January 13, 1862 – General-in-Chief George B. McClellan defended his military strategy to increasingly skeptical politicians and subordinates.
As the new year began, McClellan reported that he felt much better after contracting what doctors called typhoid in December. But he still could not resume active command. Meanwhile, politicians continued pressuring President Lincoln to get McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to move. Much of this pressure came from the Radicals in Lincoln’s Republican Party.
A group of Radical senators met with Lincoln in early January and claimed that the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War had evidence of McClellan’s incompetence. Some accused McClellan of treason, alleging that he was using his illness to keep from fighting the Confederates. When the senators asked why McClellan had not shared his plans with anyone, Lincoln replied that he “did not think he had any right to know, but that, as he was not a military man, it was his duty to defer to General McClellan.”
When Lincoln refused demands to fire McClellan, cabinet members suggested creating a war council that would oversee the general. It seemed that Lincoln had to do something and soon, otherwise, as Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase explained, the treasury would run out of money to pay for the war. On top of this, serious charges of corruption in the War Department were mounting, which led to the removal of Simon Cameron as secretary of war.
Despondent, Lincoln went to Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs’s office and complained that the armies had made no significant progress since McClellan fell ill three weeks ago. Meigs said that if McClellan really had typhoid, he could be sick for another three weeks, meaning nearly another month of military inactivity. Lincoln asked, “General, what shall I do? The people are impatient; Chase has no money and 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?”
Meigs proposed arranging a meeting with the top Army of the Potomac commanders to discuss the possibility of temporarily replacing McClellan. Lincoln agreed, holding a conference at the White House on the night of the 10th with Generals Irvin McDowell and William B. Franklin, along with Secretary of State William H. Seward, Treasury Secretary Chase, and Assistant Secretary of War Peter Watson.
Lincoln announced, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.” He asked for ideas on how best to confront the Confederate army in northern Virginia.
McDowell proposed a second overland advance toward Manassas Junction, partly to avenge his defeat at Bull Run last July. Franklin, a McClellan ally, proposed an idea similar to McClellan’s secret plan in which the army would move by water down the Virginia coast and then march on Richmond from the east. Lincoln asked the generals to return the next day with a report on the army’s condition.
The following evening, Franklin announced that he had changed his mind and now supported McDowell’s overland plan, mainly because it would take less time to implement. But Meigs and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who had not attended the previous conference, voiced strong objections, with Blair warning that a “plan of going to the front from this position is Bull Run all over again.” Seward and Chase said that they would support any plan that brought a victory. With the attendees at an impasse, Lincoln asked the officers to present a sound strategy the next day.
Meanwhile, War Department operative Edwin M. Stanton informed his close friend McClellan that his subordinates were plotting his army’s fate without him. This enraged the general to the point that he shrugged off his illness long enough to attend the conference on the morning of January 12. McClellan later stated that his appearance “caused very much the effect of a shell in a powder magazine,” and the men’s faces showed that “there was something of which they were ashamed.”
McClellan did not explain the reason for his attendance, and he still refused to divulge his plans other than promising an offensive in Kentucky soon. None of the attendees mentioned McDowell’s overland plan. Lincoln announced that the meeting would resume the next day.
Overcoming his sickness once more, McClellan attended the conference on the 13th in a surly mood. Lincoln asked McDowell to describe his overland plan. McDowell, unsure of himself because his superior was in the room, reluctantly complied and estimated that it would take three weeks to implement. McDowell then explained that he had offered his opinion only because McClellan had fallen ill and his recovery time was uncertain. McClellan interrupted by saying, “You are entitled to have any opinion you please!”
McDowell then offered an alternate plan similar to the one described by Franklin on the 10th by which the army would move by water along the Virginia coast and land at Fort Monroe, on the peninsula between the York and James rivers. Franklin accused McDowell of pandering to McClellan, but McDowell argued that he had developed the plan without consulting the commander. Seward reiterated that any plan would be fine if it brought a victory.
When Lincoln asked when an offensive could begin, McClellan said nothing. The president again listed the reasons why action was so crucial. McClellan replied that “it was so clear a blind man could see it,” and repeated his common complaint that the Confederates in northern Virginia outnumbered his army.
As the meeting devolved into smaller discussions among the participants, Meigs whispered to McClellan, “Can you not promise some movement towards Manassas?” McClellan said, “I cannot move on them with as great a force as they have,” wrongly estimating that there were 175,000 Confederates in northern Virginia (there were really no more than 55,000). Meigs then whispered that the commander-in-chief should know his top commander’s plans. McClellan whispered, “If I tell him my plans they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can’t keep a secret.”
Chase then directly asked McClellan to offer a timetable, explaining that the whole purpose of this meeting was for the commander to present his plan for the participants to review. McClellan replied that he was unaware of that purpose, and he did not feel compelled to answer questions from a man he did not consider his superior (by this time, Simon Cameron had been removed as secretary of war, so that left Lincoln as McClellan’s only superior).
Lincoln finally spoke up over the conversations: “Well, General McClellan, I think you had better tell us what your plans are.” McClellan responded:
“If you have any confidence in me, it is not right or necessary to entrust my designs to the judgment of others, but if your confidence is so slight as to require my opinions be fortified by those of other persons, it would be wiser to replace me by someone fully possessing your confidence. No general commanding an army would willingly submit his plans to the judgment of such an assembly, in which some are… incapable of keeping a secret so that anything made known to them would soon spread over Washington and become known to the enemy.”
McClellan added that Lincoln knew the Army of the Potomac could not move until the Federal offensive in Kentucky (i.e., the planned drive into eastern Tennessee) began. The general then declared that he was “unwilling to develop his plans,” but “that he would tell them if he was ordered to do so.” Lincoln would not issue that order.
McClellan assured Lincoln that he had a timetable in mind, which satisfied the president enough to announce, “Then I will adjourn this meeting.” Later that day, both Lincoln and McClellan cabled the commanders in the Western Theater, imparting upon them the importance of taking the initiative in Kentucky and Tennessee. Lincoln appeared to disregard McClellan’s insolence toward the meeting attendees, but it angered many others, among them Seward, Chase, Blair, and Meigs.
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