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What Happened in August 1861 ©





The day following the Union army’s retreat from Bull Run, General Winfield Scott, at Lincoln’s behest, caused his Adjutant to telegraph George B. McClellan: “Circumstances make your presence here necessary. Come hither without delay.” McClellan arrived in Washington on July 24 and went directly to the White House for a meeting with Lincoln. Lincoln told him, McClellan says, “You are in command of Washington and all troops in the vicinity” and invited him to attend a cabinet meeting. Learning this when McClellan presented himself at Army Headquarters, Winfield Scott kept McClellan from attending. “The general became quite indignant,” McClellan wrote his wife, Mary Ellen, “and said it was improper that I should receive an invitation to attend a cabinet meeting to his exclusion.”



Winfield Scott was the General-in-chief of the Army and, as such, had demonstrated repeatedly in the previous months that he expected the communications between the civilian government and military officers to occur through the chain of command, not outside of it. Lincoln, early on, had side-stepped the chain, to confer privately with officers and to convey orders directly to them. An example of this practice was the way in which Lincoln had reached out to Irvin McDowell and elevated him to the rank of brigadier-general, without first securing Scott’s approval. Clearly, Scott was easily irritated by what he perceived as usurpations of his authority as the ranking general of the army and by breaches of strict military protocol as shown by Lincoln’s interaction with McDowell, and now with McClellan. As a result, cordial relationship between McClellan and Scott could not reasonably be expected, and, indeed, the relationship, to the extent there was one, deteriorated almost immediately into patent hostility that quickly led to Scott tendering to the government his resignation.


Of course, McClellan did his best to hurry the government’s acceptance of Scott’s tender as is shown by the letters he wrote to his wife, Mary Ellen:


August 2, 1861: “I handed Lincoln a plan for conducting the war on a large scale. I shall carry this thing en grand and crush the rebels in one campaign. Scott is very slow and very old. He cannot retain command and when he retires I will succeed him.”


McClellan, intent on gathering the reins of power to himself, rejected Scott’s plan of enveloping the rebel states, by seizing possession of the Mississippi to its mouth with the principal army operating on that line, and substituted a plan of designating the army forming at Washington the principal army and moving it against Richmond.


The Plan McClellan Handed Lincoln


“I advise that a strong movement be made on the Mississippi, and that the rebels be driven out of Missouri. A movement through Kentucky into Tennessee, seizing the railroads from Memphis to the east is also feasible. For the main army of operations (under his command at Washington) I need 250 regiments, 225,000 men. Its general line of operations should be directed that water transportation can be availed from point to point. . . a strong naval force to protect the fleet of transports intended to convey troops. (He is already thinking of reaching Richmond by Fort Monroe and the Yorktown peninsula.) The question is, shall we crush the rebellion in one blow, terminate the war in one campaign, or shall it (go on forever)?


August 4, 1861: “I dined at the President’s yesterday. Some 40 present. Prince Napoleon and staff. French minister, cabinet members, and General Scott. It made me feel a little strangely when I went in with Scott leaning on me.”


August 8, 1861: “Had a long interview with Seward about my `pronunciamiento’ against Scott’s policy. . . the old general comes in the way, he is a perfect imbecile. He understands nothing, appreciates nothing, and is always in my way. If he cannot be taken out of my path I shall resign.” (McClellan has been in Washington hardly a week!)


To Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, McClellan wrote this on August 8: “Information confirms my impression that the enemy intends attacking. I think the enemy has 100,000 men in our front. I suggest all garrisons (everywhere in the Union) be reduced and the men sent here. I urge that our force be brought up to 100,000 men before any other point is strengthened. I also urge that the departments of N.E. Virginia, Washington, the Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, Baltimore, and Fort Monroe be merged into one department under my command.” (McClellan had a copy of this delivered to Lincoln and Scott)


Scott, receiving this, wrote immediately to Cameron and Lincoln: “I have not the slightest apprehension for the safety of the government.” Of course, Scott was correct: The Confederate force at Bull Run amounted to no more than 25,000 men and was completely incapable of effectively attacking either the forts surrounding Washington, or Washington itself.


At the same time, Scott informed Lincoln and Cameron that he wanted out, writing to them that, “I have become an encumbrance to the Army and that therefore I ought, giving way to a younger commander, to be placed on the retired list.” Lincoln blinked and held on to Scott for the moment.  Now McClellan begins to see Lincoln as the obstacle.


