One of the sharpest orders issued by the most militarily involved of all presidents: "you must either attack Richmond, or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington."
In his recent study Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, James M. McPherson convincingly makes the case that Lincoln was "a more hands-on commander in chief than any other president," and that he "performed or oversaw five war-time functions in this capacity ...: policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics" (p. 5). Lincoln's overriding policy was the restoration of the Union—an issue he described in his annual message to Congress, 6 December 1864, as "distinct, simple, and inflexible ... which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory" (Collected Works 8:151). For Lincoln, the Civil War was the means of fulfilling this policy; the hostilities served no other purpose and half-measures or compromises were not to be tolerated.
Not surprisingly, much of the professional military bristled against what they saw as the President's interference. Officers in blue and gray had previously been classmates and messmates, and neither side looked forwarded to a fratricidal conflict. Lincoln soon realized that Winfield Scott, the veteran of the War of 1812 who was General in chief of the United States Army at the out break of the Civil War, had neither the desire nor the capacity to carry out his war strategy. Scott retired from the Army in November 1861, and Lincoln replaced him the thirty-four-year-old George B. McClellan, who cultivated his image as "the young Napoleon."
Lincoln and McClellan initially got along reasonably well, but their relationship was shattered by their constant disagreement about the prosecution of the Peninsula Campaign. From March through the end of May, McClellan planned to launch a vast assault against the Confederate capital of Richmond from a base at Fort Monroe, positioned on a peninsula between the James and York rivers. While Lincoln supported this campaign, he soon became frustrated with McClellan's lack of initiative. As week after week went by, McClellan did not advance, but instead petitioned Washington for more and more reinforcements. McClellan had clearly exaggerated the size of the Confederate forces opposing him, and he evidently believed that since he was a Democrat, Lincoln's Republican administration was not willing to support him as completely as it ought. Throughout May, McClellan was in almost daily communication with either Lincoln or Secretary of War Stanton. But as one his biographer's has noted, McClellan's "letters and dispatches demonstrate an increasing remoteness from factual reality" (Papers, ed. Sears, p. 205).
With so many Union troops sequestered with McClellan, President Lincoln began to fear for the safety of his own capital. When Stonewall Jackson defeated General Nathaniel P. Banks at Front Royal, 23 May, Lincoln halted Irwin McDowell's march southward to join McClellan and sent his commander in chief this blistering telegram:
"The enemy is moving North in sufficient force to drive Banks before him—precisely in what force we can not tell. He is also threatening Leesburg, and Geary on the Mannassas Gap Railroad from both North and South—in precisely what force we can not tell. I think the movement is a general and a concerted—such as could not be if he was acting upon the purpose of a very desperate defense of Richmond. I think the time is near when you must either attack Richmond, or give up the job and come to the defense of Washington. Let me hear from you instantly."
McClellan replied soothingly to the President: "Telegram received. Independently of it the time is very near when I shall attack Richmond. The object of the enemy's movement is probably to prevent reinforcements being sent to me ..." (Papers, p. 276). But an earlier letter of the same day to his wife reveals the General's indignant fury. "I have this moment received a dispatch from the Presdt who is terribly scared about Washington—& talks about the necessity of my returning in order to save it! Heaven save a country governed by such counsels! ... It is perfectly sickening to deal with such people & you may rest assured that I will lose as little time as possible in breaking off all connection with them—I get more sick of them every day—for every day brings with it only additional proofs of their hypocrisy, knavery & folly" (Papers, p. 275).
Surprisingly, McClellan maintained his command for another five months, but eventually neither he nor Lincoln could disguise his antipathy for the other. They had another opportunity to face each other two years later, and Lincoln prevailed in that contest as well, defeating McClellan in the 1864 presidential election.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale