July 4, 1862
Presidential aide John G. Nicolay writes: “I have been at work at my desk most of the day, fortunately the President has been away at the War Department, so that I have not been so much pestered with a large crowd here.”
“The news from Richmond comes in slowly; the following is about the substance of it…
“Of course everybody here has been terribly blue about it for several days. I do not however see anything very discouraging in this affair taken by itself, although it is to be deplored that we lose the prospect of the early capture of Richmond…
General George B. McClellan writes President Lincoln about the war in Virginia: “I have the honor acknowledge the receipt of your dispatch of the 2d inst. I shall make a stand at this place and endeavor to give my men the repose they so much require.”
After sending my communication on Tuesday [July 1], the enemy attacked the left of our lines and a fierce battle ensued lasting until night — they were repulsed with great slaughter. Had their attack succeeded the consequence would have been disastrous in the extreme. This closed the hard fighting which had continued from the afternoon of the 26th ult. In a daily series of engagements wholly unparalleled on this continent for determination and slaughter on both sides. The mutual loss in killed and wounded is enormous; that of the enemy certainly greatest. On Tuesday evening — the lst — our Army commenced its movement from Maxall’s to this point, our line of defence there being too extended to be maintained by our weakened forces. Our train was immense, and about 4 am on the 2d a heavy storm of rain began which continued during the entire day and until the forenoon of yesterday. The roads became horrible. Troops, Artillery and wagons moved on steadily and our whole Army, men and material, was finally brought safe into this camp. The last of the wagons reaching here at noon yesterday. The exhaustion was very great but the Army preserved its morale, and would have repelled any attack which the enemy was in condition to make.
We now occupy a line of heights about two miles from James, a plain extending from there to the river. Our front is about three miles long. These heights command our whole position and must be maintained. The gun boats can render valuable support upon both flanks. If the enemy attack u in front, we must hold our ground as we best may at whatever cost [crossed out: because the loss of the heights involves the total destruction of the Army]. Our positions can be carried only by overwhelming numbers. The spirit of the Army is excellent. Stragglers [crossed out: of whom there was a vast number] are finding their regiments, and the soldiers exhibit the best results of discipline. Our position is by no means impregnable, especially as a morass extends on this side of the high ground, from our center to the James on our right. The enemy may attack in vast numbers and if so, our front will be the scene of a desperate battle which if lost will be decisive. Our Army is fearfully weakened by killed, wounded & prisoners. I can not now approximate to any statement of our losses, but we were not beaten in any conflict. The enemy was unable to by their utmost efforts, to drive us from any field. Never did such a change of base, involving a retrograde movement, and under incessant attacks from a most determined and vastly more numerous foe, partake so little of [crossed out: the character of a rout or result in so] disorder. We have lost no guns except 25 in the field of battle — 21 of which were lost by giving way of McCall’s Division under the onset of superior numbers.
Our communications by the James river are not secure. There are points where the enemy can establish themselves with cannon or musketry and command the river and where it is not certain that our gun boats can drive them out. In case of this or in case our front is broken I will still make every effort to preserve at least the personnel of the Army and the events of the last few days leave no question that the troops will do all that their country can ask. Send such reinforcements as you can. I will what I can.
We are shipping our wounded and sick — and landing supplies. The Navy department should cooperate with us to the extent of its resources. Capt Rodgers is doing all in his power, in the kindest and most efficient manner.
When all the circumstances of the case are known, it will be acknowledged by all competent judges that the movement just completed by this Army is unparalleled in the annals of war. Under the most difficult circumstances we have preserved our trains, our guns, our material — & above all our honor.
General George B. McClellan writes President Lincoln: “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your dispatch of yesterday afternoon. I thank you for your expression of satisfaction with the conduct of this army & myself. On yesterday I ordered Genl Burnside to send me such reinforcements as he could afford. I thank you for the order to Genl Hunter to send me all the troops he can spare. I regret that Genl Halleck considers all his force necessary to maintain position. I do not wish to endanger in any way the secure occupation of what has been gained in the southwest. I will do the best I can with such force as I have & such aid as you can give me. I think that the Army of Virginia should keep out strong cavalry reconnaissances in the direction of Richmond less the enemy should prefer an advance to Washn to attacking this Army. I wish to be advised fully of all matters in front of that Army. If the Capital should be threatened I will move this Army at whatever hazard in such direction as will best direct the enemy. Our whole Army is now drawn up for review in its positions, bands playing, salutes being fired & all things looking bright.”
