Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan


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General George B. McClellan made a good first impression. He was also a striking contrast to the nation’s commander’s in chief, Abraham Lincoln. “General McClellan is indeed a striking figure, in spite of his shortness,” recalled Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard. “He is the impersonation of health and strength, and he is in the prime of early manhood. His uniform is faultless and his stars are brilliant, especially the middle one on each strap. His face is full of intelligence, of will-power, of self-assertion, and he, too, is in some respects a born leader of men. He has been admirably educated for such duties as are now upon hm, and he has studied the science and art of war among European camps and forts and armies and battle-fields. He has vast stores of technical knowledge never to be acquired by any man among the backwoods, or on the prairies, or in law courts, or in political conventions. He can hardly conceal the clearness of his conviction that he ought not be trammeled by any authority in human form that is by him supposed to be destitute of the essential training which he himself so fully possesses.”1

The paths of McClellan and Mr. Lincoln had crossed in the late 1850s in Illinois. McClellan had resigned from Army in 1857 and became general superintendent of Illinois Central Railroad, for which Mr. Lincoln was an attorney. McClellan became a strong supporter of Stephen Douglas in 1858 Senate race, but biographer Ethan Rafus maintained that “there is, in fact, no evidence that any personal animosity developed between Lincoln and McClellan during the 1850s. Indeed, McClellan would later remember his association with Lincoln in Illinois with some measure of fondness. In his memoirs, McClellan affectionately recalled sharing sleeping accommodations with Lincoln ‘in out-of-the-way county seats where some important case was being tried…in front of a stove listening to the unceasing flow of anecdotes from his lips. He was never at a loss, and I could never quite make up my mind how many of them he really heard before and how many he invented on the spur of the moment.'”2 Illinois Judge Lawrence Weldon recalled a different story – the first time that Mr. Lincoln and Captain McClellan were supposed to have met:

“It was in 1859, while attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad, that in connection with C.H. Moore, Mr. Lincoln attended to the litigation of the company. He appeared in one case which the company did not want to try at that term, and Mr. Lincoln remarked to the court: ‘We are not ready for trial.'”
“Judge [David]Davis asked: ‘Why is not the company ready to go trial?'”
“Mr. Lincoln replied: ‘We are embarrassed by the absence, or rather want of information from Captain McClellan.'”
“‘Who is Captain McClellan, and why is he not here?’ asked Judge Davis.”
“Mr. Lincoln said: ‘All I know of him is that he is the engineer of the railroad, and why he is not here deponent said not.'”
“In consequence of Captain McClellan’s absence the case was continued. Lincoln and McClellan had never met up to that time, and the most they knew of each other was that one was the attorney and the other was the engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad.”

“It would not be the first time that George B. McClellan disregarded Abraham Lincoln. As the army commander, McClellan infuriated Lincoln Administration staffers by ignoring President Lincoln when Mr. Lincoln visited McClellan’s headquarters a few blocks from the White House. McClellan could never shake the notion that he knew much better what was needed by the nation politically and militarily than did Mr. Lincoln. Historian William C. Davis wrote that in 1861, “believing what the press and an admiring circle of sycophants on his staff and high command said about him, Little Mac bristled at being subordinate to the civil authority, and especially to Lincoln, of whom he almost instantly developed a condescending and patronizing opinion. He not only regarded the president as his intellectual and social inferior, but also passed on that attitude to those around him – or even fostered it.” 5

In the most recent biography of the general and his military operations, historian Ethan Rafuse defends McClellan from the criticism to which he has been subjected ever since he was appointed by President Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac after the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. McClellan’s forces operating in western Virginia had won two minor battles – providing him with the media mantle of victory. The expectations for McClellan were high as presidential aide William O. Stoddard indicated in a newspaper dispatch that August. Stoddard wrote that it was “wonderful how rapidly he is securing the confidence and esteem of the army and the people. If he cannot manage the volunteers, and make good and efficient soldiers of them, we almost feel as if it were useless for any other man to make the attempt. He is almost a Cabinet officer, so constantly is his judgment appealed to in all matters appertaining to the prosecution of the war.” 6

After meeting with President Lincoln and military leaders in Washington in late July and August1861, the 34-year-old McClellan himself was impressed with his new importance, writing his wife: “I find myself in a new & strange position here – Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Winfield Scott & all deferring to me – by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land,’ he wrote in pleased amazement. ‘I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me – but nothing of that kind would please me – I won’t be Dictator. Admirable self denial!”7 Historian Richard Striner wrote: “McClellan possessed two crippling vices that would doom him to failure as a general. First, his bravado was nothing more than a brittle veneer to conceal a major weakness of will. When the bloodshed started and the casualties rose, this military man would prove weak to the point of timidity. Second, when he lost a battle, he would blame it on his superiors. Ironically, his victories in western Virginia that summer had been won to some extent by the skill of his subordinates.”8

Indeed, McClellan appeared better in his first battles than in subsequent performance. His image quickly worn thin in Washington with government leaders anxious to engage nearby Confederate troops. “McClellan retained a cool, aloof, proper bearing that conveyed an image of direction and businesslike habits,” noted historian Joseph Glatthaar. “Anyone who disagreed with him was either a fool or disloyal. Since the politicians knew nothing of military affairs they accepted McClellan’s opinion, at least initially, as gospel. Scott with nearly fifty years of military experience, did not, and McClellan targeted him first.” wrote Glatthaar.sup>9 Although he was a master of military organization, McClellan failed to use that organization to make any offensive moves against the Confederate troops in nearby Virginia in the late summer and fall of 1861. Congressional leaders indicated their displeasure to the President as summer turned into fall. In late October 1861, President Lincoln visited General McClellan shortly after Senators Zachariah Chandler, Lyman Trumbull and Benjamin Wade (called the “Jacobin Club” by John Hay) themselves had visited the White House to complain. Then as he would repeatedly in the future, McClellan wanted more men and more equipment. Lincoln aide John Hay wrote in his diary that they “talked about the Jacobins. McClellan said that Wade preferred an unsuccessful battle to delay. He said a defeat could be easily repaired, by the swarming recruits. McClellan answered ‘that he would rather have a few recruits before a victory – than a good many after a defeat.'”

“The President deprecated this new manifestation of popular impatience but at the same time said it was a reality and should be taken into the account. At the same time General you must not fight till you are ready.”
“I have everything at stake’ said the General. ‘If I fail I will not see you again or anybody.”10

The Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, formed in December 1861, pushed President Lincoln to push General McClellan into action. McClellan biographer Stephen W. Sears wrote: “Under unceasing attack by the radicals because of his support of McClellan, President Lincoln had his own misgivings about the general, who barely treated his Commander-in-Chief with civility. McClellan simply had not committed himself, not even to Lincoln, and on one occasion he had refused to see the President who had come to confer with him. Nevertheless, Lincoln sought to mediate between the radicals and the general, and received the committee with his customary tact. What did the gentlemen have in mind? ‘Mr. President,’ stormed Wade, ‘you are murdering your country by inches in consequence of the inactivity of the military and the want of a distinct policy in regard to slavery.’ According to reports of the interview which reached the diplomatic corps, the President said nothing in reply. But on the next day, anxious to prevent a complete break between the committee and the army, he sought to reassure McClellan, whom, as he put it, the committee’s doings had been giving ‘some uneasiness.'”11

Biographer Rafuse wrote; “McClellan perceived his challenge in 1861-1862 not only in terms of the specific division between North and South but in the context of an eternal conflict between the forces of enlightened reason and selfish passion, moderation and extremism, harmony and discord, order and anarchy, principled statesmanship an self-serving politics. The Union, McClellan believed, had been divided by irrational passion, extremism, and self-serving politics. If allowed to influence military affairs, those same forces could sink the effort to restore it. It was essential, therefore, that the task of restoring the Union be guided by reason, moderation, and enlightened statesmanship.”12

