previous next

McClellan organizing the grand Army.

Philippe, Comte de Paris, Aide-de-Camp to General Mcclellan.

Provost guard, Washington. From a sketch made in 1862.

No one has denied that McClellan was a marvelous organizer. Every veteran of the Army of the Potomac will be able to recall that extraordinary time when the people of the North devoted all their native energy and spirit of initiative to the raising of enormous levies of future combatants and their military equipment, and when infantry battalions, squadrons of cavalry, and batteries of artillery sprung, as it were, from the earth in a night, and poured in from all sides upon the barren wastes of vacant building-lots that then went to the making up of fully three-quarters of the Federal capital.

It was in the midst of this herculean task of organization that two French aides-de-camp were assigned to duty as military attaches on McClellan's staff. His brilliant operations in Western Virginia against Lee,--who had not yet revealed the full extent of his military genius, and whom McClellan was destined to find again in his front but a year later,--the successes of Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain, gave evidence of what might be expected of the inexperienced troops placed in McClellan's hands.1 He had already shown rare strategic ability, and the President had confided to him the task of creating the Army of the Potomac from the disorganized bands who had fallen back on Washington under the brave and unfortunate McDowell. Surrounded for the most part by young officers, he was himself the most youthful of us all, not only by reason of his physical vigor, the vivacity of his impressions, the noble candor of his character, and his glowing patriotism, but also, I may add, by his inexperience of men. His military bearing breathed a spirit of frankness, benevolence, and firmness. His look was piercing, his voice gentle, his temper equable, his word of command clear and definite. His [113] encouragement was most affectionate, his reprimand couched in terms of perfect politeness. Discreet, as a military or political chief should be, he was slow in bestowing his confidence; but, once given, it was never withdrawn. Himself perfectly loyal to his friends, he knew how to inspire others with an absolute devotion.

Unfortunately for himself, McClellan succeeded too quickly and too soon to the command of the principal army of the republic. His lieutenants were as new to the work as he — they had not been tested. Public opinion in the army itself — a judge all the more relentless for the very reason that discipline gives it no opportunity to express itself — had as yet been able neither to pronounce on them, nor to ratify the preferences of the general-in-chief. Paradoxical as it may seem, would it not really have been better could McClellan have received a check at first, as Grant did at Belmont, rather than to have begun with the brilliant campaign in West Virginia which won for him the sobriquet of “The young Napoleon”? Just at the time when I joined his staff the exacting confidence of the people and the Government was laying on him an almost superhuman task. In forging the puissant weapon which, later, snatched from his grasp, was destined, in the hands of the Great Hammerer, to bray the army of Lee, he acquired an imperishable title to the gratitude of his compatriots. He wrought, will it be said, for the glory of his successors? No! He labored for his country, even as a private soldier who dies for her, with no thought of fame. In order to give to his weapon every perfection, he soon learned to resist the impatient solicitations of both the people and the Government.

At the end of September, 1861, while yet under the orders of General Scott, McClellan represented the ardent and impatient spirit of men chafing at the slowness of a chief whose faculties had been chilled by the infirmities of age.

Nevertheless, McClellan's first care was to place the capital beyond all peradventure of being carried by sudden attack: on the one hand, for the sake of reassuring the inhabitants and the political organism within its limits; and, on the other, that the army might be at liberty to act independently when it should be called to the field, leaving a sufficient garrison only to secure the defense of the city. He knew that an army tied up about a place it has to protect is virtually paralyzed. The events of 1870 have only too fully confirmed this view. An engineer of distinction, McClellan himself devised in all its details the system of defensive works from Alexandria to Georgetown. He gave his daily personal supervision to the execution of this work, alternating outdoor activity with office business. Tireless in the saddle, he was equally indefatigable with the pen. Possessed of a methodical and exact mind, he comprehended the organization of his army in every minute detail. The creation of all the material of war necessary to its existence and action was extraordinary proof of the wonderful readiness of the Americans in an emergency. . .

