Since the Federal victory at Antietam in September, President Abraham Lincoln had implored Major General George B. McClellan to put his Army of the Potomac in motion and finish off General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But McClellan had not only remained stationary while the enemy escaped back into Virginia, but he resumed his old habit of demanding massive reinforcements as well. On top of this, Lincoln had heard rumors of anti-administration fervor among McClellan and his command, particularly regarding their opposition to the recently released Emancipation Proclamation.
A special train was arranged to take Lincoln and some advisors out of Washington on October 1 to meet with McClellan in western Maryland. Publicly, the president intended to “see if in a personal interview he could not inspire him (McClellan) with some sense of the necessity of action.” Privately, Lincoln wanted “to satisfy himself personally without the intervention of anybody, of the purposes intentions and fidelity of McClellan, his officers, and the army.” McClellan, who had not been informed of the visit beforehand, learned while Lincoln was en route and arranged to meet him at Harpers Ferry, which the Federals had regained after the Confederate withdrawal.
Lincoln explained that the official purpose of his visit was to see the battlefield and visit the troops. A witness observed that the president looked “careworn and troubled” upon his late arrival. He and McClellan rode together while inspecting the troops camped at Bolivar Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry. It was a somber visit, as a soldier noted that Lincoln “rode around every battalion and seemed much worn and distressed and to be looking for those who were gone.” After McClellan returned to headquarters, Lincoln visited the town, including the arsenal that John Brown and his followers had seized in 1859 in hopes of sparking a nationwide slave uprising.
Lincoln occupied a tent beside McClellan’s for the next two days. He became a conspicuous sightseer in his black suit and stovepipe hat as he reviewed troops stationed at Loudoun and Maryland Heights with Major General Edwin V. Sumner. The president visited army camps and hospitals, and he toured the Antietam battlefield in an ambulance “with his long legs doubled up so that his knees almost struck his chin,” noted a Federal officer. McClellan tried to describe the battle, but Lincoln curtly ended the tour and returned to camp.
Calculating army strength, Lincoln estimated that McClellan had 88,095 troops, more than enough to confront Lee’s battered army. This prompted McClellan to write his wife Ellen, “I incline to think the real purpose of his visit is to push me into a premature advance into Virginia.” He complained that the army was “not fit to advance–the old regiments are reduced to mere skeletons and are completely tired out–they need rest and filling up.” McClellan concluded, “These people don’t know what an army requires, and therefore act stupidly.”
Before dawn on the 3rd, Lincoln brought his friend Ozias M. Hatch out for a walk. They climbed a hillside overlooking the white tents of the Federal army below, where Lincoln asked, “Hatch, Hatch, what is all this?” Hatch replied, “Why, Mr. Lincoln, this is the Army of the Potomac.” Lincoln said, “No, Hatch, no. This is General McClellan’s bodyguard.” Only the troops’ strong devotion to McClellan prevented the president from removing their beloved commander.
Lincoln reviewed the troops later that day, where some noted that he did not cordially greet them as he had done in past reviews. One officer stated that Lincoln offered “not a word of approval, not even a smile of approbation.” After the review, Lincoln rode with friend Ward Hill Lamon, who tried cheering him by singing songs and telling funny stories. Opponents later accused Lincoln of insulting fallen soldiers by laughing on the battlefield.
The president continued touring hospitals and camps on the 4th and then left for Washington that afternoon. McClellan summed up his understanding of the visit to his wife: “I urged him to follow a conservative course, and supposed from the tenor of his conversation that he would do so.” McClellan alleged that Lincoln told him, “General, you have saved the country. You must remain in command and carry us through to the end.”
McClellan went on: “He told me that he was entirely satisfied with me and with all that I had done; that he would stand by me against all comers; that he wished me to continue my preparations for a new campaign, not to stir an inch until fully ready, and when ready to do what I thought best.” This was not corroborated, though Lincoln did discuss what he believed to be McClellan’s “over-cautiousness” in refusing to move.
Conversely, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay recalled that Lincoln “went up to the field to try to get him to move, and came back thinking he would move at once.” Once more, it seemed that president and general had two different interpretations of the same meeting. Back at Washington, Lincoln discussed his visit with his cabinet on the 6th, and then issued an order to McClellan through General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:
“The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good. If you cross the river between the enemy and Washington, and cover the latter by your operation, you can be re-enforced with 30,000 men. If you move up the Valley of the Shenandoah, not more than 12,000 or 15,000 can be sent to you.
“The President advises the interior line between Washington and the enemy, but does not order it. He is very desirous that your army move as soon as possible. You will immediately report what line you adopt and when you intend to cross the river; also to what point the re-enforcements are to be sent. It is necessary that the plan of your operations be positively determined on before orders are given for building bridges and repairing railroads.”
This message amazed McClellan, who thought he had persuaded Lincoln that the army needed more time to regroup before moving. McClellan answered that he was “pushing everything as rapidly as possible in order to get ready for the advance.” But then he argued against moving along the interior line as Lincoln had suggested: “I see no objective point of strategical value to be gained or sought for by a movement between the Shenandoah & Washn.” He also saw no value in moving up the Shenandoah Valley, other than to prevent Lee from threatening Maryland again. Instead, McClellan vaguely declared that he would “adopt a new & decisive line of operations which shall strike at the heart of the rebellion.”
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