Lincoln Visits the Virginia Peninsula

July 8, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula and contemplated a major military change.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

Lincoln arrived at Harrison’s Landing on the 8th aboard the U.S.S. Ariel, and met with Major General George B. McClellan and his staff at 6 p.m. During the meeting, McClellan refused to admit defeat or take responsibility for his army’s “retrograde movement,” and he continued citing the lack of reinforcements as the reason he had not yet destroyed the Confederate army and conquered Richmond.

The men then conducted a twilight troop inspection, which included a light show from the men firing their muskets into the darkening sky. Regarding Lincoln, a lieutenant wrote, “Long and hearty was the applause and welcome which greeted him. His presence after the late disaster… seemed to infuse new ardor into the dispirited army.” A chaplain concurred: “The boys liked him, his popularity is universal.”

But McClellan disagreed, writing his wife that Lincoln was “an old stick and of pretty poor timber at that… I had to order the men to cheer and they did it very feebly.” Nevertheless, the soldiers seemed upbeat to Lincoln, who was relieved to see that army morale was not as low as feared.

Returning to army headquarters, McClellan handed Lincoln what became known as the “Harrison’s Bar Letter.” Lincoln read the letter and said, “All right,” before putting it in his pocket. He said nothing more about it, and he did not act upon any of McClellan’s suggestions. To Lincoln, McClellan seemed to be urging a return to the policies he tried when the war started, only to see them fail. The “Harrison’s Bar Letter,” in which McClellan boldly lectured his superior on military policy, irreparably tarnished the general’s career.

Turning back to his main purpose for visiting the Peninsula, Lincoln tried to determine what should be done with the army. He asked McClellan three major questions:

  • How many men were in the army?
  • Where was the Confederate army?
  • Would it be possible to withdraw the army from the Peninsula?

McClellan responded:

  • There were 80,000 officers and men in the army, but the total could be closer to 75,000.
  • The Confederates were “four to five miles from us on all the roads, I think nearly the whole army–both Hills, Longstreet, Jackson, Magruder, Huger.” (Actually, Lee was falling back closer to Richmond.)
  • Leaving the Peninsula “would be a delicate and very difficult matter.”

The next day, Lincoln conferred with McClellan’s five corps commanders (Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, Erasmus D. Keyes, Fitz John Porter, and William B. Franklin). To McClellan’s shock, Lincoln sought no details about the recent battles. Instead, he posed the same three questions to them as he had to McClellan the night before.

The commanders stated that Lee’s army had fallen back toward Richmond. This bothered Lincoln because McClellan had told him Lee was just four or five miles away, and the corps commanders should not have been more aware of the enemy’s location than the army chief. But it was soon discovered that Lee was in the process of moving back between the 8th and 9th, thus explaining the discrepancy.

Lincoln then asked, “If it were desired to get the army away from here, could it be safely effected?” Keyes and Franklin said it could and should be done. The other three disagreed. Heintzelman said, “It would be ruinous to the country,” Sumner said, “We give up the cause if we do it,” and Porter said, “Move the army and ruin the country.” McClellan supported an attack only if he received the reinforcements he had requested.

After Lincoln headed back to Washington on the 10th, McClellan wrote his wife that the president “seemed that of a man about to do something of which he was ashamed.” Unbeknownst to McClellan, Lincoln had already contemplated the general’s suggestion for a commander-in-chief in the “Harrison’s Bar Letter,” and he already had a man in mind for the job.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17053-61; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7580, 7591-7603; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 346-47; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 530-33; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 180; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 450-51; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 238; 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. 502; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 346

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