But the season advanced. The army was being formed. At the end of September the enemy had fallen back on Fairfax Court House, leaving to us at Munson's Hill a few Quaker guns of logs and pasteboard. The time for action seemed to have come. The rigors of winter in Virginia hardly make [114] themselves felt before the beginning of December. By the 17th of October the enemy had again retreated. The Army of the Potomac replied with a commensurate advance. But this was a faux pas. The blunder was consummated at Ball's Bluff [see p. 122]. McClellan's orders had been given in entire ignorance of the topography of the environs of Edwards's Ferry (all the maps being inexact) and of the force of the enemy in front of Leesburg. In fact, at that time the organization of the secret service was entirely insufficient to the occasion, in spite of the praiseworthy efforts of Mr. Allen Pinkerton.2 McClellan, who was established beyond Dranesville with McCall's division, believed himself to be within supporting distance of Baker's brigade. The latter was crushed on the 21st, before any one on the right bank of the Potomac knew of his fate. This disaster, of comparatively little moment by itself, led to the most acrimonious recriminations. It proved, above all, how slight and imperfect were the connections between the head of the army and the parts he was called on to manoeuvre. On that day a fatal hesitation took possession of McClellan. If he did not then decide to postpone the campaign till the following spring, his conduct of affairs was such as soon to leave him no alternative but recourse to this lamentable necessity. Shortly thereafter a great change came over the military situation: a change which should have encouraged him to the promptest offensive action, but which, unfortunately for him, produced only a directly contrary result.

On the evening of November 1st the whole political world of Washington was in a flutter of agitation. It labored still under the effects of the displacement of General Fremont, guilty of having intruded upon political ground by the issue of an abolitionist proclamation [see Vol. I., p. 278]. The disgrace of “The Pathfinder,” so popular with the Western Republicans, had caused some friction in Congress, and had provoked rejoicing among his numerous political enemies in the Army of the Potomac; and now it was learned that a measure of still graver importance had been forced on the Government: Scott had resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Federal armies,3 the natural inference being that McClellan would be designated his successor. Of great stature and of a martial figure, General Scott [115]

Confederate works on Munson's Hill, as seen from the Union advance post at Bailey's Crossroads. [see map, Vol. I., P. 172.] from a sketch made in September, 1861.

joined to his physical advantages rare military and diplomatic attainments. He had known how to conquer Mexico without suffering a check; he had been able to establish a government that would warrant evacuation of the country, capable of maintaining itself without extraneous assistance, and he had secured a treaty with leonine conditions for the Americans. But age had attacked him physically and mentally. Obese and impotent, the brilliant Scott was in 1861 but the shadow of his former self. While recognizing the services rendered by him to the republic at the outbreak of the civil war, by his fidelity to the Stars and Stripes in spite of his Virginion origin, the young generals reproached him with paralyzing their ardor and interfering with their projects. The President and his Secretary of State, Mr. Seward, who, through political habitude, was also a temporizer, regretted the resignation of Scott, and augured ill of the youth and rashness of [116] McClellan. The latter, on the other hand, seemed to imagine that the withdrawal of the old warrior removed the last remaining obstacle to the realization of his vast strategic conceptions. But, as is not seldom the case in the course of human events, both these expectations were mistaken. In brief, McClellan, once invested with supreme command, proved himself more of a temporizer than his predecessor, and, as will soon be seen, his premature promotion to this post was the cause of all his subsequent mortification and misfortune.

The next day (November 2d), at 4 o'clock in the morning, we were at his side, mounted, to accompany to the railway station the commander whose place McClellan was about to occupy. As we went along every one chatted about the matter, and sought to penetrate the future and to divine the fortunes and role of the young general in the terrible crisis through which the republic was passing. It would have been easier to pierce the night and fog which enveloped us. An hour later McClellan was at his office. A new task of enormous proportions, whose difficulty he had not, perhaps, paused to contemplate, stared him in the face, and threatened him with destruction. Without giving him the full rank enjoyed by Scott, the President had given him full command of the armies of the republic. It should be said that he had the right to this position as the oldest major-general of the regular army. In assuming his new function he did not give up his own personal and particular direction of the Army of the Potomac. Here he was right; for he could neither have found any one to whom he might safely confide his own proper work of organization, nor could he have left the command of the first army of the republic without condemning himself to perpetual prison in the bureau at Washington.

