Following the Federal defeat at Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln had turned to 34-year-old Major General George B. McClellan to reorganize the army in and around Washington and devise a new strategy to defeat the Confederates in northern Virginia. After giving it some thought, McClellan gave the president a written plan to not only conquer northern Virginia but the entire Confederacy.
McClellan wrote, “The military action of the Government should be prompt and irresistible. The rebels have chosen Virginia as their battle field, and it seems proper for us to make the first great struggle there.” To be victorious, he would need 273,000 men and 600 guns to capture Richmond and then move south and seize the port cities along the Atlantic coast. He would then turn west and do the same on the Gulf coast. Smaller armies would move into eastern Tennessee and down the Mississippi River to subdue Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas.
While General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” made the Mississippi and the coast the primary focus, this plan put McClellan and his grand army in the forefront. And while Scott estimated that the grand campaign could begin in the fall, McClellan provided no timetable for when his plan could be implemented.
The memorandum also offered suggestions on how the war should be conducted. Unlike a conventional war, in which the goal was “to conquer a peace and make a treaty on advantageous terms,” the goal here would be to not just win the war, but to “display such overwhelming strength, as will convince all our antagonists, especially those of the governing aristocratic class, of the utter impossibility of resistance.” He stated that only by adhering to “a rigidly protective policy as to private property and unarmed persons” could “we may well hope for a permanent restoration of a peaceful Union.” Speed was of the essence, as McClellan wrote, “the question to be decided is simply this: shall we crush the rebellion at one blow, terminate the war in one campaign, or shall we leave it for a legacy to our descendants?”
The young general wrote his wife Ellen on the night of August 2, “I handed to the Presdt tonight a carefully considered plan for conducting the war on a large scale. I shall carry this thing on en grand and crush the Rebels in one campaign. I flatter myself that (Confederate General P.G.T.) Beauregard has gained his last victory. We need success and must have it. I will leave nothing undone to gain it.” He also expressed his disdain for Scott: “He cannot long retain command I think–when he is retired I am sure to succeed him, unless in the mean time I lose a battle–which I do not expect to do.”
In early August, a state dinner was held at the White House. The guest of honor was Prince Napoleon of France, who had come to observe the U.S. war effort. McClellan and Scott were among the invitees, and they arrived together, with the aging Scott leaning on the younger man’s arm. According to McClellan, “many marked the contrast.” McClellan sat beside one of the Prince’s staff members, and the two had a lengthy conversation. When it ended, the British foreign minister, Lord Lyons, sitting on McClellan’s other side, asked the staffer, “You are aware that you are talking with the next President of the United States?” McClellan “answered with a fine, modest and pleasant smile.”
Despite his unbounding self-confidence, McClellan quickly developed fears that his army may be attacked at any moment. The Confederate Army of the Potomac was within striking distance at Centreville, and McClellan’s operatives consistently inflated its numbers and fighting capabilities. On the 4th, McClellan warned his officers, “Information has been received which goes to show that the enemy may attack us within the next forty-eight hours.” He repeated this warning two days later.
After another two days, McClellan wrote Scott, “I am induced to believe that the enemy has at least 100,000 men in front of us. Were I in Beauregard’s place, with that force at my disposal, I would attack the positions on the other side of the Potomac and at the same time cross the river above this city in force.” He asserted that his army was outnumbered two-to-one, and “entirely insufficient for the emergency.” To remedy this, McClellan urged Scott to merge all military units and departments in the area into one overall command, with McClellan in charge. On the 8th, just 12 days after taking army command, McClellan described the situation as he saw it to his wife:
“Rose early today (having retired at three a.m.) and was pestered to death with senators, etc, and a row with General Scott until about four o’clock; then crossed the river and rode beyond and along the line of pickets for some distance. Came back and had a long interview with (Secretary of State William) Seward about my ‘pronunciamento’ against General Scott’s policy… How does he (Seward) think that I can save this country when stopped by General Scott–I do not know whether he is a dotard or a traitor! He cannot or will not comprehend the condition in which we are placed and is unequal to the emergency. If he cannot be taken out of my path I will not retain my position but will resign and let the admin. take care of itself.”
Meanwhile, Scott fumed at McClellan’s letter warning of an overwhelming Confederate attack. The general-in-chief told Secretary of War Simon Cameron that McClellan would not discuss the matter with him in person, and, “Relying on our numbers, our forts, and the Potomac River, I am confident in the opposite opinion… I have not the slightest apprehension for the safety of the Government here.” Scott complained that “all the greater war questions are to be settled, without resort to or consultation with me,” and if he was going to continue to be bypassed by McClellan, then “allow me to be placed on the officers’ retired list, and then quietly to lay myself up–probably forever–somewhere in or about New York.”
President Lincoln stepped in and persuaded McClellan to withdraw his letter, but Scott continued railing about McClellan discussing military matters with the president and cabinet without including the general-in-chief. He concluded, “With such supports on his part, it would be as idle for me as it would be against the dignity of my years, to be filing daily complaints against an ambitious junior who, independent of the extrinsic advantages alluded to, has unquestionably very high qualifications for military command.”
McClellan may have withdrawn his letter, but his low opinion of Scott went unchanged. He wrote his wife:
“Gen. Scott is the great obstacle. He will not comprehend the danger. I have to fight my way against him. Tomorrow the question will probably be decided by giving me absolute control independently of him. I suppose it will result in enmity on his part against me; but I have no choice. The people call upon me to save the country. I must save it, and cannot respect anything that is in the way.
“I receive letter after letter, have conversation after conversation, calling on me to save the nation, alluding to the presidency, dictatorship, etc. As I hope one day to be united with you forever in Heaven, I have no such aspiration. I would cheerfully take the dictatorship and agree to lay down my life when the country is saved. I am not spoiled by my unexpected new position. I feel sure that God will give me the strength and wisdom to preserve this great nation; but I tell you, who share all my thoughts, that I have no selfish feeling in this matter. I feel that God has placed a great work in my hands. I have not sought it. I know how weak I am, but I know that I mean to do right, and I believe that God will help me and give me the wisdom I do not possess. Pray for me, that I may be able to accomplish my task, the greatest, perhaps, that any poor, weak mortal ever had to do.”
McClellan did not get a command independent of Scott, and the growing rift between the young and old general would continue.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.