In Washington, Major General George B. McClellan continued organizing and building up the new Army of the Potomac. By this month, the army was larger than any ever before assembled in North America. Northerners nicknamed McClellan “Little Napoleon,” and some hailed him as the savior of the Union. McClellan enjoyed his immense popularity. However, some were beginning to grumble about McClellan’s supposed reluctance to test his new army in combat. Others noted that McClellan, a young, rising military star, and Winfield Scott, the aging, ailing general-in-chief, were not exactly seeing eye to eye when it came to military matters.
These tensions flared during a meeting in Scott’s office with President Abraham Lincoln, the cabinet, the two commanders, and their rival staffs. When it was asked how many troops were in and around Washington, neither Scott nor Secretary of War Simon Cameron could answer. However, Secretary of State William H. Seward produced a paper listing the various commands and an estimated total count. McClellan verified that Seward’s estimate was accurate. This greatly upset Scott, who fumed:
“This is a remarkable state of things. I am in command of the armies of the United States, but have been wholly unable to get any reports, any statement of the actual forces, but here is the Secretary of State, a civilian, for whom I have great respect but who is not a military man nor conversant with military affairs, though his abilities are great, but this civilian is possessed of facts which are withheld from me. Military reports are made, not to these Headquarters but to the State Department. Am I, Mr. President, to apply to the Secretary of State for the necessary military information to discharge my duties?”
Seward tried to explain that he got his counts by simply observing the military activity in and around the capital. Scott replied: “And you, without report, probably ascertained where each regiment was ordered. Your labors and industry, Mr. Secretary of State, I know are very arduous, but I did not before know the whole of them. If you in that way can get accurate information, the Rebels can also, though I cannot.”
Cameron quipped that it was well known that Seward liked to involve himself in affairs outside his department, and this eased tensions somewhat as the meeting ended. But it did not erase the fact that McClellan had not bothered to impart key military intelligence to the general-in-chief, secretary of war, or the president.
Before McClellan left, he extended his hand to the general-in-chief and said, “Good morning, General Scott.” Scott shook McClellan’s hand and replied: “You were called here (from western Virginia) by my advice. The times require vigilance and activity. I am not active and never shall be again. When I proposed that you should come here to aid, not supersede, me, you had my friendship and confidence. You still have my confidence.”
McClellan described the meeting in a letter to his wife Ellen. Scott had “raised a row” with him, he wrote, and, “I kept cool, looked him square in the face, & rather I think I got the advantage of him. In the course of the conversation he very strongly intimated that we were no longer friends. I said nothing… I presume war is declared–so be it. I do not fear him. I have one strong point; that I do not care one iota for my present position.”
- Beatie, Russel H., Army of the Potomac, Volume 2: McClellan Takes Command, September 1861-February 1862. Da Capo Press, Inc., 2002.
- 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.
- Welles, Gideon, Diary of Gideon Welles Volumes I & II. Kindle Edition. Abridged, Annotated.