Ultimately, McClellan failed, and history has not been kind to failures. Historian Richard N. Current wrote that “McClellan had his faults. Though fond of Napoleonic poses, he lacked the fighting blood of Bonaparte. He was slow, overcautious, duped by his spies’ fantastic exaggerations of enemy strength. Yet he had real abilities, particularly in drilling troops and inspiring them with loyalty and trust. To some extent his faults were merely defects of his virtues. He sought to make the most of the Union preponderance in men and resources – to win the war by strategy, not butchery.” 13 McClellan biographer Stephen W. Sears called McClellan “inarguably the worst” Union general to head the Army of the Potomac. 14 James Russell Lowell wrote in 1864 that McClellan possessed “every theoretic qualification, but no ardor, no leap, no inspiration. A defensive general in an earthen redoubt not an ensign to rally enthusiasm and inspire devotion.”15 Historian Kenneth P. Williams called McClellan “a vain and unstable man, with considerable military knowledge, who sat a horse well and wanted to be President.”16 Lincoln aides John G. Nicolay and John Hay determined to destroy McClellan’s reputation in their ten-volume biography of the President. “I have toiled and labored through ten chapters over McClellan,” wrote Hay to Nicolay. “I think I have left the impression of his mutinous imbecility, and I have done it in a perfectly courteous manner…It is of the utmost moment that we should seem fair to him, while…destroying him.”17 Biographer Sears wrote that “McClellan was a man possessed by demons and delusions. He believed beyond any doubt that his Confederate enemies faced him with forces substantially greater than his own. He believed with equal conviction that enemies at the head of his own government conspired to see him and his army defeated so as to carry out their traitorous purposes. He believed himself to be God’s chosen instrument for saving the Union. When he lost the courage to fight, as he did in every battle, he believed he was preserving his army to fight the next time on another and better day.”18

Biographer Ethan Rafuse has been more sympathetic. Rafuse argued that McClellan was the true Whig/conservative in the Civil War – following in the tradition of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and their commitment to the preservation of the Union. Rafuse argued that “McClellan’s conservatism was shaped less by his membership in the Democratic Party of the 1850s and 1860s than by his early political socialization in environments where the cultural values of the market-oriented professional classes who supported the Whig Party of the 1830s and 1840s dominated.” Rafuse contends that “McClellan’s Whig outlook colored his perspective on the sectional conflict and shaped his actions as a commander.19 He noted: “McClellan resisted the expansion of Union war aims to include emancipation and the need to attack Southern property and institutions, endorsed the principle of state rights, and was a member of the Democratic Party, a party that, in the words of historian Philip S. Paludan, ‘stood for conservatism, for tradition, for maintaining… Reflecting the limited understanding of the transformations that were under way.”20

“McClellan never lost sight of the fact that military operations are not conducted for their own purposes but to achieve political ends not attainable by other means,” wrote Rafuse.21 But McClellan was a failure politically, many other historians, have argued – both in dealing with President Lincoln and in his subsequent campaign against him in 1864. At the beginning of the war, no Union officer showed more political skills. Historian Thomas J. Goss wrote: “Perhaps no officer demonstrated a talent for harnessing patrons during the first months of the war more than George B. McClellan.”22 But McClellan completely misread and repeatedly mishandled President Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln’s aides and biographers, John G. Nicolay and Hay wrote of McClellan’s relationship with the Commander-in-Chief in the spring of 1862: “The attitude of the President towards him at this time may be seen from the following letter of the 9thth of April, in which Mr. Lincoln answers McClellan’s complaints with as much consideration and kindness as a father would use towards a querulous and petulant child”.23

There was reason for this criticism from contemporaries and historians. McClellan had treated both President Lincoln and Army chief Winfield Scott with increasing disrespect in 1861. Historian Timothy D. Johnson wrote that the aging ‘Scott had become the only obstacle in McClellan’s rise to the top. He no longer sought Scott’s praise, and within a week of his arrival in Washington, his letters to his wife contained criticisms of the general in chief and even the suggestion that he would soon replace the aging leader.”24 McClellan knew he had a competitor in General Henry W. Halleck but when Scott finally had his fill with McClellan’s impudence, it was McClellan who was appointed to take his place. Historian James A. Rawley summed up the common wisdom in the fall of 1861: “McClellan’s great merits as organizer, administrator, planner, and inspirer of morale were patent; his flamboyance, hypersensitivity to criticism, naivete, excess of caution, and ignorance of the constitutional relationship between general and commander-in-chief were becoming apparent.”25

McClellan had delusions of importance and delusions of grandeur. Unlike Abraham Lincoln, he personalized everything. Biographer Stephen W. Sears wrote: “Each step of the process had become for him a uniquely personal achievement. ‘The Army of the Potomac is my army as much as any army ever belonged to the man that created it,’ he would say when looking back on his work.” According to Sears, “The personal identification was deliberate. He had not forgotten the lesson of General Scott’s hold on his army in the Mexico City campaign. He believed morale was related directly to the confidence officers and men felt in the general commanding; if they believed in him they would believe in the tasks he set for them. He invariably got on better with subordinates than with superiors.”26

President Lincoln maintained his faith in and support in McClellan long after leading members of Congress had abandoned theirs, but by January 1862, Mr. Lincoln was clearly frustrated with McClellan’s inertia. McClellan’s inaction became near paralysis when he fell ill with typhoid in late December 1862. Rafuse, however, contended that “McClellan was able to conduct business throughout his illness, mostly through adjutants, and during the first week he remained quite active.”27 Rafuse noted that McClellan appeared much worse by December 31, then improved a few days later.

As McClellan’s health deteriorated so too did the Administration’s confusion. John Hay reflected the nation’s expectations when he wrote anonymously in the press the previous November: “The nation is fortunate in its new commander. It is seldom that a man so simple and so plain in his manners, so free from the ordinary tricks of popularity, and the ordinary appliances of journalistic influence, attains a recognition so sudden and so universal. The people repose entire confidence in McClellan. He has had nothing of that frenzied impatience to complain of, that forced Scott into error and disaster.”28 But with Scott’s retirement, McClellan had the stage all to himself and the spotlight was not flattering. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote:”Now that McClellan could no longer blame Scott for his troubles, he shifted his censure to Lincoln for denying him the means to confront the rebel forces in Virginia, whose numbers, he insisted, were at least three times his own. In letters home, he complained about Lincoln’s constant intrusions, which forced him to hide out at the home of fellow Democrat Edwin Stanton, ‘to dodge all enemies in shape of ‘browsing’ Presdt etc.'”29

Civil War historian Joseph T. Glatthaar wrote of the situation that winter “McClellan’s own personality lay at the heart of the inaction. Once again, he greatly exaggerated the strength of the enemy and undervalued his own resources. No matter how unrealistic his appraisal, or how significantly certain factors changed, McClellan formed a snap judgment of the situation and refused to alter it. Excessively cautious, he detected obstacles where none existed and readily convinced himself to abort or delay operations. Then he absolved himself of culpability.”30

On January 7, President Lincoln met with members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which had been constituted the previous month and included such prominent McClellan critics as Senator Zachariah Chandler. They pressed him for military action. Rafuse thinks that McClellan suffered a relapse over the next several days, further aggravating the situation. The President called on Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, for help: “On Friday, January 10, 1862, the President, in great distress, entered my office. He took a chair in front of the open fire and said, ‘General, what shall I do? The people are impatient: Chase has no money and he tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?'”

