Probably the most notable thing about George McClellan’s final month and a half in command of the Army of the Potomac are the zingers Lincoln tosses at the general for the army’s inactivity. By that point in their relationship, even Lincoln’s seemingly bottomless reserves of patience had become noticeably frayed. When Lincoln expressed concerns about McClellan’s “overcautiousness,” McClellan replied that it was his intention “to advance the moment my men are shod & my cavalry are sufficiently remounted to be serviceable.”
Lincoln replied with a zinger that has since attained a fame of its own: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”
“I am just as anxious as anyone, but am crippled by want of horses,” McClellan told his wife, complaining that Lincoln’s snarky note “was one of those dirty little flings that I can’t get used to when they are not merited.” Lincoln later apologized, but the strain between the two men was so great by then they were no longer really listening to each other.
McClellan was hampered during this period by legitimate supply issues, and a pair of coincidental cover articles in the most recent Civil War Monitor and Civil War Times explore this time in interesting detail. Both articles are worth a look.
In Civil War Monitor, my friend George Rable wrote an article titled “Little Mac’s Big Fall: An Inside Look at the Decision to Remove George B. McClellan from Command of the Army of the Potomac.” George’s article breaks down the tension between Lincoln and McClellan and the very real supply issues McClellan faced—as well as McClellan’s very real doubts—and covers the aftermath and fallout of the decision to remove McClellan from command.
Meanwhile, in the latest Civil War Times, which just showed up in my mailbox today, historian Steven R. Stotelmyer penned an article titled “McClellan’s Supply Crisis: Were Supplies Deliberately Withheld from the Army of the Potomac After Antietam?” The cover story, which touts new research, provocatively asks, “Did high command negligence bring down the general?”
As it happens, I’ve spent a lot of time in this post-Antietam period myself lately. I recently turned in the manuscript for my latest book to the University of Tennessee Press for their Command Decisions in the Civil War Series. The book looks at the critical decisions that shaped the battle of Fredericksburg, and it examines McClellan’s replacement with Burnside as the first critical decision of the campaign.
Even just reading the Official Records from this period, particularly the correspondence of McClellan, Herman Haupt, Montgomery Miegs, and (with a careful eye) the slippery Henry Halleck, one can see that the army suffered from severe supply shortages for a variety of reasons. Add to that the journals of George Gordon Meade, Charles Wainwright, and other officers—all of whom complained about shortages—and it’s clear that McClellan wasn’t just making up phantom excuses.
But equally apparent by reading Lincoln’s side of the argument is that McClellan seemed completely oblivious of time—“the question of time, which can not, and must not be ignored,” as Lincoln put it on October 13. Tuned in to military matters, McClellan was tone-deaf and blind to political matters. The fall elections were in full swing, and with them, huge implications for the Union war effort. Lincoln felt the pressure intensely, and he tried (unsuccessfully) exerting that pressure on McClellan.
Lincoln even made an example of Don Carols Buell, whom he fired for inactivity once the western states were done voting. Little Mac got the hint, but only barely.
Kevin Pawlak and I discussed this period in an ECW podcast back in November, for the anniversary of McClellan’s sacking (check out more info here and additional resources here). I’d also recommend a great essay by Brooks Simpson on the subject, “General McClellan’s Bodyguard: The Army of the Potomac After Antietam” which appears in the Gary Gallagher-edited The Antietam Campaign (UNC Press, 1999).
But as a first stop, check out the most current issues of Civil War Monitor and Civil War Times for some solid writing and research. These magazines (and CWT’s sister publication, America’s Civil War) have both been doing some exceptionally thought-provoking work over the last few years, raising the bar for all of us who are writing history for public audiences.
If you thought you knew McClellan, and you enjoy him as the butt of jokes, there’s reason to reconsider him—at least a little.