General-in-Chief George B. McClellan was distressed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Special Order Number 1, which had mandated that McClellan lead his Army of the Potomac overland into northern Virginia and capture Manassas Junction. McClellan had argued that his army should instead be moved down the coast on transports and landed at Urbanna, Virginia, which would place the Federals behind the Confederates at Manassas and on a direct line to Richmond.
Lincoln had agreed to let McClellan submit a detailed version of his plan. While McClellan prepared his report, Lincoln wrote out five questions in anticipation of what the general-in-chief would propose. The president added, “If you will give me satisfactory answers to the following questions I shall gladly yield my plan to yours.”:
- “1st. Does not your plan involve a greatly larger expenditure of time, and money than mine?
- “2d. Wherein is a victory more certain by your plan than mine?
- “3d. Wherein is a victory more valuable by your plan than mine?
- “4th. In fact, would it not be less valuable, in this, that it would break no great line of the enemy’s communications, while mine would?
- “5th. In case of disaster, would not a safe retreat be more difficult by your plan than by mine?”
Lincoln sent these questions to McClellan on February 3, the same day that McClellan submitted his report. Covering 22 pages, McClellan’s paper began by recounting how he had inherited a demoralized army after the Battle of Bull Run, “a mere collection of regiments cowering on the banks of the Potomac,” and transformed it into “a well-drilled and reliable army, to which the destinies of the country may be confidently committed.”
McClellan then detailed why Lincoln’s plan was inferior. He noted that “the weather will for a considerable period be very uncertain,” leading to the army being “much delayed by rains and snow. It will therefore be next to impossible to surprise the enemy or take him at a disadvantage by rapid maneuvers… it seems certain that many weeks may elapse before it is possible to commence the march.”
Once on the move, the Federals would have to confront “the masses of the enemy… elated by victory, and entrenched in a position long since selected, studied, & fortified.” Defeating the Confederates there would produce “important results, it is true, but not decisive of the war, nor securing the destruction of the enemy’s main army; for he could fall back upon other positions and fight us again and again, should the condition of his troops permit.”
McClellan then contended that landing the army on the Virginia coast would afford “the shortest possible land route to Richmond, and strikes directly at the heart of the enemy’s power in the east.” Maneuverability would be easier because the “roads in that region are passable at all seasons of the year.” It would force the Confederates at Manassas to fall back to defend Richmond and Norfolk; “his destruction can be averted only by entirely defeating us in battle, in which he must be the assailant.”
Moreover, McClellan asserted, if his army was defeated in battle, “we have a perfectly secure retreat down the Peninsula upon Fort Monroe, with our flanks perfectly covered by the fleet.” Even with “the worst coming to the worst, we can take Fort Monroe as a base, and operate with complete security, although with less celerity and brilliancy of results, up the Peninsula.”
Acknowledging that many transports would be needed to move such a large army, McClellan nonetheless estimated that it “can certainly be accomplished within thirty days from the time the order is given,” and he declared Urbanna to be the best landing place for such an operation. “If at the expense of 30 days delay we can gain a decisive victory which will probably end the war, it is far cheaper than to gain a battle tomorrow that produces no final result.”
“Nothing is certain in war,” McClellan wrote, “but all the chances are in favor of this movement.” So much so, in fact, that “I will stake my life, my reputation on the result–more than that, I will stake upon it the success of our cause.”
McClellan’s arguments in favor of a move down the Lower Chesapeake was based on flawed data. He did not feel confident he could defeat the Confederate army at Manassas because he believed that it numbered up to 200,000 men, when in reality Confederate returns in February showed no more than 42,200 were present for duty. McClellan’s army numbered 140,000. He also made erroneous assumptions about the suitability of the proposed landing sites and the condition of the roads in Tidewater Virginia.
The general-in-chief did not respond to Lincoln’s five questions; apparently he believed that he had sufficiently answered them in his report. Grateful that McClellan had finally committed to a plan of attack and shared it with him, Lincoln did not press the issue. The president still had concerns, but he reluctantly approved the Urbanna plan in the hopes that McClellan would put it into action as quickly as he stated he would in his report.
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- Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
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