the New York Democratic Party to edit their semi-official newspaper. He was in close contact with Barlow and Belmont and received correspondence from McClellan’s confidant Fitz-John Porter. When McClellan asked Barlow to talk to the press on his behalf, Marble was the first man to be contacted.

The Herald rivaled and ultimately outdid the Tribune in fame and in national circulation. But where Greeley’s paper specialized in highmindedness, the Herald reveled in scandal and sensation. It was the first paper to give front-page coverage to a murder, the first to illustrate its stories with woodcuts. Its publisher, James Gordon Bennett, was nominally independent but politically conservative. His editorials are filled with ugly racial barbs, and he frequently declared that Republican Radicals were more dangerous enemies of the Union, and indeed of civilization, than the Rebels.

Despite their differences, in July 1862 all four papers reflected a rising tide of anger against the South, which was expressed in calls for more energetic military campaigns and “sterner measures” of punishment against recalcitrant Rebels. All four papers agreed that the war effort was failing because the North had not mobilized its full resources, and because the army and the administration had not prosecuted it with sufficient vigor, sternness, and efficiency. All four enthusiastically supported the president’s call for three hundred thousand new volunteers, and the World even urged Lincoln to consider a draft. They also welcomed the promotion of Halleck to overall command as a sign that military strategy and operations would be more efficient. Most significantly, from Lincoln’s point of view, all four papers gave strong support to the punitive measures so far taken against slavery by the administration and the Congress, including the Second Confiscation Act. However, of the four papers only the Radical Tribune advocated general emancipation.

The Herald called for “action, action, and again action. We have done playing with war, and must now fight in earnest.” The World demanded: “the preposterous mixture of war and peace principles, the practice of treating the Rebels with both bullets and sugar-plums, is to cease.” Moreover, “The study is no longer how to carry on this war with least damage to slavery.” If slavery “stands in the way of the effective exercise of the war power, it must just to that extent be put out of the way.” However, the World was at pains to distinguish confiscation from general emancipation. The latter would violate constitutional principles and the rules of jurisprudence by punishing the innocent with the guilty; wreck the “industrial system” of the whole country; and inaugurate a social and racial revolution that most Anglo-Saxon Americans would find repugnant. It was to avoid such a revolution that the World advocated a sterner war policy. “The fact is notorious that the prolongation of the war operates almost everywhere to deepen the hatred against slavery” and promote the radical agenda. Therefore, “The interests of true ­conservatism . . . require the adoption of the sternest war policy.”7

The Herald used less moderate language and was more explicit in asserting that the ultimate goal of Federal policy must be to preserve White supremacy in a restored Union. For Bennett the Radicals were equivalent to Jefferson Davis as enemies of the nation and far worse as enemies of the White race. Their call for abolition, for the enlistment of Black soldiers, and for Negro citizenship was perversely intended to “drag down the white man to the level of the negro, or rather to produce from both, by amalgamation, a mongrel breed inferior to either. . . . ­Forbid it, God and nature; forbid it, humanity and the interests of civilization.” If the government would only strike down these “abolition traitors,” all those patriots who have hesitated “to fight for emancipation and amalgamation, will crowd our armies and carry the old flag triumphantly over the last stronghold of the rebellion.” Yet the Herald also supported the Confiscation Act, and for a while even supported its draconian application by General Pope—a figure who soon became a symbol of Radical excess. Like Marble of the World, Bennett wanted to preserve slavery in most of the South to insure White supremacy. But he too believed that only a quick victory could insure that result; and that required a vigorous military campaign, coupled with a punitive but limited confiscation of slaves to demonstrate the ultimate consequence of continued rebellion.8

Not surprisingly, both conservative papers saw McClellan as the general best qualified to conduct such a campaign. They blamed McClellan’s defeat on Stanton, for his “deliberate” mischief of withholding reinforcements, and defended McClellan’s retreat to Harrison’s Landing as “a strategic success of magnificent and truly Napoleonic character.” What they wanted was a new “War Cabinet”: let General Halleck replace Stanton, and General Banks (a former Democrat) take over the Navy Department. Above all, “Reinforce McClellan promptly and adequately, and no subsequent blundering by the War Department can defer the fall of the Rebel capital.” Only the Tribune unequivocally defended Stanton and blamed McClellan for the failure of the Peninsula Campaign.9