It must be admitted, however, that his two functions were incompatible. As an old French proverb has it, “Qui trop embrasse, mal étreint.” When, two years later, Grant himself undertook to conduct the decisive campaign against Richmond, at the same time continuing the direction in chief of all the armies of the Union, he was not only surrounded by the aureole of his splendid victories and incontestable military authority, and not only had a cruel experience proved to the people the necessity for concentrating the military power in the hands of one man, but the different armies which he controlled were confided to approved chiefs whom he could trust with perfect liberty of action, while, in case of need, he might leave at the head of the Army of the Potomac the conqueror of Gettysburg. In Washington, Halleck presided as chief of staff, reduced by Grant to a subordinate function, it is true, but a function for which he possessed special aptitude. The situation of McClellan was different. He perceived this on the day when, entering on the campaign, he placed himself at the head of the Army of the Potomac. At first he was equal to the emergency by dint of incessant work; but he was obliged to renounce the daily routine which had served to maintain his relations with all his divisions, and had contributed to facilitate and hasten forward his schemes of organization. McClellan, confined to his office, undertook the orderly and methodical concentration of the immense number [117] of men enrolled in the service of the republic, in the formation of his armies, and in constructing a scheme for their concerted action. General Halleck, but just then arrived in Washington, was sent to the West with extensive powers [see Vol. I., p. 315]. McClellan assigned to him one of his best lieutenants, General Buell [see Vol. I., p. 385]. Finally, he prepared the great naval expeditions which should give to the Federal arms Port Royal, Roanoke, and New Orleans. Scarcel y had he begun the work when the fact was borne in on him that the armies of the West were as regarded material, well prepared for the offensive than those of the East, and as it seemed requisite that they should act together, it may be inferred that frome the first days of his assuming command, the scheme of postponing

Mt. Olivet Church on the old Fairfax road — picket post of the 40th New York Volunteers. From a sketch made in Sept., 1861.

till spring the operations of the Army of the Potomac was explicitly determined on. McClellan wisely concealed from every one this

Claremont,” the residence of Commodore French Forrest, C. S. N.--picket post of the 14th New York Volunteers. From a sketch made Sept. 26, 1861.

resolution, the objections to which he understood better than any one. But his soldiers were not slow to comprehend; often the crowd has sagacious instincts, and may divine the calculations of even the most wary statesman. The army proved it in this case by constructing, with all the ready skill of American backwoodsmen, log-huts to protect them from the inclemencies of the season. They did well. When the snow and ice rendered military operations impossible, veritable pioneers' villages had grown up every where in the midst of the timber, and afforded the soldiers excellent shelter. The army had coolly taken the liberty of going into winter quarters, without consulting anybody.

The complications of foreign politics contributed their share to restrain McClellan, at a period when the season would yet have permitted him to act on the offensive. It was the 16th of November when the news reached [118] Washington of the incident afterward known as the Trent affair [see p. 134]. . . . The capture of the Confederate Commissioners on the high seas under a neutral flag, in flagrant violation of the law of nations,--a violation brutal in its method and useless in its results, most dangerous in its consequences,--was hailed by public opinion as a splendid victory for the Stars and Stripes. . . . Two men at Washington comprehended from the first the danger to their country of the inconsiderate act of Wilkes: these were Seward and McClellan. The former, burdened with an immense responsibility, patriotically dissimulated his opinion with extraordinary finesse; he permitted the excitement to spend itself, and, thanks to the slowness of communication with England, gained time enough4 to extricate his Government at the critical juncture, by enveloping the decision he had succeeded in extorting from “the powers that be” in a specious web of plausibilities, calculated to sweeten the bitterness caused at home by England's exactions, and at the same time to satisfy her just demands. He succeeded in sparing his country and the world the horrors of a war the results of which could hardly be imagined. . . .