August 9, 1861: “General Scott is the great obstacle. He will not comprehend the danger (of the rebels suddenly attacking Washington). I have to fight my way against him. Tomorrow the question will be decided, giving me absolute control independently of him.”


August 15, 1861: “General Scott is the most dangerous antagonist I have. (Scott was holding on it seems) Our ideas are so widely different that it is impossible for us to work together.” (So much for the Union.)


August 16, 1861: “The President is an idiot, the old general in his dotage. I am weary of all this.” (“Weary of all this?” He’s been here two weeks.)


Faced with McClellan’s threat to resign, if he doesn’t get his way, Lincoln caves in part-way to his demands. On August 20, McClellan issues the following order:


In accordance with general order No. 15, of August 17, I hereby assume command of the Army of the Potomac, comprising the troops serving in the former departments of Washington and Northeastern Virginia, in the valley of the Shenandoah, and in the states of Maryland and Delaware.”


Almost immediately the danger of Washington being captured by the enemy, evaporates in McClellan’s mind. To Mary Ellen he writes:


August 25, 1861 “Beauregard has allowed the chance to escape him. I have now 65,000 effective men and will have 75,000 by week’s end. Last week he certainly had double our force. I feel sure the dangerous moment has passed.”


The record shows, here, the great handicap Lincoln was saddled with at the outset of his war: He had no general he could implicitly trust to carry his armies to victory in the field. He had either generals too old for the task—officers like Scott, Wool, and Mansfield left over from the old army—or generals too young, too inexperienced, and too full of themselves. On July 29, 1861, the best men Lincoln could find to nominate for major-general rank in the Regular Army were McClellan, Fremont, Mansfield, McDowell, Anderson (of Fort Sumter fame) and Rosecrans. Later he would add Halleck to the list. And for major-general of volunteers, the best he could find to nominate were the politicians, Banks, Dix, and Butler. For brigadier-generals of volunteers, Lincoln nominated Lyon, Pope, McCall, Curtis, Kearny, Reynolds, King, Cox, Sigel, and Schenck. Of these Lyon, Kearny, and Reynolds would be killed and Pope, McCall, Curtis, King, Sigel, and Schenck would soon disappear.




The Confederate Army Lacks the Resources to Advance on Washington

As the battle of Bull Run was ending, on July 20, Jefferson Davis arrived at Manassas Junction by train from Richmond. Davis rode to Henry Hill, met Beauregard and Johnston, and accompanied them to a house behind the hill where he held a conference. The issue was what then to do. Davis suggested that a pursuit be mounted, pressing the rear of the Union army as it retreated into the forts in front of the Potomac and Washington. Apparently the two generals and Davis agreed to make the advance at dawn the next day, but the dawn brought a thunderstorm which caused Bull Run to become unfordable and their enthusiasm dampened as reality set in.


The rain storm reminded them that the army had no means available to cross the Potomac from its position at Bull Run, and it was too weak in numbers and war material, to overcome the barriers presented by the ditches and palisades of the forts occupied by the Union troops, much of which were fresh blocks of men unaffected by the rout that occurred on July 20. Even if, somehow, the army were to reach the Potomac bluffs overlooking Washington, all that practicably could be done, would be to shell the city.


When the conference closed, Davis returned to Richmond where he remained until he came to Fairfax Courthouse on August 31, to which place Johnston had advanced during the month. Again Davis raised the issue of attempting to get closer to Washington, but Beauregard and Johnston were adamant that no decisive success could be gained by attacking the Union army in its position, under the guns of a long line of forts. To move on Washington, the two generals said, required that all available forces be concentrated at Fairfax. Davis asked how many troops the generals would need to cross the Potomac and advance against Washington. They answered: “50,000 to 60,000.” Davis responded to this, with the statement that he had no troops available that could be spared from other points. Indeed, even if such troops could be spared, he had no rifles, except for the 2,100 picked up from the field of Bull Run, to arm them with.




