As July wore on, Major General George B. McClellan became increasingly convinced that the Lincoln administration had turned against him and his Army of the Potomac. The army sat idle at Harrison’s Landing on the Virginia Peninsula southeast of Richmond, while another Federal army was being assembled to the north. McClellan told a civilian ally that he believed the administration was “weakening my command so as to render it inadequate to accomplish the end in view, & then to hold me responsible for the results. I am quite weary of this.”
To his wife Ellen, McClellan fumed that administration officials “intend and hope that my army may melt away under the hot sun.” He singled out Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, his once-close friend, as betraying him, even though the men had recently pledged to “let no cloud hereafter arise between us.” McClellan wrote:
“I think that he is the most unmitigated scoundrel I ever knew, heard, or read of; I think that (and I do not wish to be irreverent) had he lived in the time of the Saviour, Judas Iscariot would have remained a respected member of the fraternity of the Apostles, and that the magnificent treachery and rascality of E.M. Stanton would have caused Judas to have raised his arms in holy horror and unaffected wonder–he would certainly have claimed and exercised the right to have been the Betrayer of his Lord and Master, by virtue of the same merit that raised Satan to his ‘bad eminence.’ I may do the man injustice–God grant that I may be wrong–for I hate to think that humanity can sink so low–but my opinion is just as I have told you.”
McClellan told his wife that he would stay in command of the army “only so long as the welfare of the Army of the Potomac demands–no longer… I owe a great duty to this noble set of men, and that is the only feeling that retains me… I owe no gratitude to any but my own soldiers here; none to the government or to the country.”
Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln continued to complain about McClellan’s constant requests for reinforcements. He told Senator Orville Browning that if McClellan was magically granted 100,000 men, he would pledge “to go to Richmond tomorrow.” But then McClellan “would telegraph that he had certain information that the enemy had 400,000 men, and that he could not advance without reinforcements.”
Shortly after returning from his visit with McClellan, Lincoln questioned him yet again on his math: “I am told that over 160,000 men have gone into your army on the Peninsula. When I was with you the other day we made out 86,500 remaining, leaving 73,500 to be accounted for.” Lincoln estimated that 28,500 had been killed, wounded, or captured, which left another 45,000 “still alive and not with (the army), half or two thirds of them are fit for duty to-day. Have you any more perfect knowledge of this than I have?” Lincoln then stated, “If I am right, and you had these men with you, you could go into Richmond in the next three days. How can they be got to you, and how can they be prevented from getting away in such numbers for the future?”
McClellan did not respond for a week, and then he finally wrote that his army actually numbered 101,000 officers and men. He added that many more were needed because he estimated the strength of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to be 170,000 men. Lee actually had less than half that number.
When Henry W. Halleck came to Washington to become army general-in-chief, he met with Lincoln and Stanton to discuss what should be done with the Army of the Potomac in general and McClellan in particular. It was decided to send Halleck to Harrison’s Landing to meet with McClellan and inspect the army. Lincoln even gave Halleck the authority to remove McClellan as army commander if he saw fit; Browning later said that Lincoln “was satisfied McClellan would not fight and he had told Halleck so, and that he could keep him in command or not as he pleased.” Halleck did not appreciate this assignment, writing his wife that “they want me to do what they were afraid to attempt!”
Halleck arrived at Harrison’s Landing on July 25, along with Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and Major General Ambrose Burnside. The meeting was awkward, mainly because McClellan had once been Halleck’s superior but now their roles were reversed, and McClellan complained about having to report to someone “whom I know to be my inferior.”
McClellan shared a plan that had been formulated by Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, in which he would cross part of his army to the south side of the James River and capture Petersburg, a key railroad town south of Richmond. This would isolate Richmond from most railroad lines and force the Confederates to either fight or abandon the capital. McClellan said that he would need another 30,000 men to have “a good chance of success.”
Halleck stated “very frankly my views in regard to the danger and impracticability of the plan.” He also told McClellan that Lincoln had only authorized him to give McClellan 20,000 men, mainly from Burnside’s corps. McClellan stated that Lee’s army was now 200,000 strong, to which Halleck countered that if this was true, then Lee could easily defeat the divided Federal army, one piece at a time. Or, Lee could leave part of his army to guard against both Federal pieces while sending the main force north to confront Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia.
Halleck suggested that McClellan take the 20,000 reinforcements and attack Lee’s army in front of Richmond. If McClellan did not attack, he would have to leave the Peninsula. That night, McClellan met with his six corps commanders, of which four voted to follow Halleck’s suggestion. McClellan therefore informed Halleck that once he got the promised reinforcements, he would be “willing to try it.” But just as in the past, this willingness would quickly dissolve.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
- Sears, Stephen W., To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1992.
- 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.