McClellan’s Secret Plan

December 10, 1861 – General-in-Chief George B. McClellan rejected President Abraham Lincoln’s proposal to send the Army of the Potomac into northern Virginia against Centreville and Manassas Junction.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:
Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

By this month, Lincoln was feeling pressure from politicians, mostly in his own party, to force McClellan into some kind of action. On December 1, Lincoln sent McClellan a memorandum asking, “If it were determined to make a forward movement of the Army of the Potomac without awaiting further increase of numbers or better drill and discipline, how long would it require to actually get in motion?”

Lincoln offered several suggestions, all related to the plan that McClellan had imparted to him in which the army would move southwest from Alexandria, cross Cedar Run, and attack the Confederates at Manassas Junction from the southeast. McClellan did not inform his commander-in-chief that he was abandoning that plan in favor of a water-borne invasion along the Virginia coast.

After nine days, McClellan finally responded to Lincoln by rejecting all his suggestions. McClellan explained that they would all fail because “the enemy would meet us in front with equal forces nearly… I have now in my mind actually turned towards another plan of campaign that I do not think at all anticipated by the enemy, nor by many of our own people.”

The plan called for McClellan to ship his army on transports down the Potomac River into Chesapeake Bay, then move down the coast and up the Rappahannock River to Urbanna, Virginia. The Federals would then disembark and place themselves just 50 miles from Richmond and well behind General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate line at Manassas Junction.

But McClellan did not divulge this plan to Lincoln. He then made matters worse by refusing to explain that he was not taking the offensive at this time because such a complex plan required several months to implement. Lincoln and other administration officials became increasingly impatient at what they saw as delaying tactics. These turned into a complete halt late this month when McClellan contracted what doctors called typhoid and became incapacitated indefinitely.



Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63-64; (December 1); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 87; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 145, 149-50; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 773-74

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