The Army of the Potomac Remains Stationary

October 13, 1862 – The Federal high command continued prodding Major General George B. McClellan to move his Army of the Potomac into Virginia, but McClellan continued resisting.

A week after receiving orders to confront the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, McClellan still had not moved. During that time, General Robert E. Lee had time to reorganize and resupply his force, and his cavalry under Major General Jeb Stuart had made another daring ride around McClellan’s army almost unopposed. With his patience nearly exhausted, President Abraham Lincoln wrote McClellan a long letter of advice.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

Explaining strategy and tactics that a general should already know, Lincoln noted that the Confederate army, currently at Winchester, would have to move southeast through the Blue Ridge to defend the Confederate capital at Richmond, while McClellan’s men could move east along the Blue Ridge and get to the city quicker. Lee’s route “is the arc of a circle,” Lincoln explained, “while yours is the chord.”

Lincoln had previously suggested attacking Lee at Winchester, but McClellan rejected that idea because he would need to open a railroad line between Winchester and Harpers Ferry to supply his army. Lincoln challenged this claim by reminding McClellan that the Confederates consistently marched and fought with little or no supplies.

The president wrote that opening a rail line “wastes all the remainder of autumn to give it to you; and, in fact ignores the question of time, which can not and must not be ignored… We should not so operate as to merely drive him away. If we can not beat the enemy where he is now, we never can… If we never try, we shall never succeed.” Lincoln added:

“You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?… I would press closely to him, fight him if a favorable opportunity should present, and at least try to beat him to Richmond on the inside track, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on a march. It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy, and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it. This letter is in no sense an order.”

Before sending this letter, Lincoln sought advice from Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Hamlin praised McClellan for organizing the Army of the Potomac into such a finely tuned force, but he condemned McClellan’s lack of aggression. Hamlin compared McClellan to Major General Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, who operated with much more limited resources yet always seemed ready and willing to fight. Hamlin claimed that McClellan was “the first man to build a bridge, but the last man to cross it.”

When McClellan received Lincoln’s letter on the 16th, he replied that he did not have the time to give “the full and respectful consideration which it merits at my hands.” He acknowledged to one of his subordinates that this was probably Lincoln’s last warning for him to move. McClellan said, “Lincoln is down on me. I expect to be relieved from the Army of the Potomac, and to have a command in the West.”

Despite Lincoln’s prodding, McClellan remained motionless except for some reconnoitering around Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile, criticism of McClellan’s inactivity intensified, especially among the Radical Republicans. An editorial in the pro-Radical Chicago Tribune stated, “What devil is it that prevents the Potomac Army from advancing? What malign influence palsies our army and wastes these glorious days for fighting? If it is McClellan, does not the President see that he is a traitor?”

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck gave up trying to prod McClellan into action and wrote, “I am sick, tired, and disgusted… There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.”

Lincoln drafted a memorandum estimating the strength of the Army of the Potomac at 231,997 officers and men, of which 144,662 were present for duty. McClellan reported that the army contained 133,433 men “present for duty” and an “aggregate present” of 159,860. Even so, he again asked for reinforcements and new equipment for his men and horses.

Halleck telegraphed McClellan on the 21st, “Telegraph when you move, and on what lines you propose to march.” McClellan declared that he was ready to move the next day, but he needed more cavalry horses. He cited a report from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry stating that most of the regiment’s horses suffered from “sore-tongue, grease, and consequent lameness, and sore backs… The horses, which are still sound, are absolutely broken down from fatigue.”

Lincoln sent an especially impatient response on the 25th: “I have just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatiegued (sic) horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”

McClellan responded that the fatigue had been caused by reconnoitering and raiding, as well as chasing Stuart’s Confederates. Lincoln countered, “Stuart’s cavalry outmarched ours, having certainly done more marked service on the Peninsula and everywhere else.”

McClellan angrily asked if making such a statement did “injustice to the excellent officers and men” of his army. He then wrote his wife: “I was mad as a ‘march hare.’ It was one of those dirty little flings that I can’t get used to when they are not merited.” McClellan continued:

“The good of the country requires me to submit to all this from men whom I know to be my inferior!… There never was a truer epithet applied to a certain individual than that of the ‘Gorilla.’ I have insisted that (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton shall be removed, & that Halleck shall give way to me as Comdr. in Chief. The only safety for the country & for me is to get rid of the lot of them.”

Before finally mobilizing his massive army, McClellan countered Halleck’s message asking which route he would take by asking Halleck which route he should take. McClellan then expressed concern “that a great portion of (General Braxton) Bragg’s Army (withdrawing from Kentucky) is probably now at liberty to unite itself with Lee’s command.”

Halleck responded to the first query, “The Government has entrusted you with defeating and driving back the rebel army in your front.” Regarding the second, Halleck stated that McClellan should not “have any immediate fear of Bragg’s army. You are within 20 miles of Lee’s, while Bragg is distant about 400 miles.” The Federal high command then continued waiting for McClellan to move.



Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164;; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 751-52; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 222-23; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 278, 280-81; 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. 568-69; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 178

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