Tag Archives: Harrison’s Landing

Lincoln Visits the Virginia Peninsula

July 8, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln visited the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula and contemplated a major military change.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lincoln arrived at Harrison’s Landing on the 8th aboard the U.S.S. Ariel, and met with Major General George B. McClellan and his staff at 6 p.m. During the meeting, McClellan refused to admit defeat or take responsibility for his army’s “retrograde movement,” and he continued citing the lack of reinforcements as the reason he had not yet destroyed the Confederate army and conquered Richmond.

The men then conducted a twilight troop inspection, which included a light show from the men firing their muskets into the darkening sky. Regarding Lincoln, a lieutenant wrote, “Long and hearty was the applause and welcome which greeted him. His presence after the late disaster… seemed to infuse new ardor into the dispirited army.” A chaplain concurred: “The boys liked him, his popularity is universal.”

But McClellan disagreed, writing his wife that Lincoln was “an old stick and of pretty poor timber at that… I had to order the men to cheer and they did it very feebly.” Nevertheless, the soldiers seemed upbeat to Lincoln, who was relieved to see that army morale was not as low as feared.

Returning to army headquarters, McClellan handed Lincoln what became known as the “Harrison’s Bar Letter.” Lincoln read the letter and said, “All right,” before putting it in his pocket. He said nothing more about it, and he did not act upon any of McClellan’s suggestions. To Lincoln, McClellan seemed to be urging a return to the policies he tried when the war started, only to see them fail. The “Harrison’s Bar Letter,” in which McClellan boldly lectured his superior on military policy, irreparably tarnished the general’s career.

Turning back to his main purpose for visiting the Peninsula, Lincoln tried to determine what should be done with the army. He asked McClellan three major questions:

  • How many men were in the army?
  • Where was the Confederate army?
  • Would it be possible to withdraw the army from the Peninsula?

McClellan responded:

  • There were 80,000 officers and men in the army, but the total could be closer to 75,000.
  • The Confederates were “four to five miles from us on all the roads, I think nearly the whole army–both Hills, Longstreet, Jackson, Magruder, Huger.” (Actually, Lee was falling back closer to Richmond.)
  • Leaving the Peninsula “would be a delicate and very difficult matter.”

The next day, Lincoln conferred with McClellan’s five corps commanders (Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, Erasmus D. Keyes, Fitz John Porter, and William B. Franklin). To McClellan’s shock, Lincoln sought no details about the recent battles. Instead, he posed the same three questions to them as he had to McClellan the night before.

The commanders stated that Lee’s army had fallen back toward Richmond. This bothered Lincoln because McClellan had told him Lee was just four or five miles away, and the corps commanders should not have been more aware of the enemy’s location than the army chief. But it was soon discovered that Lee was in the process of moving back between the 8th and 9th, thus explaining the discrepancy.

Lincoln then asked, “If it were desired to get the army away from here, could it be safely effected?” Keyes and Franklin said it could and should be done. The other three disagreed. Heintzelman said, “It would be ruinous to the country,” Sumner said, “We give up the cause if we do it,” and Porter said, “Move the army and ruin the country.” McClellan supported an attack only if he received the reinforcements he had requested.

After Lincoln headed back to Washington on the 10th, McClellan wrote his wife that the president “seemed that of a man about to do something of which he was ashamed.” Unbeknownst to McClellan, Lincoln had already contemplated the general’s suggestion for a commander-in-chief in the “Harrison’s Bar Letter,” and he already had a man in mind for the job.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17053-61; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7580, 7591-7603; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 346-47; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 530-33; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 180; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 450-51; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 238; 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), p. 502; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 346

McClellan Writes the Harrison’s Bar Letter

July 7, 1862 – As the Army of the Potomac settled into its defenses on the Virginia Peninsula, Major General George B. McClellan took the time to write a letter to President Abraham Lincoln on how the war should be waged.

Maj Gen George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org

By today, McClellan’s position at Harrison’s Landing was secure, in large part due to the Federal gunboats protecting against attacks and Federal transport vessels keeping the army abundantly supplied. Commander John Rodgers, in charge of the Federal naval forces on the James River, reported to Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Fleet:

“There is to be a convoy of gunboats each day from Harrison’s Bar to near the mouth of the Chickahominy, going and returning each day. As there was no better reason for the time than the arrival and departure of the mail from Old Point, it was agreed that at 9 a.m. all the transportation down should sail, convoyed by gunboats–I had selected four for it. And at 3 p.m. all the army transportation to this point should come up, convoyed by the same force.”

