1862: “You Must Act”

Washington, April 9, 1862

Major General McClellan.

My dear Sir.

Your dispatches complaining that you are not properly sustained, while they do not offend me, do pain me very much…

…After you left, I ascertained that less than twenty thousand unorganized men, without a single field battery, were all you designed to be left for the defence [defense] of Washington, and Manassas Junction; and part of this even, was to go to Gen. Hooker’s old position. Gen. Banks’ corps, once designed for Manassas Junction, was diverted, and tied up on the line of Winchester and Strasburg… This presented…a great temptation to the enemy to turn back from the Rappahannock, and sack Washington. My explicit order that Washington should, by the judgment of all the commanders of the Army corps, be left entirely secure, had been neglected. It was precisely this that drove me to detain McDowell…

There is a curious mystery about the number of the troops now with you. When I telegraphed you on the 6th. saying you had over a hundred thousand with you, I had just obtained from the Secretary of War, a statement, taken as he said, from your own returns, making 108,000 then with you, and en route to you. You now say you will have but 85,000 when all en route have reached you. How can the discrepancy of 23,000 be accounted for? …

By delay the enemy will relatively gain upon you – that is his will gain faster, by fortifications and reinforcements, than you can by reinforcements alone.

And, once more let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help in this… The country will not fail to note – is now noting – 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 you, 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.

Yours very truly

A. Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln to George B. McClellan, April 9, 1862.

General George McClellan

McClellan’s Game of Numbers

General George B. McClellan had the Army of the Potomac and was firmly convinced he didn’t have enough troops. After-all, he had only 121,500 men with him – not nearly enough for the conquest of Richmond. Right?

McClellan’s obsession (or fear) that he lacked troops to ensure his own success bizarrely illustrates one of the general’s leadership flaws. Great organizer though he was, McClellan seemed quite hesitant to use his army for its purpose: fighting. While a general should consider the lives of his men, he must also be willing to win…and that can mean fighting…and death. That’s war – unfortunately.

General McClellan worried and fretted about the “lack” of troops under his command, that – as Lincoln darkly “foretold” – the Confederates would have time to assemble a stronger force to meet him.

The truth (which McClellan didn’t know at the time): about 11,000 Confederate soldiers waited for him on the Virginia Peninsula when the Army of the Potomac disembarked. But imaginary problems will often become real problem if you delay long enough…

President Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s Predicament

Abe Lincoln had a problem. George McClellan wanted something – more troops. But Lincoln just didn’t have any more to send. Washington City – the Federal capital – had to be defended and the general’s requests for more troops stripped the city defenses. What if a Confederate force struck north? McClellan and the Army couldn’t get back fast enough.

Additionally, there was another problem. (Pun intended!) McClellan’s numbers just didn’t add up… As Lincoln pointed out, where did 23,000 soldiers go? Did they all drown in the Potomac and not one newspaper printed the report? Or – was the general playing with the numbers to get what he wanted?

Finally, the president struggled to communicate firmly and pacifyingly to his general. McClellan was temperamental, and Lincoln had undoubtedly learned that in the previous months of organizing and planning. He hastened to assure McClellan that “kind feelings” continued while simultaneously urging the commander to act quickly before the Confederates could react.

Historical Musings

Fortifications and reinforcements. Lincoln pointed out the obvious to a West Point graduate. (A bit of irony here.) If McClellan didn’t hurry up, advance, and fight, the Confederates would have time to build stronger fortifications to defend the peninsula and Richmond, their capital. Since the Union was on the offensive, they would only gain strength by numbers, not fortifications.

“In Front of Yorktown,” Winslow Homer shows Union soldiers waiting to be ordered on their next march. They would wait quite awhile before beginning their advance up the Virginia Peninsula.

McClellan had a choice. Looking at the numbers, he remained convinced he didn’t have enough men to advance. In the coming weeks, evidence would reveal that he had more than enough, maybe even too many soldiers.

Decades of historical studies haven’t always been kind to General McClellan. Trying to think back to the decisions he faced in 1862 with no knowledge of “the future” and inflated numbers of the enemy brought in by his spies, perhaps he really believed he was making the right decision to wait – not wanting to needlessly sacrifice his men? But perhaps waiting was just a game or a cover? Was McClellan really afraid? Questions, questions…research, research…opinion, opinion…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. The famous “what-if”…. What if George McClellan had raced up the Virginia Peninsula instead of dawdling and waiting for more troops?

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