The radical/conservative split on the question of emancipation was predictable, as was disagreement about the merits of General McClellan. From Lincoln’s perspective the most dismaying editorials of the period would have been those of the New York Times. As the voice of moderate Republicans it hewed to the party line on emancipation: embraced confiscation as a limited, legal, and necessary war measure but would not abolish slavery in the states where it already existed. Like a good moderate, editor Raymond criticized both “conservatives and radicals” for agitating the slavery question while the war was going on. “The great matter in hand is fighting—and fighting only. . . . Let us have war in earnest, and no more debates.” The Times, like the Herald and the World, thought McClellan was the man to fight that war. It blamed Stanton for McClellan’s failure and not only entertained the idea of a cabinet reshuffle but recommended McClellan as Stanton’s replacement! “If Mr. Stanton is to be removed, the country will be reassured, and the public interest greatly promoted, by making Gen. McClellan his successor. Even those who cavil at his leadership in the field, do not question his mastery of the art of war.”10

Thus despite his defeat in the Seven Days, McClellan still enjoyed very broad support, not only in the army but with the public and in the press. He and his political allies had been extraordinarily effective in persuading much of the public and the press that Stanton and the War Department were to blame for McClellan’s defeat—and that McClellan was the man best suited to prosecute the more vigorous war the public now demanded. According to a report in the popular newspaper, Spirit of the Times, McClellan sent a brigadier general from his command to New York City to explain his commander’s views on national policy to the city’s business, political, and journalistic leaders. Under these circumstances any effort to interfere with McClellan’s command, or to relieve him, would present extraordinary political difficulties.11


In the weeks that followed the July 22 cabinet meeting, Lincoln had to maintain a precarious balance among contending policy imperatives. He had to keep secret his plan for emancipation yet somehow prepare the public for its proclamation. Over the next month he would pursue a complex and sometimes devious course of actions and public statements, some designed to placate or disarm conservatives, others trial balloons to signal the shift in policy—at times seemingly self-contradictory, as if the president did not know his own mind.12

He could not resolve the ambiguity, and openly commit the nation to his new policy, until his armies had won an important victory in the field. However, there could be no offensive in Virginia unless McClellan moved against Richmond—which he seemed unwilling to do. So Lincoln also had to resolve the McClellan problem without provoking a political controversy that would weaken support for the recruiting drive. Lincoln therefore decided to fob the decision off on General Halleck. He was considered the quintessential military professional: whatever he did with McClellan would be seen as the result of professional judgment, not political rancor.

When Halleck arrived in Washington on July 23 to assume his new duties, he was immediately ordered to visit Harrison’s Landing and judge McClellan’s situation and state of mind. If he thought McClellan capable of effective action, he might retain him—as a subordinate. If not, he had authority to relieve McClellan of his command.

Halleck was the antithesis of the Young Napoleon: forty-seven years old, pudgy and balding, with goggle eyes and pendulous cheeks. He had not seen combat in the Mexican War. His military experience was entirely in staff work and administration, at which he excelled. He was nicknamed “Old Brains,” in tribute to his reputation as an expert in the theory of warfare as a translator of the writings of the Napoleonic strategist Jomini. As commander of Union forces west of the Alleghenies he had presided over the most successful offensives of the war. However, the actual operations were conducted by army commanders Curtis, Pope, Grant, and Buell. Halleck himself was a poor field commander, as he showed in his glacially slow pursuit of the defeated Confederates after Shiloh. Lincoln and Stanton recognized and accepted this limitation, as did those in the press who commented on Halleck’s appointment. His new position only required that he do nationally what he had already done in the western theater: activate and coordinate the operations of several armies, each under its own energetic commander.

In reorganizing the Virginia theater, Halleck faced a military choice with political ramifications. There were two armies—John Pope’s in northern Virginia and McClellan’s in front of Richmond—and three possible lines of operation. He could send most of Pope’s army to McClellan by sea; but while those troops were in transit the Rebels could threaten Washington, as Jackson had done a few months earlier. Lincoln would not support this option. Or Halleck could reinforce Pope’s command with Burnside’s IX Corps, up from North Carolina, and have it march overland to connect with McClellan. That was only feasible if McClellan were willing and able to undertake an offensive against Richmond with his present force. If he merely held his ground the Confederates could concentrate against Pope and destroy his army. The third option was to withdraw McClellan from the Peninsula by sea and unite his force with Pope’s in northern Virginia for an overland campaign against Richmond. That would create a window of vulnerability for both armies. If Lee had the numbers with which McClellan credited him, he could either strike McClellan’s force while it was embarking or move north and hit Pope before McClellan could join him.

