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If we never try ...

Abraham Lincoln Visits Antietam

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Lincoln, Geo. McClellan and Officers of the Army of the Potomac
Sharpsburg, MD, October 3, 1862



MGen George B. McClellan was credited a superb organizer of troops, and was beloved by the men of the Federal Army of the Potomac, but he seemed to lack the "killer instinct" needed to destroy the enemy. President Lincoln said the General had "the slows" and had placed McClellan in command of the Army because of the confidence he inspired in the troops. After Antietam, the President felt McClellan again had "the slows" ...

Three Days in the Field

Frustrated by General McClellan's apparent inability to follow up on his 'victory' over Robert E. Lee, President Lincoln took a train to Western Maryland on October 1. He had not announced the trip in advance. McClellan met him at the station at Harpers Ferry and escorted him to the battlefield near Sharpsburg.

McClellan wrote his wife that the President's visit was clearly intended to "push me into a premature advance into Virginia". This statement illustrates the crux of the President's problem with his General. In the two weeks since the fight on September 17, Lincoln and the Washington Army leadership had been pressing McClellan to cross back into Virginia and attack Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, but McClellan had insisted that his Army was in no condition for such a move. McClellan had also insisted that his enemy was much too strong - a fundamental miscalculation he had made in the past. The President had come to Sharpsburg to persuade his General to see the possibilities rather than the obstacles.

McClellan and the President met alone, and there are no first-hand accounts of their discussions by an outside observer. Lincoln later said that "I went up to the field to get McClellan to move", but that the General had only reasons why he could not. The President apparently found his appeal fruitless and soon dropped the subject.

McClellan, on the other hand, wrote his wife that "he [Lincoln] more than once assured me that he was fully satisfied with my whole course from the beginning; that the only fault he could possibly find was that I was perhaps too prone to be sure everything was ready before acting, but that my actions were all right when I started." McClellan seems to have heard little of the President's argument for an advance, and clearly did not understand the main point: that he must move immediately.

Much of the President's visit was taken up with reviewing and inspecting troops. To the soldiers, the President "looked pale" and "seemed much worn and distressed and to be looking for those who were gone". While Lincoln was certainly grieving for the casusalties, his chief concern was with the living army before him. He further demonstrated his frustration with McClellan by describing the Army of the Potomac to a friend, not as a fighting force, but as "McClellan's Bodyguard". A fine army, to be sure, but of no use to the Nation if it did not engage the enemy.


After another conversation with the President, McClellan wrote that Lincoln had said "General, you have saved the country. You must remain in command and carry us through to the end." As McClellan recalled it, he reminded Lincoln of the "influences in Washington" who had little patience and would seek the General's removal, and the President replied "General, I pledge myself to stand between you and harm." Given the stated purpose of the President's visit, this version of the converstation seems somewhat unlikely.

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Lincoln and McClellan in the General's Tent
Sharpsburg, MD, October 3, 1862


To Advance on the Enemy

President Lincoln returned to Washington on October 4. Two days later McClellan received a telegram from Army chief Henry Halleck: "The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good..." If McClellan was surprised by the speed of the order he did not immediately show it. Instead he only replied that he was "pushing everything as rapidly as possible in order to get ready for an advance", and increased his requests for additional supplies and provisions, and for repairs to the Harpers Ferry - Winchester rail line. When still nothing had happened by October 13, the President wrote General McClellan...

"My Dear Sir: - You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?

"As I understand, you telegraphed General Halleck that you cannot subsist your army at Winchester unless the railroad from Harpers Ferry to that point be put in working order. But the enemy does now subsist his army at Winchester, at a distance nearly twice as great from railroad transportation as you would have to do, without the railroad last named ... I certainly should be pleased to have the advantage of the railroad from Harpers Ferry to Winchester; but it wastes all of the remaining autumn to give it to you, and, in fact, ignores the question of time, which cannot and must not be ignored."

Later in the same letter, he continued:

"... you are now nearer Richmond than the enemy is, by the route that you can take and he must. Why can you not reach there before him, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on the march? His route is the arc of the circle, while yours is the chord ... I would press closely to him, fight him if a favorable opportunity should present, and at least try to beat him to Richmond. I say "try"; if we never try, we shall never succeed..."

McClellan Fails the Test

On about October 24, General McClellan wired Washington that he was nearly ready to move, but needed more horses "urgently" because his were "broken down" by rough service and foot-and-mouth disease. He was replying to another Halleck telegram requesting news of the Army's movement and plans.

Lincoln was furious, and fired off a telegram on October 25: "I have just read your dispatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?"

The next day an offended General McClellan reported that his army was crossing the Potomac, and Lincoln offered something of an apology by saying he had intended "no injustice to any", but that his concern was warranted considering the more than five weeks of inactivity since the battle. By now the President had had enough of the excuses and delays. He resolved to relieve the commander of the Army of the Potomac if McClellan let Robert E. Lee erase his advantage of position and get between the Federals and Richmond.

It subsequently took McClellan nine days to get all of his army across the river, and in that time Lee indeed beat him to Richmond. Tuesday, November 4 was election day in the North. On November 7, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command and sent him home to New Jersey to await further orders.

No orders ever came.


For more information on the Web:

For an alternate viewpoint on the General, you might also like to visit the "McClellan Society's MG George B McClellan Pages."

original post date: 04/14/2003