As the year began, Federal General-in-Chief George B. McClellan reported that he was recovering nicely from what doctors called typhoid. But he still could not resume active command, and without an overall commander, the Federal armies remained stationary. Members of Congress stepped up their pressure on President Abraham Lincoln to get the armies to move, especially the Army of the Potomac stationed in and around Washington. Much of this pressure came from the Radicals in Lincoln’s Republican Party.
The Radical members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War met with Lincoln in early January and claimed that they had evidence of McClellan’s incompetence. Some accused McClellan of treason, alleging that he was using his illness to keep from fighting the Confederates. When the Radicals asked why McClellan had not shared his plans with anyone, Lincoln replied that he “did not think he had any right to know, but that, as he was not a military man, it was his duty to defer to General McClellan.”
Committee chairman Benjamin F. Wade pushed Lincoln to replace McClellan with Major General Irvin McDowell. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a strong McClellan ally, asserted that even though the general-in-chief was “the best man for the place he held known to me,” he should work closer with his subordinates to give them “full intelligence of his own plans of action, so that, in the event of sickness or accident to himself,” the army would not be prostrated.
When Lincoln refused demands to fire McClellan, cabinet members suggested creating a war council that would oversee the general. It seemed that Lincoln had to do something and soon, otherwise, as Chase explained, the treasury would run out of money to pay for the war. On top of this, serious charges of corruption in the War Department were mounting, which led to the removal of Simon Cameron as secretary of war.
Despondent, Lincoln went to Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs’s office and complained that the armies had made no significant progress since McClellan fell ill three weeks before. Meigs said that if McClellan really had typhoid, he could be sick for another three weeks, meaning nearly another month of military inactivity. Lincoln asked, “General, what shall I do? The people are impatient; Chase has no money and tells me he can raise no more; the General of the Army has typhoid fever. The bottom is out of the tub. What shall I do?”
Meigs proposed arranging a meeting with the top Army of the Potomac commanders to discuss the possibility of temporarily replacing McClellan. Lincoln agreed, and he hosted a conference at the White House on the night of the 10th with Major Generals William B. Franklin and Irvin McDowell, along with Secretary of State William H. Seward, Treasury Secretary Chase, and Thomas A. Scott, representing the War Department.
Lincoln explained all the problems facing the administration and announced, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.” He asked for ideas on how best to confront the Confederate army still positioned dangerously close to Washington. McDowell suggested a second overland advance toward Manassas Junction, partly to avenge his defeat at Bull Run the past July.
Franklin, a McClellan ally, proposed an idea similar to McClellan’s secret plan in which the army would move by water down the coast and land on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. From there, the army would move up the Peninsula to Richmond. Scott countered that an enormous number of ships would be needed to transport the 100,000-man army, and the department had struggled to find enough shipping for just 12,000 for the Port Royal campaign the past fall. The meeting ended when Lincoln asked the generals to return the next day with a report on the army’s condition.
Franklin was concerned about making such a report without consulting McClellan, but McDowell asserted that they had been ordered to do so by their commander in chief. They asked Chase for his opinion, and he agreed with McDowell. Chase also divulged all that he knew about McClellan’s secret plan to ship the army down the coast and land at Urbanna.
The meeting resumed on the night of the 11th, with the same attendees along with Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. McDowell reiterated his support for an overland movement, and Franklin did the same for a water route. McDowell said, “I do not think a move by water of so large a force as I deem necessary could be counted upon under a month.” Franklin conceded this and acknowledged that if time was a factor, “it would be better to march it into Virginia than to transport it by vessels.”
Chase supported McDowell, arguing that if both options presented difficulties then the army may as well move by land. Blair supported Franklin, warning that a “plan of going to the front from this position is Bull Run all over again.” Lincoln wanted the opinion of Quartermaster General Meigs on a possible change of base to the Peninsula, so he adjourned the meeting until the next day.
Meanwhile, War Department operative Edwin M. Stanton had learned from Chase about the meetings and informed his close friend McClellan that his subordinates were plotting the army’s fate (and possibly even his own) without him. This enraged the general to the point that he shrugged off his illness long enough to attend the conference on the morning of January 12. McClellan later stated that his appearance “caused very much the effect of a shell in a powder magazine,” and the men’s faces showed that “there was something of which they were ashamed.”
McClellan did not explain the reason for his attendance, and he still refused to divulge his plans other than promising an offensive in Kentucky soon. None of the attendees mentioned McDowell’s overland plan. Meigs estimated that it would take up to six weeks to gather enough shipping just to transfer the first 30,000 men to the Peninsula. With the northern press and public clamoring for immediate action, this seemed untenable. Seward said that he would support any plan that brought a victory. Lincoln announced that there would be a final meeting the next night.
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