“I said, ‘If General McClellan has typhoid fever, that is an affair of six weeks at least; he will not be able sooner to command. In the meantime, if the enemy in our front is as strong as he believes, they may attack on any day, and I think you should see some of those upon whom in such case, or in case any forward movement becomes necessary, the control must fall. Send for them to meet you soon and consult with them; perhaps you may select the responsible commander for such an event.”
“The council was called. On Sunday, January 12, Irvin McDowell and William Franklin called on me with a summons to the White House for 1:00 P.M. These officers, and Messrs. Seward, Chase, Blair, of the Cabinet, attended. The President announced that he had called this meeting in consequence of the sickness of General McClellan, but he had that morning heard from him that he was better, and would able to be present the next day; and that, on this promise, he adjourned the discussion for twenty-four hours.”
McClellan rose from his sickbed. General Meigs recalled: “The next day, January 13, the same persons and General McClellan appeared at the rendezvous. The President opened the proceedings by making a statement of the cause of his calling the council. Mr. Chase and Mr. Blair, if memory is accurate, both spoke. All looked to McClellan, who sat still with his head hanging down, and mute. The situation grew awkward. The President spoke again a few words. One of the generals said something; McClellan said something which evidently did not please the speaker and again was mute.”
“I moved my chair to the side of McClellan’s and urged him, saying, ‘The President evidently expects you to speak; can you not promise some movement towards Manassas? You are strong.’ He replied, ‘I cannot move on them with as great a force as they have.’ ‘Why, you have near 200,000 men, how many have they?’ ‘Not less than 175,000 according to my advices.’ I said, ‘Do you think so?’ and ‘the President expects something from you.’ He replied, ‘If I tell him my plans they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can’t keep a secret, he will tell them to Tad.’ I said: ‘That is a pity, but he is the President, – the Commander-in-Chief; he has a right to know; it is not respectful to sit mute when he so clearly requires you to speak. He is superior to all.'”
After some further urging, McClellan moved, and seemed to prepare to speak. He declined to give his plans in detail, but thought it best to press the movement of Buell’s troops in the central line of operation. After a few words that brought out nothing more, Mr. Lincoln said, “Well, on this assurance of the General that he will press the advance in Kentucky, I will be satisfied, and will adjourn this council.”31

During McClellan’s illness, noted historian Ethan S. Rafuse, “Lincoln remained actively engaged in military affairs. Even when McClellan began to improve, criticism from the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War encouraged President Lincoln to stay actively involved.”32 Lincoln’s actions – particularly his meetings with McClellan’s subordinates – seemed to speed McClellan’s recovery. But McClellan’s illness also enhanced Mr. Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief. Rafuse wrote: “Although it appears that Lincoln intended his active involvement in military planning to be no more than a temporary expedient while McClellan was ill, the president never stepped back completely. McClellan subsequently attempted to exercise what he perceived from previous experience to be his responsibilities as general in chief. However, he found the autonomy he had previously enjoyed severely diminished, as Lincoln began directly challenging his conduct of military affairs through such actions as the issuance of President’s War Order No. 1 on January 27, setting a date for a general advance, and a special order on January 31 establishing the Army of the Potomac’s line of operations.”33

Coincidentally, McClellan’s return to health coincided with a change in the leadership of the War Department. During the fall of 1861, Edward M. Stanton had portrayed himself as a friend of both McClellan and War Secretary Simon Cameron. When Cameron was dismissed in mid-January, Stanton replaced him and quickly dropped his friendship with McClellan. Stanton told President Lincoln in January 1862: “You are Commander in Chief under the constitution and must act as such or the government is lost….You must order McClellan to move. I think he will obey. If not, put someone in his place who will obey.”34 But McClellan did not move, and Stanton was transformed during 1862 from ardent friend to zealous foe of General McClellan.

While McClellan complained about President Lincoln’s leaks of military plans, he himself initially cooperated with Stanton on leaks to the New York Herald. Pennsylvania Congressman William D. Kelley, one of McClellan’s foremost critics during and after the Civil War, remembered: “Stanton wasted no time in acting on his pledge of support. He was back at McClellan’s the following evening to introduce Malcom Ives, a correspondent for James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald, According to Ives, Stanton and McClellan said they valued the continued backing of the nation’s largest newspaper that they wanted it to have the inside track on all military news. After Stanton left, McClellan treated the reporter to a three-hour briefing. The day before, he had refused to discuss war plans with President Lincoln and his chief advisers on the ground that anything he said would end up in the next issue of the Herald. Now he presented that newspaper with what was certainly the largest official leak of military secrets in the entire course of the Civil War.”35

Lincoln biographers Nicolay and Hay wrote: “McClellan went on in his leisurely way, preparing for a movement upon the batteries near the Occoquan undisturbed by the increasing signs of electric perturbation at the Executive Mansion and the Capitol, which answered by faintly to the growing excitement in the North. The accumulating hostility and distrust of General McClellan, – totally unjust as it affected his loyalty and honor and his ardent desire to serve his country in the way that he thought best, – though almost entirely unknown to him, was poured upon the President, the heads of Government, and the leading Members of Congress in letters and conversations and newspaper leaders.”36

Still, President Lincoln supported McClellan. “Mr. Lincoln never regarded General McClellan with personal or political jealousy,” wrote Lincoln friend Ward Hill Lamon. “He never feared him. He once profoundly trusted him, and to the very last he hoped to employ his genius and his popularity in the deliverance of their common country. His unfailing sagacity saw in him a rising general, who should be at once Democratic and patriotic, – the readiest possible instrument of harmonizing the North, unifying the sentiment of the army, crushing the rebellion, and restoring the Union.”37

But McClellan’s plans were not going well in early 1862. The scheme to build a pontoon bridge over the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry went awry. “This plan had a particular attraction to Lincoln because, in addition to the element of surprise and safety, it involved something to which he could personally relate, which was the construction and utilization of canal boats,” wrote Lincoln scholar Robert Havlik in the Lincoln Herald. The problem was that the pontoon boats were built too large to pass through canal locks on the way to the Harpers Ferry site. “When the operation ultimately failed, by what first appeared to be a stupid construction mistake, McClellan tried a cover-up, counting on the sympathy of Secretary of War Stanton to plead his case for the Peninsula Campaign, a plan which he could control at his own plodding pace. While the failure of the operation has been frequently blamed upon McClellan’s ineptness, there is strong evidence that McClellan used devious tactics to thwart Lincoln.”38

Historian Richard N. Current wrote: “Having put McClellan in supreme command, Lincoln might well have given him a fair, unfettered chance, but the President could not close his ears to the harping of the Radicals. For months he wavered between the self-interested badgering of the politicians and the professional advice of his general in chief.” 39 However, it wasn’t until early March that McClellan revealed his strategy. President Lincoln was privately skeptical but publicly supportive of McClellan’s plans to shift the Army of the Potomac from the Potomac to the Virginia Peninsula between the James and York Rivers. According to Congressman Kelley, “Without letting any of his friends know where or when the movement was to occur, the President said confidentially that a grateful surprise was preparing for the country, the success of which would restore McClellan to popular confidence. When on one occasion the statement was received with incredulity, he said, with a good-natured smile: ‘But McClellan has, in this case, left himself without a loop-hole through which to escape, for he has said to both Stanton and myself: “If this move fails, I will have nobody to blame but myself.” 40 President Lincoln ordered that enough troops be left behind to protect the nation’s capital – which McClellan would eventually blame for the failure of his strategy.

