President Lincoln and General McClellan Debate Strategy

May 21, 1862

President Lincoln holds a series of meeting on military issues – including ones with Generals Henry W. Halleck and Ambrose Burnside.  President Lincoln writes General George B. McClellan: “Your long despatch of yesterday just received.  You will have just such control of Gen. McDowell and his force as you therein indicate.  McDowell can reach you by land sooner than he could get aboard of boats if the boats were ready at Frederick’sburg,–unless his march shall be resisted, in which case, the force resisting him, will certainly not be confronting you at Richmond.  By land he can reach you in five days after starting, whereas by water he would not reach you in two weeks,  judging by past experience.  Franklin’s single Division did not reach you in ten days after I ordered it.”

General George B. McClellan had written a lengthy defense of his actions:

Your dispatch of yesterday respecting our situation and the batteries at Fort Darling was rec’d while I was absent with the advance, where I have also been all this day.  I have communicated personally with Capt. [Louis] Goldsborough & by letter with Capt. Smith.  The vessels can do nothing without cooperation on land, which I will not be in position to afford for several days.  Circumstances must determine the propriety of a land attack.

It rained again last night, and rain on this soil soon makes the roads incredibly bad for army transportation.  I personally crossed the Chickahominy today at Bottom’s bridge ford and went a mile beyond, the enemy being about half a mile in front.  I have three Regts on the other bank guarding the rebuilding of the bridge.  Keyes’ Corps is on the New Kent road, near Bottom’s bridge.  Heintzelman is on the same road, within supporting distance.  Sumner is on the R.R. connecting right with left.  Stoneman with advance guard is within one mile of New bridge. Franklin with two Divisions is about two miles this side of Stoneman.  Porter’s Division with the Reserve of Infantry & Artillery is within supporting distance.  Head Quarters will probably be at Coal [Cold] Harbor tomorrow, one mile this side of Franklin.  AL the bridges over the Chickahominy are destroyed.

The enemy are in force on every road leading to Richmond, within a mile or two west of the stream.  Their main body is on the road from New bridge encamped along it for four five miles, spreading over the open ground on both sides.  Johnston’s Head Quarters are about two miles beyond the bridge.

All accounts report their numbers as greatly exceeding our own.  The position of the rebel forces, the declarations of the Confederate authorities, the resolutions of the Virginia legislature, the action of the City Govt., the conduct of the citizens, and all other sources of information accessible to me, give positive assurance that our approach to Richmond, involves a desperate battle between the opposing armies.

All our Divisions are moving toward the foe.  I shall advance steadily and carefully & attack them according to my best judgment, and in such manner as to employ my greatest force

I regret the state of things as to Genl. McDowell’s command.  We must beat the enemy in front of Richmond.  One Division added to this Army for that effort would do more to protect Washington than his whole force can possibly do anywhere else in the field.  The rebels are concentrating from all points for the two battles at Richmond & Corinth.  I would still most respectfully suggest the policy of our concentrating here by movements on water.  I have heard nothing as to the probabilities of the contemplated junction of McDowell’s force with mine.  I have no idea when he can start, what are his means of transportation, or when he may be expected to reach this vicinity.  I fear there is little hope that he can join me overland in time for the coming battle.  Delays on my part will be dangerous.  I fear sickness & demoralization.  This region is unhealthy for northern men, and unless kept moving I fear that our soldiers may become discouraged.  At present our numbers are weakening from disease, but the men remain in good heart.

I regret also the configuration of the Department of the Rappahannock.  It includes a portion even of the City of Richmond.  I think that my own Department should embrace the entire field of active military operations designed for the capture of that city.

Again, I agree with your Excellency that one bad General is better than two good ones.  I am not sure that I fully comprehend your orders of the 17th inst. Addressed to myself & Genl McDowell.  If a junction is effected before we occupy Richmond, it must necessarily be east of the RR to Fredericksburg, & within my Department.  This fact, my superior rank, & the express language of the 62d Article of War will place his command under my orders unless it is otherwise specially directed by your Excellency.  I consider he will be under my command except that I am not to detach any portion of his forces, or give any order which can put him out of position to cover Washington.  If I err in my construction I desire to be at once set right.  Frankness compels me to say, anxious as I am for an increase of force, that the march of McDowell’s column upon Richmond by the shortest route, will in my opinion uncover Washington as to any interposition by it, as completely as its movement by water.  The enemy cannot advance by Fredericksburg on Washington.  Should they attempt a movement, which to me seems utterly improbable, their route would be by Gordonsville & Manassas.  I desire that the extent of my authority over Genl. McDowell may be clearly defined, lest misunderstandings & conflicting views may produce some of those injurious results which a divided command has so often caused.  I would respectfully suggest that this danger can only be surely guarded against by explicitly placing Genl. McDowell under my orders in the ordinary way, & holding me strictly responsible for the closest observance of your instructions.  I hope, Mr. President, that it is not necessary for me to assure you that your directions would be observed in the utmost good faith, & that I have no personal feelings which could influence me to disregard them in any particular.

I believe that there is a great struggle before this Army, but I am neither dismayed nor discouraged.  I wish to strengthen its force as much as I can, but in any event I shall fight it with all the skill, caution, & determination that I possess, & I trust that the result may either obtain for me the permanent confidence of my Government, or that it may close my career.

General George McClellan writes fellow Union general Ambrose E. Burnside:

I feel very proud of Yorktown; it and Manassas will be my brightest chaplets in history; for I know that I accomplished everything in both places by pure military skill.  I am very proud and grateful to God that he allowed me to purchase such great success at so trifling a loss of life.  We came near being badly beaten at Williamsburg.  I arrived on the field at 5 p.m. and found that all thought we were whipped and in for a disaster.  You have been glad to see, old fellow, how the men cheered and brightened up when they saw me.  In five minutes after I reached the ground a possible defeat was changed into certain victory.  The greatest moral courage I ever exercised was that night, when, in the fact of urgent demands from almost all quarter for re-enforcements to hold our own, I quietly sent back the troops I had ordered up before I reached the field.  I was sure that Johnston would leave during the night if he understood his business, or that I could be able to thrash him in the morning by a proper use of the force I had.  It turned out that Jo. left!  Hancock conducted himself magnificently; his charge was elegant!

I expect to fight a desperate battle in front of Richmond, and against superior numbers, somewhat intrenched.  The Government have deliberately placed me in this position.  If I win, the greater the glory.  If I lose, they will be damned forever, both by God and men.

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Published in: on May 21, 2012 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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