Besides ordering some minor scouting expeditions, Major General George B. McClellan effectively ignored President Abraham Lincoln’s order of October 7 to move his Federal Army of the Potomac out of its camps in western Maryland and into Virginia. Lincoln wanted quick, decisive action against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, McClellan sent him a request for reinforcements.
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, about ready to give up on McClellan, wired him on the 21st, “Telegraph when you move, and on what lines you propose to march.” McClellan declared that he was ready to move the next day, but he needed more cavalry horses. He cited a report from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry stating that most of the regiment’s horses suffered from “sore-tongue, grease, and consequent lameness, and sore backs… The horses, which are still sound, are absolutely broken down from fatigue.”
This was too much for Lincoln, who sent an especially impatient response on the 25th: “I have just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatiegued (sic) horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?” McClellan responded that the fatigue had been caused by reconnoitering and raiding, as well as trying to chase down Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s Confederate horsemen. Lincoln countered, “Stuart’s cavalry outmarched ours, having certainly done more marked service on the Peninsula and everywhere else.”
Now it was McClellan’s turn to be upset. He angrily asked if making such a statement did “injustice to the excellent officers and men” of his army by claiming that the Confederate cavalry was superior. He then wrote his wife Ellen, “I was mad as a ‘march hare.’ It was one of those dirty little flings that I can’t get used to when they are not merited.” McClellan continued:
“If you could know the mean character of the despatches I receive you would boil over with anger. When it is possible, misunderstand, and when it is not possible; whenever there is a chance of a wretched innuendo, then it comes. But the good of the country requires me to submit to all this from men whom I know to be greatly my inferior socially, intellectually and morally! There never was a truer epithet applied to a certain individual than that of the ‘Gorilla.’ I have insisted that (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton shall be removed, & that Halleck shall give way to me as Comdr. in Chief. The only safety for the country & for me is to get rid of the lot of them.”
Lincoln replied to McClellan’s angry message: “Most certainly I intend no injustice to any, and if I have done any I deeply regret it. To be told, after more than five weeks’ total inaction of the army… that the cavalry horses were too much fatigued to move, presents a cheerless, almost hopeless, prospect for the future, and it may have forced something of impatience in my dispatch.”
As tensions eased somewhat, McClellan responded to Halleck’s message asking which route he would take by asking Halleck which route he should take. McClellan then brought up the old fear that General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army might come east to reinforce Lee and confront him with overwhelming numbers. McClellan warned “that a great portion of Bragg’s Army is probably now at liberty to unite itself with Lee’s command.”
Halleck responded to the first query: “The Government has entrusted you with defeating and driving back the rebel army in your front.” Regarding the second, Halleck stated, “I do not think that we need have any immediate fear of Bragg’s army. You are within 20 miles of Lee’s, while Bragg is distant about 400 miles.” The Federal high command then continued waiting for McClellan to move.
Halleck was exhausted with trying to prod McClellan into action. He wrote to Missouri Governor Hamilton Gamble, “I am sick, tired, and disgusted with the condition of military affairs here in the East and wish myself back in the Western Army. With all my efforts I can get nothing done. There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass. I have tried my best, but without success.”
McClellan finally began sending his army across the Potomac River into Virginia on the 26th. They crossed on a pontoon bridge at Berlin (now Brunswick), Maryland, five miles downstream from Harpers Ferry. The Federals then moved along the “inside track” toward Richmond that Lincoln had urged McClellan to take weeks earlier. Looking for a secure supply line, McClellan consulted with army engineer Herman Haupt about repairing the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad, which linked to the wharves at Aquia Landing on Virginia’s coast.
Haupt advised McClellan that the R, F & P would need to be repaired since the Federals who had been there destroyed the area in September. McClellan would therefore have to rely on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, but due to the constant Confederate raids, the O & A “alone will be a very insecure reliance.”
Nevertheless, by moving east of the Blue Ridge, McClellan hoped to draw Lee’s Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley and force them to get between the Federals and the Confederate capital of Richmond. The first leg of the race to Richmond would be to Culpeper Court House. If McClellan got there first, he would have the inside track to Richmond. If Lee got there first, he would block that track.
- Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.