General Lee Goes to West Virginia


Since July 12, when Virginia’s Militia forces were assimilated into the Confederate Army, General Lee’s position within the Confederate military command was essentially that of a staff officer or aide to President Davis. While Joseph Johnston and Pierre Beauregard were assigned command of the troops in the field, Lee worked in Richmond, preparing and moving troops from the training camps to the field. Five days after the Battle of Bull Run, Davis allowed Lee to leave this post and go to western Virginia, apparently not to take charge of the military operations being conducted by two politician generals, Henry Wise and John Floyd, but to contain their intra-personal rivalries and induce them to coordinate their operations against the enemy. As he wrote in a letter to his wife, it had been his concern that the enemy would attempt to come up the Kanawha Valley and get possession of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad that brought him from Richmond.




The reason Confederate troops were in the West Virginia mountains was to prevent the Union forces McClellan had previously advanced as far as Huttonsville from moving further south; either in the direction of Staunton or toward the line of the Virginia-Tennessee Railroad. The key position for the Union forces was Cheat Mountain, close to Huttonsville,  as it dominated the main road through the mountains between Wheeling, Parkersburg and Staunton.



The New York Times, August 10



General Lee arrived in the vicinity of Cheat Mountain on July 27, after making a circuit through the lower counties, attempting to organize the local inhabitants into militia companies without success. Bringing Wise and Floyd from the south, Lee attempted to get them up to the Cheat Mountain, for an attack on the Union forces now under Rosecrans command, but the incessant rain in the mountains made the few paths that passed for roads impossible to move supply wagons, much less artillery carriages, and the effort bogged down in bottomless mud.


Writing to his wife, Mary, in August, Lee said: “The rain has saturated the soil that the roads are impassable. I cannot get up supplies. Much sickness among the men, measles, dysentery, we are too weak to break the enemy’s lines, but he cannot reach Richmond through here.”


He finished his letter to Mary with this: “I traveled from Staunton on horseback. A part of the road, as far as Buffalo Gap, I passed over the summer of 1840, on my return from St. Louis, after bringing you home. If any one had told me that the next time I traveled that road would have been on my present errand, I should have supposed him insane. I enjoyed the mountains, as I rode along. The views are magnificent—the valleys so beautiful, the scenery so peaceful. What a glorious world Almighty God has given us.” This, a far cry from the tone and content of McClellan’s letters to his wife.


A few days later,  he wrote Mary again: “We are on the dividing ridge, just south of Huttonsville and Beverly, occupied by our invaders, and the Cheat Mountains to the east, their present stronghold, are in full view. The mountains are beautiful, fertile to the tops, covered with the richest sward of bluegrass and white clover. This is magnificent grazing country. Now it is pouring.”


Finally, at the end of August, he writes to Mary—“We have a great deal of sickness among the soldiers and now those on the sick-list would form an army. The measles is still among them. The constant cold rains, with no shelter but tents, have aggravated it. All these drawbacks, with impassable roads, have paralyzed our efforts. We are right up to the enemy in three lines.” Though unable to act on the offensive, Lee had organized the local forces in a defensive position that eliminated permanently the threat of a Union advance into the upper Shenandoah Valley.


Then, a letter came from Samuel Cooper, the Adjutant General of the Confederate Army: “General: President Davis has not ceased to feel an anxious desire for your return to this city to resume your former duties. Whenever, in your judgment, circumstances will justify it, you will consider yourself authorized to return.” Whether the reason was his desire to keep away from Richmond while Davis and Joe Johnston were quarrelling over the issue of ranking, Lee remained in the wilderness of West Virginia for two more months.


On August 31, President Davis designated the seniority of his five ranking generals:


1.         Samuel Cooper to rank from May 16

2.         Albert S. Johnston to rank from May 28 (killed at Shiloh)

3.         Robert E. Lee to rank from June 14

4.         Joseph J. Johnston to rank from July 4

5.         Pierre Beauregard to rank from July 21.


To pit against these Lincoln had only McClellan, Rosecrans, Fremont and Buell. Despite the Union’s great superiority in money, manpower, and arms, this disparity in generalship would induce Lincoln into blunders that would cause the war to go on two years longer than otherwise it would.


Note: There are over fifty negatives of studio photographs taken of McClellan during the war. There are no photographs taken of General Lee before the surrender, save one taken as he rode Traveller through the shell- cratered streets of Petersburg, in 1865. In terms of personal vanity, these were two very different men.


Joe Ryan


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About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.

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