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The Papers of George B. McClellan

McClellan's Progression Toward Richmond


Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, May 2, 1862

Flag Officer, Goldsborough, Hampton Road:

I will open a very heavy fire on Monday morning, May 5. I think the gun boats can pass the batteries after dark. The effect of such a movement will be to enable me to gain possession of Yorktown on the second or third day of the bombardment.

G.B. McClellan, Maj. Gen.


Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, May 3, 1862

Dear Mary Ellen:

I don't like the quietness that reigns now. It don't seem natural. It looks like a sortie or an evacuation. I need rest. My brain is taxed to the extreme. I feel that the fate of the nation depends upon me, and I feel that I have not a single friend at the seat of the Government. Any day may bring an order relieving me from command.



Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, May 4, 1862

Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

The enemy abandoned Yorktown last night and it is now in our possession. I have thrown all my cavalry in pursuit of the enemy. I move Franklin by water up to West Point today. I shall push the enemy to the wall.

G.B. McClellan, Maj.Gen.


Headquarters, Yorktown, May 5, 1862

Hon. E.M. Stanton:

Raining hard. Enemy is at Williamsburg. Heavy firing now going on. I hope to throw a force up York River tomorrow to cut the enemy's line of retreat.

G.B. McClellan, Maj. Gen.

Williamsburg, May 6, 1862

Dear Nell:

We have gained a battle. Yesterday I received messages from Baldy Smith begging me to go to the front. I found things in a bad state. As soon as I came upon the field the men cheered like fiends and I saw at once that I could save the day. I reinforced Hancock and arranged to support Hooker, advanced the whole line, filled up the gaps and got everything in hand. The result was the enemy scampered during the night. Had I been on the field five hours earlier I think we would have taken 20,000 prisoners, but the utter stupidity and worthlessness of the corps commanders came near making it a defeat.


This is a beautiful little town, several very old houses and churches, pretty gardens, etc. I have taken possession of a very fine house Joe Johnston used as his HQ. It has a lovely garden. If you were here we could spend several weeks.



Willi amsburg, May 8, 1862

E.M. Stanton:

I ask permission to reorganize the Army Corps. The present arrangement is very bad and it has almost resulted in a disastrous defeat. I request full authority to relieve from duty with these army commanders of corps or divisions who prove themselves incompetent.


The time has arrived to bring all the troops in Virginia into perfect cooperation. I expect to fight another battle and therefore should have all the reinforcements that can be given me. All the troops on the Rappahannock and all the troops in the Shenandoah Valley should take part in the approaching battle. We ought immediately to concentrate everything.

George B. McClellan, Maj.Gen.


Williamsburg, May 8, 1862

Dear Nell:

I do not think you are overjoyed at the result I gained. I really thought that you would appreciate a great result gained by pure skill and at little cost. It would have been easy for me to have scarified 10,000 lives in taking Yorktown. I am content with what I have done and history will give me credit for it.



19 Miles from Williamsburg, May 10, 1862


The enemy will meet us at the Chickahominy. I urge that I be reinforced immediately, with all troops in Virginia. I have established my connection with the troops at West Point and the dangerous moment has passed. Should Norfolk be taken and the Virginia destroyed, I can change my line to the James River and dispense with the York River Railroad.

G.B. McClellan, Maj. Gen.


Note: Lincoln, with his cabinet ministers, Seward, Chase, Stanton, Welles, and Bates traveled together by steamer from Washington to Hampton Road; leaving Washington on Monday, May 5, and arriving at the road that night. Chase and Seward visited McClellan at White House Landing on the Pamunkey. McClellan's suggestion that he might change the army's line of operation to the James River, certainly was not received with acceptance by Lincoln. No doubt, Lincoln sent Seward and Chase to meet with McClellan and ascertain his plans; then when it looked like McClellan might indeed change his base from White House to James River, Lincoln issued an order which forced McClellan to use White House as the army's bas. Lincoln, with his crowd, returned to Washington on Monday, May 12.

19 miles from Williamsburg, May 11, 1862

E.M. Stanton, Fort Monroe:

I congratulate you on the destruction of the Virginia. I urge that our iron clads be sent as far up James River as possible. This will enable me to make our movements much more decisive.

G.B. McClellan, Maj. Gen.

Cumberland Landing on Pamunkey River


Cumberland Landing, May 14, 1862

His Excellency Abraham Lincoln

President of the United States

I have received no rely from Stanton as to my request for reinforcements. I cannot bring into battle more than 80,000 men, and with them I must attack in position, probably entrenched, a much larger force, perhaps double my numbers. The opportunity has come to strike a fatal blow and I beg you will cause this Army to be reinforced immediately.

G.B. McClellan, Maj. Gen.


Cumberland Landing, May 15, 1862

Dear Nell:

Another horrid wet day. We are about 25 miles from Richmond here. I yet don't know what to make of the rebels. They cannot possibly abandon Richmond and Virginia and I don't understand how they could have abandoned Norfolk and the Virginia.


I am heartily tired of this life I am leading Every day I am more tired of it and want to retire as a country gentleman. Still raining hard and dismally.



Note: On May 16, Mac moved his headquarters from Cumberland Landing, a few miles up the Pamunkey to White House Landing, where the York River Railroad crossed the river. He tells us that it was at this time, say May 17, that now that the Virginia was destroyed, he began to consider seriously changing his base to James River. This fact, in conjunction with his continued pleas for reinforcements, probably explains why Lincoln ordered him to reach out with his right wing to make contact with McDowell's corps which was to move south toward Richmond from Fredericksburg.

