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WHAT HAPPENED IN NOVEMBER 1861 ©
McCLELLAN AND LINCOLN
In his book, Governments and War, published in 1926, British Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice made the point that,
"Modern war demands that a partnership exist between the statesman and his military commander. The statesman must be the senior partner, and if the partnership is to be effective its members must have confidence each in the other, must be sufficiently acquainted with the whole business of war to understand the needs and difficulties of each, and the senior partner must know when and how to leave the junior to his tasks, how to direct without interference."
Millions of dollars and thousands of lives were lost in the thirteen months Lincoln and McClellan bungled through their partnership, each failing to recognize the prerogatives and responsibilities of the other.
The so-called partnership between the two men began when Lincoln appointed McClellan, on November 1, 1861, to step into the shoes of General Scott, ostensibly to act in the capacity of the general commanding the armies of the United States which were forming in three theaters: the first, the territory between the Alleghenies and the Atlantic; the second, between the Alleghenies and the Cumberland River in Kentucky; and the third, between Kansas and the Cumberland.
When Lincoln did this, he knew without a doubt what McClellan's political leanings were and what his attitude toward taking offensive action against the Confederate army in Virginia.
McClellan's first statement of his view of things came to Lincoln shortly after McClellan reached Washington, in late July 1861. "Pursuing a rigidly protective policy as to private property," McClellan wrote Lincoln, "a strong movement should be made on the Mississippi that will force the rebels out of Missouri and simultaneously with this a movement should be made into Tennessee for the purpose of seizing the railroad leading from Memphis to the east." As for the "main army of operations" there would be required, McClellan wrote, 250 regiments of 225,000 men, 100 batteries (600 guns), and 28 cavalry regiments of 25,000 troopers. The main army should operate on a line that would allow it to use water transportation from point to point, thus requiring a large naval force to protect its movements. McClellan assured Lincoln that he would use this army to "occupy Richmond, drive the enemy out of Virginia, and move into the heart of the Confederacy, capturing Charleston, Savannah, Montgomery, Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans."
As to the issue of unity of command, McClellan wrote Lincoln just before assuming Scott's place that "the entire military should be grasped as a whole, and not in detached parts. One plan should be agreed upon, one will should direct and carry out those plans." Correct thinking in the abstract, but the one dominant will Mac meant to be his.
Energized by his new station, McClellan wrote his wife on November 3rd: "I saw the old man (Scott) off in the dark and pouring rain. He looked a feeble old man scarce able to walk, with hardly any one there to see him leave. Should I ever become ambitious remind me of that spectacle. At last I am the major general commanding the Army."
In assuming the role of Lincoln's general-in-chief, McClellan had made himself perfectly clear as to his view of the strict limit Lincoln's politics were to play in the execution of the three-pronged military campaign he envisioned. On November 7th, writing to Don Carlos Buell, who was being substituted in Sherman's place as commander of the Department of Ohio, McClellan said,
We shall most readily suppress this rebellion and restore the authority of the government by religiously respecting the constitutional rights of all. The inhabitants of Kentucky may rely upon it that their domestic institutions will in no manner be interfered with."
To his friend Barlow, McClellan wrote on November 8th: "I will first be sure that I have an army strong enough and well enough instructed to fight with reasonable chances of success. Of one thing you can rest assured—when the blow is struck it will be heavy, rapid, and decisive. Help me dodge the nigger—we want nothing to do with him. I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union and the power of the Government and nothing else. To gain that end we cannot afford to raise up the negro question."
Point Royal Sound 1861
And yet, with sympathy in his heart, he wrote to his wife, Mary Ellen, on November 14th, after the Navy had successfully penetrated Port Royal Sound, in South Carolina, and Union troops occupied Beaufort: "The negroes came flocking down to the river with their bundles in their hands ready to take passage! There is something inexpressibly mournful to me in those poor helpless ignorant beings, poor serfs with their little bundles, ready to launch their boats on the wide ocean of life they know so little of."
From these communications, both public and private, McClellan's politics are clear. He was a Democrat, not a Republican. In his letter to Mary Ellen, he continued: "When I think of some of the features of slavery I cannot help shuttering. Just think for a moment that at the will of some brutal master you and I might be separated forever! It is horrible, and when the day of adjustment comes I will, if successful, throw my sword into the scale to force an improvement in the condition of those poor blacks. I will never be an abolitionist, but I do think that some of the rights of humanity ought to be secured to the negroes—there should be no power to separate families and the right of marriage ought to be secured to them. I will not fight though for the abolitionists."
Lincoln, of course, was willing, it is plain to see, to tolerate Democrats in positions of military command, in 1861, because the Republicans had not yet consolidated their control of the Federal Government and the Government had not yet consolidated its control of Maryland, Missouri, and, most importantly, Kentucky. But as soon as the Government would get its grip firmly fixed around Kentucky's throat, Lincoln would try hard to dump the Democrats for Republicans. The effort would give Virginia and the Confederacy a breath of life that would extend the war in the east two years.
