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The Administration in the Peninsular campaign.

by Richard B. Irwin, Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Adjutant-General, U. S. V.
The views entertained by General McClellan as to the manner and extent to which his plans and operations on the Peninsula were interfered with or supported by the Government having been fully set forth by him in these pages, it is now proper to show, as far as this can be done from the official reports, how the case must have presented itself to the President and the Secretary of War.

Appointed on the 25th of July, 1861, immediately after Bull Run, to the command of the shattered and reduced forces then gathered about Washington, at one time not exceeding 42,000 all told, General McClellan was rapidly reenforced, until on the 50th of March, 1862, he had under his command within the division or department of the Potomac 203,213 men present for duty. The field-artillery was increased from 30 guns to 520; to these had been added a siege train of nearly 100 heavy guns. From these materials he organized the Army of the Potomac.

In the last days of October General McClellan presented to the Secretary of War a written statement of his views as to the conduct of operations, in which, after representing the Confederate forces in his front at not less than 150,000, his own movable force as 76,285, with 228 guns, and the force required for active operations as 150,000 men, with 400 guns, he recommended that all operations in other quarters be confined to the defensive, and that all surplus troops be sent to, reinforce the Army of the Potomac.

A vigorous employment of these means [he proceeds] will, in my opinion, enable the Army of the Potomac to assume successfully this season the offensive operations which, ever since entering upon the command, it has been my anxious desire and diligent effort to prepare for and prosecute. The advance should not be postponed beyond the 25th of November, if possible to avoid it.

Unity in councils, the utmost vigor and energy in action are indispensable. The entire military field should be grasped as a whole, and not in detached parts. One plan should be agreed upon and pursued; a single will should direct and carry out these plans. The great object to be accomplished, the crushing defeat of the rebel army (now) at Manassas, should never for one instant be lost sight of, but all the intellect and means and men of the Government poured upon that point.

On the 1st of November, 1861, the President, “with the concurrence of the entire Cabinet,” designated General McClellan “to command the whole army” of the United States. No trust [436] approaching this in magnitude had ever before been confided to any officer of the United States.

Everywhere the armies remained inactive. For seven months the Army of the Potomac was held within the defenses of Washington. Its only important movement had resulted in the disheartening disaster of Ball's Bluff. The Confederates, with headquarters at Manassas, confronted them with an army, represented by General McClellan, on the faith of his secret-service department, as numbering at least 115,500, probably 150,000, but now known to have at no time exceeded 63,000.1 The Potomac was closed to navigation by Confederate batteries established on its banks within twenty-three miles of the capital. Norfolk, with its navy-yard, was left untouched and unmenaced. The loyal States had furnished three-quarters of a million of soldiers, and the country had rolled up a daily increasing war debt of $600,000,000. There is no indication that General McClellan appreciated, or even perceived, the consequences that must inevitably follow the loss of confidence on the part of the people, as month after month passed without action and without success in any quarter, or the position in which, under these circumstances, he placed the President, with respect to the continued support of the people and and their representatives, by withholding full information of his plans. In his “Own story” he tells how he refused to give this information when called upon by the President in the presence of his Cabinet.

The President having, on the 31st of January, ordered the movement of all the disposable force of the Army of the Potomac, for the purpose of seizing a point on the railroad beyond Manassas Junction, General McClellan on the same day submitted his own plan for moving on Richmond by way of Urbana, on the lower Rappahannock. On the 8th of March, yielding to General McClellan's views, supported by the majority of his division commanders, the President approved the Urbana movement, with certain conditions; but on the 9th the Confederates evacuated Manassas, and thus rendered the whole plan inoperative. On the 13th, upon General McClellan's recommendation, supported by the commanders of all four of the newly constituted army corps, the President authorized the movement by Fort Monroe, as it was finally made.

McClellan expected to take with him to the Peninsula 146,000 men of all arms, to be increased to 156,000 by a division to be drawn from Fort Monroe. On the 31st of March, the President informed him that he had been obliged to order Blenker's division of about 10,000 men,2 with 18 guns, to Fremont. “I did this with great pain,” he says, “knowing that you would wish it otherwise. If you could know the full pressure of the case, I am confident you would approve.”

