This series has six easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: McClellan Takes Command.
When the dismal news of the defeat and retreat at Bull Run spread through the North, after the ﬁrst shock of surprise and mortiﬁcation, the general sentiment was tersely expressed by a Methodist minister, the Reverend Henry Cox, who was conducting a camp-meeting in Illinois. The news of the battle came while he was preaching, and he closed his sermon with the words, “Brethren, we’d better adjourn this camp-meeting, and go home and drill.” Everybody recognized that nothing was lacking for the Union troops in the way of courage and patriotism, but much was wanting in the way of organization and discipline. For the acquisition of these, probably the best man was chosen in General George B. McClellan; and while he organized and drilled the great Army of the Potomac to the entire satisfaction of Government and people, they, on the other hand, gave him their boundless conﬁdence and showed remarkable patience in waiting for him to use the instrument he had prepared. How he did it is told by Rossiter Johnson in this series.
This selection is from History of the War of Secession by Rossiter Johnson published in 1895. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Rossiter Johnson was a writer, newspaper editor, and historian.
Place: Eastern Virginia
Within twenty-four hours after the defeat of McDowell’s army at Bull Run (July 21, 1861) the Administration called to Washington the only man that had thus far accomplished much or made any considerable reputation in the ﬁeld. This was General George B. McClellan. He had been graduated at West Point in 1846, standing second in his class, and had gone at once into the Mexican War, in which he acquitted himself with distinction. After that war the young captain was employed in engineering work till 1855, when the Government sent him to Europe to study the movements of the Crimean War. He wrote a report of his observations, which was published under the title of The Armies of Europe, and in 1857 resigned his commission and became chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, and afterward president of the St. Louis and Cincinnati. He had done good work in northwestern Virginia in the early summer, and now at the age of thirty-ﬁve was commissioned Major General in the regular army of the United States, and made commander of all the troops about Washington.
For the work immediately in hand this was probably the best selection that could have been made. Washington needed to be fortiﬁed, and McClellan was a master of engineering; both the army that had just been defeated and the new recruits that were pouring in needed organization, and he proved preeminent as an organizer. Three months after he took command of ﬁfty thou sand uniformed men at the capital he had an army of more than one hundred thousand, well organized in regiments, brigades, and divisions, with the proper proportion of artillery, with quartermaster and commissary departments going like clockwork, and the whole fairly drilled and disciplined. Everybody looked on with admiration, and the public impatience that had precipitated the disastrous “On to Richmond” movement was now replaced by a marvelous patience. The summer and autumn months went by, and no movement was made; but McClellan, in taking command, had promised that the war should be “short, sharp, and decisive,” and the people thought, if they only allowed him time enough to make thorough preparation, his great army would at length swoop down upon the Confederate capital and ﬁnish everything at one blow.
At length, however, they began to grow weary of the daily telegram, “All quiet along the Potomac,” and the monotonously repeated information that “General McClellan rode out to Fairfax Court House and back this morning.” The Confederacy was daily growing stronger, the Potomac was being closed to navigation by the erection of hostile batteries on its southern bank, the enemy’s ﬂag was ﬂying within sight from the capital, and the question of foreign interference was becoming exceedingly grave. On November 1st General Scott, then seventy-ﬁve years of age, retired, and McClellan succeeded him as General-in-Chief of all the armies.
Soon after this his plans appear, from subsequent revelations, to have undergone important modiﬁcation. He had undoubtedly intended to attack by moving straight out toward Manassas, where the army that had won the battle of Bull Run was still encamped, and was still commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston. He now began to think of moving against Richmond by some more easterly route, discussing among others the extreme easterly one that he ﬁnally took. But, whatever were his thoughts and purposes, his army appeared to be taking root. The people began to murmur, Congress began to question, and the President began to argue and urge. All this did not signify; nothing could move McClellan. He wished to wait till he could leave an enormous garrison in the defenses of Washington, place a strong corps of observation along the Potomac, and then move out with a column of one hundred ﬁfty thousand men against an army that he believed to be as numerous as that, though in truth it was then less than half as large. It is now known that, from the beginning to the end of his career in that war, General McClellan constantly overestimated the force opposed to him.
On January 10, 1862, the President held a long consultation with Generals Irvin McDowell and William B. Franklin and some members of his Cabinet. General McClellan was then conﬁned to his bed by an illness of a month’s duration. At this consultation Mr. Lincoln said, according to General McDowell’s memorandum, “If something was not soon done, the bottom would be out of the whole affair; and if General McClellan did not want to use the army, he would like to borrow it, provided he could see how it could be made to do something.”
Immediately upon McClellan’s recovery, the President called him to a similar council and asked him to disclose his plan for a campaign, which he declined to do. Finally the President asked him if he had ﬁxed upon any particular time for setting out; and when he said he had, Mr. Lincoln questioned him no further. A few days later, in a letter to the President, he set forth his plan, which was to move his army down the Potomac on transports, land it at or near Fort Monroe, march up the peninsula between York and James rivers, and attack the defenses of Richmond on the northern and eastern sides. The President at ﬁrst disapproved of this plan, largely for the reason that it would require so much time in preparation; but when he found that the highest officers in the army favored it, and considered the probability that any general was likely to fail if sent to execute a plan he did not originate or believe in, he ﬁnally gave it his sanction, and once more set himself to the difﬁcult task of inducing McClellan to move at all. And yet the President himself still further retarded the opening of the campaign by delaying the order to collect the means of transportation. Meanwhile General Johnston quietly removed his stores, and on March 8th evacuated Centerville and Manassas, and placed his army before Richmond. This reconciled the President to McClellan’s plan of campaign, which he never had liked.
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