For his part, McClellan was willing, barely, to tolerate Lincoln. Writing to Mary Ellen toward the end of November, he said this: "I went to the White House where I found the original gorilla, about as intelligent as ever. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now! Then, later, I went to Seward's, where I found the gorilla again and was of course much edified by his anecdotes—ever unworthy of one holding his high position. I suppose our country has richly merited some great punishment, else we should not now have such a wretched trifler at the head of affairs."
The Department of Missouri
In late July, as McClellan was arriving at Washington, Lincoln put John Fremont, The Pathfinder and 1856 Republican candidate for president, in command of what was then called the Department of the West. Fremont arrived in St. Louis in August, 1861, and promptly set about antagonizing the very powerful political (Democrat) Blair family, going so far as to arrest Frank Blair, the leading Union organizer in the state. This resulted in the emergence of a large group of political enemies that besieged Lincoln to dump him.
As this drama played itself out, Fremont went about the business of organizing an army of 16,000 men and getting it into the field to operate against a similar-sized rebel force, commanded by Sterling Price and the famous Texan, Ben McCulloch, that controlled the western and southern parts of the state. Fremont organized his force into five divisions and ordered them to concentrate at Springfield, which the enemy was holding in force. Lincoln, already thinking himself a competent military strategist, which he was not, wrote to Fremont to say, "You are not likely to overtake Price and are in danger of making too long a line from your own base of supply and reinforcement." Ironically, the same reason McClellan gave for insisting on not moving overland to Richmond in March 1862. "I feel sure," Lincoln wrote to Fremont, that an attempt to reach Memphis (Fremont's stated eventual goal) by (an overland route) will be exhaustive beyond endurance, and will end with the loss of the whole force engaged in it."
Fremont Moves on Price
Fremont would probably have survived in command of the department, despite his abuse of the Blairs, but for the fact he engaged in conduct which confounded Lincoln's immediate plans. First, on August 30, Fremont issued a proclamation that announced he was seizing into his hands the administration of the state government, placing the state under marital law, and emancipating the slaves of any person who he deemed to have acted "disloyally to the Union." Lincoln responded to this, by writing Fremont asking politely that he modify his edict to conform it to the recently enacted congressional act for the confiscation of property which had been signed into law on August 6. The act provided for due process, including jury trial, instead of arbitrary confiscation by military authority. Fremont slapped Lincoln in the face, by responding with the demand that Lincoln publicly order him to make the modification. This Lincoln quickly did.
The Department of Ohio
William T. Sherman, having asked McClellan to relieve him from command of the department, was ordered to join Halleck in St. Louis where, acting as Halleck's advance man, he went to Sedalia and began jockeying with Price and McCulloch for position. Buell, taking Sherman's place, arrived in Louisville shortly thereafter. Buell made a movement southward, occupying Lebanon and then waited for instructions.
That Lincoln was acting the part Frederick Maurice envisoned for the senior partner in the relationship with his new general-in-chief, is clear from the letter he wrote in reply to a letter he received from ex-Attorney General Joseph Holt on November 2.
"Yours of the 2nd never reached me till yesterday, and Gen. McClellan has already so nearly completed his plans for the Departments of the West, and the Cumberland, that I could scarcely ask him to rearrange them. Halleck goes to St. Louis, and Buell goes to Louisville. Sherman's wishes are being consulted and I hope he will be placed satisfactorily to himself."
As for Sherman, Lincoln wrote soon after this to McClellan, "If Gen. McClellan thinks it proper to make Buell a major-general, enabling Sherman to return to Kentucky, it would rather please me." Sherman's many friends wanted him to lead troops in the field in Kentucky.
Lincoln Dances a Quick Step With The Great Powers
Queen Victoria's proclamation recognizing the Confederacy and the Union as belligerents established Britain as a neutral in the conflict, under the Law of Nations. This meant that, under the Treaty of Paris to which neither the Union or the Confederacy were signatories, British ships were entitled to traverse the seas without molestation from the warring parties; unless her ships were carrying contraband of war in which event the ship could be stopped on the high seas, boarded and the offending objects removed. The ship itself, or its passengers, could not be seized.
On November 8th, U.S. Navy Captain Wilkes stopped and boarded the British merchant ship, Trent, as it passed through the Bahama Channel carrying Confederate emissaries, Slidell and Mason, to Europe. Wilkes removed these two men, and two others, and carried them to Boston where they were thrown in prison. Slidell had been sent by President Davis to the Court of the Tuileries as an envoy extraordinary and similarly Mason was to present himself to the Court of St. James.
On November 30th, Lord John Russell, the British Secretary of Foreign Affairs, instructed the British ambassador to the United States, Lord Lyons, to demand that the United States release the envoys and, if the demand was not immediately met, to remove the entire British legation, with all its records, to London forthwith. At the same time, orders were issued, sending ten thousand troops across the Atlantic and doubling the size of the British Navy on station off the Union's eastern seaboard. Lincoln's government suddenly was hanging on the precipice of war with England and France.
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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.