LINCOLN WOULD TELL JOHN HAY THAT HE WENT TO SHARPSBURG on October 1 to “get [McClellan] to move,” and that it was only afterward that “I began to fear that he was playing false—that he did not want to hurt the enemy.” However, accounts of his visit suggest he brought that suspicion with him. On October 2 Lincoln told Ozias Hatch, a Republican politico and an old friend, that what they saw around them was not the Army of the Potomac: “So it is called, but that is a mistake; it is only McClellan’s bodyguard.”1

Lincoln was accompanied by an entourage, which McClellan and his colleagues contemptuously characterized as a gaggle of Midwestern politicians and political generals. Perhaps that entourage was Lincoln’s bodyguard. But the presence among them of General John A. McClernand was a sign that Lincoln was already moving to counter McClellan’s power as the most prominent and powerful military representative of the Northern Democrats.2

McClernand had been a leader of the Democratic Party in Illinois, like McClellan a staunch supporter of Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln had commissioned him as brigadier general in 1861, along with other prominent Democratic militia officers, to coopt key leaders of the opposition and create a broad Unionist coalition. Lincoln understood McClernand and the Midwestern Democrats he represented. He had spent a political lifetime battling them on the hustings and dealing with them in the legislature, he spoke their language and understood their concerns, and between them enmity was balanced by mutual respect. McClernand and his fellow westerners had a history of bitter intraparty battles with their Southern counterparts and were inclined to want the South punished for its misdeeds. This was not at all the case with McClellan and his backers among the New York financial elite, whose interests and prewar allegiances made them more willing to conciliate the Cotton South. Lincoln and McClernand were then negotiating a deal, under which McClernand would use his popularity with Democratic voters to stage a massive recruiting drive in Illinois and Indiana in exchange for a major general’s commission and promise of an independent command within Grant’s theater. This was a bad idea militarily. But it was a political coup of considerable importance to have McClernand promoting the war among his constituents after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. It discredited the claim, made by McClellan and his New York backers, that emancipation would “dissolve our present armies” and wreck the war effort. It diminished or at least offset McClellan’s standing as the chief military representative of the Democratic opposition, and aligned a substantial body of War Democrats behind the president and his policy.3

LINCOLN ARRIVED BY TRAIN at Harpers Ferry, and with McClellan and their entourages they viewed the battered town from the picturesque vantage points of Maryland and Loudon Heights. Then they rode north to the Antietam battlefield, where the dead men were all buried and the dead livestock buried or burned, for a review of the troops. The weather was splendid, a fine early autumn day in the hills of western Maryland. But McClellan and many of his officers found Lincoln’s attitude chilly and even hostile. Some thought he behaved with studied rudeness toward McClellan, and even toward the troops assembled for his review—riding “along the lines at a quick trot, taking little notice of the troops. . . . Not a word of approval, not even a smile of approbation.” On the other hand, generals like Alpheus Williams of XII Corps, who were not part of McClellan’s circle, found Lincoln affable and easy to talk with. Lincoln spent the night and most of October 3 with Burnside and Cox, who thought the president took real pleasure in reviewing the troops and found him appreciative of the army’s sacrifice and achievement at Antietam.

There is no necessary contradiction between these accounts. Lincoln was a consummate actor when he needed to be, and it may be that on this occasion he was making an open display of his annoyance with McClellan and his followers, and of his willingness to befriend and favor those who supported him.

McClellan’s officers met Lincoln with suspicion and dislike. Brigadier General John Reynolds, a highly regarded division commander, thought Lincoln was a disgrace to his role, “grinning out of the windows [of his coach] like a baboon.” Fitz-John Porter had written Marble that presidential visits of this kind always presaged some “injury” to McClellan, the army, or the cause, and he feared this one would produce a new and obnoxious “proclamation or war order.” In this instance, as McClellan told his wife, “I incline to think that the real purpose of his visit is to push me into a premature advance into Virginia.” General Meade also saw the president as a threat to McClellan’s good management of the army, but he thought Antietam would make Lincoln think twice “before he interferes with McClellan.”4

On October 3, the president and his general met in McClellan’s tent, out of the bright sun of the warm fall day. They sat on opposite sides of a camp table, and their conversation was private. McClellan seems to have imagined that he himself was behaving with impeccable politeness, but he flattered himself in his ability to conceal his mood or his feelings. Lincoln was an astute and sensitive reader of people, able to gauge individuals by their look and posture, and crowds by their tone or manner. He was certainly aware of the general hostility toward him among McClellan’s officers. He probably found McClellan watchful, suspicious, and slightly sullen—unwilling to speak until the president revealed his agenda.

