An Unparalleled Insolence of Epaulets

With Winfield Scott now retired, George B. McClellan commanded all Federal armies while continuing to directly command the Army of the Potomac. Despite the slight embarrassment at Munson’s Hill and the defeat at Ball’s Bluff, the new general-in-chief still enjoyed immense popularity among northerners and his troops. This was exemplified by an enormous torchlight parade observed by President Abraham Lincoln, in which participants honored McClellan as the savior of the Union.

Over the past few months, the president had made a habit of occasionally dropping by McClellan’s home to discuss military strategy. For Lincoln, McClellan sometimes waived the social and military custom of requiring a prior appointment. On other occasions, Lincoln had called on McClellan only to be turned away for various reasons. Lincoln paid an unannounced visit to McClellan’s home on the night of November 13, accompanied by Secretary of State William H. Seward and Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. McClellan’s servant informed the men that the general had gone to the wedding of Colonel Frank Wheaton at the headquarters of Major General Don Carlos Buell. The servant invited the men to wait in the parlor, as McClellan was expected home soon. Hay recalled:

“We went in, and after we had waited about an hour, McClellan came in, and without paying any particular attention to the porter who told him the President was waiting to see him, went upstairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about half an hour, and sent once more a servant to tell the General they were there; and the answer came that he had gone to bed.”

The three men left, and Hay later wrote, “I merely record this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes without comment. It is the first indication I have yet seen of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities.” Seward condemned McClellan’s disrespectful behavior, but Lincoln forgave the snub: “I will hold McClellan’s horse if he will only bring us success.” According to Hay, “Coming home I spoke to the President about the matter, but he seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better, at this time, not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”

However, the insult was not forgotten. Lincoln began summoning McClellan to the White House when he wanted to meet with the general-in-chief.

A grand review of 70,000 men of the Army of the Potomac took place at Bailey’s Cross Roads, outside Washington, a week later. Some 20,000 people, including the president, his cabinet, and the diplomatic corps, observed the enormous martial pageant. A correspondent for Harper’s Weekly called the review “enlivening and brilliant beyond description.” McClellan himself proclaimed that he “never saw so large a Review in Europe so well done—I was completely satisfied & delighted beyond expression.”

Many noted the vast difference between the undisciplined troops of the past summer and the martial precision of McClellan’s army. Others sneered that McClellan often liked to stage reviews to raise morale rather than win victories in the field. Criticism of McClellan’s lack of activity was growing louder. Among McClellan’s fiercest critics were members of Congress belonging to the “Radical” faction of the Republican Party. The Radicals favored ending slavery as a means to winning the war, while McClellan sought a war to preserve the Union without any interference with slavery.

The Radicals urged an immediate offensive into northern Virginia, but McClellan alleged that the Confederate army stationed around Manassas Junction was stronger than his. In reality, McClellan’s army was nearly three times the Confederates’ size. While the Radicals complained about McClellan’s inaction, McClellan regularly complained about his critics and his superiors. He wrote:

“I cannot move without more means… I have left nothing undone to make this army what it ought to be… The people think me all-powerful. Never was there a greater mistake. I am thwarted and deceived by these incapables at every turn… I am doing all I can to get ready to move before winter sets in, but it now begins to look as if we are condemned to a winter of inactivity. If it is so the fault will not be mine; there will be that consolation for my conscience, even if the world at large never knows it.”

Politics also began playing an increasing role in the relations between McClellan and the Republican administration he answered to. McClellan had close ties with New York Democrats, many of whom hoped that he would run for president in 1864. While McClellan disliked slavery, he also disliked abolitionists, most of whom were Republicans. An officer for the adjutant general reported that McClellan had said “that if the Government expected him to fight the South to free the slaves, they would be mistaken, for he would not do it.”

McClellan wrote to prominent New York Democrat Samuel Barlow, “Help me to dodge the nigger–we want nothing to do with him. I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the Govt–on no other issue. To gain that end we cannot afford to raise up the negro question–it must be incidental & subsidiary.” Noting that this aligned with Lincoln’s views on the matter, McClellan added, “The Presdt is perfectly honest & is really sound on the nigger question–I will answer for it now that things go right with him.”

Though the Republicans were losing patience with the general-in-chief, a seed of a military plan was germinating in McClellan’s head. He attended a cabinet meeting where a colonel described the capture of Hatteras Inlet in August. The colonel then said that Major General John Wool, commanding Federals at Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, had urged landing an army there and moving up the Peninsula to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. If McClellan could land his army there, he could completely avoid the supposedly impregnable Confederate defenses at Manassas. This idea would develop through the winter, as would the growing animosity between McClellan and the Republicans.


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