McClellan finally got his Army underway on April 1, moving it by sea down to the Jamestown peninsula. McClellan was slow – criminally slow in the view of Republican radicals and unacceptably slow in the opinion of President Lincoln. John Hay wrote John Nicolay: ‘…the little Napoleon sits trembling before the handful of men at Yorktown afraid either to fight or run. Stanton feels devilish about it. He would like to remove him if he thought it would do.” 41 Historian John Y. Simon observed that Confederate General “John B. Magruder, commanding 10,000 men confronting an army ten times larger, moved his troops from point to point to simulate a larger army and displayed logs painted black to resemble cannons. Completely fooled, McClellan looked on fearfully while Confederates assembled forces from elsewhere in Virginia. To Lincoln’s dismay, McClellan ordered heavy artillery to shell what he believed to be formidable lines. McClellan’s sound military training and considerable talent were buried under a paralyzing cloud of fear.”42

“From the beginning to the end of the siege of Yorktown, his dispatches were one incessant cry for men and guns,” wrote John G. Nicolay and John Hay. 43 No friends of McClellan, the former Lincoln aides wrote: “The simple truth is, there was never an hour during General McClellan’s command of the army that he had not more troops than he knew what to do with; yet he was always instinctively calling for me.”44 Commenting on President Lincoln’s letter of April 9, 1862, Nicolay and Hay wrote that he answered McClellan “with as much consideration and kindness as a father would use toward a querulous and petulant child.” 45 Mr. Lincoln began one letter: “Your dispatches complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much.”46 President Lincoln was responding to McClellan’s requests that the corps commanded by General Irwin McDowell be sent to the Peninsula rather than reserved to protect Washington.

The story was told that President Lincoln said to some colleagues: “General McClellan’s tardiness and unwillingness to fight the enemy or follow up advantages gained, reminds me of a man back in Illinois who knew a few law phrases but whose lawyer lacked aggressiveness. The man finally lost all patience and springing to his feet vociferated, ‘Why don’t you go at him with a fi. fa., a demurrer, a capias, a surrebutter, or a ne exeat, or something; or a nundam pactum or a non est?’ I wish McClellan would go at the enemy with something – I don’t care what. General McClellan is a pleasant and scholarly gentleman. He is an admirable engineer, but he seems to have a special talent for a stationary engine.”47

Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote: “McClellan had nearly all of the gifts: youth, energy, charm, intelligence, sound professional training. But the fates who gave him these gifts left out the one that a general must have before all others – the hard, instinctive fondness for fighting. Robert E. Lee was one of the most pugnacious soldiers in American history, and McClellan himself did not like to fight. He could not impose his will on the man who stood opposite him. He was leading an offensive thrust that had taken him to the suburbs of the southern capital, yet it was just a question of time before the initiative would be taken away from him.”48 Plagued by a “siege mentality” of warfare, McClellan had a habit of overestimating the Confederate forces he faced and underestimating his ability to move expeditiously against them, but he was a workaholic and superb organizer who had the unquestioned loyalty of his troops.

The general felt the displeasure back in Washington. McClellan wrote Ellen in a mood of depression: “I feel that fate of a nation depends upon me, & I feel that I have not one single friend at the seat of Govt – any day may bring an order relieving me from command – if such a thing should be done our cause is lost.”49 He didn’t do anything to make friends. McClellan’s personality required constant praise and reenforcement. He persisted in overestimating the enemy and underestimating the President. He compensated for his lack of dispatch on the battlefield with his impudence in dispatches after the battle. McClellan was defeated in the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862). After his defeat in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, General George B. McClellan wrote his superiors in Washington: “I again repeat that I am not responsible for this & I say it with the earnestness of a General who feels in his heart the loss of every brave man who has been needlessly sacrificed today… I have seen too many dead & wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Govt has not sustained this Army. If you do not do so now the game is lost. 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.” The comments were so insubordinate that telegraph operators deleted the offending remarks from the transcript they delivered to Secretary of War Stanton and President Lincoln.50

Later in 1862, the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated McClellan’s leadership during the Peninsula campaign. Historian Bruce Tap noted: “Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman, for instance, castigated McClellan for laying siege to Yorktown, making a less than vigorous pursuit of the Confederate army after the battle of Williamsburg, and for failing to counterattack the Confederate right after the battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. An even more shocking revelation, which has been confirmed by Stephen Sears, was McClellan’s absence from the field of battle during major engagements and a predisposition to allow subordinates to make crucial decisions on the battlefield. ‘Was the Seven days’ battle fought under the direction and orders of General McClellan,’ asked Gooch, ‘or did each corps commander fight his own troops as he thought best?’ Heintzelman replied, ‘The corps commanders fought their troops entirely according to their own ideas.’ Heintzelman’s verdict on the Peninsula campaign was echoed by generals Erasmus D. Keyes, Edwin v. Sumner, John G. Barnard, Silas Casey, and the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Joseph Hooker, who testified that the failure of the Peninsular campaign was due to ‘the want of generalship on the part of our commander.”51

Ethan Rafuse wrote that “by July 1862, McClellan’s carefully reasoned methods and decisions – although eminently sound from an operational standpoint – had consumed so much time and resources that only a decisive and unambiguous victory and the capture of Richmond could have assured the Northern public that it had been correct to go along with his operational approach and refrain from conducting a hard war against the rebels. The change of base to the James River did not and could not.”52 Historian Mark Grimsley wrote: “Instead of advancing triumphantly into the Confederate capital, McClellan’s army came under a rain of hammer blows from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. By the beginning of July, McClellan had abandoned his offensive and withdrawn his army into a string of hastily dug entrenchments along the banks of the James River.”53

Historian Thomas J. Goss wrote: “Worse for his longevity in the Union high command, the ‘Young Napoleon’ was never reluctant to express his opinions and rebuff Lincoln’s effort to align their contrasting views on the war’s conduct. That McClellan had a coherent, though flawed, view of the war was most clearly outlined in his famed Harrison’s Landing letter.”54 That letter, which General McClellan handed to President Lincoln when he visited the army headquarters on July 8, contained the general’s presumptuous advice on how to conduct the war. Lincoln biographer Richard J. Carwardine wrote: “Lincoln pointedly refrained from any response, save cool silence, and so gave eloquent indication of what he had in mind.”55 Unfortunately, McClellan understood how to generate loyalty only from below his authority, not from above himself. The animosity of his key generals to General Pope contributed to the second Union defeat at Bull Run at the end of August, 1862 .

Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr., noted that McClellan was demonized both in the northern press and in Congress, where Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler took the lead: “Soon after the failure of the Peninsular Campaign, Chandler began devising a well-documented destruction of McClellan’s reputation. The senator had access to the confidential testimony before the Join Committee on the Conduct of the War, of which he was a member and which had recently voted to allow public use of its testimony. On July 16, 1862, Chandler attacked McClellan in a long speech in the Senate.” Neely noted that “Republicans made time for the speech, for they needed to get it on the congressional record before the recess to go home and campaign in the autumn elections. Then it could be printed at the Government Printing Office and circulated at federal expense, through the franking privilege, for partisan electioneering purposes.”56

President Lincoln opened an alternative front against the Confederates in Virginia by appointing Illinoisan John Pope as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac in July. In August, McClellan was ordered to abandon the Peninsula and return his troops to the Washington area. McClellan had squandered his opportunity. General John Pope in turn squandered his own military chances and was badly defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 28-30, 1862 – in part because McClellan failed to help him or encourage his former subordinates to hasten to Pope’s aid. In the subsequent panic to defend Washington, President Lincoln turned again to McClellan to organize the city’s defense. McClellan later claimed that the President asked whether the general “would, under the circumstances, as a favor to him, resume command and do the best that could be done.”57 Historian Matthew Pinsker wrote: “By mid-afternoon, the once disgraced commander was back in full Napoleonic form. Riding around the capital’s fortifications, he fired off orders, energized the troops, and steadily regained control of the chaos. Eager to impress the commander in chief with his newfound fortitude, McClellan paused at three o’clock to scribble an update on his progress. He wrote that his staff was ‘examining everything’ about the city’s works and that reinforcements were ‘rapidly disembarking.’ He continued to express concern, however, about the potential for a frontal assault on the capital. ‘I am about riding to the front,’ he informed the president, ‘& as I am anxious about the Chain Bridge will return that way,’ noting that he would ‘endeavor to pass by the Soldiers Home to report to you the state of affairs unless called elsewhere.’ ‘I am still confident,’ he concluded, ‘altho’ I fully appreciate the magnitude of the task committed to me.'”58

