July 26, 1861 – Major General George B. McClellan arrived in Washington to take command of all Federal troops around the capital. This was the most significant of several command changes made by the Lincoln administration this month.
In the West, Major General John C. Fremont took over the Western Department, moving his headquarters from Fort Leavenworth to St. Louis. Most operations within his jurisdiction took place in Missouri. Fremont had some 23,000 troops in his department, over a third of whom were 90-day volunteers whose services was about to end.
In the Shenandoah Valley, Major General Robert Patterson learned from a newspaper that he had been relieved as commander of the Federal Army of Pennsylvania. The administration had finally run out of patience with his lack of initiative in keeping Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates from joining Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard at Bull Run. General George Cadwallader, one of Patterson’s brigade commanders, was also relieved.
Major General Nathaniel P. Banks replaced Patterson in command of the new Department of the Shenandoah. Banks became the fourth ranking general in the Federal army (behind only Scott, John C. Fremont, and George B. McClellan). He had been a prominent Massachusetts Republican and former U.S. House speaker who once proclaimed that he was “not acquainted with the details of military matters, and personally have no pride in them.” The department consisted of the Valley, along with Maryland’s Washington and Allegheny counties.
Major General John A. Dix replaced Cadwallader in command of the new Department of Maryland, which absorbed the Department of Pennsylvania and included all Maryland counties within 20 miles of both sides of the railroad from Annapolis to Washington.
Federal Major General George B. McClellan | Image Credit: Histmag.org
At 2 a.m. on July 22, General McClellan received a telegram ordering him to report to Washington and take command of Major General Irvin McDowell’s army straggling around Alexandria and the Federal capital. McClellan, whose army faced multiple Confederate forces in western Virginia, responded that he would have to somehow break through Monterey to get to Staunton en route to Washington. McClellan suggested that he should instead stay put and have his army reinforced since Johnston and Beauregard would expect no immediate threat from McDowell.
General-in-Chief Winfield Scott initially agreed, but then sent him another message later that morning: “Circumstances make your presence here necessary. Charge (General William S.) Rosecrans or some other general with your present department and come hither without delay.” McClellan relented, leaving Rosecrans to take over the Department of the Ohio.
The Lincoln administration sought a young, energetic leader for the army that had been demoralized at the Battle of Bull Run, and McClellan had recently enjoyed highly publicized success in western Virginia (even though those victories had been small compared to Bull Run). McDowell could no longer lead the army due to his defeat, even if it was not entirely his fault, and Scott was too old and infirmed to take active field command.
McClellan arrived in Washington late on the afternoon of the 26th, having hurried from his northwestern Virginia headquarters to the nearest railroad station on the Baltimore & Ohio line and traveling 150 miles by rail. McClellan wrote that he found “no army to command–only a mere collection of regiments cowering on the banks of the Potomac, some perfectly raw, others dispirited by the recent defeat.”
The 34 year-old McClellan met with President Lincoln and the cabinet at the White House the next day and officially received command of the new Military Division of the Potomac, which included the Departments of Northeastern Virginia and Washington. McClellan’s responsibilities included protecting the capital while reorganizing the army for a new drive on Richmond.
Lincoln asked McClellan to attend the afternoon cabinet meeting. McClellan agreed but first met with General-in-Chief Scott. The aging commander, hurt by charges from younger officers (including McClellan) that he was no longer competent enough to retain his rank (and stung that he had not been invited to the cabinet meeting), kept McClellan occupied long enough to prevent him from attending. Before he left, McClellan received advice from Scott’s aide, Colonel Townsend:
“You will find splendid material for soldiers sadly in need of discipline. You will be beset on all sides with applications for passes, and all sorts of things, and if you yield to the pressure your whole time will be taken up at a desk, writing. You can from the outset avoid this; another officer can do it as well in your name. The troops want to see their commanding general, and to be often inspected and reviewed by him. Another thing: there is here a fine body of regulars; I would keep that intact, as a sort of ‘Old Guard.’ It may some time save you a battle.”
The new commander spent the rest of the day riding through the soldiers’ camps and observing the undisciplined men. To his dismay, none of the approaches to Washington were guarded, and troops left their units to seek entertainment or drink whenever they pleased. McClellan met with Lincoln that night and informed him that Scott had intentionally kept him from attending the cabinet meeting. Lincoln expressed amusement at such petty behavior and asked McClellan to develop a strategy to win in Virginia and quickly end the war.
McClellan immediately set about reorganizing the army, seeking to boost morale while training the new recruits streaming into Washington every day. He resisted Lincoln’s urgings to launch a new offensive in conjunction with a Federal thrust into Tennessee, insisting that the troops be fully trained before moving out. The new commander wrote, “I see already the main causes of our recent failure; I am sure that I can remedy these, and am confident that I can lead these armies of men to victory once more.” He told his wife:
“I find myself in a new and strange position here–President, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me–by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. I almost think that were I to win some small success now, I could become Dictator, or anything else that might please me—but nothing of that kind would please me—therefore I won’t be Dictator. Admirable self-denial!”
And meeting with members of Congress at the Capitol did nothing to deflate McClellan’s ego, as he wrote that he was “quite overwhelmed by the congratulations I received and the respect with which I was treated.” The politicians expressed eagerness “to give me my way in everything.”
One of McClellan’s initial confidants at the outset was Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective who had guarded Lincoln on his trip from Springfield to Washington in February. Pinkerton, alias Major E.J. Allen, reported: “It is beyond a doubt that from some source the rebels have received early, and to them, valuable notice of the intended actions of the government.” Pinkerton soon began supplying McClellan with regular, though questionable, intelligence on Confederate operations.
Meanwhile, President Lincoln drafted a memorandum of “military policy suggested by the Bull Run defeat.” It included the following points:
- The Federal blockade would be strengthened
- Troops defending Washington would be reorganized
- Federal forces in Virginia would be readied for a new invasion
- Reinforcements would be sent to the Shenandoah Valley now that the ineffective Patterson had been replaced
- Baltimore would be held under occupation while Maryland would be ruled “with a gentle(!), but firm, and certain hand”
- Federals in the Western Theater would begin advancing, “giving rather special attention to Missouri”
- Volunteer troops would receive proper training, with those ending their service being replaced by long-term enlistments
Whether or not the Federal commanders would agree with these points remained to be seen.
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