It was not for McClellan to implicate himself in questions of a purely political character, but he probably foresaw the consequences of a war in which England, mistress of the seas, would have inundated the Southern States with arms and munitions of war, with money and volunteers, blockading the Federal ports, and in the spring making Canada the base of operations for her regular army. The States of the North would have found themselves hemmed in along a vast line of boundary by two hostile powers, extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. McClellan's care, in view of such an emergency, was to perfect and strengthen his army; but, above all, not to compromise the safety of his forces by any attempt at operations on the other side of the Potomac. Grand reviews established, to the satisfaction of the inexperienced, the fact of progress in the equipment, instruction, and drill of the troops. At Bailey's Cross-roads might have been seen a rendezvous of 50,000 men, with all the paraphernalia of a campaign, a large number of cavalry, and a formidable array of artillery. No such spectacle had ever been seen in the United States; the novelty of the display caused the liveliest interest among the inhabitants of Washington. But to a European, not the least curious part of the pageant was the President, with his entire Cabinet, in citizens' dress, boldly caracoling at the head of a brilliant military cortege, and riding down the long lines of troops to the rattle of drums, the flourish of trumpets, and the loud huzzas of the whole army. While his aides-de-camp were engaged in the field, McClellan worked ceaselessly with the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, Simon Cameron and Gideon Welles, preparing great expeditions, half military and half naval, that should plant the national flag on the principal points of the enemy's coast, and secure convenient bases for future operations. The success won at Port Royal encouraged the Federal Government in these projec ts. McClellan himself had brought back from the Crimea a personal experience which enabled him, better than any one else, to preside over the details of preparation. [119]

Edwin M. Stanton. From a photograph.


Mr. Seward, having courageously ended the Trent affair to the satisfaction of the public, now recovered from its first attack of folly, the only obstacle to be feared — the danger of a maritime war — was finally removed. Burnside embarked at New York, during the early days of 1862, with the little army that should seize Roanoke and march on the interior of North Carolina [see Vol. I., p. 632]. The troops destined for the attack on New Orleans were sent to Ship Island in detail. But an unusually severe winter followed. While the naval expeditions intended to land troops on the coasts of the Southern States might still have been fitted out, though the severe gales of the season would have subjected them to serious danger, deep snows and intense cold made movements on the part of the Army of the Potomac next to impossible. Even had it been desirable to expose raw troops to the rigors of a winter campaign, it would have been impracticable to provision an advancing army, on account of the impassable condition of the roads. This set McClellan, as well as many of his subordinates, to thinking of transportation by water, down the Western rivers, or through the deep estuaries of Eastern Virginia.

One day, I think it was the 20th of December, General McClellan, ordinarily so assiduous, did not appear at headquarters. The next day it was learned that he was ill. Three days later his life was in danger. Exhausted with work, his robust physique was seized with a typhoid of the most serious type. . . . His absence paralyzed work at headquarters. He had not regularly delegated his powers. His father-in-law and chief of staff, General Marcy, did not dare to act definitively in his name. McClellan had made the mistake of not creating a general field-staff service, with a duly appointed chief of staff. This might have aided him in securing a consistent ensemble of military operations . . . . On his return to the duties of his office [January 13], he realized that during his absence important changes had been arranged. On the 15th of January, Mr. Cameron was superseded by Mr. Stanton, a celebrated lawyer, who was spoken of as one of the coming men of the Democratic party. McClellan, who knew and appreciated him, had, before his illness, contributed materially to Stanton's nomination by recommending him earnestly to the President. But he was not slow to regret this. Mr. Stanton, endowed with a remarkable faculty for work, rendered incontestable service in the organization of the armies; but, fearing the growing importance of those who commanded them, and wishing to impose his authority, he was instrumental, more than any one else, in developing in Mr. Lincoln's mind the idea of directing military operations in person, from the depths of the White House itself. The personal intervention of the President, provoked by the inconsiderate impatience of the public and the precipitate solicitations of McClellan's political adversaries, first declared itself in a singular order, kept a secret as regards the public at the time, but given to the press on March 11th. This order [ “President's General War order no. 1” ], dated the 27th of January, directed all the armies of the republic to take the field on the same day, that is, on the 22d of February, in honor of Washington's birthday! In the West, where the rivers [121]