Historian Winston Churchill was more sympathetic to McClellan: “Ill-treatment was meted out to General McClellan, by the Washington politicians and Cabinet, with the cautious, pliant General Halleck as their tool. For this Lincoln cannot escape blame. He wanted an aggressive General who would energetically seek out Lee and beat him. McClellan for all his qualities of leadership lacked the final ounces of fighting spirit. Lincoln with his shrewd judgment of men knew this. But he also knew that McClellan was probably the ablest commander available to him. His instinct had been to stand by his chosen General. Instead he had yielded to political outcry. He had swapped horses in mid-stream. He found he had got a poorer mount. As the different corps of McClellan’s army were landed at Aquia they were hurried off to join Pope, until McClellan had not even his own personal escort with him.”59

Many in Washington, including a majority of Mr. Lincoln’s cabinet, were unhappy with McClellan’s return to command. John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: “In the [cabinet] meeting of 2d of September, when the President announced that he had placed McClellan in command of the forces in Washington, he was met by an outbreak of protest and criticism from the leading members of the Government which might well have shaken the nerves of any ruler. But the President stood manfully by his action. He admitted the infirmities of McClellan, his lack of energy and initiative, but for this exigency he considered him the best man in the service, and the country must have the benefit of his talents, although he had behaved badly. We need not refer again to the magnanimity with which the President had overlooked the insolent dispatches of General McClellan from Savage’s Station and Harrison’s Bar. He closed his ears persistently during all the months of the winter and spring to the stories which came to him from every quarter in regard to the tone of factious hostility to himself which prevailed at McClellan’s headquarters.”60

The relationship between the President and the general was a constant struggle. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard recalled being accosted at his desk shortly before the Battle of Antietam in September: “Leave that and come with me. I am going over McClellan’s house,” the President told him. What followed was a case study in McClellan’s disrespect of President Lincoln and Lincoln’s mastery of the man. Stoddard recalled their visit to McClellan’s Washington headquarters on the far side of Lafayette Park:

“I arose at once, but did so without any reply whatever, for there was something Mr. Lincoln’s voice and manner that seemed to forbid any remarks on my part. He was arrayed in a black frock uniform. Down we went and out, and the distance to be traveled was not long. He did not utter one word nor did I, for I was strongly impressed with the fact that there was something on his mind. All the while a kind of rebellious feeling was growing within me, for I inwardly growled because the President ought to have sent for his subordinate, commanding him to come, instead of going to call upon him.”
“The house was reached and we were shown into a well-furnished front parlor with the usual fireplace and mantel and a center table. I went over to the right and sat down in a chair, but the President took a seat in the middle of the room. He was calm, steady, even smiling, but in half a minute there was no room there at all. Only Abraham Lincoln filling the place brimful. Our names had been carried upstairs, I knew, but long minutes went by and I felt the hot blood surging into my cheeks hotter and hotter with every moment of what seemed to me a disrespectful waiting-time. Not so the great man over there beyond the table, for he was as cool and solid as ice. Then – for the hall door was open – a kind of jingle, and slow, descending footsteps were heard from the stairs. It was the great general himself, in full uniform, followed by his chief of staff, General [Randolph] Marcy, and an army colonel. In dress uniform with their swords they were a brilliant trio. General McClellan may have thought that he had come downstairs to receive the President formally and impressively, but he was altogether mistaken. He entered that parlor to be received there, very kindly, by President Abraham Lincoln, who somehow had taken possession and was the only man in the room.”
“The conference began almost immediately, for a kind of report of the situation and of plans was plainly called for. It was given, in a masterly way, by McClellan. He was a man of nerve strength, and I admired him as he went on into what was made more and more evidently a grand wrestling-match, with the control of the armies for the prize; also the future control of the political situation or field and the next Presidency of the United States. That important point was really settled before the match was over – for it was a long one. Lincoln listened well and he said little, at first. Then a word at a time, he began to open, expanding visibly as he went on, and the match became intensely interesting. Grapple after grapple, tug, strain – down you go! Perfect accord, perfect good-will, perfect good manners, not a trace of excitement on either side. There was, in fact, a mutual yielding of many points under discussion, but at the end of it they had all been surrendered by General McClellan, with the courteous assistance of his handsome and capable chief of staff, General March. Silence was my stronghold, and I held it tenaciously. A close came, and Mr. Lincoln and I were ceremoniously shown to the door. The parlor we left behind us was still, to my mind, full of Mr. Lincoln, although he had walked out. Never before had I so fully appreciated the human will in its greatest power.”61

With the aid of a copy of General Robert E. Lee’s battle plan, General McClellan’s army was able to hold his own at Antietam on September 17, 1862. After reading the lost orders, McClellan vacillated. Biographer Sears wrote that “the afternoon hours of September 13 passed without a decision, and finally he ordered these movements to begin only the next day. Issuing those orders at noon that day instead of in the evening would have required George McClellan to step out of character, which he had demonstrated repeatedly he was incapable of doing….He reacted as he had before Richmond in June: realizing it was now his decisions that would shape events and decide the fate of the nation, and borne down by the added responsibility, he became more sensitive to risk than ever. The battle’s outcome might be predestined — he told Ellen the next day that he was as confident as one could be ‘who trusts in a higher power & does not know what its decision will be ‘ — but in approaching battle he must weigh each possibility and every consequence with extra care before acting.62

In the weeks following the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln grew frustrated with McClellan’s inability to follow up the victory. In early October, President Lincoln paid an extended visit to the Union army in Maryland. As McClellan recalled it, President Lincoln said “that he was fully satisfied with my whole course from the beginning; that the only fault he could possibly find was that I was perhaps too prone to be sure that everything was ready before acting, but that my actions were all right when I started…that he regarded me as the only general in the service capable of organizing, and commanding a large army, and that he would stand by me…”63 Historian Stephen R. Taaffe wrote that during this visit, President Lincoln “pledged to protect McClellan from his domestic political enemies, there were plenty of signs in the following weeks that the president’s continued support depended upon McClellan’s aggressive prosecution of the war. A few days later, Lincoln peremptorily ordered the Army of the Potomac to advance, but McClellan responded with his usual litany of excuses. On 13 October, Lincoln admonished McClellan for his excessive timidity in a private letter designed to spur him on, but this tactic proved no more fruitful than his more direct approach the previous weeks. Instead, McClellan continued to demand more equipment, supplies, and men.”64

