The Growing Rift Between Lincoln and McClellan

November 13, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln called upon new General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, who refused to see him. This symbolized the evolving relationship between Lincoln and McClellan.

Federal Major General George B. McClellan | Image Credit:
Federal Major General George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

With Winfield Scott retired, McClellan now commanded all Federal armies while continuing to directly command the Army of the Potomac. Despite the slight embarrassment at Munson’s Hill and the defeat at Ball’s Bluff, McClellan still enjoyed immense popularity among northerners and his troops. This was exemplified by an enormous torchlight parade observed by Lincoln, in which participants honored McClellan as the savior of the Union.

Over the past few months, Lincoln had made a habit of occasionally dropping by McClellan’s home to discuss military strategy. For Lincoln, McClellan sometimes waived the social and military custom of requiring a prior appointment. On other occasions, Lincoln had called on McClellan only to be turned away for various reasons.

Lincoln paid an unannounced visit to McClellan’s home on the night of November 13, accompanied by Secretary of State William H. Seward and Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. McClellan’s servant informed the men that the general had gone to the wedding of Colonel Frank Wheaton at the headquarters of General Don Carlos Buell. The servant invited the men to wait in the parlor, as McClellan was expected home soon.

McClellan arrived an hour later, ignored the announcement that he had visitors, and passed the parlor on his way upstairs. After another half-hour, Lincoln asked the servant to tell McClellan that they were still waiting. The servant informed them that McClellan had gone to bed.

The three men left, with Hay furiously urging that McClellan be fired immediately and Seward condemning the “insolence of epaulets.” Lincoln forgave the snub, saying, “I will hold McClellan’s horse if he will only bring us success.” However, the insult was not forgotten, as Lincoln began summoning McClellan to the White House when he wanted to meet with the general.

A grand review of 70,000 men of McClellan’s army took place on November 20 outside Washington. Spectators noted the vast difference between the undisciplined troops of last summer and the martial precision of McClellan’s army. However, some continued to criticize McClellan’s lack of activity.

Among McClellan’s fiercest critics were the Radical Republicans in Congress. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois warned that if McClellan put his army into winter quarters without fighting a battle, “I very much fear the result would be recognition of the Confederacy by foreign governments (and) the demoralization of our own people… Action, action is what we want and must have.”

Although he had three times the men and artillery as the Confederates in northern Virginia, McClellan complained:

“I cannot move without more means… I have left nothing undone to make this army what it ought to be… I am thwarted and deceived by these incapables at every turn… It now begins to look as if we are condemned to a winter of inactivity. If it is so the fault will not be mine; there will be that consolation for my conscience, even if the world at large never knows it.”

Politics began affecting relations between McClellan and the Republican administration he answered to. McClellan had close ties with New York Democrats, many of whom hoped that he would run for president in 1864. While McClellan disliked slavery, he also disliked abolitionists (most of whom were Republicans), and he wrote to a supporter: “Help me to dodge the nigger–we want nothing to do with him. I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union… To gain that end we cannot afford to mix up the negro question.”

McClellan’s refusal to meet with Lincoln demonstrated the growing animosity McClellan had toward Lincoln and his Republican allies in Congress. This animosity would play a role in future military planning.



Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62; (November 13); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 96; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 143; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 82, 84; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 383; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 139; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 362-65; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 75

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