The council of corps commanders had annexed to their approval, among other conditions, the following: “Fourth, that the force to be left to cover Washington shall be such as to give an entire feeling of security for its safety from menace. . . Note.--That with the forts on the right bank of the Potomac fully garrisoned and those on the left bank occupied, a covering force in front of the Virginia line of 25,000 men would suffice (Keyes, Heintzelman, and McDowell). A total of 40,000 men for the defense of the city would suffice. (Sumner.)” Upon this point the President's orders were: “1st. Leave such a force at Manassas Junction as shall make it entirely certain that the enemy shall not repossess himself of that position and line of communication. 2d. Leave Washington secure.”

On the 1st of April, as he was on the point of sailing, General McClellan reported from his Headquarters on board the steamer Commodore, the arrangements he had made to carry out these provisions, and at once set out for Fort Monroe without knowing whether they were satisfactory to the Government or not. They were not. General McClellan had arranged to leave 7780 men at Warrenton, 10,859 at Manassas, 1350 on the Lower Potomac, and 18,000 men for the garrisons and the front of Washington, to be augmented by about 4000 new troops from New York. The President, deeming this provision wholly insufficient for the defense of the capital, ordered McDowell with his corps of 33,510 men and 68 guns to remain, and charged him with the duty of covering and defending Washington.

This led to a telegraphic correspondence, thus characterized in the President's letter to General McClellan, dated April 9th: “Your dispatches complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, pain me very much.” Then, after again explaining the detachment of Blenker and the retention of McDowell, Mr. Lincoln concludes with these noteworthy admonitions:

I suppose the whole force which has gone forward to you is with you by this time; and if so, I think it is the precise time for you to strike a blow. By delay, the enemy will steadily gain on you — that is, he will gain faster by fortifications and reinforcements than you can by reinforcements alone.

And once more, let me tell you, it is indispensable to you3 that you strike a blow! I am powerless to help this. You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted that going down the bay in search of a field instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting and not surmounting a difficulty; that we would find the same enemy and the same or equal intrenchments at either place. The country will not fail to note — is noting now — that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy is but the story of Manassas repeated.

I beg to assure you that I have never written or spoken to you in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as in my most anxious judgment I consistently can. But you must act.


On the 11th of April, Franklin's division was [437] ordered to the Peninsula, in response to General McClellan's earnest renewal of his request.

General McClellan estimates his force before Franklin's arrival at 85,000, apparently meaning fighting men, since the returns show 105,235 present for duty on the 13th of April. On the 30th, including Franklin, this number was increased to 112,392. General McClellan also estimated the Confederate forces at “probably not less than 100,000 men, and possibly more,” 5 “probably greater a good deal than my own.” 6 We now know that their total effective strength on the 30th of April was 55,633 of all arms. When the Army of the Potomac halted before the lines of the Warwick, Magruder's whole force was but 11,000. General McClellan estimated it at only 15,000, and his own, confronting it, at the same period, at 53,000.

The plan of a rapid movement up the Peninsula having resolved itself into an endeavor to take Yorktown by regular approaches in front, leaving its rear necessarily open, General McClellan thus describes the result:

Our batteries would have been ready to open on the morning of the 6th of May at latest; but on the morning of the 4th it was discovered that the enemy had already been compelled to evacuate his position during the night.

The effect of these delays on Mr. Lincoln's mind is curiously indicated by his telegram of May 1st:

Your call for Parrott guns from Washington alarms me, chiefly because it argues indefinite procrastination. Is anything to be done M

Then followed the confused and unduly discouraging battle of Williamsburg; the attempt to cut off the Confederate retreat by a landing at West Point came to nothing; and on the 20th of May, the Army of the Potomac, having moved forward 52 miles in 16 days, reached the banks of the Chickahominy. There it lay, astride of that sluggish stream, imbedded in its pestilential swamps, for thirty-nine days.