Illinois Secretary of State Ozias M. Hatch recalled accompanying President Lincoln to General McClellan’s encampment near Antietam “Early next morning,” Hatch later reported, “I was awakened by Mr. Lincoln. It was very early – daylight was just lighting the east – the soldiers were all asleep in their tents. Scarce a sound could be heard except the notes of early birds, and the farm-yard voices from distant farms. Lincoln said to me, ‘Come, Hatch, I want you to take a walk with me.’ His tone was serious and impressive. I arose without a word, and as soon as we were dressed we left the tent together. He led me about the camp, and then we walked upon the surrounding hills overlooking the great city of white tents and sleeping soldiers. Very little was spoken between us, beyond a few words as to the pleasantness of the morning or similar casual observations. Lincoln seemed to be peculiarly serious, and his quiet, abstract way affected me also. It did not seem a time to speak. We walked slowly and quietly, meeting here and there a guard, our thoughts leading us to reflect on that wonderful situation. A nation in peril – the whole world looking at America – million men in arms – the whole machinery of war engaged throughout the country, while I stood by that kind-hearted, simple-minded man who might be regarded as the Director-General, looking at the beautiful sunrise and the magnificent scene before us. Nothing was to be said, nothing needed to be said. Finally, reaching a commanding point where almost that entire camp could be seen – the men were just beginning their morning duties, and evidences of life and activity were becoming apparent – we involuntarily stopped. The President, waving his hand towards the scene before us, and leaning towards me, said in an almost whispering voice: ‘Hatch – Hatch, what is all this?’ ‘Why, Mr. Lincoln ,’ said I, ‘this is the Army of the Potomac.’ He hesitated a moment, and then, straightening up, said in a louder tone: ‘No, Hatch, no. This is General McClellan’s body-guard.’ Nothing more was said. We walked to our tent, and the subject was not alluded to again.”65

Rafuse conceded that McClellan failed to act aggressively in the wake of Antietam. He wrote that “the same rationalist mindset that enabled McClellan to fashion this opportunity also led him to make decisions at Antietam that, though well-reasoned, led him to miss a great chance to destroy Lee’s army. George Meade was clearly correct when he mused after Antietam that McClellan’s generalship would have benefited from ‘a little more rashness.'”66 Historian Stephen R. Taafe wrote: “As evidence began to accumulate that his days as Army of the Potomac commander were numbered, McClellan sought to cut a deal with the Lincoln administration that would enable him to retain some role in the war. On 7 October, McClellan asked Cochrane to sound out Salmon Chase to see if he would support a campaign to promote him to general in chief. McClellan wanted Cochrane to inform Chase that they were really not that far apart on the slavery issue and that as general in chief he could rally War Democrats to Lincoln’s banner.”67 Nothing came of McClellan’s scheme, however.

Biographer Sears was more critical of the general, writing that McClellan “told Ellen on October 2 that his men were still ‘completely tired out’ and that the troops formerly in Pope’s army remained demoralized and ought not to be made to fight again for some time yet. ‘The real truth is that my army is not fit to advance… These people don’t know what an army requires & therefore act stupidly…’ Lincoln seems to have sensed this stubborn intransigence…'” 68 Two years later, Mr. Lincoln himself recalled: “After the battle of Antietam, I went up to the field to try to get him to move & came back thinking he would move at once. But when I got home he began to argue why he ought not to move. I peremptorily ordered him to advance. It was 19 days before he put a man over the [Potomac] river. It was 9 days longer before he got his army across and then he stopped again, delaying on little pretexts of wanting this and that. I began to fear he was playing false – that he did not want to hurt the enemy. I saw how he could intercept the enemy on the way to Richmond. I determined to make that the test. If he let them get away I would remove him. He did so & I relieved him.”69 In the fall of 1862, Mr. Lincoln told Stoddard: “Well, well, I will say it: for organizing an army, for preparing an army for the field, for fighting a defensive campaign, I will back General McClellan against any general of modern times. I don’t know but of ancient times, either. But I begin to believe that he will never get ready to go forward.”70 President Lincoln’s impatience should have been overwhelmingly obvious to McClellan. At one point in October, the President telegraphed McClellan: “I have just received your dispatch about sore tongued and fatiegued [sic] horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”71

By the end of October, President Lincoln’s patience with McClellan was at an end. After three Pennsylvania congressmen separately came to his office to complain about McClellan, President Lincoln told one of them, Philadelphia’s William D. Kelley, “that McClellan, by incessant, and frequently unfounded, complaints which were calculated to impair their confidence in his superiors, the President and Secretary of War, had done much to destroy the morale of his troops, and that he had wantonly sacrificed Pope; and said that to entrust to him the rescue of the army from its demoralization was a good deal like ‘curing the bite with the hair of the dog.’ He said he regarded his position at the time of McClellan’s restoration as a striking and noteworthy illustration of the dangers to which Republican institutions were subjected by wars of such magnitude as might produce ambitious and rival commanders; for it must be admitted that the civil power of the Government was then subordinate to the military, and though he acted as Commander-in-Chief, he found himself in that season of insubordination, panic, and general demoralization consciously under military duress. McClellan even while fighting battles which should produce no result but the expenditure of men and means, had contrived to keep the troops with him, and by charging each new failure to some alleged dereliction of the Secretary of War and President, had created an impression among them that the administration was hostile to him, and withheld vital elements of success that should have been accorded to him, and which, in some instances, he falsely represented as having been promised. He said, with much deliberation, that he believed the restoration to command of McClellan, Porter, and other of his chiefs, in the face of the treasonable misconduct of which they had been so flagrantly guilty in the sacrifice of Pope’s army, was the greatest trial and most painful duty of his official life. Yet, situated as he was, it seemed to be his duty, and in opposition to every member of his Cabinet he performed it, and felt no regret for what he had done.”72

According to Congressmen Kelley, the President then said: “I am now…stronger with the Army of the Potomac than McClellan. The supremacy of the civil power has been restored, and the Executive is again master of the situation. The troops know, that if I made a mistake in substituting Pope for McClellan, I was capable of rectifying it by again trusting him. They know, too, that neither Stanton nor I withheld any thing from him at Antietam, and that it was not the administration, but their own former idol, who surrendered the just results of their terrible sacrifices and closed the great fight as a drawn battle, when, had he thrown Porter’s corps of fresh men and other available troops upon Lee’s army, he would inevitably have driven it in disorder to the river and captured most of it before sunset.”73 An old Whig friend from Illinois visited Mr. Lincoln in the White House around this time. He recalled: “It was known that he had about made up his mind that McClellan would have to be removed. He didn’t tell me so, but I was led to infer it from the fact that our conversation turned upon the skill and qualities of the various Generals in the field.” Mr. Lincoln remarked: “Now there’s Joe Hooker – he can fight – I think that point is pretty well established – but whether he can ‘keep tavern’ for a large army is not so sure.”74

Nevertheless, wrote Lincoln friend Judge David Davis at the time: “Mr. Lincoln was the last man to yield to the necessity of McClellan’s removal. He wished to give him every chance. Halleck, after McClellan disobeyed the orders of the 1st and 6th of October, insisted on his removal. If Mr. Lincoln had not become fully satisfied that McClellan never w[oul]d end the war he w[oul]d not remove him. Good men all over the East believe him to be a moral coward. Indecision & slowness of movements are his faults. Mr. Lincoln when he went to Antietam told him that w[oul]d be a ruined man if the did not move forward, move rapidly & effectually.”75

McClellan still had his defenders. In early November 1862, Francis P. Blair, Sr., tried to prevent President Lincoln from dismissing General George B. McClellan “The evening before the order appeared, finally relieving me of the command of the Army of the Potomac…The elder Frank Blair drove to the Soldiers’ Home to dissuade the President from relieving me, rumors being current that such a thing was in contemplation. After a long conversation, Mr. Blair left with the distinct understanding that I was not to be relieved. Next morning the order appeared in the papers, and when Mr. Blair met the President in the course of the day the latter said: ‘Well, Mr. Blair, I was obliged to play shut-pan with you last night.'” 76 Blair biographer William Earnest Smith wrote: “The press, the public, Congress, and a portion of the Cabinet forced the hand of President. On November 5, he signed the order for the release of McClellan. The elder Blair rode into the city and had a long talk with the President ‘in his solitude’ on the night of the sixth.” On November 7, Blair wrote to Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, his son:

