October 26, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac crossed from Maryland to Virginia, nearly 40 days after the Battle of Antietam.
Besides ordering some minor scouting expeditions, McClellan effectively ignored President Abraham Lincoln’s order to move against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, McClellan requested reinforcements despite having 133,433 men “present for duty” as of October 20. On that same day, Lee reported having just 68,033 effectives.
After McClellan charged Lincoln with doing an “injustice” to the army by stating that the Confederate cavalry was superior, Lincoln wired the general:
“Most certainly I intend no injustice to any, and if I have done any I deeply regret it. To be told, after more than five weeks’ total inaction of the army… that the cavalry horses were too much fatigued to move, presents a cheerless, almost hopeless, prospect for the future, and it may have forced something of impatience in my dispatch.”
That same day, McClellan’s army finally began crossing the Potomac River into Virginia. They crossed on a pontoon bridge at Berlin (now Brunswick), Maryland, five miles downstream from Harpers Ferry. The Federals then moved along the “inside track” toward Richmond that Lincoln had urged McClellan to take weeks earlier.
McClellan ignored the president’s message of regret, instead complaining that the army regiments were “skeletons” that needed filling “before taking them again into action.” McClellan asked “that the order to fill up the old regiments with drafted men may at once be issued.”
Lincoln quickly asked, “Is it your purpose not to go into action again until the men now being drafted in the States are incorporated into the old regiments?” McClellan replied that the statement “before taking them again into action” had been added by a staffer thinking that was what McClellan meant. He explained, “This phrase was not authorized or intended by me. It has conveyed altogether an erroneous impression as to my plans and intentions.”
McClellan assured Lincoln that he did not have “any idea of postponing the advance until the old regiments are filled by drafted men… The crossing will be continued as rapidly as the means at hand will permit. Nothing but the physical difficulties of the operation shall delay it.” Lincoln replied, “I am much pleased with the movement of the Army. When you get entirely across the river let me know. What do you know of the enemy?”
By the 28th, Lee had begun shifting his Confederates in anticipation that McClellan would drive toward Richmond via Culpeper Court House and Manassas Junction. Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps would guard the Blue Ridge passes while Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps moved toward Culpeper, and Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry harassed the Federal right flank.
McClellan left troops behind to guard various towns on the Potomac, but he told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that these would not be “as sufficient to prevent cavalry raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania.” Halleck promised to send reinforcements from Washington as McClellan moved farther south, but “no new regiments can be sent from here to the Upper Potomac. The guarding of that line is left to your own discretion with the troops now under your command.”
McClellan next wrote Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin stating that he did not consider the force along the Potomac “sufficient to prevent raids and have so represented to General Halleck, who informed me that he has no more troops to send.” He urged Curtin to hurry his state’s militia draft and send the new troops “with the least possible delay to Chambersburg, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, and Hancock to prevent the possibility of raids.”
McClellan claimed that if he had gotten the reinforcements he requested, “I could have left men enough to have made your frontier reasonably safe. As it is I cannot do it with due regard to the success of the main Army, and beg to warn you in time.”
Turning to the militia draft, McClellan complained to Lincoln about the process of creating new regiments rather than filling shorthanded old regiments with new recruits. McClellan argued that “no greater mistake has been made than the total failure to reinforce the old regiments.” McClellan wrote his wife:
“I have just been put in excellent humor by seeing that instead of sending the drafted men to fill the old rgts (as had been promised me) they are forming them into new rgts. Also that in the face of the great want of cavalry… they are sending the new cavalry rgts from Penna to Louisville instead of hither!! Blind & foolish they will continue to the end.”
As McClellan grumbled, Lincoln made note that his path to Richmond was shorter than Lee’s, who was reorganizing his men west of the Blue Ridge. Lincoln privately resolved that if Lee shifted his forces eastward to block the Federals without McClellan putting up a fight, Lincoln would remove the commander.
Lee left Jackson’s corps in the Valley on the 30th and rode east with Longstreet. The Confederates swiftly marched 60 miles southeast through the Blue Ridge passes and reached Culpeper Court House before McClellan could establish his position at Warrenton, 20 miles to the northeast. As Lincoln feared, Lee blocked McClellan without a fight.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164-68; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 227; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 752-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 225-26; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 281-82; 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. 569