On May 18, Mac received word from Lincoln that he may change the corps organization which he did by establishing two provisional corps, commanded by his close friends, Fitz John Porter and William Franklin. This reduced the influence of the other corps commanders, Keyes, Heintzelman, and Sumner.

White House Landing, May 16, 1862

Dear Nell:

Have just arrived here over horrid roads. This house is where Washington's courtship took place and where he resided when he first got married. I do not permit it to be occupied by anyone, nor the grounds around. It is a beautiful spot directly on the banks of the Pamunkey.


White House Landing

White House, May 17, 1862

Dear Nell:

We have a change in the weather. It is clear and very hot. I expect to have our advance parties near the Chickahominy today.



White House, May 18, 1862

Dear Nell:

We leave here tomorrow. Porter and Franklin march at 8:00 a.m. We will go to Tunstall's, and will soon close up on the Chickahominy and find out what secesh is doing. Those hounds in Washington are after me again.



Note: Mac was being attacked on the floor of Congress for not allowing his soldiers to use the White House property. Sick soldiers could use the house to sleep in, and everyone could use the spring, the critics complained. The house was burned to the ground eventually.

Ruins of White House


Washington, May 18, 1862

General McClellan:

The President has ordered McDowell to march upon Richmond. He is ordered, always keeping himself in position to protect Washington, to so operate as to put his left wing in contact with your right wing. The President desires that McDowell retain command of the Department of the Rappahannock and of the forces with which he moves forward.

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.


Tunstall's Station, May 20, 1862

Dear Nell:

We are gradually drawing near the rascals. I think they intend to fight us in front of Richmond. Our camp here is lovely, and the view from the high hill on which are HQ is really magnificent. This evening, when the bivouac-fires are lighted, the scene was grand beyond description. There are some very fine plantations in this vicinity. What fools their owners are to submit themselves to being overrun and devastated! An army leaves a wide swath in its rear.


White House Landing, May 21, 1862

His Excellency the President:

I fear there is little hope McDowell can reach me by marching overland, he should come by water. I regret the configuration of his department. I think that my own department should embrace the entire field of operations designed for the capture of Richmond. Finally, my superior rank, and the express language of the Articles of War place his command under my orders.

G. B. McClellan, Maj. Gen.

Near Chickahominy, May 23, 1862

Dear Nell:

Someone just brought me a bouquet of wild white flowers, a negro at that. I clutched it most eagerly, as reminding me of one who two years ago became my wife.


The intentions of the enemy are still doubtful. He is giving up great advantages in not opposing me on the line of the Chickahominy. He could give me a great deal of trouble and cost me hundreds or thousands of lives. God knows that I am sick of this civil war. How freely I shall breathe when my long task of months is over and Richmond is ours! I am here on the eve of one of the great historic battles of the world.



Washington, May 24, 1862

General McClellan:

I left Gen. McDowell's camp at dark last evening. Shield's division is there, but is so worn that he cannot move before Monday, the 26th. We have so thinned our line in the Valley that it was broken at Front Royal yesterday.

A. Lincoln, President


Washington, May 24, 1862, 4 p.m.

General McClellan:

In consequence of Gen. Banks's critical position (in the Valley) I have been compelled to suspend McDowell's movement to join you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper's Ferry, and we are trying to throw Gen. Fremont's force and part of McDowell's in his rear.

A. Lincoln, President


Cold Harbor, May 25, 1862

Dear Nell:

I have this moment received a dispatch from the President, who is terribly scared about Washington and talks about the necessity of my returning in order to save it. Heaven save the country from such counsels! It seems that Banks has been soundly thrashed, and that they are terribly alarmed in Washington. A scare will do them good, and may bring them to their senses.


Cold Harbor, May 25, 1862

His Excellency, the President:

The object of the enemy's movement on Harper's Ferry is to prevent reinforcements being sent to me. I have two corps across Chickahominy within six miles of Richmond.

G.B. McClellan, Maj. Gen.

York River Railroad Crossing of Chickahominy River


New Bridge, May 26, 1862

Dear Nell:

Our camp is on the banks of the Chickahominy, near New Bridge. I have been troubled by the old Mexican complaint, brought on, I suppose, by the wet weather. Had the instructions I left for Banks be followed we should be spared the shame of his stampede. I feared last night that I would be ordered back for the defense of Washington.


Some of the President's dispatches for the last two days have been amazing in the extreme.



Hanover Courthouse, May 28, 1862

Edwin Stanton:

It is the duty of the Government to send me by water all the well drilled troops available. Washington is in no danger. The real issue is in the battle about to fought here at Richmond. All our available forces should be concentrated here. A desperate battle is upon us. No troops should be left unemployed.

G.B. McClellan, Maj. Gen.


Note: The battle of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks occurred on May 30, with the Confederates attacking the front of Keyes corps, manned by Casey's division, and driving it back a mile to Keyes's second line which was reinforced and held by Heintzelman's corps, eventually supported by elements of Sumner's corps crossing the Chickahominy late in the day on rickety bridges in the midst of a rain storm.

New Bridge, May 31, 1862

General Heintzelman:

You have retrieved the disaster of Casey. With the remaining five divisions you should hold your own. I will post everything during the night, so as to be able to cross at New Bridge tomorrow. Let me send to Washington as soon as possible the news that all is right.

G.B. McClellan


What Happened in May 1862


The War In The West
The Papers of General Grant
General McClellan Progression



The War in the East
Seven Pines

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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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