President Lincoln’s Frustration with McClellan Boils Over

February 27, 1862

Philadelphia Congressman William D. Kelley was meeting with President Lincoln when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton arrived at the White House around 7 PM.  As Kelley recalled the meeting, President Lincoln was hopeful that the Army of the Potomac would finally move against Confederates in Virginia by crossing the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry.  By the time that General Randolph Marcy arrived, the President was so disgusted with General George B. McClellan that he said:  “The general impression is daily gaining ground that the General does not intend to do anything.”  Kelley reported:

The President, under the inspiration received on the preceding night, hoped anxiously for further news. His confidence in the success of the movement was unabated; he felt that the enemy had already been surprised, and that—at least in confidential official circles—he might say that McClellan had occupied important positions in Virginia, and that troops enough to resist any force that could be thrown against him were already en route for Harper’s Ferry, where a pontoon bridge, that would carry them all in brigades, had already been thrown. But as the shadows lengthened those who knew him well could not fail to notice indications of unusual anxiety. He paced the floor of the Executive Chamber; he was restless, and not as he had been through the earlier hours of the day, ready to greet visitors with a smile and cheering word. It was evident that his confidence was fading, and that he was under the influence of misgivings lest his General had again deluded him and disappointed the country. A few favorable words from McClellan would have restored his wonted equanimity, but they did not come; but soon after dark Mr. Stanton came from the War Department and handed him a dispatch he had just received from the General. It was dated Sandy Hook, 3:30 P.M., and read as follows:
“The lift-lock is too small to permit the canal-boats to enter the river, so that it is impossible to construct the permanent bridge as I intended. I shall probably be obliged to fall back upon the safe and slow plan of merely covering the reconstruction of the railroad. This will be done at once, but will be tedious. I cannot, as things now are, be sure of my supplies for the force necessary to seize Winchester, which is probably reinforced from Manassas. The wiser plan is to rebuild the railroad bridge as rapidly as possible, and then act according to the state of affairs.”‘
It will be observed that this dispatch contained no intimation that the orders for the advance of troops to sustain those who had been posted in Virginia against the alleged threatened advance from Manassas had been countermanded.
Before leaving the Department Stanton had replied as follows:
“If the lift-lock is not big enough, why cannot it be made big enough? Please answer immediately.”
The reply to which was as follows, and bore date 10:30 P.M.:
“It can be enlarged, but entire masonry must be destroyed and rebuilt, and new gates made—an operation impossible in the present stage of water, and requiring many weeks at any time. The railroad bridge can be rebuilt many weeks before this could be done.”‘
This failure, and the ridiculous excuse for it—that the engineers had neglected to ascertain the width of the lock through which the boats they were concentrating were to pass,—gave rise to a popular fear that the sacrifices and scandals of Ball’s Bluff [the previous October] were to be repeated on a grander scale near Harper’s Ferry, and at one o’clock on the 28th Stanton telegraphed:
“What do you propose to do with the troops that have crossed the Potomac?”
To which McClellan replied:
“I propose to occupy Charlestown and Bunker Hill, so as to cover the rebuilding of the railway, while I throw over the supplies necessary for an advance in force. I have just men enough to accomplish this. I could not at present supply more.”
At 9:30 P.M. of the same day the President received a telegram in which McClellan asserted that he knew he “had acted wisely, and that the President would cheerfully agree with him when he explained “; but the kernel of the message is found in this passage:
“It is impossible for many days to more than supply the troops now here and at Charlestown. We could not supply and move to Winchester for many days, and had I moved more troops here they would have been at a loss for food on the Virginia side.”‘
Here was a ” change of base.” The difficulty had suddenly been found to be with the commissariat, and matters could not be expedited because the Union Army, with the use of the canal and railroad, could not be subsisted in sufficient force to repel a possible enemy, who, should he be found, could be subsisted by wagon trains hauling for many miles over peculiarly bad roads.
Mr. Stanton could, when greatly irritated, find relief in the use of forcible expletives, but it was not so with the great-hearted, patient, long-suffering President, with whom it was my privilege to converse briefly on the night of the 27th. He was more restless than I had ever seen him, and I think more dejected, though he had not yet been advised of the countermanding by McClellan of all orders for the forwarding of troops. His position was pitiable. He knew that the army was aware that Scott had recommended McClellan’s advancement and approved his ability; that he (McClellan) had placed his confidential friends in every important command of the Army of the Potomac; and that, whether true or false, the country had been made to believe that the rank and file of the army so worshipped their “Little Commander” that to displace him might produce consequences which he was not willing to risk; yet this was a measure he must now contemplate. In conversation with trusted friends he said that he was now compelled to doubt whether McClellan had ever considered a plan with a view to its execution; that he did not believe he had; and that it was evident he would not execute movements directed by his superiors. Now, with extreme gravity and emphasis, he added, the time has. come when such a plan for a movement toward Richmond must be adopted and be promptly executed by McClellan or his successor. The next day he requested an early interview with the General and, whether by accident or arrangement I do not know, Senators Ben Wade and Andrew Johnson were present when it was held. They were thenceforth unreserved in their denunciation of the General as “treacherous” or “incompetent,” and of the puerility of his explanations. It was probably due to the unrestrained expression of their indignation that the public so soon learned that the President had a practicable plan of campaign which would be enforced.

