General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had met with Major General George B. McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula, where it was agreed that 20,000 reinforcements would be sent to McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac. Upon returning to Washington, Halleck wrote his wife that meeting with McClellan had been “necessarily somewhat embarrassing,” and “it certainly was unpleasant to tell one who had been my superior in rank that his plans were wrong, but my duty to myself and the country compelled me to do so.” While Halleck considered McClellan “a most excellent and valuable man, he does not understand strategy and should never plan a campaign.” Halleck concluded:
“We can get along very well together if he is so disposed, but I fear that his friends have excited his jealousy and that he will be disposed to pitch into me. Very well. My hands are clean. When in command of the army no one did more than I did to sustain him and in justice… to the country he ought now to sustain me. I hope he will but I doubt it. He is surrounded by very weak advisers.”
Halleck called upon Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, whose Ninth Corps had recently come up to Fort Monroe from North Carolina, and Major General David Hunter in South Carolina to donate the troops needed to reinforce McClellan. Hunter, who had recently sent seven regiments to Virginia, replied that “no more could be spared without seriously jeopardizing the important basis of operations and depots of stores in this department.”
This became a moot point on July 26, just a day after Halleck had left the Peninsula, when McClellan reported that “the Southern States are being drained of their garrisons,” and Confederate troops were now “pouring into Richmond” to reinforce General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan would therefore need more than 20,000 men to advance. He now asked for all of Burnside’s and Hunter’s troops, as well as a portion of Halleck’s former army in Mississippi, or up to 40,000 in addition to the original 20,000 (60,000 in all).
President Abraham Lincoln, who had been fighting with McClellan over troop strength since the beginning of the Peninsula campaign, finally had enough, and he decided to replace McClellan with Burnside. But Lincoln gave Burnside the option to turn it down, and he did exactly that, arguing that he did not feel competent enough to handle such a large command. So McClellan would stay in command for now. But it was decided that his command would be leaving the Peninsula.
Unaware of this decision, McClellan continued ranting to his wife Ellen about the Lincoln administration’s alleged mistreatment of him and his army. McClellan especially fumed about the fact that he had not been consulted about promoting Halleck to general-in-chief. “We never conversed on the subject,” McClellan wrote, “I only know it from the newspapers.” McClellan accused Lincoln of doing this “to make the matter as offensive as possible.”
McClellan went on: “If things come to pass as I anticipate I shall leave the service with a sad heart for my country but a light one for myself. I am tired of being dependent on men I despise from the bottom of my heart. I cannot express to you the infinite contempt I feel for these people;–but one thing keeps me at my work–love for my country and my army.”
As for Lincoln, he “had not shown the slightest gentlemanly or friendly feeling & I cannot regard him as in any respect my friend. I am confident that he would relieve me tomorrow if he dared to do so. His cowardice alone prevents it. I can never regard him with other feelings than those of thorough contempt–for his mind, heart & morality.”
McClellan also expressed disdain for Lincoln’s advisors and hoped “Halleck will scatter them to the four winds.” He singled out Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the First Corps in the Army of the Potomac, whom he called “morally dead” and asserted that “he has no longer one particle of influence & is despised by all alike.”
On top of this insubordination, McClellan was becoming more brazen about surrounding himself with influential Democrats who strongly opposed Lincoln and his prosecution of the war. One of these figures was former New York City Mayor Fernando Wood, who suggested that McClellan should run for president in the 1864 election. The idea of the commander of the largest Federal army in the field becoming a chief political rival to the president was troubling to Lincoln and his Republican allies.
Meanwhile, Halleck responded to McClellan’s amended reinforcement request by ordering every steamer in Baltimore Harbor to start moving toward the James River. These would not be bringing more troops to the Peninsula; they would be taking McClellan’s army off. McClellan’s fuzzy math had finally come back to haunt him, as Halleck reasoned that if Lee’s army was truly as strong as McClellan claimed, then he faced certain destruction if he stayed on the Peninsula.
McClellan wrote Halleck the next day, unaware that the steamers were en route: “I hope that it may soon be decided what is to be done by this army, and that the decision may be to reinforce it at once.” McClellan guessed that Lee had sent Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson north with 35,000 Confederates, while Major General A.P. Hill’s men stayed in Richmond. In reality, Jackson had gone north with just 11,000, but Hill recently joined him with 18,000 more.
McClellan warned, “Heavy (enemy) re-enforcements have arrived in Richmond and are still coming.” He urged Halleck to “re-enforce the army by every available means and throw it again upon Richmond. Should it be determined to withdraw it, I shall look upon our cause as lost and the demoralization of the army certain.”
Halleck responded with a deeply personal letter meant to convey his respect for McClellan, but also his need to do his job as McClellan’s new superior. Halleck began, “You are probably aware that I hold my present position contrary to my own wishes, and that I did everything in my power to avoid coming to Washington; but after declining several invitations from the President I received the order of the 11th instant, which left me no option.”
He gave McClellan his “full approbation and cordial support. There was no one in the Army under whom I could serve with greater pleasure, and I now ask from you that same support and co-operation and that same free interchange of opinions as in former days. If we disagree in opinion, I know that we will do so honestly and without unkind feelings. If we permit personal jealousies to interfere for a single moment with our operations, we shall not only injure the cause but ruin ourselves.”
Halleck requested that McClellan probe the Richmond defenses to verify rumors that Lee had sent the bulk of his army northward to confront the new Federal Army of Virginia. He also directed McClellan to transfer all his sick and wounded troops from Harrison’s Landing, “in order to enable you to move in any direction.” It was suspected that this was a preparatory move for ending McClellan’s Peninsula campaign.
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- 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., 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.