1861: “Nobody Knows His Plans”

Gazette665 Blog Series 1861: In Their WordsDecember 31, 1861

Genl [General] McClelllan and his chief of staff, Genl Marcey, are both very sick – Said to be typhoid fever – and this making much difficulty.

The Genl it seems, is very reticent. Nobody knows his plans. The Sec {Secretary] of war and the President himself are kept in ignorance of the actual condition of the army and the intended movements of the General – if indeed they intend to move at all. In fact the whole administration is lamentably deficient in the lack of unity and co-action. There is no quarrel among us, but an absalute [absolute] want of community of intelligence, purpose and action.

In truth, it is not an administration but the separate and disjointed action of seven independent officers, each one ignorant of what his colleagues are doing.

To day in council, Mr. Chase stated the condition of things in sorrowful plainness; and then, as usual, we had a “bald, disjointed chat” about it, coming to no conclusion.

It seemed as if all military operations were to stop, just because Genl McClellan is sick! Some proposed that there should be a council of war composed of Maj [Major] Genls, in order that somebody besides the Genl in chief, may know something about the army; and be able to take command in case Genl McC should die or continue sick.

I differed, and told the President that he was commander in chief, and that it was not his privilege but his duty to command; and that implied the necessity to know the true condition of things…

But I fear that I spoke in vain. The Prest. [President] is an excellent man, and, in main wise; but he lacks will and purpose, and, I greatly fear, has not the power to command.

Attorney General Edward Bates, Diary Entry, December 31, 1861

Leadership Needed

We’ve discussed the challenges and odds against President Lincoln in 1861. Another problem was his cabinet which has been famous called the “team of rivals.” The situation was serious as 1861 came to an end.

As the attorney general pointed out, it was difficult to have complete discussions and make informed decisions. Lincoln was trying, but seemed hesitant to assert military power as commander in chief.

In late 1861 and into early 1862, there was a power vacuum in Washington City in regards to the military command and situation. For better or for worse, an ambition fellow was more than willing to take a controlling role…

George B. McClellan, 1861

George B. McClellan, 1861

McClellan’s Power

Remember George McClellan? That man who wanted to be a dictator, but had “admirable” self-restraint. Yep, that’s the guy who had sort of cast the president and cabinet under a “power spell.” Supposedly, McClellan was the only commander who could really save the Union. He had secret plans. He was rebuilding the army.

The danger came with his lack of communication. He didn’t keep his superiors, peers, or subordinates informed, leading to the suspicion that he might not have had as grand of plans as he wanted everyone to believe.

However, Lincoln and other cabinet members had a lot of faith in General McClellan. They had given the proverbial reins and were waiting for his grand victory. They would be waiting for a long time!

Historical Musings

We can look back and see the problems. Bates certainly pinpointed warning flags. However, it’s important to keep in mind the lack of precedence for such situations. What should the president and cabinet (and other bureaucracy) control and what should be left in the hands of the military?

It’s a balance. Military vs. civilian – who controls what in a war? It’s something we’re always learning and redefining with each new conflict. Some of the successes and problems that America has experience in 20th Century military operations have a legacy and precedent in the Civil War.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Was there a solution to the McClellan power situation? What would you have done in the situation described by Edward Bates?

civil war quote

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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3 Responses to 1861: “Nobody Knows His Plans”

  1. Pingback: 1862: “The Best Man For The Place” | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: 1862: “Victory Attends Us” | Gazette665

  3. Pingback: 1862: “You Must Act” | Gazette665

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