This protection apparently emboldened McClellan, who reported to Washington, “My position is very strong and daily becoming more so. If not attacked to-day I shall laugh at them.” To Major General John Pope, organizing his new Army of Virginia, McClellan wrote, “I am in a very strong natural position, rendered stronger every day by the labor of the troops, and which in a few days will be impregnable.”

This gave McClellan time to consider matters outside his scope as military commander. About a month ago, Lincoln had given McClellan permission to share his views on the overall military situation beyond just his army, as long as he did so in writing. McClellan now acted upon that permission by writing a letter detailing his views on what war policies the administration should adopt. McClellan began:

“You have been fully informed, that the Rebel army is in our front, with the purpose of overwhelming us by attacking our positions or reducing us by blocking our river communications. I can not but regard our condition as critical and I earnestly desire, in view of possible contingencies, to lay before your Excellency, for your private consideration, my general views concerning the state of the rebellion…”

McClellan insisted that “Our cause must never be abandoned; it is the cause of free institutions and self government. The Constitution and the Union must be preserved, whatever may be the cost in time, treasure and blood.” However, he argued that the administration must follow some ground rules to accomplish these goals. He wrote, “The time has come when the Government must determine upon a civil and military policy, covering the whole ground of our national trouble.”

The general then lectured his commander-in-chief on what types of policies he should employ:

“This rebellion has assumed the character of a War: as such it should be regarded; and it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian Civilization. It should not be a War looking to the subjugation of the people of any state, in any event. It should not be, at all, a War upon population; but against armed forces and political organizations.”

McClellan listed four actions that the Federal government should never take: “Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” Of these actions, the first two were already being done with Lincoln’s consent. The Republican majority in Congress had submitted legislation to mandate the third action, and the fourth was currently under debate.

McClellan continued:

“In prosecuting the War, all private property and unarmed persons should be strictly protected; subject only to the necessities of military operations. All private property taken for military use should be paid for or receipted for; pillage and waste should be treated as high crimes; all unnecessary trespass sternly prohibited; and offensive demeanor by the military towards citizens promptly rebuked. Military arrests should not be tolerated, except in places where active hostilities exist; and oaths not required by enactments–Constitutionally made–should be neither demanded nor received. Military government should be confined to the preservation of public order and the protection of political rights.”

Regarding military scope, McClellan wrote:

“Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude, either by supporting or impairing the authority of the master; except for repressing disorder as in other cases. Slaves contraband under the Act of Congress, seeking military protection, should receive it. The right of the Government to appropriate permanently to its own service claims to slave labor should be asserted and the right of the owner to compensation therefore should be recognized… A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.”

McClellan also stressed the need for a “Commander in Chief of the Army,” and although he did not “ask that place” for himself, he was “willing to serve you in such position as you may assign me and I will do so as faithfully as ever subordinate served superior.”

Lincoln was on his way to the Peninsula to assess the situation and investigate rumors that the army was demoralized; McClellan planned to hand him this letter when he arrived. McClellan wrote his wife, “I have written a strong, frank letter to the President. If he acts upon it, the country will be saved.” He asked his wife to keep a copy of the letter to prove to future generations “that I understood the state of affairs long ago, and that had my advice been followed we should not have been in our present difficulties.”

McClellan also exchanged letters with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The two men had once been close friends, but since Stanton had taken office, he became one of McClellan’s most vocal critics. Stanton took the time to set aside their differences by writing that “wicked men” had caused animosity “between us for their own base and selfish purposes. No man had ever a truer friend than I have been to you and shall continue to be.”

McClellan responded, “Of all men in the nation you were my choice for that position.” However, Stanton’s treatment of him “was marked by repeated acts done in such manner as to be deeply offensive to my feelings and calculated to affect me injuriously in public estimation.” This “led me to believe that your mind was warped by a bitter personal prejudice against me.”

However, McClellan admitted that he may have been “mistaken in regard to your real feelings and opinions, and that your conduct, so unaccountable to my own fallible judgment, must have proceeded from views and motives which I did not understand.” As such, he would “resume the same cordial confidence which once characterized our intercourse.”

McClellan then turned to the main purpose of his letter: getting Stanton to side with him against Lincoln on military policy:

“You have more than once told me that together we could save this country. It is yet not too late to do so… I have briefly given in a confidential letter to the President my views (please ask to see it) as to the policy which ought to govern this contest on our part. None other will call forth its energies in time to save our cause. For none other will our armies continue to fight… Let no cloud hereafter arise between us.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 17053-61; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 192; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7580, 7591-7603; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 346-47; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 530-33; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 179-80; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 450-51; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 237-38; 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), p. 502; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91, 95; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 346