For Halleck, the essential question in his talks with McClellan was whether or not McClellan would declare his willingness to advance against Richmond with the limited reinforcements Lincoln was able to provide. If McClellan balked, Halleck had two options. He could order McClellan’s army withdrawn from the Peninsula and transferred corps by corps to Washington to join with Pope’s army—or he could relieve McClellan of his command, and replace him with someone willing to mount an offensive from the Harrison’s Landing base.13

The military problem was complicated by the fact that in the week before Halleck took command, McClellan and Pope had become embroiled in a raging political controversy. In his single month in command of the Army of Virginia, Pope had made himself the military embodiment of the Radical approach to war—and, as such, as obnoxious to McClellan as he was to General Lee and President Davis.

John Pope had great energy, large ambition, and unlimited self-­confidence. He was also a blowhard whose ambitions were barefaced and pursued in ways that some thought unscrupulous. He had served ably in the Mexican War and afterward in the conduct of several railroad surveys. Unlike most serving officers he was a vocal political partisan, and had been court-martialed for his open advocacy of the Republican ticket in 1860. As a field general he had campaigned with some success against Confederate guerrillas in Missouri, and had led the army/navy campaign that captured the important Confederate bastion of Island No. 10 in March 1862. His prior service was not adequate preparation for the command of the Army of Virginia. In the west his army of twenty-five thousand had been opposed by fewer than half their number of Confederates and had enjoyed powerful naval support. In Virginia his command would rise from forty-five thousand to seventy-five thousand during the course of the summer, and he would be opposed by a large and powerful field army under the command of the Confederacy’s greatest generals, Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet.

McClellan saw Pope as Halleck’s protégé, and therefore a rival. He also knew Pope as a partisan Republican who had violated the code of military ethics by giving political speeches during the 1860 presidential campaign. The taint was not diminished by the fact that a court-martial had acquitted Pope. McClellan’s political suspicions were confirmed, and his anger aroused, by the orders Pope issued on assuming command of the Army of Virginia (July 14). Pope contrasted the frustrations and failures of McClellan’s Virginia campaigns with the achievement of the Western armies, whose troops “have always seen the backs of our ­enemies . . . whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense.” He also took a direct shot at McClellan when he asked his troops to “dismiss from your minds certain phrases, which I am sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you . . . of ‘taking strong positions and holding them,’ of ‘lines of retreat,’ and of ‘bases of supplies.’ ”14

Pope’s order of July 18, authorizing his troops to seize their subsistence from the civilians in their zone of operations, transformed the personal into the political. McClellan saw Pope’s order in exactly the same light as did Davis and Lee: it was the military expression of the Radical principles just made law by the Second Confiscation Act. McClellan believed he had a sacred duty to oppose Radicalism in every form, lest the republic become a despotism. He therefore declared his intention to defy both the congressional act and the presidential orders giving it effect—and by that act to draw the line between himself and General Pope. “As soon as I receive an official copy of the Presdt’s Proclamation [giving effect to the Confiscation Act] I shall issue orders directly opposed to Pope’s—then there will be a furious row.” He also contemplated with pleasure the likelihood that Pope would soon be defeated: “Stonewall Jackson is after him, & that paltry young man who wanted to teach me the art of war will in less than a week be in full retreat or badly whipped. He will begin to learn the value of entrenchments, lines of communication & of retreat.”15

When Halleck arrived at Harrison’s Landing on July 25 he was, in McClellan’s eyes, the emissary of his old enemy Stanton and the sponsor of his new enemy, Pope. McClellan considered Halleck’s appointment itself a “slap in the face,” part of Stanton’s campaign to so insult and humiliate him that he would voluntarily retire. He also resented having to take orders from “a man whom I know by experience to be my inferior.” Still, McClellan could not resign without abdicating his role as savior of the nation. So he swallowed his pride and worked hard to persuade Halleck of the necessity of concentrating all possible force at Harrison’s Landing for a new advance on Richmond.16