On the 31st of May, at Fair Oaks, Johnston failed, though narrowly missing success, in a well-meant attempt to crush McClellan's forces on the right bank of the swollen stream before they could be reinforced. On the 1st of June the Confederate forces were driven back in disorder upon the defenses of Richmond, but the damage suffered by the Union forces on the first day being over-estimated, and their success on the second day insufficiently appreciated, or inadequately represented, and no apparent advantage being taken of them, the general effect was to add to the discouragement already prevailing.

Reenforcements continuing to be urgently called for, Fort Monroe, with its dependencies, reporting 9277 for duty, was placed under General McClellan's orders; McCall's division, with 22 guns, was detached from McDowell, and arrived by water 951.4 strong on the 12th and 13th of June; while McDowell, with the rest of his command, was ordered to march to join McClellan by land: this movement was, however, promptly brought to naught by Jackson's sudden incursion against Banks in the Shenandoah.

Meanwhile, the flow of telegrams indicated an ever-increasing tension, the Executive urging to action, the General promising to act soon, not acting, yet criticising and objecting to the President's orders to him and to others. On the 25th of May the President said : “I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington.” McClellan replied: “The time is very near when I shall attack Richmond.” Then, June 10th, he says: “I shall be in perfect readiness to move forward to take Richmond the moment that McCall reaches here and the ground will admit the passage of artillery.” June 14th: “If I cannot control all his (McDowell's) troops I want none of them, but would prefer to fight the battle with what I have, and let others be responsible for the results.” On the 1 8th: “After to-morrow we shall fight the rebel army as soon as Providence will permit. We shall await only a favorable condition of the earth and sky and the completion of some necessary preliminaries.” While appealing to the President when some of his telegrams to the Secretary remained for a time unanswered, General McClellan allowed Mr. Stanton's cordial assurances of friendship and support to pass unnoticed.

At last, on the 25th, General McClellan advanced his picket lines on the left to within four miles of Richmond, and was apparently preparing for a further movement, though none was ordered, and the next day, as at Manassas and Yorktown and Fair Oaks, his adversary once more took the initiative out of his hands. Jackson had come from the Valley.

As soon as this was known, on the evening of the 25th, General McClellan reported it to Mr. Stanton, added that he thought Jackson would attack his right and rear, that the Confederate force was stated at 200,000, that he regretted his great inferiority in numbers, but was in no way responsible for it, and concluded:

I will do all that a general can do with the splendid Army I have the honor to command, and if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers can at least (lie with it and share its fate. But if the result of the action, which will probably occur to-morrow, or within a short time, is a disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders; it must rest where it belongs.

The battle of Gaines's Mill followed, where, on the 27th, one-fifth of the Union forces contended against the whole Confederate army, save Magruder's corps and Huger's division; then the retreat, or “change of base,” to the James, crowned by the splendid yet unfruitful victory of Malvern; then a month of inaction and discussion at Harrison's Landing.

At 12:20 A. M., on the 28th of June, General McClellan sent a long telegram, of which these sentences strike the key-note:

“ Our men [at Gaines's Mill] did all that men could do . . . but they were overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, even after I brought my last reserves into action. . . . I have lost this battle because my force is too small. . . . The Government must not and cannot [438] hold me responsible for the result. I feel too earnestly to-night. I have seen too many dead and wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the Government has not sustained this army. . . . If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.


On reaching the James River, General McClellan reported that he had saved his army, but it was completely exhausted and would require reenforcements to the extent of 50,000 men. On the 3d of July, he wrote more fully from Harrison's Landing, then saying that “reenforcements should be sent to me rather much over, than much less, than 100,000 men.” He referred to his memorandum of the 20th of August, 1861. That memorandum called for 273,000 men. General Marcy, his chief-of-staff, who bore this dispatch to Washington, telegraphed back:

I have seen the President and Secretary of War. 10,000 men from Hunter, 10,000 from Burnside, and 11,000 from here have been ordered to reinforce you as soon as possible. Halleck [who had been originally called on for 25,000 men which he had reported he could not spare] has been urged by the President to send you at once 10,000 men from Corinth. The President and Secretary speak very kindly of you and find no fault.