“The torpidity of McClellan, will I fear prove fatal to him & our cause – I urged on the Prest. Mc’s late success and the armys devotion to him. The difficulty of finding any other capable of wielding so great a force & to be trusted with working so complicated a machine under increased difficulties impending. His answer was that ‘he had tried long enough to bore with an auger too dull to take hold.’—”
“I represented to him, the probable effect of superseding Mc & yielding to the pressure which it is known looked to succeed through the fasts process of Pope, McDowell &c. Their catastrophe ought to be a warning. Yielding again to the ultras who seek to accomplish our purposes by unusual & extravagant means would give countenance to the charges of late triumph & consequently hold on the public mind – If on the contrary, Mc could be pushed on in the line he has taken & compelled to make a winter campaign, if successful the Democrats in Congress who are in heart on the side of Oligarchy & the South, – would be compelled to make war on him, & he would be compelled to take sides with the President bringing to his support in Congress the real war Democrats, while those who would resuscitate that party to carry the next Presidency, would necessarily take an antiMcClellan man for their candidate – whereas if Mc should fail as a general, he would fail on their conclusive policy and as the chief of that party they would fail with him -”
“In every aspect in which I can view it, the cause I think would be best served by retaining Mc at least until he makes a failure if that cannot be averted & not change him for an untried man while the Laurels of South Mountain & Antietam are fresh.”

Historian William Earnest Smith concluded: “The interview was a long one. Lincoln listened attentively, for he trusted Blair more than any other man with as much political experience. Finally he rose, stretched his legs and arms, and closed the conference by saying: ‘I said I would remove him if he let Lee’s army get away from him, and I must do so. He has got the ‘slows,’ Mr. Blair.’ McClellan, without the movement of a muscle of his face, received the notice of his dismissal in the presence of his successor, General A.E. Burnside.”77

General Burnside’s appointment to replace McClellan came shortly after the November elections, which went badly for President Lincoln and the Republican Party. Presidential aide John G. Nicolay wrote his fiancee after McClellan was dismissed: “It is barely possible that the secession element of the Democratic party will endeavor to make him a leader of an opposition movement and party; but I think his popularity is too fictitious for that. He has been made a hero by a most vigorous and persistent system of puffing in the newspapers. I do not know that he has instigated this; but he could hardly help knowing that his friends and hangers-on were doing it, and that too always in connection with an attack on somebody else. He should not have permitted this. During his country’s peril every man should avoid even the imputation of selfishness. If any man ever had reason to be not only unselfish, but humbly grateful, to the Administration and to the country, it was McClellan; they have given him position, power, confidence and opportunity without stint. He has illy repaid the generosity.”78

McClellan, although still a general on active duty, was given no new command. Ethan Rafuse wrote: “Within a few days, McClellan had come to the realization that the Lincoln administration had no intention of giving him an important command if it could possibly help it. Although officers and soldiers in the Army of the Potomac often pined for his return to active command, even humiliating defeats at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and a second rebel invasion of the North could not induce Lincoln to consider gratifying McClellan’s deep wish to return to command of ‘his army.'”79 Most but not all Republicans opposed a new appointment for the “Little Napoleon.” In early July 1863 as the Battle of Gettysburg was beginning, New York Senator Edwin M. Morgan wrote President Lincoln: “In view of the impending battle I am sure you have considered the question of strengthening Genl Meade from the force under Genl. [John A.] Dixen. [sic] There is another matter that you probably have not considered. Viz Placing Genl McClellan in command at Elmira N. Y. with the approval of Governor Seymour with authority to gather thirty thousand troops. Genl McClellans popularity with the soldiers will enable him to enroll nearly all the returned Soldiers and Elmira is an important Military post. I pray you consider this.”80

McClellan busied himself with writing a report of his command. But he came under increasing pressure from Democrats to become politically active in opposition to President Lincoln. In mid-October 1863, McClellan endorsed a Copperhead Democrat, Judge George W. Woodward, for Governor of Pennsylvania. “This avowal of absolute accord with Judge Woodward was accepted in political circles as a pregnant fact,” wrote William D. Kelley. 81 An Ohio Democratic Congressman admitted to one of President Lincoln’s aides two months later that McClellan “is our best ticket. He lost some prestige by his Woodward letter. But it was necessary. He never could have gotten the nomination without it.”82

Some pressure was put on President Lincoln again during the summer of 1864 to return McClellan to command. John Hay wrote in his diary: “Earnest and distinguished democrats, and some republicans in whom he had confidence, now advised and urged upon the president the reinstatement of McClellan. They gave as a reason that he was a man of intelligence and culture superior to Grant’s, and that this movement would annihilate the peace party, utterly defeat the democrats, and break down the democratic organization.”83 Historian Larry T. Balsamo wrote; “Mainstream Democrats shared McClellan’s desire to preserve the Union as it was and maintain the constitution without change. He was very uneasy with the Emancipation Proclamation and he opposed any further attempts to alter southern institutions and most Democrats agreed with his views. Democrats, including McClellan, opposed any further increase in the powers of the Federal Government. George B. McClellan and an ever increasing number of Democrats not only opposed Lincoln and his policies, but also held the President and his advisers in high contempt.” 84

“To his followers, McClellan was a prophet in 1864, wrote historian Richard Striner “Had he not, after all, taken steps to avoid needless bloodshed when he was in command? Had he not advised Lincoln to resist the abolitionists and keep this a war for only?” 85 But McClellan was not sufficiently pro-peace for Copperhead Democrats who rammed through a peace platform at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and put Peace Democrat George Pendleton on the ticket as McClellan’s running mate. The Democrats were victims of spectacularly bad timing since as soon as they adjourned, General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta and optimism about the war surged. Historian Mark E. Neely, Jr., noted “Had their nominating convention come only a day or two later, the Democrats would have felt the same momentum of military events that others did. And instead of hedging their bets with a war candidate and a peace platform, they would surely have bet on the winning horse and run their war candidate on a war platform.”86

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles later wrote: “General McClellan, whom the Democrats nominated as their candidate for president, had the sagacity to see that the party managers at Chicago had been carried away by the vituperative harangues and inflammatory declamations of superficial and disunion speakers; he nevertheless accepted the nomination.” 87 McClellan’s acceptance letter was the high point of the campaign, though it angered Peace Democrats. McClellan used his pen to some advantage for the rest of the campaign but avoided personal involvement. He made only two campaign appearances. Indeed, McClellan proved as difficult a candidate as he had been a general – insisting upon remaining aloof from the campaign.. He told a friend not to send any politicians to visit with him, threatening to “snub” them. In politics as in war, McClellan played the role of isolated martyr.

The Democratic strategy for 1864 was flawed, according to historian Mark E. Neely, Jr.: “McClellan was one in a long line of military hero candidates, generals who stood for nothing, nominated in order not to divide the party’s followers over issues. Lincoln and the Whigs back in 1848 had used a similar gambit: nominating a popular war her, Zachary Taylor, to capitalize on military glory gained in a war instigated by the Democrats. It worked for the Whigs, but in 1864 the scheme failed when McClellan’s military reputation emerged in the canvass not as the Democrat’s refuge and glory but as part of their political problem. Republicans demolished the Democrats’ major campaign offering, McClellan’s official and long-awaited report of his campaigns.”88

Pennsylvania Republican leader Alexander K. McClure recalled: “I saw Lincoln many times during the campaign of 1864, when McClellan was his competitor for the Presidency. I never heard him speak of McClellan in any other than terms of the highest personal respect and kindness. He never doubted McClellan’s loyalty to the government or to the cause that called him to high military command. But he did believe, until after the capture of Atlanta by Sherman and Sheridan’s victories in the Valley, which settled the political campaign in favor of Lincoln, that McClellan was quite likely to be elected over him, and that if elected, with all his patriotism and loyalty to the Union, he would be powerless to prevent the dissolution of the Republic.” 89 However, when a Congregational minister visited the White House and commented on the time McClellan was taking in composing his letter of acceptance, President Lincoln slyly observed: “I think he must be entrenching.”90

What really killed McClellan’s candidacy, however, was Union army victories in the summer and fall. Union soldiers voted for their commander-in-chief, not their former commander. Former presidential aide William O. Stoddard visited the White House about the time of the election and later wrote a newspaper report: “We have the news that the reelection of ABRAHAM LINCOLN is a finality, if that word will express my meaning; and the staunchest rebels are slowly beginning to comprehend that by this the door of hope is forever closed upon them. The doom of the Confederacy is thereby sealed, and the great stone of Lincoln’s known policy is rolled across the mouth of the grave where it is buried, nor will any angels ever come to roll it away. Now that the future promises no compromise, and the whole North has again declared its intention to fight this fight out to the bitter end, the dullest and the bitterest are able to see clearly what that end must and will be.”91 By a 3-to-1 margin, soldiers who voted in the field rejected their former commander and supported their commander-in-chief. While the war continued, General McClellan sailed off for Europe.