The North front of the War Department, Washington. From a War-time photograph.

were open, everything was in readiness. Moreover, the order of the President was not necessary to warrant Grant, already under orders from McClellan, in beginning the campaign, and Grant anticipated that order. His debut was as a lightning-stroke. His victory at Fort Donelson, followed by the capitulation of 15,000 Confederates, was the return for Bull Run. The impression created throughout the whole army was profound. The Federal volunteers took heart again. The confidence of the Army of the Potomac was redoubled. The general was now restored to health. The weather had moderated. The time had at last come for this army to act. . . . But the immense flotilla which should transport it to Urbana, near the mouth of the Rappahannock [see map, p. 164], or to Fort Monroe, another point of debarkation equally considered with the other, was not yet ready, and no one more than McClellan regretted the delay. It is well known that he was obliged to fight many objections in order to secure the adoption of his favorite plan. He was obliged to exhibit the details of his projects before numerous councils of war, some of them political and some of them military, some of the members of which were, perhaps, not possessed of absolute discretion. He was obliged to reassure and convince all those who feared lest Washington should be left without sufficient protection. He finally obtained the Government's approval.

At the very moment when all seemed ready for the realization of his grand design, two unforeseen circumstances arose to thwart the calculations of McClellan. The first was the sudden evacuation of Manassas by the Confederates. I do not believe that this could be attributed to indiscretions following the councils of war at Washington. I prefer, rather, to ascribe it to the military sagacity of the great soldier who then commanded the Army of Northern Virginia. His positions at Manassas were protected only by the snow and ice which paralyzed the Federals. With the opening of the season he would be obliged to withdraw behind the Rappahannock. This movement [122] brought the Southern army nearer to Richmond, at the same time placing it on the Urbana route, thus making a landing there impossible for us, and permitting Lee to anticipate McClellan on the Virginia peninsula. McClellan would not give up his plan of approaching Richmond from the south-east. Fort Monroe, occupied by the Federals, was chosen as the new point of debarkation, and the pursuit of the enemy on the road from Manassas to Fredericksburg had no other object than to deceive him as to the intentions of the Federals. The army, after having feigned pursuit, was ordered to concentrate near Alexandria, the rendezvous of the grand flotilla which McClellan awaited with so much impatience.

But on the 12th of March another unexpected event again caused consternation among the officers of the staff. The indefatigable newsdealers, who followed the army almost to the.very line of battle, had brought papers from Washington, in which we read a decree [ “President's War order no. 3” ], dated March 11th, in effect relieving McClellan from the direction in chief of the armies of the United States, the pretext being that McClellan had not taken the field on the 22d of February [see p. 167]. It was recalled to mind that on that very day, McClellan, on going upon the floor of the House of Representatives, had been greeted by a triple salvo of applause, a demonstration flattering enough, but damaging to a general, whose functions forbid even the suspicion of political partisanship. The measure in question was inept, since it virtually restricted McClellan within the Department of the Potomac, excluding West Virginia, then assigned to Fremont. The measure was especially disastrous in suppressing all general direction of military operations, and disintegrating the ensemble. It had been decided that Scott was too superannuated to attend to this general direction; it was not for the purpose of abolishing it entirely that command had been confided to younger and more energetic hands. Unfortunately, at this moment Mr. Lincoln had the weakness to think that he himself could effectively exercise the supreme control, assigned him in form, it is true, by a figment of the national Constitution. As for McClellan, the President's decision was mortifying in its method, Lincoln having delayed its promulgation till after the departure of his general, and having left it to be communicated to the latter by the daily papers. Yet McClellan would have consoled himself, had not this measure been followed by others still more harassing, and of a nature to completely cripple intelligent action. But he was relieved of an immense responsibility; he was left at the head of an army eager to follow his lead, eager for battle, and confident of victory under his orders. He alone seemed to preserve his sang-froid in the midst of officers of all grades who flocked to his headquarters at Fairfax Court House as the news spread rapidly from camp-fire to camp-fire. Among these officers were stanch supporters, secret foes, those jealous of his fame, would-be worshipers of the rising sun, and, last but not least, indiscreet and compromising friends. In this evil hour McClellan felt how sternly patriotic duty demanded of him that he should hide the mortification he felt at this wound to his feelings as an officer and a man. He sought for consolation only in the sympathy and confidence of his soldiers.

