No Going into Winter Quarters

By this month, pressure was increasing on President Abraham Lincoln from politicians, mostly in his own party, to force General-in-Chief George B. McClellan to lead his Army of the Potomac into some kind of action. McClellan had not hinted at any plans for an offensive, but the general consensus was that he could choose one of four options:

  1. Duplicate what the Federals had done at Bull Run and advance directly on Manassas Junction
  2. Cross the Potomac River below Manassas and flank the Confederates by moving on Fredericksburg
  3. Move down the Potomac and land at Urbanna, halfway between Fredericksburg and Richmond
  4. Move down the Potomac into Chesapeake Bay and land at Fort Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers

Lincoln, tired of waiting for McClellan to share his plans, sent him a memorandum asking, “If it were determined to make a forward movement of the Army of the Potomac without awaiting further increase of numbers or better drill and discipline, how long would it require to actually get in motion?”

Lincoln offered several suggestions, all related to the plan that McClellan had imparted to him in which the army would move southwest from Alexandria, cross Cedar Run, and attack the Confederates at Manassas Junction from the southeast. The president also suggested placing part of the army on the Occoquan River, 15 miles south of Alexandria, and move it west to cut the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Lincoln wrote that both Manassas and the railroad “will probably not be successfully resisted at the same time.” McClellan did not inform his commander-in-chief that he was developing a plan for a water-borne invasion along the Virginia coast.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

McClellan waited nine days before finally replying. He wrote that he had 104,000 men, and if needed, they could all be in motion by Christmas. The Confederate army numbered just 44,000 at that time, but McClellan again overestimated it by stating that “the enemy could meet us in front with equal forces nearly.” McClellan then announced, “I have now my mind actually turned toward another plan of campaign that I do not think at all anticipated by the enemy nor by many of our own people.”

The plan called for McClellan to load his army on transports and land it at Urbanna. The Federals would then disembark and place themselves just 50 miles from Richmond and well behind General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate line at Manassas Junction. McClellan did not seem to realize that Johnston anticipated that this would be one of his options and would fall back from Manassas to meet the Federals accordingly.

For such a plan to succeed, McClellan would need 150,000 men. It would take time to plan and arrange for what would be the largest amphibious military operation in American history. It would also take money, which was quickly running out. Lincoln therefore arranged for McClellan to explain his plan to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.

The secretary listened to the general’s proposal and later wrote, “Nothing but great energy and great secrecy could insure the success of such a movement, but with these its successes seemed certain.” When Chase told McClellan that war funding was scheduled to run out by mid-February, McClellan assured him “that the whole movement would be accomplished before the 1st of that month.” Chase later met with investors to acquire more funds and told them of “my entire confidence in our young general, and my certain assurances that we were to have no going into winter quarters.”

But then all planning and development came to a complete halt in late December when McClellan contracted what doctors called typhoid. He was incapacitated indefinitely, and because he refused to allow anyone to temporarily replace him as army commander, all active operations were ended indefinitely as well.


  • 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.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Longstreet, James, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. (Kindle Edition), 1895.
  • 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.
  • Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

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