  1. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, pp. 63-64.
  2. Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, p. 75.
  3. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 201-202 (Lawrence Weldon).
  4. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, pp. 142-143.
  5. William C. Davis, Lincoln’s Men, p. 61.
  6. Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, pp. 21-22 (August 19, 1861).
  7. Stephen W. Sears, editor, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865, p. 70 (Letter from George B. McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, July 27, 1861).
  8. Richard Striner, Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery, p. 145.
  9. Joseph Glatthaar, Partners in Command, pp. 57, 60.
  10. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 29 (October 26, 1861).
  11. Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, p. 5.
  12. Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows , p. 140.
  13. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, p. xii.
  14. Mark E. Nelly, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North, p. 81.
  15. Kenneth P. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General, Volume II, p. 479.
  16. Michael Burlingame, “Nicolay and Hay: Court Historians”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 1998, p. 3 (Letter from John Hay to John G. Nicolay, August 10, 1885).
  17. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, p. xi.
  18. Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, p. 5.
  19. Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, p. 2.
  20. Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, p. 1.
  21. Thomas J. Goss, The War Within the Union High Command, p. 54.
  22. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume V, p. 362.
  23. Timothy D. Johnson, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory, pp. 230-231.
  24. James A. Rawley, Abraham Lincoln and a Nation Worth Fighting For, p. 67.
  25. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, p. 110.
  26. Ethan S. Rafuse, “Typhoid and Tumult: Lincoln’s Response to General McClellan’s Bout with Typhoid Fever during the Winter of 1861-62,”Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2003, p. 5 .
  27. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, November 2, 1861, pp. 128-129.
  28. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 379.
  29. Joseph T. Glatthaar, Partners in Command, p. 65.
  30. Montgomery C. Meigs, “The Relations of President Lincoln and Secretary Stanton to the Military Commanders in the Civil War”, American Historical Review, Volume XXVI, pp. 292-293.
  31. Ethan S. Rafuse, “Typhoid and Tumult: Lincoln’s Response to General McClellan’s Bout with Typhoid Fever during the Winter of 1861-62”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2003, p. 9.
  32. Ethan S. Rafuse, “Typhoid and Tumult: Lincoln’s Response to General McClellan’s Bout with Typhoid Fever during the Winter of 1861-62” , Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2003, p. 16.
  33. Frank Abial Flower, Edwin McMasters Stanton, p. 138.
  34. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, pp. 142-143.
  35. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume V, pp. 168-169.
  36. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847-1865, pp. 202-203.
  37. Robert James Havlik , “‘Lockjaw’: An Early Watergate Coverup”, Lincoln Herald, Summer 2003, p. 55.
  38. Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, p. 141.
  39. William D. Kelley, Lincoln and Stanton: A Study of the War Administration of 1861 and 1862, with Special Consideration of Some Recent Statements of Gen. Geo. B. McClellan, p. 22.
  40. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 20 (Letter from John Hay to John G. Nicolay, April 9, 1862).
  41. John Y. Simon and Michael E. Stevens, editors, New Perspectives on the Civil War, Myths and Realities of the National Conflict, p. 62 (John Y. Simon, “Forging a Commander: Ulysses S. Grant Enters the Civil War”).
  42. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume V, p. 364.
  43. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume V, p. 366.
  44. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume V, p. 362.
  45. CWAL, Volume V (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to George B. McClellan, April 9, 1862), p. 184.
  46. Don Carlos Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 292.
  47. Bruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground, p. 137.
  48. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, p. 181.
  49. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, pp. 213-214.
  50. Bruce Tap, Over Lincoln’s Shoulder, pp.156-157.
  51. Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, p. 394.
  52. Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, p. 67.
  53. Thomas J. Goss, The War Within the Union High Command, p. 155.
  54. Richard J. Carwardine, Lincoln: Profiles in Power, p. 205.
  55. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North, p. 75.
  56. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 313.
  57. Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home, p. 55.
  58. 59

  59. Winston S. Churchill, The Great Democracies, p. 161.
  60. Michael Burlingame, editor, Abraham Lincoln: The Observations of John G. Nicolay and John Hay p. 113 (From John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume VI, p. 185-189).
  61. 61

  62. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln (William Osborn Stoddard, pp. 233-234 (Atlantic Monthly, February-March, 1925).
  63. 62

  64. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, pp. 283-284.
  65. Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editors, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 313.
  66. Stephen R. Taaffe, Commanding the Army of the Potomac, p. 53.
  67. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 529-530.
  68. Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, p. 395.
  69. Stephen R. Taaffe, Commanding the Army of the Potomac, p. 54.
  70. Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, p. 331.
  71. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 232 (September 25, 1864).
  72. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p. 80.
  73. CWAL, Volume V p. 474. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to George B. McClellan, October 25, 1862),
  74. William D. Kelley, Lincoln and Stanton: A Study of the War Administration of 1861 and 1862, with Special Consideration of Some Recent Statements of Gen. Geo. B. McClellan, pp. 73-75.
  75. William D. Kelley, Lincoln and Stanton: A Study of the War Administration of 1861 and 1862, with Special Consideration of Some Recent Statements of Gen. Geo. B. McClellan, p. 75.
  76. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays p. 50 (Conversation with Hon. T. Lyle Dickey, October 20, 1876).
  77. Harry Pratt, editor, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 96.
  78. Don C. Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 313.
  79. William Ernest Smith, The Francis Preston Blair Family in Politics, Volume II, pp. 143-145.
  80. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 91 (Letter from John G. Nicolay to Therena Bates, November 9, 1862).
  81. Ethan S. Rafuse, McClellan’s War, p. 382.
  82. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Edwin D. Morgan to Abraham Lincoln, July 1, 1863),
  83. William D. Kelley, Lincoln and Stanton: A Study of the War Administration of 1861 and 1862, with Special Consideration of Some Recent Statements of Gen. Geo. B. McClellan, p. 62.
  84. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp. 132-133 (December 24, 1863).
  85. Gideon Welles, “Lincoln’s Triumph in 1864,” The Atlantic Monthly, April 1878, p. 459.
  86. Larry T. Balsamo, “‘We Cannot Have Free Government Without Elections’: Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864” , Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2001, p. 188
  87. Richard Striner, Father Abraham: Lincoln’s Relentless Struggle to End Slavery, p. 236.
  88. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North, p. 159.
  89. Gideon Welles, “Lincoln’s Triumph in 1864,” The Atlantic Monthly, April 1878, p. 457.
  90. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North, p. 80.
  91. Alexander K. McClure, Recollections of Half a Century, p. 224.
  92. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North, p. 82.
  93. Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 246 (November 15, 1864).