Though they discussed the costs and benefits of operating from Harrison’s Landing and from northern Virginia, for McClellan these talks were simply an extended negotiation for reinforcements. While privately he reckoned that Lee’s army mustered 150,000–170,000 troops (which was a gross overestimate), he told Halleck that the enemy had 200,000 troops in and around Richmond, and he needed a reinforcement of 30,000 before he could advance. Halleck said only 20,000 were available. McClellan countered by suggesting that Pope’s force be sent to the Peninsula and put under his command. That was ruled out, as before, by Lincoln’s requirement that a large force be kept to defend Washington. In the end, Halleck left McClellan with a choice: either begin the offensive against Richmond with the reinforcement of 20,000, or prepare to withdraw from the Peninsula and combine his force with Pope’s. In the latter case, Halleck promised that McClellan would command both armies.17

While Halleck’s chief concern with relieving McClellan was the lack of a suitable replacement, he may also have been influenced by the intense partisan loyalty displayed by many of the army’s higher officers, which would have made any replacement difficult and potentially dangerous.

Halleck was accompanied by General Ambrose Burnside, whose troops were being transferred from the North Carolina coast to the Virginia front. Three days prior to their arrival Lincoln had asked Burnside to replace McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside had refused. That the offer was made indicated the poverty of Halleck’s and Lincoln’s alternatives. Burnside might have performed competently in command of the amphibious expedition that seized control of the North Carolina sounds, but he had no experience of commanding a large army in a major battle.

Ambrose Burnside, 38, cut an impressive figure, his sturdy six-foot frame topped by a large bald head, whiskers worn in the double-scallop known ever after as “burnsides.” He was a strange mixture of ability and incompetence. In the first year of the war it was the ability that stood out, and it would earn him promotion far beyond his talents. He was affable and considered modest because he did not pursue promotion with the hell-bent intensity that marked most of his fellow generals. He was also a loyal friend, and was deeply in McClellan’s debt. Burnside had gone bankrupt trying to promote a carbine of his own design, and McClellan had given him a job with the Illinois Central that saved his reputation and restored his finances. His refusal of Lincoln’s offer was based on loyalty, well-founded self-doubts, and a genuine belief in McClellan’s abilities. His testimony about the state of mind prevailing at McClellan’s headquarters is therefore highly credible.

The president had also asked Burnside to make private inquiries among McClellan’s staff, and his corps and division commanders, to learn what they thought about their commander’s performance and his future plans. Burnside was appalled by their expressions of contempt and hostility toward the civilian government, and by their open discussion of the need for a military takeover. Burnside took the threat seriously and rebuked it: “I don’t know what you fellows call this talk, but I call it flat Treason, by God!” Halleck dismissed all this as “staff talk.” But the staff was taking its language and its political cues from General McClellan, who had been fulminating for weeks against the administration’s “radical and inhuman views,” its deliberate and treacherous attempt to “sacrifice” the army. McClellan had told his wife that he found it gratifying to be continually “receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!!”18

McClellan was also receiving frequent visits by important leaders in the Democratic Party, especially New Yorkers like Barlow, Aspinwall, and Fernando Wood. Although the general and his confidant Fitz-John Porter were gratified by these visits, they caused some controversy within the army. Division commander Philip Kearny, one of the best combat generals in the army, wrote his wife that he considered such close contacts with supposedly pro-Southern politicos a sign of disloyalty: “There is either positive treason or at least McClellan or the few with him are devising a game of politics rather than war.” Kearny also thought McClellan’s conduct of the campaign had been utterly incompetent, and his decision to retreat rather than counterattack after Malvern Hill the result of either “cowardice or treason.” Few of his fellow officers went as far as Kearny, but his opinion mattered in army circles. He was the kind of man McClellan himself most admired: a West Point graduate, a cavalryman who had won a reputation for headlong courage in two armies—the French, with which he served in Algiers and against the Austrians in the 1850s, and the American, with which he served on the frontier and in Mexico, where he lost an arm. He was also a gentleman and a millionaire, whose father had helped found the New York Stock Exchange, and he raised and equipped a brigade at his own expense.19

