October 4, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln returned to Washington after visiting Major General George B. McClellan and inspecting the Federal Army of the Potomac following the Battle of Antietam.
Since the Federal victory at Antietam in September, Lincoln had implored McClellan to move his army and finish off the General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. However, McClellan had not only remained stationary while the enemy escaped back into Virginia, but he resumed his pattern of demanding massive reinforcements. Moreover, Lincoln had heard rumors of anti-administration fervor among McClellan and his command, particularly regarding their opposition to the recently released Emancipation Proclamation.
To help push McClellan into action and confront the rumors, Lincoln and some advisors left Washington on October 1 to visit the general’s headquarters in western Maryland. McClellan, who had not been informed of the visit beforehand, learned while Lincoln was en route and made arrangements to meet him at Harpers Ferry. A witness observed that Lincoln looked “careworn and troubled” upon his late arrival.
Lincoln occupied a tent beside McClellan’s for the next two days. He became a conspicuous sightseer in his black suit and stovepipe hat as he visited army camps and hospitals. He toured the Antietam battlefield in an ambulance “with his long legs doubled up so that his knees almost struck his chin,” noted a Federal officer. McClellan tried describing the battle, but Lincoln curtly ended the tour and returned to camp. He calculated army strength at 88,095 troops, more than enough to confront Lee.
Before dawn on the 3rd, Lincoln brought friend Ozias M. Hatch out for a walk. They climbed a hillside overlooking the white tents of the Federal army below, where Lincoln asked, “Hatch, Hatch, what is all this?” Hatch replied, “Why, Mr. Lincoln, this is the Army of the Potomac.” Lincoln said, “No, Hatch, no. This is General McClellan’s bodyguard.” The troops’ strong devotion to McClellan complicated Lincoln’s issues with the commander.
Lincoln reviewed the troops later that day. Some soldiers noted that Lincoln did not cordially greet them as he had done in past reviews. One officer stated that Lincoln offered “not a word of approval, not even a smile of approbation.” After the review, Lincoln rode with friend Ward Hill Lamon, who tried cheering him by singing songs and telling funny stories. Opponents later accused Lincoln of insulting fallen soldiers by laughing on the battlefield.
Lincoln continued touring hospitals and camps on the 4th and then left for Washington that afternoon. Two days later, he issued an order to McClellan through General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck: “The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good… I am directed to add that the Secretary of War and the General-in-Chief concur with the President in these instructions.”
This message amazed McClellan, who thought he had persuaded Lincoln that the army needed more time to regroup before moving. McClellan answered that he was “pushing everything as rapidly as possible in order to get ready for the advance,” but then he asserted that he lacked the necessary supplies and made no major movements.
A week later, Lincoln wrote a long letter of advice to McClellan. Explaining military strategy and tactics to his general, Lincoln noted that the Confederate army would have to move southwest through the Blue Ridge to go defend the Confederate capital at Richmond, while McClellan’s men could move east along the Blue Ridge and go straight to the city. Lee’s route “is the arc of a circle,” Lincoln explained, “while yours is the chord.” Lincoln added:
“You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that 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?… I would press closely to him, fight him if a favorable opportunity should present, and at least try to beat him to Richmond on the inside track, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on a march. It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy, and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it. This letter is in no sense an order.”
Despite Lincoln’s prodding, McClellan remained motionless.
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 86
- Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 161, 164
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8180-203
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 484-85
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 748-49, 751
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 273-76, 278
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 489-90