To soften the mood, Lincoln began by flattering McClellan (“told me he was convinced I was the best general in the country, etc., etc.”) and assuring him that “he does feel very kindly towards me personally.” However, he had indeed come to press on McClellan his always unwelcome advice, that timely action was a necessity, not only for the national cause but for McClellan’s own future as a military commander. Lincoln did so in language that he thought was direct and unequivocal. There were at least two months of good campaigning weather before winter set in, and Lincoln wanted McClellan to use the time to press Lee back hard—to drive him back toward Richmond and if possible destroy his army in battle.

As usual, McClellan heard only what he wished to hear. In a letter to his wife he repeated Lincoln’s compliments and declared his belief that he had persuaded the president “of the great difficulty of the task we had accomplished” and of the obstacles to an immediate offensive.

The following day, October 4, McClellan rode east with Lincoln and his party to the South Mountain passes where the army had fought on September 14. As they parted, William Aspinwall met them, riding up the road from Washington. However, the coincidence was unfortunate for McClellan, because it so clearly exposed the fact that he was in close consultation with the political opposition. McClellan was nevertheless glad to see Aspinwall, as he had been eagerly awaiting word on what party leaders like Barlow and Belmont thought he should do in response to the Emancipation Proclamation. The urgency of their advice was marked by the fact that Aspinwall had come to deliver it personally.5

The party’s advice was not at all what McClellan expected. As McClellan wrote Mary Ellen, “Mr. Aspinwall is decidedly of the opinion that it is my duty to submit to the Presdt’s proclamation & quietly continue doing my duty as a soldier. I presume he is right. . . . I shall surely give his view full consideration.” Like Burnside and Cox, Aspinwall and his colleagues believed that any form of opposition by McClellan to the president’s decree would be perceived as a military “usurpation.” A political party that planned to campaign as the defender of constitutionalism against a quasi-despotic Radical regime could not afford to be associated with so unconstitutional an act. While Democrats had toyed with the idea of a McClellan dictatorship, they had supposed it would be achieved by presidential acquiescence. As politicians, they knew better than McClellan’s staff how little public support a putsch would have, how much democratic ire it would arouse. Why run such risks when the party’s prospects in the fall election, especially in New York, were looking so splendid? Indeed, if the New Yorkers had their way, McClellan would be reconciled with Stanton—who was, as they saw it, an old Buchanan Democrat and potential ally.6

Aspinwall also agreed with Lincoln that McClellan should make an early start to the next offensive campaign. Bennett of the New York Herald believed he was supporting McClellan’s views and interests when, in a series of editorials that began on the eve of Antietam, he called for the general to follow up his victory by destroying Lee’s army or driving it all the way back to Richmond. Even Marble of the World editorialized that for conservative principles to triumph, the army must move vigorously and suppress the rebellion in relatively short order. Only abolitionists preferred a slow military advance that would give the Blacks time to rise in rebellion. In other words, the longer the war, the stronger the Radicals. McClellan now gave up, in principle, his insistence that it was the Radicals who would benefit by a speedy end to the conflict. On October 5, he wrote to Mary Ellen that Aspinwall “is no doubt correct.” But the next day, when Halleck transmitted Lincoln’s order “that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy,” McClellan reverted to his habitual response, that he could not move until he was properly supplied, and when he did move it would not be on the line recommended by Halleck and Lincoln.7

