I Am Here in a Terrible Place

Major General George B. McClellan began the month feuding with his General-in-Chief Winfield Scott over strategy and rank. This feud was set aside temporarily when McClellan had to become personally involved in an internal army affair.

The 79th New York Infantry, known as the Highlanders, had fought bravely at the Blackburn’s Ford engagement preceding the Battle of Bull Run, and they lost a quarter of their number at Bull Run itself. Their colonel, James Cameron (brother of Secretary of War Simon Cameron) had been killed in action. Cameron replaced his brother with Colonel Isaac Stevens, which was illegal because only state governments had the power to select regimental commanders. Stevens revoked a furlough that Colonel Cameron had given his men, and their three-month enlistments were changed to three years. Many of the men got drunk and threatened to mutiny.

On the morning of the 14th, eight companies of the Highlanders refused to strike their tents outside Washington. McClellan responded by dispatching the provost marshal, an infantry and artillery battalion, and a cavalry squadron to surround the camp. These were hardened Regular Army veterans who had no use for green volunteers. The Regulars trained their guns on the mutineers, who promptly gave in. The Highlanders were disarmed, the regiment was stripped of its colors, and the 35 leaders of the mutiny were placed in irons. A month later, McClellan personally returned the colors after the men redeemed themselves with good conduct.

The men of the 2nd Maine would not receive such kind treatment. The Maine men had signed on for three years, but when they saw a 90-day regiment disbanding, they protested that they should be allowed to go home as well. When they refused to turn out, they were arrested. McClellan sentenced 63 of the men to hard labor at Fort Jefferson, a military prison in the Dry Tortugas off Key West, Florida. They would serve there for the rest of the war.

During this time, McClellan changed his army’s formal name. It had been the Army of Northeastern Virginia, but that name was tied to the defeat at Bull Run. It would now be known as the Army of the Potomac. It had been part of the Military District of the Potomac, but it would now be part of the Department of the Potomac. The Department included all troops posted in and around Washington, as well as those in Maryland and Virginia. It absorbed the Departments of Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah. Most of the troops were now three-year enlistments who had answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 500,000 volunteers in July. The three-months’ men were mustering out, and the armies began developing a more professional air.

But none of this kept McClellan from continuing to complain about his situation. He railed against General-in-Chief Scott, with whom he disagreed on strategy and enemy strength. McClellan wrote his wife Ellen: “Genl Scott is the most dangerous antagonist I have… either he or I must leave–our ideas are so widely different that it is impossible for us to work together much longer.”

McClellan feared that the Confederate army at Centreville, led by Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, would cross the Potomac River at any moment, destroy his army, and capture Washington. He wrote, “I cannot get one minute’s rest during the day, and sleep with one eye open at night, looking out sharply for Beauregard, who, I think, has some notion of making a dash in this direction.” He went even further on the 16th:

“I am here in a terrible place–the enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force–the Presid’t is an idiot, the old General is in his dotage—they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs. I have no ambition in the present affairs; only wish to save my country, and find the incapables around me will not permit it. They sit on the verge of the precipice and cannot realize what they see. Their reply to everything is, ‘Impossible! Impossible!’ They think nothing possible which is against their wishes.”

Within three weeks of coming to Washington, McClellan had concluded that his superiors were too incompetent to wage war. This negative attitude would do much in the coming months to drive a permanent wedge between himself and President Lincoln, who remained one of McClellan’s staunchest allies as the young general continued building and organizing his new army. For his part, McClellan continued exaggerating enemy numbers. He had estimated Confederate strength at 100,000 men in early August, and by the 20th he was now saying that they had 150,000. McClellan reported that he only had 55,000 to defend against them.


  • Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • 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.
  • Cozzens, Peter, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2008.
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • 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.
  • Sommers, Richard J. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 5. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.
  • Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Leave a Reply