Even McClellan’s friends were concerned that he was breaching the wall between military and civil authority. General William “Baldy” Smith was an old friend of McClellan’s, a member of his staff and later a division commander in VI Corps. He claimed that McClellan had shown him the text of a letter in which he committed himself to a run for the presidency in opposition to the present administration. He also showed Smith the text of his Harrison’s Landing letter and ignored Smith’s warning that it “looks like treason and will ruin you & all of us.”20

Buoyed by signs that he enjoyed strong public and political support, and by the weakness of will implied by Halleck’s accommodating manner, McClellan ignored the stark alternatives Halleck had offered (advance with your present force or be withdrawn) and continued to press his case for reinforcement. No sooner had Halleck returned to Washington than a dispatch from McClellan arrived, dated July 26, reporting that Lee was being reinforced by troops from the Carolinas and “Beauregard’s old army.” The latter was Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, which was then in Chattanooga preparing to invade Kentucky. When added to McClellan’s existing overestimate of the Confederate force, this reinforcement would give Lee a two-to-one advantage. He therefore requested that “all the troops of Burnside & Hunter—together with all that can possibly be spared from other points—be sent to me at once.” With that additional force—far more than the twenty thousand Halleck declared to be the maximum possible—he would be willing to undertake the required advance on Richmond. But he wanted yet more: “Can you not possibly draw 15,000 or 20,000 men from the West to reinforce me temporarily?”21

McClellan also tried to woo Halleck into his political camp. On August 1 he wrote again, promising “my full and cordial support in all things” and offering his sympathy for the “unpleasant” political engagements that went with Halleck’s position. “If we are permitted to do so [by the politicians], I believe that together we can save this unhappy country and bring this war to a comparatively early termination.” He then rehearsed for Halleck’s benefit the main points of the Harrison’s Landing letter: that the war should be conducted on “civilized” principles, with as much protection to the “constitutional, civil, and personal rights” of rebel civilians as military necessity would allow. Above all, “the question of slavery should not enter into this war . . . we should avoid any proclamation of general emancipation, and should protect inoffensive citizens in the possession of that, as well as other kinds of property. . . . The people of the South should understand that we are not making war upon the institution of slavery.” He then went on to condemn “pillaging and outrages”—a catch-phrase used by critics of Pope’s military administration.22

If he thought Halleck could be persuaded to abandon his own views for McClellan’s, he was mistaken. When it became clear that McClellan was unwilling to mount an offensive with his present force, Halleck informed McClellan on August 3 of his intention to withdraw his army. McClellan’s reply was proper, but he stated his objections in terms that challenged Halleck’s military judgment. Halleck’s order “has caused me the greatest pain I ever experienced, for I am convinced that the order to withdraw this Army . . . will prove disastrous in the extreme to our cause—I fear that it will be a fatal blow.” Halleck’s order now joined him with Stanton and the others on McClellan’s enemies list: the man was a “scalawag . . . dull & incompetent.” He had “begun to show the cloven hoof” and would “kill himself in less than two weeks.”23


On the surface, McClellan seemed to accept his new role, dutifully carrying out his orders, preparing and superintending the withdrawal of eighty or ninety thousand men with all their equipment. Heintzelman’s III Corps and Porter’s V Corps began shipping out on August 16. On the twenty-second they disembarked at Alexandria and Aquia Creek, respectively. Heintzelman’s troops took the train south from Alexandria to join Pope, while Porter’s men had to march cross-country by bad roads and with little guidance from Pope’s headquarters. In the meantime the ships steamed back to Virginia to pick up the II and VI Corps. While McClellan’s public dealings with Halleck were proper and polite, his private correspondence over the next week (August 13–21) reflected a state of mind disordered by rage and self-pity, in which reasoned analyses of strategy and politics veer into fantasies of victimization and revenge. His obsessions and resentments were mirrored and amplified by a doting staff.

