The war councils that had been taking place at the White House since January 10 regarding the Federal Army of the Potomac resumed on the 13th. General-in-Chief George B. McClellan had been unable to attend the initial meetings due to sickness, but when he learned that his subordinates were making plans without consulting him, he overcame his illness enough to come to the meeting on the 12th. He was sure to make his presence known the next day as well, and he was in a surly mood.
President Abraham Lincoln announced that he was only conducting these meetings because McClellan was sick; McClellan showed obvious displeasure at having to be there at all. Lincoln asked Major General Irvin McDowell, one of McClellan’s division commanders, to describe the plan that he had come up with. McDowell, unsure of himself because his superior was in the room, reluctantly explained his plan to move the army overland to confront the Confederate army at Manassas Junction. He estimated that it would take three weeks to implement. McDowell then explained that he had offered his opinion only because McClellan had fallen ill and his recovery time was uncertain. McClellan interrupted by saying, “You are entitled to have any opinion you please!”
McDowell then offered an alternate plan similar to the one described by Major General William B. Franklin, another of McClellan’s division commanders, on the 10th. This involved moving the army by water down the Virginia coast and landing at Fort Monroe, on the peninsula between the York and James rivers. Franklin accused McDowell of pandering to McClellan, but McDowell argued that he had developed the plan without consulting the commander. Secretary of State William H. Seward blandly repeated what he had said in the previous day’s meeting that any plan would be fine with him if it brought a victory.
When Lincoln asked when an offensive could begin, McClellan said nothing. The president again listed the reasons why action was so crucial, and McClellan replied that “it was so clear a blind man could see it,” and repeated his common complaint that the Confederates in northern Virginia outnumbered his army. Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs then recalled, “All looked to McClellan, who sat still with his head hanging down, and mute. The situation grew awkward.”
As the meeting devolved into smaller discussions among the participants, Meigs whispered to McClellan, “Can you not promise some movement towards Manassas?” McClellan said, “I cannot move on them with as great a force as they have.” When Meigs asked how many opposed him, McClellan replied, “Not less than 175,000 according to my advices.” There were really no more than 55,000. Meigs then muttered that the commander-in-chief should know his top commander’s plans. McClellan said, “If I tell him my plans they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can’t keep a secret, he will tell them to (his son) Tad.”
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase then directly asked McClellan to offer a timetable, explaining that the whole purpose of this meeting was for the commander to present his plan for the participants to review. McClellan replied that he was unaware of that purpose, and he did not feel compelled to answer questions from a man he did not consider his superior (by this time, Simon Cameron had been removed as secretary of war, so that left Lincoln as McClellan’s only superior). Chase whispered, “Well, if that is Mac’s decision, he is a ruined man.”
Lincoln finally spoke up over the conversations: “Well, General McClellan, I think you had better tell us what your plans are.” McClellan responded:
“If you have any confidence in me, it is not right or necessary to entrust my designs to the judgment of others, but if your confidence is so slight as to require my opinions be fortified by those of other persons, it would be wiser to replace me by someone fully possessing your confidence. No general commanding an army would willingly submit his plans to the judgment of such an assembly, in which some are… incapable of keeping a secret so that anything made known to them would soon spread over Washington and become known to the enemy.”
McClellan added that Lincoln knew the Army of the Potomac could not move until the Federal offensive in Kentucky (i.e., the planned drive into eastern Tennessee) began. The general then declared that he was “unwilling to develop his plans,” but “that he would tell them if he was ordered to do so.” Lincoln would not issue that order and, according to Meigs, “yielded in despair to this willful General.”
McClellan assured Lincoln that he had a timetable in mind, which satisfied the president enough to announce, “Then I will adjourn this meeting.” Later that day, both Lincoln and McClellan cabled the commanders in the Western Theater, imparting upon them the importance of taking the initiative in Kentucky and Tennessee. Lincoln appeared to disregard McClellan’s insolence toward the meeting attendees, but it angered many others, among them Seward, Chase, Meigs, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair. Chase, once one of McClellan’s staunchest allies, wrote, “I had now so far lost confidence in him, that I was convinced a change ought to be made.”
Lincoln and his cabinet were not the only ones wanting answers from McClellan. Now that he had resumed command, he was summoned to testify before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. The committee members, most of whom were Radical Republicans opposed to McClellan, wanted to know what was keeping him from launching an offensive into northern Virginia.
McClellan stated that he could not presently invade northern Virginia because there were not enough bridges over the Potomac River for a possible retreat. Zachariah Chandler of Michigan replied, “If I understand you correctly, before you strike at the rebels you want to be sure of plenty of room so that you can run in case they strike back.” Committee chairman Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio was more blunt: “Or in case you get scared.” Despite the testy exchanges, the correspondent for the pro-McClellan New York Herald reported that “the interview ended in a manner satisfactory to all parties.”
In the latter half of January, McClellan finally began developing specific plans for an offensive. He would transport the army down the Potomac, into Chesapeake Bay, and land it at Urbanna on the Virginia coast. This would give the Federals a direct overland line to Richmond, and would supposedly force the Confederate army at Manassas Junction to fall back to protect its capital. McClellan asked Assistant Secretary of War John Tucker if it would be feasible “to move one at a time, for a short distance, from Annapolis to the mouth of the Rappahannock, about 50,000 troops, 10,000 horses, 1,000 wagons, 13 batteries and the usual equipments of such an army.” Tucker replied that it would.
McClellan met with Lincoln on the 24th and offered more details about his plan, including Tucker’s assessment of the Urbanna expedition. Lincoln reiterated his support for moving the army overland against the Confederates at Manassas and added, “You and I have distinct, and different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac.” McClellan went back to headquarters to formulate the details of his plan. When a week had passed and Lincoln heard nothing further from his general-in-chief, he decided to develop a plan of his own.
- Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- 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.