The Life of Abraham Lincoln
By Henry Ketcham
Public Domain Books
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
16th President of the United States
Chapter XXIX. Lincoln and McClellan
McClellan was a very different man from Fremont. Though he was as nearly as possible opposite in his characteristics, still it was not easier to get along with him. He was a man of brilliant talents, fine culture, and charming personality. Graduating from West Point in 1846, he went almost immediately into the Mexican War, where he earned his captaincy. He later wrote a manual of arms for use in the United States army. He visited Europe as a member of the commission of officers to gather military information.
His greatest genius was in engineering, a line in which he had no superior. He went to Illinois in 1857 as chief engineer of the Central Railroad, the following year he became vice-president, and the year after that president of the St. Louis and Cincinnati Railway. At the outbreak of the war this captain was by the governor of Ohio commissioned as major-general, and a few days later he received from Lincoln the commission of major-general in the United States army.
He was sent to West Virginia with orders to drive out the rebels. This he achieved in a brief time, and for it he received the thanks of congress. He was, after the disaster at Bull Run, called to Washington and placed in command of that portion of the Army of the Potomac whose specific duty was the defense of the capital. He was rapidly promoted from one position to another until age and infirmity compelled the retirement of that grand old warrior, Winfield Scott, whereupon he was made general-in-chief of the United States army. All this occurred in less than four months. Four months ago, this young man of thirty-five years was an ex-captain. To-day he is general-in-chief, not of the largest army, but probably of the most intelligent army, the world has ever seen. He would be almost more than human if such a sudden turn of the wheel of fortune did not also turn his head.
It was Lincoln’s habit to let his generals do their work in their own ways, only insisting that they should accomplish visible and tangible results. This method he followed with McClellan, developing it with great patience under trying circumstances. On this point there is no better witness than McClellan himself. To his wife he wrote, “They give me my way in everything, full swing and unbounded confidence.” Later he expressed contempt for the President who “showed him too much deference.” He was a universal favorite, he became known as “the young Napoleon,” he had the confidence of the country and the loyal devotion of the army, and the unqualified support of the administration. Of him great things were expected, and reasonably so. In the power of inspiring confidence and enthusiasm he was second only to Napoleon.
As an organizer and drill-master he was superb. The army after Bull Run was as demoralized as an army could be. The recruits soon began to arrive from the North, every day bringing thousands of such into Washington. These required care and they must be put into shape for effective service. This difficult task he accomplished in a way that fully met the public expectation and reflected great credit upon himself.
In defense he was a terrible fighter. That is to say, when he fought at all–for he fought only in defense–he fought well. A distinguished Confederate soldier said, “There was no Union general whom we so much dreaded as McClellan. He had, as we thought, no equal.” And they declared they could always tell when McClellan was in command by the way the men fought.
An illustrious comment on this is the splendid fighting at Antietam. That was one of the greatest battles and one of the most magnificent victories of the war. It showed McClellan at his best.
We know what the Army of the Potomac was previous to the accession of McClellan. Let us see what it was after his removal. “McClellan was retired,” says the Honorable Hugh McCulloch, “and what happened to the Army of the Potomac? Terrible slaughter under Burnside at Fredericksburg; crushing defeat at Chancellorsville under Hooker.” All this shows that McClellan narrowly missed the fame of being one of the greatest generals in history. But let us glance at another page in the ledger.
His first act, when in command at Cincinnati, was to enter into an agreement with General Buckner that the state of Kentucky should be treated as neutral territory. That agreement put that state into the position of a foreign country, like England or China, when the very purpose of the war was to insist that the United States was one nation. This act was a usurpation of authority, and further, it was diametrically wrong even had he possessed the authority.
His next notable act, one which has already been mentioned, was to issue a proclamation in defense of slavery, promising to assist [the rebels] to put down any attempt at insurrection by the slaves. This was wrong. His duty was to conquer the enemy. It was no more his duty to defend slavery than it was Fremont’s to emancipate the slaves.
The next development of McClellan was the hallucination, from which he never freed himself, that the enemy’s numbers were from five to ten times as great as they really were. “I am here,” he wrote August 16, 1861, “in a terrible place; the enemy have from three to four times my force. The President, the old general, cannot or will not see the true state of affairs.” At that time the “true state of affairs” was that the enemy had from one-third to one-half his force. That is a fair specimen of the exaggeration of his fears. That is, McClellan’s estimate was from six to twelve times too much.
At Yorktown he faced the Confederate Magruder, who commanded 11,000 all told. Of this number, 6,000 were spread along a line of thirteen miles of defense across the peninsula, leaving 5,000 for battle. McClellan’s imagination, or fears, magnified this into an enormous army. With his 58,000 effective troops he industriously prepared for defense, and when the engineering work was accomplished thought he had done a great act in defending his army. All the while he was calling lustily for reinforcements from Washington. When Magruder was ready he retired with his little army and McClellan’s opportunity was gone.