Having imagined a Confederate army that was too powerful to be attacked—and having been, in any case, deprived of the force with which to attack it—McClellan focused his anger and his energy on his political enemies. On this front, too, he exaggerated and misread the character, power, and malice of the forces working against him. He was not wrong in thinking he had enemies, especially in the Radical camp, who were agitating for his removal; nor in thinking that officers like Halleck and Pope were jealous rivals eager to advance themselves at his expense. No, his main misconstruction was of Lincoln’s character, intelligence, and motives; and that was so egregious that it bordered on delusional. If the president urged him to action it was with the aim of driving him into the jaws of destruction. If Lincoln sustained him in command, despite his defeat and the enmity of the Radicals, it was only because he was afraid McClellan would expose his malfeasance by releasing their exchange of telegrams on June 28. He also failed to appreciate the fact that the support he enjoyed among moderate and conservative editors and politicians depended on their belief that McClellan was the man to prosecute the war to a speedy end. He had rationalized his defeat in the Seven Days as an event willed by God to frustrate the Radicals: “If I had succeeded in taking Richmond now the fanatics of the North might have been too powerful & reunion impossible.” However, he was virtually alone in thinking it was the Radicals who stood to benefit from a quick Union victory. Even his staunchest journalistic supporter, the New York World, recognized the need for a speedy victory: “The fact is notorious that the prolongation of the war operates almost everywhere to deepen the hatred against slavery.”24

At moments McClellan’s rage rose to a Lear-like intensity of grievance and vengeful fantasy. He looked forward to the destruction of Pope as an act of Divine Providence, punishing those who had tried to destroy him: “The more I hear of their wickedness the more I am surprised that such a wretched set are permitted to live much less to occupy the positions they do.” McClellan imagined that he himself would soon have the power to visit punishment upon them: “If I succeed in my coup everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet. It may go hard with some of them in that event, for I look upon them as the enemies of the country & of the human race.” To Samuel Barlow he wrote that “the rascals” were afraid to fire him outright because “[t]hey are aware that I have seen through their villainous schemes.” They had conspired to destroy the republic’s best army, because they had no real desire to restore the Union—they wanted a “Northern Confederacy,” free of the conservative opposition based in the South, in which to realize their abominable Radical agenda. To suppress such a treasonous movement the most forcible means might be necessary. The Radicals feared McClellan because “[If] I succeed my foot will be on their necks.” Fitz-John Porter, McClellan’s closest confidant, echoed and amplified McClellan’s darkest fantasy, writing to a friend, “Would that this army was in Washington to rid us of incumbents ruining our country.”25

It is hard to say what sort of “coup” McClellan envisioned. Although he often spoke of marching on Washington, he made no plans for a military putsch. Even if he had desired one, until the end of August the only force that could have attempted it was with him on the Peninsula. He may well have hoped that his efforts to force Stanton from office were bearing fruit. Newspapers and correspondence from friends in the North, and rumors conveyed by intelligence chief Allan Pinkerton, just back from Washington, would have made that seem quite possible in early August.26 The real significance of these rants is their revelation that the commander of the nation’s largest army was in an extraordinarily dangerous state of mind. He rejoices in the hope that an army of the nation he serves will be destroyed, so that he can be vindicated and restored to power: “I think the result of their machinations [Stanton’s and Halleck’s] will be that Pope will be badly thrashed within two days & that they will be very glad to turn over the redemption of their affairs to me.” McClellan goes as far as to declare that the legitimate heads of the government he has sworn to loyally serve are dolts and traitors, hardly fit to live. He is pleased when supporters write urging him to “change front on Washington” and clean the rascals out, and he imagines a triumphant return to power in which his enemies are forced to beg him for “redemption” from their sins and errors—but he will not save them unless they grant him “full & entire control.”27

These angry rants were coupled with a campaign—partly open, partly covert—to recover the influence and power he had lost since the Seven Days. At dark moments he seemed intent on simply maintaining command of the Army of the Potomac, but his ultimate goal was to force Stanton’s resignation and recover his lost position as the dominant voice on military policy. The campaign was waged through his political supporters in Washington and his allies in the press. Staff officers and senior commanders, notably Fitz-John Porter, acted as his surrogates, transmitting his strategic views and his attacks on the administration to correspondents and editors. McClellan set the agenda by a series of symbolic gestures, to which he drew the attention of the correspondents in his camp. McClellan wanted the public to see Pope and Lincoln as ideological twins. He would then identify himself as the champion of conservative views by rebuking Pope and defying Lincoln. On July 30 he had declared his intention to defy Lincoln’s order promulgating the Second Confiscation Act by issuing “orders directly opposed to Pope’s.” On August 8 he told his wife, “I will issue tomorrow an order giving my comments on Mr. Jno [sic] Pope—I will strike square in the teeth of all his infamous orders & give directly the reverse instructions to my army.”28