Presidential aide John G. Nicolay also described the president’s frustration with military operations in the East: “This evening, 7 P.M. the Sec. of War came in, and after locking the door read the President two dispatches from the Gen.  The first one reported that the bridge (pontoon, at Harper’s Ferry)  had been  thrown in splendid style by Capt [James C. Duane] & Lieuts [Orville E. Babcock, Chauncey B. Reese,] & [Charles E. Cross] whom he recommended for brevets.  That a portion of the troops had crossed – that although it was raining; the troops were in splendid spirits and apparently  ready to fight anything.  The President seemed highly pleased at this.  ‘The next is not so good,’ remarked the Sec. War.  It ran to the effect that the ‘lift lock’ had turned out to be too narrow to admit the passage of the canal boats through to the river (as one of the facilities and precautions, arrangements had been made to build a permanent bridge of canal-boats across the Potomac, and a large number of canal-boats across the Potomac, and a large number of canal-boats had been fathered for that purpose.)  That in consequence of this, he had changed the plan and had determined merely to protect the building of the bridges and the opening of the road.  (Leaving the obvious inference that he proposed to abandon the movement on Winchester.  In fact he so stated [because] the impossibility of building the permanent bridge as he had expected would delay him so that Winchester would be reinforced from Manassas, &c.).

‘What does this mean?’ asked the President.
‘It means,’ said the Sec. War, ‘that it is a d—d fizzle.  It means that he doesn’t intend to do anything.’
The President was much cast down and dejected at the news of the failure of the enterprise,  ‘Why could he not have known whether his arrangements were practicable?’ &c. &c.
The Secretary of State came in and the three had a long conference.
Afterwards Gen. Marcy [McClellan’s father-in-law] came in for whom the Prest had sent earlier in the evening, and the President had a long and sharp talk with him.  ‘Why in the ______ nation, General Marcy,’ said he excitedly, ‘couldn’t the Gen. have known whether a boat would go through that lock, before spending a million dollars getting them there?  I am no engineer, but it seems to me that if I wished to know whether a boat would go through a hole, or a lock, common sense would teach me to go and measure it.  I am almost despairing at these results.  Everything seems to fail.  The general impression is daily gaining ground that the General does not intend to do anything. By a failure like this we lose all the prestige we gained by the capture of Ft Donelson.  I am grievously disappointed – grievously disappointed and almost in despair.’ &c.
[Note from Nicolay’s daughter Helen Nicolay This is almost the only time in all my father’s notes that he mentioned seeing the President shaken out of his unusual calm.]
Gen. Marcy endeavored to palliate the failure – said that no doubt the Gen. would be able to explain the cause – that other operations would go on, etc., and that he was satisfied–plenty of activity in movements, &c.
‘I will not detain you any further now, Gen.’ said the President; and though the  Gen. (Marcy) showed a disposition to talk on, the President repeated the dismissal and Gen. M.  took up his hat and went away.
“About midnight to-night came a dispatch from Halleck stating that Genl. Pope was moving on New Madrid with 10,000 men.  [That] he had heard nothing definite from the Tennessee or Cumberland as yet.

Published in: on February 27, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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