One week after receiving orders to confront the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Major General George B. McClellan still had not moved his Army of the Potomac out of western Maryland. During that time, General Robert E. Lee had time to reorganize and resupply his force, and his cavalry under Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart had made another daring ride around McClellan’s army almost unopposed. With his patience nearly exhausted, President Abraham Lincoln wrote McClellan a long letter of advice.
Explaining strategy and tactics that a general should already know, Lincoln noted that Lee’s army, currently at Winchester, would have to move southeast through the Blue Ridge to defend the Confederate capital at Richmond, while McClellan’s men could move east along the Blue Ridge and get to the city quicker. As Lincoln explained, Lee’s route “is the arc of a circle, while yours is the chord.”
Lincoln had previously suggested attacking Lee at Winchester, but McClellan rejected that idea because he would need to open a railroad line between Winchester and Harpers Ferry to supply his army. Lincoln challenged this claim by reminding McClellan that the Confederates consistently marched and fought with much more limited supply line options.
The president wrote that opening a rail line “wastes all the remainder of autumn to give it to you; and, in fact ignores the question of time, which can not and must not be ignored… We should not so operate as to merely drive him away. If we can not beat the enemy where he is now, we never can… If we never try, we shall never succeed.” Lincoln added:
“You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?… I would press closely to him, fight him if a favorable opportunity should present, and at least try to beat him to Richmond on the inside track, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on a march. It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy, and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it. This letter is in no sense an order.”
Before sending this letter, Lincoln sought advice from Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Hamlin praised McClellan for organizing the Army of the Potomac into such a finely tuned force, but he condemned McClellan’s lack of aggression. Hamlin compared McClellan to Major General Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, who operated with much more limited resources yet always seemed ready and willing to fight. Hamlin claimed that McClellan was “the first man to build a bridge, but the last man to cross it.”
Lincoln had long considered removing McClellan from command, but politics intervened. Midterm congressional elections took place in four northern states on October 14, resulting in Republican defeats in three of them. Elections would take place in the remaining states in November, and if Lincoln removed McClellan (who was a Democrat) before then, the Republicans could face landslide defeats. This would seriously hamper the war effort. Perhaps most importantly, McClellan remained popular among his men, and Lincoln was therefore hesitant to get rid of him.
But this did not stop the president from railing against McClellan’s chronic inactivity. As he explained to his secretary, John Hay, he had done all he could to get McClellan to move: “I peremptorily ordered him to advance. It was nineteen days before he put a man over the river. It was nine days longer before he got his army across, and then he stopped again, playing on little pretexts of wanting this and that. I began to fear he was playing false–that he did not want to hurt the enemy.”
When McClellan received Lincoln’s letter on October 16, he replied that he did not have the time to give “the full and respectful consideration which it merits at my hands.” He acknowledged to one of his subordinates that this was probably the president’s last warning for him to move. McClellan said, “Lincoln is down on me. I expect to be relieved from the Army of the Potomac, and to have a command in the West.”
Lincoln drafted a memorandum estimating the strength of the Army of the Potomac at 231,997 officers and men, of which 144,662 were present for duty. McClellan reported that the army contained 133,433 men “present for duty” and an “aggregate present” of 159,860. Even so, he again asked for reinforcements and new equipment for his men and horses. At that time, Lee reported having just 68,033 effectives in his Confederate army.
Despite Lincoln’s prodding, McClellan remained motionless except for some isolated units crossing the Potomac to reconnoiter around Harpers Ferry. Meanwhile, criticism of McClellan’s inactivity intensified, especially among the Radical Republicans. An editorial in the Radical Chicago Tribune stated, “What devil is it that prevents the Potomac Army from advancing? What malign influence palsies our army and wastes these glorious days for fighting? If it is McClellan, does not the President see that he is a traitor?”
William Cullen Bryant, editor of the pro-Republican New York Evening Post, wrote that Lincoln suspected a conspiracy of sorts on the part of McClellan and his Democratic allies: “These inopportune pauses, this strange sluggishness in military operations seem to us little short of absolute madness. Besides their disastrous influence on the final event of the war they will have a most unhappy effect upon the elections…”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote:
“It is just five weeks since the Battle of Antietam and the Army is quiet, reposing in camp. The country groans but nothing is done. We have sinister rumors of peace intrigues and strange management… McClellan is not accused of corruption, but of criminal inaction. His inertness makes the assertions of his opponents prophetic. He is sadly afflicted with what the President calls the ‘slows.’”
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