August 13, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan tried one last time to persuade the Federal high command to cancel the order to pull the Army of the Potomac off the Virginia Peninsula.
In a letter to his wife, McClellan wrote that although General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had ordered him to leave the Peninsula a week ago, he intended to stay and coax General Robert E. Lee’s Confederates into attacking his defenses at Harrison’s Landing. Apparently unaware that Lee would never try such a foolish thing, McClellan wrote, “If I succeed in my coup, everything will be changed in this country so far as we are concerned & my enemies will be at my feet.”
McClellan denounced Halleck and Major General John Pope as “enemies of the country & of the human race,” and the more he learned “of their wickedness, the more am I surprised that such a wretched set are permitted to live much less to occupy the positions they do.” He predicted, “I have a strong idea that Pope will be thrashed during the coming week, & very badly whipped he will be & ought to be–such a villain as he is ought to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him.”
Boasting that he would march on Richmond (even though he was just 25 miles away and made no effort to do so for over a month), McClellan wrote, “I will try to catch or thrash (Major General James) Longstreet (of Lee’s army), & then if the chance offers follow in to Richmond while they (the rest of Lee’s army) are lamming away at Pope.” If this desperate move failed, “why well & good. I will fall back.” But if successful, “I shall have saved my country & will then gratefully retire to private life.”
After divulging his true sentiments to his wife, McClellan sent one more frantic plea to stay on the Peninsula. He cited the overwhelming logistical problems that went with moving such a large army to Aquia Creek, as well as the lack of adequate living space for his men once they got there. McClellan argued, “If Washington is in danger now this Army can scarcely arrive in time to save it. It is in much better position to do so from here than from Aquia.”
On the 13th, McClellan traveled to Cherry Stone Inlet, over 70 miles away, to have a direct conversation with Halleck from the telegraph office there. He received a final message from Halleck in the early hours of the 14th:
“I have read your dispatch. There is no change of plans. You will send your troops as rapidly as possible. There is no difficulty in landing them. According to your own accounts there is now no difficulty in withdrawing your forces. Do so with all possible rapidity.”
Informed that Halleck had left the Washington telegraph office for the night, McClellan replied, “Your orders will be obeyed. I return at once. I had hoped to have had a longer and fuller conversation with you, after traveling so far for the purpose.”
McClellan finally began withdrawing on the 14th, 11 days after Halleck had ordered him to move immediately. Troops of III and IV corps began boarding transports, covered by the gunboats U.S.S. Galena, Port Royal, and Satellite. The transfer to Aquia Creek was completed two days later, ending McClellan’s failed five-month campaign to capture Richmond. His Federals had been as close as five miles to the Confederate capital, only to be driven off and neutralized on the Peninsula.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 203; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 595-96, 605; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 192-93; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4272-83; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 473-74; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 251; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362; Wikipedia: Northern Virginia Campaign