At Antietam he won a brilliant victory, but he failed to follow it up. There was a chance to annihilate the Confederate army and end the war. To do that was nearly as important as it had been to win the victory. To be sure his troops were worn, but as compared with the shattered condition of the enemy, his army was ready for dress parade. So the enemy was allowed to cross the Potomac at leisure, reform, reorganize, and the war was needlessly prolonged. It was this neglect which, more than any other one thing, undermined the general confidence in McClellan.
Later, at second Bull Run he left Pope to suffer. It was clearly his duty to reinforce Pope, but he only said that Pope had got himself into the fix and he must get out as he could. He seemed to forget that there never was a time when he was not calling for reinforcements himself. This wanton neglect was unsoldierly, inhuman. He also forgot that this method of punishing Pope inflicted severe punishment on the nation.
His chronic call for reinforcements, were it not so serious, would make the motive of a comic opera. When he was in Washington, he wanted all the troops called in for the defense of the city. When he was in Virginia, he thought the troops which were left for the defense of the city ought to be sent to reinforce him,–the city was safe enough! He telegraphed to Governor Denison of Ohio to pay no attention to Rosecrans’ request for troops. He thought that 20,000, with what could be raised in Kentucky and Tennessee, was enough for the Mississippi Valley, while he needed 273,000. When he was insisting that Washington should be stripped in order to furnish him with 50,000 additional men, the President asked what had become of his more than 160,000; and in his detailed reply he gave the item of 38,500 absent on leave. Here was nearly the number of 50,000 which he asked for, if he would only call them in.
Incidentally to all this were persistent discourtesies to the President. He would sit silent in the cabinet meetings pretending to have secrets of great importance. Instead of calling on the President to report, he made it necessary for the President to call on him. At other times he would keep the President waiting while he affected to be busy with subordinates. Once indeed he left the President waiting while he went to bed. All this Lincoln bore with his accustomed patience. He playfully said, when remonstrated with, that he would gladly hold McClellan’s horse if he would only win the battles. This he failed to do. And when he was finally relieved, he had worn out the patience not only of the President, but of his army, and of the entire country. One writer of the day said with much bitterness, but with substantial truth, that “McClellan, with greater means at his command than Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, or Wellington, has lost more men and means in his disasters than they in their victories.”
What were the defects of this remarkable man? In the first place, he believed in slavery. At this late day it is difficult to realize the devotion which some men had for slavery as a “divine institution," before which they could kneel down and pray, as if it was the very ark of God. McClellan was one such. And it is not improbable that he early had more than a suspicion that slavery was the real cause of all the trouble. This would in part account for his hesitation.
Then there was a bitter personal hatred between him and Stanton. This led him to resent all suggestions and orders emanating from the War Department. It also made him suspicious of Stanton’s associates, including the President.
Then he seemed to lack the nerve for a pitched battle. He could do everything up to the point of action, but he could not act. This lack of nerve is a more common fact in men in all walks of life than is usually recognized. He was unconquerable in defense, he did not know the word aggressive. Had he possessed some of the nerve of Sheridan, Hooker, Sherman, or any one of a hundred others, he would have been one of the four great generals of history. But he could not be persuaded or forced to attack. His men might die of fever, but not in battle. So far as he was concerned, the Army of the Potomac might have been reorganizing, changing its base, and perfecting its defenses against the enemy, to this day.
A fatal defect was the endeavor to combine the military and the political. Few men have succeeded in this. There were Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon,–but all came to an untimely end; the first met an early death in a foreign land, the second was assassinated, the third died a prisoner in exile. McClellan and Fremont, with all their splendid talents, made the fatal mistake. They forgot that for the time they were only military men. Grant was not a politician until after his military duties were ended.
The conclusion of the relations between Lincoln and McClellan was not generally known until recently made public by Lincoln’s intimate friend Lamon. McClellan was nominated in 1864 for President by the democrats. As election day approached it became increasingly clear that McClellan had no chance whatever of being elected. But Lincoln wanted something more than, and different from, a reelection. His desires were for the welfare of the distracted country. He wanted peace, reconstruction, prosperity. A few days before election he sent a remarkable proposition through a common friend, Francis P. Blair, to McClellan. Mr. Blair was in hearty sympathy with the plan.
This proposition set forth the hopelessness of McClellan’s chances for the presidency, which he knew perfectly well. It was then suggested that McClellan withdraw from the contest and let the President be chosen by a united North, which would bring the war to a speedy close and stop the slaughter of men on both sides. The compensations for this concession were to be: McClellan was to be promoted immediately to be General of the Army, his father-in-law Marcy was to be appointed major- general, and a suitable recognition of the democratic party would be made in other appointments.
At first blush McClellan was in favor of the arrangement. It is probable that if left to himself he would have acceded. The imagination can hardly grasp the fame that would have come to “little Mac,” and the blessings that would have come to the reunited country, had this wise plan of Lincoln been accepted. But McClellan consulted with friends who advised against it. The matter was dropped,–and that was the end of the history of McClellan. He had thrown away his last chance of success and fame. All that followed may be written in one brief sentence: On election day he resigned from the army and was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.