McClellan issues a “Message to the Army of the Potomac”: “Your achievements of the last ten days have illustrated the valor and endurance of the American soldier! Attacked by vastly superior forces, and without hope of reinforcements, you have succeeded in changing most hazardous of military expedients. You have saved all your material, all your trains, and all your guns, except a few lost in battle, taking in return guns and colors from the enemy. Upon your march you have been assailed day after day with desperate fury by men of the same race and nation, skillfully massed and led; and under every disadvantage of numbers, and necessarily of position also, you have in every conflict beaten back your foes with enormous slaughter. Your conduct ranks you among the celebrated armies of history. No one will now question that each of you always say with pride: ‘I belonged to the Army of the Potomac!’ You have reached this new base, complete in organization and prepared to receive them. I have personally established your lines. Let them come, and we will convert their repulse into a final defeat. Your Government is strengthening you with the resources of a great people. On this our Nation’s Birthday we declare to our foes, who are rebels against the best interests of mankind, that this Army shall enter the Capital of their so-called Confederacy; that this Army shall enter the Capital of their so-called Confederacy; that our national Constitution shall prevail; and that the Union which can alone insure internal peace and external security to each State must and shall be preserved, cost what it may in time, treasure and blood.”
Massachusetts journalist Ben Perley Poore wrote: “Independence Day, 1862, was not joyously celebrated at Washington. The martial pageant with which the day had been glorified years past had been replaced by the stern realities of war, and the hospitals were crowded with the sick, the wounded, and the dying.” Historian Allan Nevins writes that Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner “called at the White House twice on July 4 to plead that the President reconsecrate the day by a decree of emancipation. The first time Lincoln protested that while he might take such a step for eastern Virginia, a proclamation for the entire South was ‘too big a lick now.’ Sumner replied that the nation needed big licks. The second time Lincoln offered a detailed argument for delay, as if he might be weakening.”
General Randolph Marcy, the father-in-law of General McClellan, arrives in Washington to press McClellan’s opinion that the Union Army in Virginia would be forced to surrender if it was not reenforced. Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning wrote: ‘This excited Stanton very much, and he went directly to the President and reported what had been said.’ Historian Bruce Tap wrote: “Lincoln too was upset at such defeatist language and lectured Marcy: ‘I understand you have used the word ‘capitulate’ — that is a word not to be used in connection with the army.’” Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “As Lincoln proceeded with his reprimand, Marcy blundered out a lame apology, while later he returned to the War Department to make peace with Stanton. But it had been an ugly moment.”
President Lincoln writes General George B. McClellan: “I understand your position as stated in your letter, and by Gen. Marcy. To reinforce you so as to enable you to resume the offensive within a month, or even six weeks, is impossible. In addition to that arrived, and now arriving from the Potomac, (about ten thousand, I suppose) and about ten thousand I hope you will have from Burnside very soon, and about five thousand from Hunter a little later, I do not see how I can send you another man within a month. Under these circumstances the defensive, for the present, must be your only care. Save the Army – first, where you are, if you can; and secondly, by removal, if you must. You, on the ground, must be the judge as to which you will attempt, and of the means for effecting it. I but give it as opinion, that with the aid of the Gun-Boats, and the re-inforcements mentioned above, you can hold your present position, provided, and so long as, you can keep the James River open below you. If you are not tolerably confident you can keep the James River open, you had better remove as soon as possible. I do not remember that you have expressed any apprehension as to the danger of having your communication cut on the river below you; yet I do not suppose it can have escaped your attention.” Lincoln added: “If, at any time, you feel able to take the offensive, you are not restrained from doing so.”
General George B. McClellan writes Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Had a long telegram from the Presdt which quite discourages me as it shows a fatal want of appreciation of the glorious achievements of this Army, & of the circumstances of the case, as well as of the causes which led to it. I will save this Army & lead it victory in spite of all enemies in all directions.”