Instead of advancing, and despite the advice he had received from nearly every side—from the Blairs, from Aspinwall, from Generals Burnside, Cox, Cochrane and Smith—McClellan decided he must have his say about the Emancipation Proclamation. He prepared a general order on the subject, which, he believed, carefully avoided explicit opposition to the president while still giving an indication of his disapproval. The order on “the President’s proclamation of September 22d,” issued October 7, said nothing about the subject of the Proclamation—the word “emancipation” is not mentioned. Nevertheless, something in its character makes it necessary for McClellan to lecture officers and men on the “fundamental rule of our political system,” the subordination of the military to the civil authority. The president is the “proper and only” source of orders respecting the policies used to suppress the rebellion and the objects for which the army fights. He warns his men that any speech that goes “beyond temperate and respectful expressions of opinion” will impair the “discipline & efficiency” of the army. However, there was a touch of electioneering implicit in his egregious reminder that “[t]he remedy for political error if any are committed is to be found only in the action of the people at the polls.”8

Although McClellan’s order went beyond what Aspinwall had recommended, the party leaders in New York did not object, because its effects were generally positive. The order was not only hailed by Democratic journals, it was approved even by the Tribune. Jacob Cox thought it was “an honest effort on his part to break through the toils which intriguers had spread for him.” Lincoln might have thought otherwise. Although McClellan’s order was formally supportive of the civil authority, it was also a subtle and rhetorically effective gesture of opposition. Lincoln was not likely to have missed the implicit appeal for voters in the upcoming elections to show their disapproval of emancipation. However, for Lincoln the most disturbing aspect of McClellan’s order was that it was accompanied by his refusal to obey the president’s order to cross the river and attack the enemy. It was at this point that Lincoln “began to fear that he was playing false—that he did not want to hurt the enemy,” and so persisted in “delaying on little pretexts of wanting this and that.” Still, Lincoln hesitated to remove him for political reasons. The firing of so popular a general after he had won so notable a victory would raise a storm of questions about the administration’s motives and hurt Republican prospects in the midterm elections, now less than a month away.

McClellan was also under pressure from nearly every Northern constituency to prosecute the war with great energy. For different reasons, the Radical Tribune, the moderate Times, the conservative Herald and even the partisan World agreed in demanding swifter and more efficient action from the armies—the Radicals wanting secession and slavery destroyed in short order, the conservatives hoping that a swift victory by McClellan would bring the South to accept a compromise peace preserving slavery.9 McClellan was in a bind that he was helpless to break, caught between his profound reluctance to take the offensive and his growing awareness that the demand for action was a rising tide that could not be checked. His response to such pressure was to withdraw into the bubble provided by his staff, where, surrounded by their approval, he would stubbornly resist all calls for action, in a mood that was increasingly sullen and filled with foreboding of disaster—either military defeat if he moved or relief from command if he did not.

The military costs of McClellan’s inactivity would be dramatically demonstrated during three days, October 10–13, when General Lee unleashed Stuart’s cavalry for a spectacular raid that took him up into Pennsylvania and all around McClellan’s army. But the real costs of McClellan’s persistent inaction were still hidden behind the hills that overlooked the Shepherdstown Ford.



For two days after his retreat to Virginia, General Lee had refused to accept that Antietam was anything worse than a temporary check. He believed his army could resume the offensive after a brief rest, the recovery of stragglers, and resupply with food, forage, and ammunition. He therefore concentrated his army well back from the Potomac, in the hills that looked down on Martinsburg and the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. From this position he could check any Federal attempt to cross at Shepherdstown. He could not prevent the Federals from retaking Harpers Ferry, but he did not mind if McClellan shifted his forces and his attention downstream. Lee had positioned his army where it could resume the offensive by moving north through Martinsburg and crossing the Potomac at Williamsport upstream from Shepherdstown. That movement would turn the right flank of McClellan’s army, whose elements were ranged along the north bank of the Potomac from Shepherdstown to Harpers Ferry. The Federals would have to retreat to save their line of supply, which was currently tied to the railhead at Hagers­town, about eight miles north of the Shepherdstown Ford. Lee could strike directly for Hagerstown, catch them at a disadvantage, and—with Federal midterm elections only weeks away—win a strategic victory on Northern soil.10

