Blind and Foolish They Will Continue

Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac was finally back in Virginia. Moving east of the Blue Ridge, McClellan hoped to beat General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in a race to Culpeper Court House. If he got there first, McClellan would be poised to descend on the Confederate capital of Richmond. But if Lee got there first, he would block McClellan’s forward progress and both armies would be stalemated.

In typical fashion, McClellan was not moving with the urgency that this maneuver required. Instead, he was complaining to President Abraham Lincoln that the army regiments were “skeletons” that needed filling “before taking them again into action.” McClellan asked “that the order to fill up the old regiments with drafted men may at once be issued.”

Lincoln quickly asked, “Is it your purpose not to go into action again until the men now being drafted in the States are incorporated into the old regiments?” McClellan replied that the statement “before taking them again into action” had been added by a staffer thinking that was what McClellan meant. He explained, “This phrase was not authorized or intended by me. It has conveyed altogether an erroneous impression as to my plans and intentions.”

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

McClellan assured Lincoln that he did not have “any idea of postponing the advance until the old regiments are filled by drafted men… The crossing will be continued as rapidly as the means at hand will permit. Nothing but the physical difficulties of the operation shall delay it.” Lincoln replied, “I am much pleased with the movement of the Army. When you get entirely across the river let me know. What do you know of the enemy?”

By October 28, Lee had realized that McClellan was driving toward Richmond via Culpeper and Manassas Junction. He sent Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps east to block McClellan at Culpeper, while Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps stayed back to guard the Blue Ridge passes. Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry harassed the Federals’ right (west) flank.

McClellan left troops behind to guard various towns on the Potomac River, but he told General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that these would not be “as sufficient to prevent cavalry raids into Maryland and Pennsylvania.” Halleck promised to send reinforcements from Washington as McClellan moved farther south, but “no new regiments can be sent from here to the Upper Potomac. The guarding of that line is left to your own discretion with the troops now under your command.”

McClellan next wrote Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin stating that he did not consider the force along the Potomac “sufficient to prevent raids and have so represented to General Halleck, who informed me that he has no more troops to send.” He urged Curtin to hurry his state’s militia draft and send the new troops “with the least possible delay to Chambersburg, Hagerstown, Sharpsburg, Williamsport, and Hancock to prevent the possibility of raids.”

McClellan claimed that if he had gotten the reinforcements he requested, “I could have left men enough to have made your frontier reasonably safe. As it is I cannot do it with due regard to the success of the main Army, and beg to warn you in time.”

Turning to the militia draft, McClellan complained to Lincoln about the process of creating new regiments rather than filling shorthanded old regiments with new recruits. McClellan argued that “no greater mistake has been made than the total failure to reinforce the old regiments.” McClellan wrote his wife Ellen:

“I have just been put in excellent humor by seeing that instead of sending the drafted men to fill the old rgts (as had been promised me) they are forming them into new rgts. Also that in the face of the great want of cavalry… they are sending the new cavalry rgts from Penna to Louisville instead of hither!! Blind & foolish they will continue to the end.”

As McClellan grumbled, Lincoln made note that his path to Richmond was shorter than Lee’s, who was reorganizing his men west of the Blue Ridge. Lincoln privately resolved to make this race the test: if Lee shifted his forces eastward to block the Federals without McClellan putting up a fight, Lincoln would remove him from command.

Lee left Jackson’s corps in the Shenandoah Valley on the 30th and rode east with Longstreet. The Confederates swiftly marched 60 miles southeast through the Blue Ridge passes and reached Culpeper Court House before McClellan could establish his position at Warrenton, 20 miles to the northeast. As Lincoln feared, Lee blocked McClellan without a fight.


  • Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
  • 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.

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