The conservative press quickly picked up on McClellan’s gesture. The Herald and the World, which had taken a favorable view of Pope’s militancy, reversed themselves and attacked him as a Radical. They praised McClellan for both his military skill and his conservatism, and lambasted Stanton as the author of McClellan’s defeat because he had refused to send reinforcements. Their polemics produced a wave of anti-Stanton sentiment that transcended party lines. Lincoln had to make a public defense of his secretary of war, but he felt it necessary to minimize the disagreement between Stanton and McClellan and to suggest that their “quarrel” was fomented by the press—which he knew very well it was not.29

Then on August 21 Halleck informed McClellan that “Pope & Burnside are very hard pressed.” Lee was beginning his initial moves against Pope’s position on the Rapidan, and Halleck wanted McClellan to send his remaining troops north as fast as possible and “come myself as soon as I possibly can!” McClellan presumed that on his arrival he would assume the command of Pope’s army and his own, and he wrote his wife, “I believe I have triumphed!!” He gloated over the embarrassment of the Lincoln administration, forced to recall the man derided as “the ‘Quaker,’ the ‘procrastinator,’ the ‘coward’ & the ‘traitor’!” He urged Porter to embark with the greatest possible haste and dashed off a brief note implying that he would soon arrive to take command: “Whatever occurs, hold out till I arrive.” He may have given Porter some verbal instructions relating to his assumption of command, to be passed in secret to Burnside.30

While the three-way tug-of-war between Halleck, McClellan, and Pope wore on, Lincoln could do nothing to openly advance the strategic and political transformation embodied in the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, he followed a devious course of action. On August 4 Lincoln declined the offer of two Negro regiments from Indiana, and on August 6 he ordered the disbandment of the unauthorized Black regiments that had been raised by General David Hunter in the Sea Islands. Then on August 16 Lincoln secretly authorized Hunter’s replacement, General Saxton, to enlist and arm five thousand freed slaves for service as garrison troops. The public statements he made during that summer obscured his commitment to emancipation. On August 14—while McClellan’s troops were beginning their evacuation of the Peninsula—Lincoln met with a “Deputation of Negroes,” to persuade them to sign on to his plan of colonizing free Blacks somewhere in tropical America. He declared, tersely and coldly, that the racial difference between White and Black was deeper “than exists between almost any other two races,” and that the health of both races required their permanent separation. For Blacks to seek equality within the United States, rather than a separate national life elsewhere, was to take “an extremely selfish view of the case.” Taken at face value, it was a morally purblind and reprehensible performance, and suggested he was still committed to his old and long-discredited obsession with colonization. Yet the man who gave that speech on August 14 had a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation finished and ready for issuance. Perhaps it was merely a political ploy, intended to placate all those popular and factional elements who feared that emancipation would send waves of free Blacks into the North to take jobs and threaten White supremacy. It certainly showed sympathy and deference for the position taken at the July 22 meeting by Attorney General Bates, that emancipation be followed by the compulsory colonization of Blacks in some tropical country.31

The outrage of Radicals at this performance was predictable, and to some extent deliberately provoked by Lincoln, who needed strong pressure from his left to offset the demands of conservatives on his right. On August 20 Horace Greeley published an open letter to Lincoln, chiding the president for failing to enforce the antislavery provisions of the Confiscation Act with sufficient rigor. Like McClellan, Greeley thought Lincoln lacked a firm policy on slavery, but the policy he wanted was radical rather than conservative: “On the face of this wide earth, Mr. President, there is not one disinterested, determined, intelligent champion of the Union cause who does not feel that all attempts to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause are preposterous and futile.”32

Lincoln had already reached the same conclusion, but his response to Greeley appeared to evade or postpone the necessity of embracing emancipation. The first principle of his policy was “to save the Union . . . the shortest way under the Constitution.”

My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union.33

In fact, he had already decided that the Union could not be saved unless he did something to put slavery on the path to ultimate extinction. But he was helpless to act until someone—Pope, Halleck, or ­McClellan—won a military victory.

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