The Harrison’s Bar Letter

By July 7, Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac was secure at Harrison’s Landing on the Virginia Peninsula. This was largely due to Federal gunboat protection against Confederate attacks, and Federal transport vessels keeping the army abundantly supplied. Commander John Rodgers, in charge of the Federal naval forces on the James River, reported to Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Fleet:

“There is to be a convoy of gunboats each day from Harrison’s Bar to near the mouth of the Chickahominy, going and returning each day. As there was no better reason for the time than the arrival and departure of the mail from Old Point, it was agreed that at 9 a.m. all the transportation down should sail, convoyed by gunboats–I had selected four for it. And at 3 p.m. all the army transportation to this point should come up, convoyed by the same force.”

This protection apparently emboldened McClellan, who reported to Washington, “My position is very strong and daily becoming more so. If not attacked to-day I shall laugh at them.” To Major General John Pope, organizing his new Army of Virginia, McClellan wrote, “I am in a very strong natural position, rendered stronger every day by the labor of the troops, and which in a few days will be impregnable.”

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

Since no Confederate attack seemed imminent, McClellan had time to consider matters outside his scope as military commander. About a month prior, President Abraham Lincoln had given McClellan permission to share his views on the overall military situation beyond just his army, as long as he did so in writing. McClellan now acted upon that permission by writing a letter detailing his ideas on overall war policy. He began:

“You have been fully informed, that the Rebel army is in our front, with the purpose of overwhelming us by attacking our positions or reducing us by blocking our river communications. I can not but regard our condition as critical and I earnestly desire, in view of possible contingencies, to lay before your Excellency, for your private consideration, my general views concerning the state of the rebellion…”

“Our cause must never be abandoned; it is the cause of free institutions and self government,” McClellan insisted. “The Constitution and the Union must be preserved, whatever may be the cost in time, treasure and blood.” However, he argued that the administration must follow some ground rules to accomplish these goals. He wrote, “The time has come when the Government must determine upon a civil and military policy, covering the whole ground of our national trouble.”

The general then lectured his commander-in-chief on what types of policies should be employed:

“This rebellion has assumed the character of a War: as such it should be regarded; and it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian Civilization. It should not be a War looking to the subjugation of the people of any state, in any event. It should not be, at all, a War upon population; but against armed forces and political organizations.”

McClellan listed four actions that the Federal government should never take: “Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” Of these actions, the first two were already being done with Lincoln’s consent. The Republican majority in Congress had submitted legislation to mandate the third action, and the fourth was currently under debate.

McClellan continued:

“In prosecuting the War, all private property and unarmed persons should be strictly protected; subject only to the necessities of military operations. All private property taken for military use should be paid for or receipted for; pillage and waste should be treated as high crimes; all unnecessary trespass sternly prohibited; and offensive demeanor by the military towards citizens promptly rebuked. Military arrests should not be tolerated, except in places where active hostilities exist; and oaths not required by enactments–Constitutionally made–should be neither demanded nor received. Military government should be confined to the preservation of public order and the protection of political rights.”

Regarding military scope, McClellan wrote:

“Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude, either by supporting or impairing the authority of the master; except for repressing disorder as in other cases. Slaves contraband under the Act of Congress, seeking military protection, should receive it. The right of the Government to appropriate permanently to its own service claims to slave labor should be asserted and the right of the owner to compensation therefore should be recognized… A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.”

McClellan also stressed the need for a “Commander in Chief of the Army,” and although he did not “ask that place” for himself, he was “willing to serve you in such position as you may assign me and I will do so as faithfully as ever subordinate served superior.”

Lincoln was on his way to the Peninsula to assess the situation and investigate rumors that the army was demoralized; McClellan planned to hand him this letter when he arrived. McClellan wrote his wife Ellen, “I have written a strong, frank letter to the President. If he acts upon it, the country will be saved.” He asked her to keep a copy of the letter to prove to future generations “that I understood the state of affairs long ago, and that had my advice been followed we should not have been in our present difficulties.”

McClellan also exchanged letters with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The two men had once been close friends, but since Stanton had taken office, he had become one of McClellan’s most vocal critics. Stanton took the time to set aside their differences by writing that “wicked men” had caused animosity “between us for their own base and selfish purposes. No man had ever a truer friend than I have been to you and shall continue to be.”

McClellan responded, “Of all men in the nation you were my choice for that position.” However, Stanton’s treatment of him “was marked by repeated acts done in such manner as to be deeply offensive to my feelings and calculated to affect me injuriously in public estimation.” This “led me to believe that your mind was warped by a bitter personal prejudice against me.”

However, McClellan admitted that he may have been “mistaken in regard to your real feelings and opinions, and that your conduct, so unaccountable to my own fallible judgment, must have proceeded from views and motives which I did not understand.” As such, he would “resume the same cordial confidence which once characterized our intercourse.”

McClellan then turned to the main purpose of his letter: getting Stanton to side with him against Lincoln on military policy:

“You have more than once told me that together we could save this country. It is yet not too late to do so… I have briefly given in a confidential letter to the President my views (please ask to see it) as to the policy which ought to govern this contest on our part. None other will call forth its energies in time to save our cause. For none other will our armies continue to fight… Let no cloud hereafter arise between us.”


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