1 See “McClellan in West Virginia,” by General J. D. Cox, Vol. I., p. 126.--Editors.

2 Usually mentioned in the Official Records under the assumed name of E. J. Allen.--Editors.

3 Early in August, 1861, General Scott had asked to be relieved. His request grew out of the irritation caused by a letter McClellan had addressed to him on August 8th, in which the junior officer gave his opinion that the enemy had at least 100,000 men in front of Washington, or in the vicinity, and put himself on record as to the measures (including an enlargement of his own command) deemed by him necessary for the safety of Washington. On the following day, August 9th, General Scott addressed the following letter to the Secretary of War:

sir: I received yesterday from Major-General McClellan a letter of that date, to which I design this as my only reply. Had Major-General McClellan presented the same views in person, they would have been freely entertained and discussed. All my military views and opinions had been so presented to him, without eliciting much remark, in our few meetings, which I have in vain sought to multiply. He has stood on his guard, and now places himself on record. Let him make the most of his unenvied advantages. Major-General McClellan has propagated in high quarters the idea expressed in the letter before me, that Washington was not only “insecure,” but in “imminent danger.” Relying on our numbers, our forts, and the Potomac River, I am confident in the opposite opinion; and considering the stream of new regiments that is pouring in upon us (before this alarm could have reached their homes), I have not the slightest apprehension for the safety of the Government here.

Having now been long unable to mount a horse, or to walk more than a few paces at a time, and consequently being unable to review troops, much less to direct them in battle,--in short, being broken down by many particular hurts, besides the general infirmities of age,--I feel that I have become an incumbrance to the army as well as to myself, and that I ought, giving way to a younger commander, to seek the palliatives of physical pain and exhaustion. Accordingly, I must beg the President, at the earliest moment, to allow me to be placed on the officers' retired list, and then quietly to lay myself up — probably forever — somewhere in or about New York. But, wherever I may spend my little remainder of life, my frequent and latest prayer will be, “ God save the Union.”

On August 10th, at the request of the President, General McClellan gave the latter authority to withdraw this letter of August 8th, which, as he said, “was designed to be a plain and respectful expression” of his views. President Lincoln went with this letter to General Scott, and requested him to withdraw his reply. On August 12th General Scott wrote again to the Secretary of War, to say that he could not withdraw his letter, for three reasons; the third relating to his physical infirmities, and the first two being the following:

1. The original offense given to me by Major-General McClellan (see his letter of the 8th inst.) seems to have been the result of deliberation between him and some of the members of the Cabinet, by whom all the greater war questions are to be settled, without resort to or consultation with me, the nominal General-in-Chief of the army. In further proof of this neglect,--although it is unofficially known that in the last week (or six days) many regiments have arrived and others have changed their positions; some to a considerable distance,--not one of these movements has been reported to me (or anything else) by Major-General McClellan; while it is believed, and, I may add, known, that he is in frequent communication with portions of the Cabinet and on matters appertaining to me. That freedom of access and consultation have, very naturally, deluded the junior general into a feeling of indifference toward his senior.

2. With such supports on his part, it would be as idle for me as it would be against the dignity of my years, to be filing daily complaints against an ambitious junior, who, independent of the extrinsic advantages alluded to, has, unquestionably, very high qualifications for military command. I trust they may achieve crowning victories in behalf of the Union.


4 Seward's letter consenting to the return of the Commissioners bears date of Dee. 2 6, 18 61.--Editors.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: