Lincoln Visits the Virginia Peninsula

President Abraham Lincoln arrived at Harrison’s Landing on July 8 aboard the U.S.S. Ariel. According to the Sunday Morning Chronicle, “The object of the presidential visit was to see the condition of the army (of the Potomac), and learn what change of plans, if any, were deemed necessary by Gen. (George B.) McClellan.” Accompanying Lincoln was Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Assistant Secretary of War Peter H. Watson, and General-turned-Congressman Frank Blair, now chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs.

The Lincoln party met with McClellan and his staff, and together they rode out to conduct a twilight troop inspection. A spectacular light show took place that featured the newly-uniformed men firing their muskets into the darkening sky. An officer noted the troops’ reaction to the president: “Long and hearty was the applause and welcome which greeted him. His presence after the late disaster… seemed to infuse new ardor into the dispirited army.” A chaplain concurred: “The boys liked him, his popularity is universal.”

McClellan disagreed. He wrote his wife Ellen that Lincoln was “an old stick and of pretty poor timber at that… I had to order the men to cheer and they did it very feebly.” Nevertheless, the soldiers seemed upbeat to Lincoln, who was relieved to see that army morale was not as low as feared. In fact, most officials in the Lincoln administration agreed with Attorney General Edward Bates, who wrote that if only the army “had a little activity & enterprise, in the governing head, it would not fail to win all desirable success.”

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit:

Returning to army headquarters, McClellan handed the president what became known as the “Harrison’s Bar Letter.” This included political advice on how Lincoln should wage the war. It also highlighted the growing rift between Democrats like McClellan who wanted the war to end with slavery unchanged, and Republicans like Lincoln, who were beginning to favor ending slavery as a means to win the war. Lincoln read the letter and simply said, “All right,” before putting it in his pocket.

To Lincoln, McClellan seemed to be urging a return to the policies he had tried when the war started, only to see them fail. They were also the policies of a conservative Democrat, which northern voters had rejected when they elected Lincoln and the Republican majority in 1860. Unsurprisingly, Lincoln said nothing more about it, and he did not act upon any of McClellan’s suggestions. McClellan overstepped his bounds in writing the “Harrison’s Bar Letter,” and it irreparably tarnished the general’s career.

McClellan wrote his wife about the letter: “He read it in my presence, but made no comments upon it, merely saying, when he had finished it, that he was obliged to me for it… I do not know to what extent he has profited by his visit–not much I fear, for he really seems quite incapable of rising to the height of the merits of the question & the magnitude of the crisis.”

The president did not want political advice from his generals; he wanted them to focus solely on destroying the Confederacy. This was the main reason why Lincoln had come to Harrison’s Landing. During the meeting, McClellan refused to admit defeat or take responsibility for his army’s “retrograde movement” down the Peninsula, and he continued to cite the lack of reinforcements as the reason he had not yet destroyed the Confederate army and conquered Richmond.

Lincoln had just three questions for McClellan:

  • How many men were in the army?
  • Where was General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army?
  • “If you desired, could you remove the army safely?”

McClellan responded:

  • There were 80,000 officers and men in the army, but the total could be closer to 75,000.
  • The Confederates were “four to five miles from us on all the roads, I think nearly the whole army–both Hills, Longstreet, Jackson, Magruder, Huger.” (Actually, Lee was falling back closer to Richmond.)
  • Removing the army from the Peninsula “would be a delicate & very difficult matter.”

The next day, Lincoln conferred with McClellan’s five corps commanders (Major Generals Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, Erasmus D. Keyes, Fitz John Porter, and William B. Franklin). The commanders stated that Lee’s army had fallen back toward Richmond. This bothered Lincoln because McClellan had told him that Lee was just four or five miles away, and the corps commanders should not have been more aware of the enemy’s location than the army chief. But it was soon discovered that Lee was in the process of moving back between the 8th and 9th, and the corps commanders were just providing a newer update to this developing information.

To McClellan’s shock, Lincoln did not ask for any details about the recent battles. Instead, he posed the same three questions to them as he had to McClellan the night before. The generals estimated army strength at 81,500, a bit higher than McClellan’s number. Three of the five (Sumner, Heintzelman, and Porter) reported army morale to be strong, which was notable considering that these three corps had seen the most combat in the recent battles. Keyes believed that morale would worsen if they stayed at Harrison’s Landing, and Franklin said it was “not good.”

The generals differed on the third question as well. The same three who believed that morale was strong warned against leaving the Peninsula; Sumner said “we give up the cause if we do it,” and both Heintzelman and Porter said it would “be ruinous to the country.” Keyes thought it could be done, but only “if done quickly.” Franklin said, “I think we could, and think we better.”

Lincoln left the Peninsula on the 10th. On the return trip, he shared the “Harrison’s Bar Letter” with Frank Blair and said that it reminded him of “the man who got on a horse, and the horse stuck his hind foot into a stirrup. The man said, ‘if you’re going to get on I’ll get off.’”

McClellan wrote his wife after the Lincoln party left, “I have not done splendidly at all–I have only tried to do my duty & God has helped me–or rather He has helped my army & our country–& we are safe. I think I begin to see His wise purpose in all this & that the events of the next few days will prove it. If I had succeeded in taking Richmond now the fanatics of the North might have been too powerful & reunion impossible. However that may be, I am sure that it is all for the best.”

Many generals in the Army of the Potomac shared McClellan’s political views, and they were beginning to openly accuse the Lincoln administration of secretly working against McClellan to keep the war going until slavery could be abolished. McClellan told his wife, “I have commenced receiving letters from the North urging me to march on Washington & assume the Govt!”

Republicans in Washington began warning of a cabal being formed among McClellan’s allies in the Federal high command. Senator George Julian of Indiana declared that officers in the Potomac army were planning “to march upon the capital and disperse Congress as Cromwell did the Long Parliament.” Thomas Key, judge advocate to McClellan himself, heard “that a plan to countermarch to Washington and intimidate the President (into ending the war) had been seriously discussed.”

On the 11th, McClellan wrote his wife, “I have nothing as yet from Wash. and begin to believe that they intend & hope that I & my army may melt away under the hot sun–if they leave me here neglected much longer I shall feel like taking my rather large military family to Wash. to seek an explanation of their course. I pray that under such circumstances I should be treated with rather more politeness than I have of late.”

McClellan also wrote that when Lincoln left Harrison’s Landing, he “seemed that of a man about to do something of which he was ashamed.” Unbeknownst to McClellan, Lincoln had already contemplated the general’s suggestion for a commander-in-chief in the “Harrison’s Bar Letter,” and he already had a man in mind for the job.


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