The dispatches of the President and Secretary breathe the same spirit.

Allow me to reason with you a moment [wrote Mr. Lincoln on the 2d of July, adding that he had not fifty thousand men who could be sent promptly]. If, in your frequent mention of responsibility, you have the impression that I blame you for not doing more than you can, please be relieved of such impression. I only beg that in like manner you will not ask impossibilities of me. If you think you are not strong enough to take Richmond just now, I do not ask you to try just now. Save the army, material and personal, and I will strengthen it for the offensive again as fast as I can. The governors of 18 States offer me a new levy of 300,000, which I accept.

On the 5th, Mr. Stanton wrote that he had nominated all the corps commanders for promotion.

The gallantry of every officer and man in your noble army shall be suitably acknowledged. General Marcy will take you cheering news. Be assured that you shall have the support of this Department and the Government as cordially and faithfully as ever was rendered by man to man, and if we should ever live to see each other face to face, you will be satisfied that you have never had from me anything but the most confiding integrity.

The next day Mr. Stanton followed this by a personal letter, couched in still warmer terms.

No man [he wrote] had ever a truer friend than I have been to you, and shall continue to be. You are seldom absent from my thoughts, and I am ready to make any sacrifice to aid you. Time allows me to say no more than that I pray Almighty God to deliver you and your army from all perils and lead you on to victory.

General McClellan's reply was long, cold, and formal. He reviewed their past relations, and alluded to the Secretary's official conduct toward him as “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.”

After commencing the present campaign [he continued], your concurrence in the withholding of a large portion of my force, so essential to the success of my plans, led me to believe that your mind was warped by a bitter personal prejudice against me. Your letter compels me to believe that I 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.

The campaign had failed. The President visited Harrison's Landing to see for himself what was to be done next. Then General McClellan handed him his well-known letter “upon a civil and military policy covering the whole ground of our national trouble.” He called Mr. Stanton's attention to this letter, in the reply we have just cited, and told him that for no other policy would our armies continue to fight. This must have been the last straw.8 On one point, however, he was in accord with the President. He wound up by recommending the appointment of a commander-in-chief of the army who should possess the President's confidence. On the 11th General Halleck was appointed.

On the 26th General Halleck arrived at General McClellan's camp. He reports that McClellan

expressed the opinion that with 30,000 reenforcements he could attack Richmond, with “ a good chance of success.” I replied that I was authorized by the President to promise only 20,000, and that if he could not take Richmond with that number we must devise some plan for withdrawing his troops from their present position to some point where they could unite with those of General Pope without exposing Washington. . . . He the next morning informed me he would attack Richmond with the reinforcements promised. He would not say that he thought the probabilities of success were in his favor, but that there was “a chance,” and he was “willing to try it.”

With regard to the force of the enemy he expressed the opinion that it was not less than 200,000.

The orders for the removal followed. “There was, to my mind,” General Halleck says, “no alternative.” “I have taken the responsibility of doing so and am to risk my reputation on it.”

Upon whatever side, if upon either, of these many-sided controversies, history shall at last adjudge the right to be, upon whatever shoulders and in whatever degree the burden of blame shall fin ally rest, certain it is that no fair account of these operations can ever be written without taking note of these delays, whereby the initiative was transferred to the adversary; of these disasters, these unproductive victories, this ceaseless flow of telegrams, surcharged with the varying words of controversy, criticism, objection, reproach; and of the inevitable effect of all these causes combined, in weakening the confidence of the President and in undermining his authority and influence, which, however, to the last were exerted to uphold the general of his first choice at the head of his greatest army.

1 Of which only 44,563 were at Manassas.

2 General McClellan's figures. The latest return, Feb. 28th, showed 8396 for duty.--R. B. I.

3 Original italicized.

4 Original italicized.

5 Telegram to Stanton, April 7th, 1862.

6 Telegram to Stanton, May 5th, 1862.

7 Original not italicized. These words are omitted in the dispatch as printed in the report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War.--R. B. I.

8 Confirmed by Chase and Welles.--R. B. I.

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