It was not until September 21 that Lee began to acknowledge his army’s inability to resume the offensive. His report to President Davis detailed the army’s weakened state, which Lee attributed mostly to straggling. He had failed to win at Antietam because “[a] great many men belonging to the army never entered Maryland at all; many returned after getting there, while others who crossed the river remained aloof.” His tone suggests widespread malingering and evasion of service, and the remedies he asks are a stiffening of the penalties and more rigorous enforcement against straggling and other breaches of military discipline. He does not mention the most probable causes for the nonbattle losses: the physical exhaustion and illness produced by repeated forced marches and inadequate diet. He did implement the kind of census of troop strength that ought to have been put in place in July. It brought him the unwelcome news that even with the recovery of some thousands of stragglers, the Army of Northern Virginia mustered no more than thirty-six thousand men, in poor physical condition and with their morale impaired.11

Under these conditions, resumption of the offensive was impossible. Lee would have to concede the initiative to McClellan. He could only try to prevent McClellan’s using his advantage by putting up a threatening front along the upper Potomac, “to threaten a passage into Maryland, [and] to occupy the enemy on this frontier.” If McClellan showed an aggressive inclination, Lee hoped to entice the Federal army “into the Valley, where I can attack them to advantage.” The Valley was familiar terrain to Lee and Jackson, its narrow width would make it harder for the larger Federal army to outflank the weaker Confederates, and a Yankee advance up the Valley would actually carry the Federals away from Richmond. But Lee could no longer hope to impose conditions of battle on his enemies. On September 25, he informed Davis that his plan for a second invasion of Maryland was now impossible: “I would not hesitate to make it even with our diminished numbers, did the army exhibit its former temper and condition; but, as far as I am able to judge, the hazard would be great and a reverse disastrous. I am, therefore, led to pause.”12

WHILE DAVIS AND LEE were coping with the results of Lee’s failed invasion, the western elements of Davis’s grand offensive had also been baffled. Davis’s instructions had urged Bragg to “crush” Buell’s army before moving into Kentucky. Bragg had maneuvered instead, and, by the beginning of October, Buell had connected his field army with the large force of recruits and reinforcements that had been holding Louisville. On October 3, Van Dorn and Price suffered a bloody repulse at Corinth that put an end to the Confederate counteroffensive in the Mississippi valley theater. Kentuckians refused to rally to the Confederate cause, and Buell took the offensive with an army twice as large as Bragg’s and Smith’s combined force. On October 8, part of Bragg’s army blundered into most of Buell’s at Perryville, Kentucky, and was beaten. Rather than try to “crush Buell,” as Davis wished, Bragg abandoned the invasion and began a long and painful march back to the Tennessee mountains, dropping stragglers all the way. Although Buell let him get away without attempting pursuit, it was clear that Davis’s strategic offensive had failed, and the Confederacy was back on the strategic defensive.13

The best way to defend a position is to discourage the enemy from attacking it by taking, or threatening to take, the offensive. Lee kept his army concentrated around Martinsburg, where it threatened an invasion of Maryland that it lacked the strength to execute. However, McClellan made no effort to test Lee’s strength or to harass his army while it was rebuilding. Apart from the force that reoccupied Harpers Ferry on September 22, McClellan kept his troops north of the Potomac. His passivity allowed Lee to refresh and resupply his army with impunity. In the weeks immediately following Antietam, the Federal army had rebuilt its strength far faster than Lee could rebuild his. In the last week of September Lee had added 16,000 men to his ranks, raising his force to 52,000. By bringing most of the reserve forces up from Washington, McClellan was able to increase his force from 70,000 to well over 100,000. However, McClellan’s buildup peaked at 120,000 in October, while Lee’s accelerated. Toward the end of October, Lee reported 64,000 men present for duty, and by the start of November he would have 85,000 in hand—a force nearly as large as that which had assailed McClellan in the Seven Days. On September 26 McClellan outnumbered Lee two to one; by November the disparity was three to two, and the Confederate army was more experienced, better organized, healthier, and in higher morale. Lee’s offensive had failed, but his army was now stronger for the defensive than it had ever been.

