July 30, 1862 – General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote a delicate and personal letter to Major General George B. McClellan hinting that an order may soon come pulling McClellan’s Army of the Potomac off the Virginia Peninsula.
As July wore on, McClellan became convinced that the Lincoln administration had turned against him. He singled out Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, his once-close friend, as betraying him, even though the men had recently pledged to “let no cloud hereafter arise between us.” McClellan wrote his wife from Harrison’s Landing:
“I think that he is the most unmitigated scoundrel I ever knew, heard, or read of; I think that (and I do not wish to be irreverent) had he lived in the time of the Saviour, Judas Iscariot would have remained a respected member of the fraternity of the Apostles, and that the magnificent treachery and rascality of E.M. Stanton would have caused Judas to have raised his arms in holy horror and unaffected wonder–he would certainly have claimed and exercised the right to have been the Betrayer of his Lord and Master, by virtue of the same merit that raised Satan to his ‘bad eminence.’ I may do the man injustice–God grant that I may be wrong–for I hate to think that humanity can sink so low–but my opinion is just as I have told you.”
Meanwhile, Lincoln questioned McClellan yet again on his math: “I am told that over 160,000 men have gone into your army on the Peninsula. When I was with you the other day we made out 86,500 remaining, leaving 73,500 to be accounted for.” Lincoln estimated that 28,500 had been killed, wounded, or captured, which left another 45,000 “still alive and not with (the army), half or two thirds of them are fit for duty to-day. Have you any more perfect knowledge of this than I have?”
Lincoln then stated, “If I am right, and you had these men with you, you could go into Richmond in the next three days. How can they be got to you, and how can they be prevented from getting away in such numbers for the future?”
McClellan finally responded a week later, stating that his army actually numbered 101,000 officers and men. He added that many more were needed because he estimated General Robert E. Lee’s strength at 170,000 men (Lee’s army actually totaled less than half that number).
When Halleck arrived at Washington to become general-in-chief, he met with Lincoln and Stanton to discuss what should be done with the Army of the Potomac in general and McClellan in particular. Lincoln decided to replace McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, but Burnside refused to accept the position. So McClellan remained in command for now.
Halleck traveled to Harrison’s Landing to meet with McClellan and inspect his army. McClellan shared a plan with him in which 30,000 reinforcements would be needed so that McClellan could send part of his force across the James River to capture Petersburg, a vital railroad town south of Richmond. This would isolate Richmond from most railroad lines and force the Confederates to either fight or flee.
Halleck countered that if Lee had 170,000 troops as McClellan estimated, he could easily defeat the divided Federal army, one piece at a time. Or, Lee could leave part of his army to guard against both Federal pieces while sending the main force north to confront Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia.
Halleck told McClellan that he would get 20,000 reinforcements from the Carolinas, and he would use those men to attack Richmond. If McClellan did not attack, he would have to leave the Peninsula. McClellan said that 20,000 men may be enough to take the Richmond.
The awkward reversal of roles between Halleck and McClellan strained their relationship. Upon returning to Washington, Halleck wrote his wife that meeting with McClellan had been “necessarily somewhat embarrassing,” and “it certainly was unpleasant to tell one who had been my superior in rank that his plans were wrong, but my duty to myself and the country compelled me to do so.” While Halleck considered McClellan “a most excellent and valuable man, he does not understand strategy and should never plan a campaign.” Halleck concluded:
“We can get along very well together if he is so disposed, but I fear that his friends have excited his jealousy and that he will be disposed to pitch into me. Very well. My hands are clean. When in command of the army no one did more than I did to sustain him and in justice… to the country he ought now to sustain me. I hope he will but I doubt it. He is surrounded by very weak advisers.”
Halleck called upon Burnside in North Carolina and Major General David Hunter in South Carolina to donate the troops needed to reinforce McClellan. Hunter, who had recently sent seven regiments to Virginia, replied that “no more could be spared without seriously jeopardizing the important basis of operations and depots of stores in this department.” Hunter had asked permission to recruit and arm local slaves to make up for the manpower shortage, but the Lincoln administration was not yet prepared to allow it.
Meanwhile, it only took a day for McClellan to start complaining about getting only 20,000 men. Recently paroled Federal prisoners told their officers that Confederates were coming from all directions to defend Richmond, leaving McClellan to conclude that “the Southern States are being drained of their garrisons to reinforce the Army in my front.” He now asked for all of Burnside’s and Hunter’s troops, 35,000 in all, along with “15,000 or 20,000 men from the West to reinforce me temporarily.”
McClellan also continued ranting to his wife, but his prime target was no longer Stanton but Lincoln. McClellan fumed that “We never conversed on the subject” of who should become general-in-chief, “I only know it from the newspapers.” McClellan accused Lincoln of doing this “to make the matter as offensive as possible.”
To McClellan, Lincoln “had not shown the slightest gentlemanly or friendly feeling & I cannot regard him as in any respect my friend–I am confident that he would relieve me tomorrow if he dared do so. His cowardice alone prevents it.” In another letter, McClellan wrote of Lincoln, “I can never regard him with other feelings than those of thorough contempt–for his mind, heart & morality.”
McClellan also expressed disdain for Lincoln’s advisors and hoped “Halleck will scatter them to the four winds.” He singled out Major General Irvin McDowell, whom he called “morally dead” and asserted that “he has no longer one particle of influence & is despised by all alike.”
Halleck received McClellan’s amended request for 55,000 men and not the 20,000 he had been promised on the 29th. He responded by ordering every steamer in Baltimore Harbor to start moving toward the James River. These would not bring troops to the Peninsula; they would take McClellan’s army off. Halleck reasoned that if Lee’s army had become as strong as McClellan claimed, then the Federals faced certain destruction if they stayed on the Peninsula.
McClellan wrote Halleck the next day, unaware that steamers were en route, “I hope that it may soon be decided what is to be done by this army, and that the decision may be to reinforce it at once.” McClellan guessed that Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates had headed north with 35,000 men, while Major General A.P. Hill’s men stayed in Richmond. In reality, Jackson had gone north with just 11,000, but Hill recently joined him with 18,000 more.
McClellan warned, “Heavy (enemy) re-enforcements have arrived in Richmond and are still coming.” He urged Halleck to “re-enforce the army by every available means and throw it again upon Richmond. Should it be determined to withdraw it, I shall look upon our cause as lost and the demoralization of the army certain.”
Halleck responded with a deeply personal letter meant to convey his respect for McClellan but also his need to do his job as McClellan’s new superior. Halleck began:
“You are probably aware that I hold my present position contrary to my own wishes, and that I did everything in my power to avoid coming to Washington; but after declining several invitations from the President I received the order of the 11th instant, which left me no option.”
He gave McClellan his “full approbation and cordial support. There was no one in the Army under whom I could serve with greater pleasure, and I now ask from you that same support and co-operation and that same free interchange of opinions as in former days. If we disagree in opinion, I know that we will do so honestly and without unkind feelings. If we permit personal jealousies to interfere for a single moment with our operations, we shall not only injure the cause but ruin ourselves.”
Halleck requested that McClellan probe the Richmond defenses to verify rumors that Lee had sent the bulk of his army northward to confront Pope. He also directed McClellan to transfer all his sick and wounded troops from Harrison’s Landing, “in order to enable you to move in any direction.” It was suspected that this was a preparatory move for ending McClellan’s Peninsula campaign.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 78; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 199; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 595; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 186; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 245