To keep McClellan off-balance and fearful of his flanks, Lee on October 10 launched Jeb Stuart and 1,500 cavalry on their three-day raid. Stuart crossed upstream from Williamsport and rode all the way around McClellan’s army, south through Frederick, and back to Virginia by the downstream fords. The raid did little actual damage to Federal supply lines, but it revived civilian panic and embarrassed McClellan, who was supposed to have whipped the Rebels out of Maryland. It also may be said to have goaded McClellan into further inactivity.

Stuart’s raid exacerbated the mistrust of McClellan among his critics in the press, Congress, and the cabinet. It was the second time the Rebel cavalryman had literally ridden circles around McClellan’s army—the first being just before the Seven Days. Taken with his refusal to advance, Stuart’s exploit suggested that the general had learned nothing from past experience. Navy Secretary Welles summed up the emerging consensus in Washington: that McClellan’s persistent and “fatuous inaction” was producing a crisis of public confidence. “The country groans.” Moreover, suspicion of McClellan’s motives was growing among the administration’s supporters: “Many believe him to be acting on the army programme avowed by Key.” Democratic journals defended McClellan, but both sides implicitly accepted George Smalley’s account of the battle and his conclusion that McClellan had missed a chance to destroy or severely damage Lee’s army. McClellan’s own “Preliminary Report” did little to alter that verdict.14



Lincoln would later say two very different things about his attitude toward McClellan after their meeting at Sharpsburg. He would tell John Hay that McClellan’s refusal to obey the order to advance on October 6 had convinced him that McClellan was playing false and could not be trusted to defeat the Confederate army. He would also claim that he had been willing to leave McClellan in command if the general would advance before the onset of winter and move swiftly enough to cut Lee’s communication with Richmond. However, Lincoln’s way of dealing with McClellan during this period suggests that he had in fact come to the end of his patience and was determined to replace him immediately after the midterm election.

On October 13 Lincoln sent McClellan a lengthy letter laying out the plan of campaign he expected McClellan to follow. Although the letter echoed themes and concerns that were by now familiar, the tone of this letter differed sharply from any of their earlier exchanges. Hitherto Lincoln had presented himself as McClellan’s friend and supporter, larding his advice and softening any criticism with flattery and assurances of personal regard. Now he began in the voice of a displeased parent, chiding an unheedful son: “You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness.” He followed by questioning McClellan’s soldierly pride, and perhaps his manhood. “Are you not over-cautious when you assume you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?” There was nothing new in his insistence that McClellan move sooner rather than later, that he not ignore “the question of time, which cannot and must not be ignored.” But there was a hint of sarcasm in the reminder: “I certainly should be pleased for you to have the Railroad from Harpers Ferry to Winchester, but it wastes the remainder of the autumn to give it to you.” He proposed a line of operations that was sound enough—it was one McClellan would actually adopt. However, Lincoln urges it in a peculiar style, lecturing McClellan on the basic principles of military science and the simple propositions of Euclidean geometry. Thus he reminds McClellan that “one of the standard maxims of war, as you know, is ‘to operate upon the enemy’s communications . . . without exposing your own.’ You seem to act as if this applies against you, but cannot apply in your favor.” He explains that McClellan can move “by the chord-line, or on the inside arc” of the figurative circle that enclosed the theater of operations. And he adds another taunt of McClellan’s manhood: “It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy; and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it.” Then, to make responsibility for any failure clear, he closes, “This letter is in no sense an order.”15

The letter is, first of all, a lawyer’s brief, which establishes a paper record showing that Lincoln’s removal of McClellan was based not on political differences but on McClellan’s failure to carry out a simple and feasible plan of campaign. It is also an exercise in psychological warfare. After so long an acquaintance with McClellan, Lincoln must have known how galling it would be for a man with his sense of social superiority and professional pride to be instructed on tactics and Euclidean geometry by a self-taught frontier lawyer. He almost seems to be goading McClellan into some rash outburst or an angry resignation. The letter also shows that Lincoln’s slow-burning anger at McClellan’s insults, obstructionism, and opposition could no longer be dissembled. It flashed out again on October 26, after McClellan excused his continued immobility by pleading the need for new horses to replace the worn-out beasts the army has been using. Lincoln snapped back, “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?” To McClellan’s very reasonable request that drafted men be used to bring veteran regiments back to strength rather than used to form new regiments, Lincoln replied, “Is it your purpose not to go into action again until the men now being drafted in the States are incorporated into the old regiments?”16

McClellan finally began his advance from Harpers Ferry on November 2. Lincoln would later say that he considered this advance a final test of McClellan’s usefulness as a commander, and that if he failed to get between Lee and Richmond Lincoln would relieve him. But the test was one he knew McClellan could not meet. It had taken McClellan more than a week, from October 26 to November 2, to get his army across the Potomac, which gave Lee plenty of time to anticipate the Federal line of advance.

It seems far more likely that Lincoln had already decided to relieve McClellan as soon as it was politically feasible to do so—that is, as soon as the midterm election was settled one way or the other. He was convinced that military operations would continue to be inconclusive without a radical change in the way his armies were commanded. Lincoln had already begun discussing candidates for McClellan’s replacement before McClellan even began his advance. He was also planning to fire General Buell, who had let Bragg’s army escape without pursuit after its defeat at Perryville. Lincoln would condemn Buell in the same terms he used for McClellan: that he had failed to march as the enemy marches, and fight as he fights.17

The last act played out in predictable fashion. Lee answered McClellan’s slow-moving offensive by once again splitting his army. He took Longstreet’s Corps south and east through Chester Gap, beat McClellan to the critical road junction at Culpeper Court House, and took up a strong defensive position behind the Hazel River. He left Jackson with 40,000 troops at Winchester, a force strong enough to smash through the cavalry guarding the mountain gaps and strike McClellan from the rear, much as Pope had been struck. On November 6 McClellan had 114,000 troops well concentrated in front of Longstreet, and if he had acted with vigor and speed he might have turned the tables on Lee—using one of his infantry corps to reinforce the cavalry at the gaps and hitting Longstreet with nearly double numbers. Instead he stopped to consider the possible mischief Jackson might do.

The next day, a cold November 7 with snow and freezing rain, the order arrived from Washington relieving him of his command and appointing Burnside in his place. It was the third time Burnside had been offered the command, and this time he accepted. After their bitter disagreement over Burnside’s command responsibilities and the behavior of IX Corps at Antietam, loyalty to McClellan was no longer an obstacle.

McClellan was not entirely surprised by his relief, and he accepted it passively. On some unconscious level, he may not have been sorry to be relieved of the responsibility of army command—a responsibility heavy enough in its own right, but in his case redoubled by the conviction that he had to fight powerful enemies front and back, with the fate of the republic hinging on his failure or success. The French army officers attached as observers to his headquarters marveled that he did not try to maintain his power by turning his army against the government, as both Napoleons had done. It was a thought McClellan had often entertained in the past. Perhaps his conversations with Aspinwall had convinced him that the American public would not support such a coup; perhaps a decision so bold was simply beyond him.

On November 10 there was one last review, the troops in ranks, as McClellan cantered along the line on his black horse, trailed by his staff. The words of his last order were true to the feelings he had for his men: “In parting from you I cannot express the love and gratitude I bear for you. As an Army you have grown up under my care. In you I have never found doubt or coldness.” With adulation and virtual obeisance they had more than met his deep need for total approval and acceptance, and most there would not have begrudged his claim to have been a father to them. There were tearful eyes, and some anger, among the many who had learned soldiering under McClellan’s guidance, and respected or even loved him for his careful treatment of them.

The next day, when McClellan boarded the train that would carry him back to Washington, bereft soldiers mobbed the station and uncoupled his car, mutinously urging him to disobey orders and remain with them. Though moved nearly to tears by this last display of the love his boys bore him, McClellan ordered the car rehitched and rode north to “await further orders.” He would get none from President Lincoln, but others would take his future in hand. The night before, in New York City, a grand rally had been held to celebrate the Democratic victories in the midterm election. Amid the jubilation, a speaker called for the nomination of General George B. McClellan as Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States, and the crowd roared its agreement.18

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