George B. McClellan Reacts to Lincoln’s Assassination

When Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan parted ways on October 4, 1862, at the Army of the Potomac’s camps around Sharpsburg, Maryland, the two men, according to McClellan, appeared to be in agreement about the army’s next steps. That feeling between the two was rare, and ultimately fleeting. Just more than a month later, Lincoln removed McClellan from the army command. Their strained relationship ended. They soon sparred again as opposing candidates in the Election of 1864; their cordial goodbye in western Maryland was the last time the two men saw one another.

Lincoln and McClellan during the President’s visit to the Army of the Potomac in October 1862.

By April 14, 1865, the fortunes of these two men could not be more different. Lincoln, after defeating McClellan, was one month into his second term. Robert E. Lee’s army was no more. The president was at the peak of his power and fame. The defeated McClellan was not on the continent. After his electoral loss, McClellan sailed for Europe. While there, he learned of Lincoln’s assassination, which occurred 159 years tonight.

Though the two men often jabbed at one another–and sometimes more–while Lincoln was commander-in-chief and McClellan served as one of his top generals, the general still mourned the fallen president.

On May 4, 1865, McClellan wrote about his splendid time in Europe. He could not resist commenting on the news of Lincoln’s death. He struggled to come to grips, as did millions of Americans, with the fact that the glorious end of the Civil War came at the cost of the victor’s leader. “How strange it is that the military death of the rebellion should have been followed with such tragic quickness by the atrocious murder of Mr Lincoln! Now I cannot but forget all that had been unpleasant between us, & remember only the brighter parts of our intercourse.” Perhaps his memory drifted back to their last meeting. “Most sincerely do I join in the sentiment of unmingled horror & regret with which his sad end seems to have inspired everyone.” Like many would soon come to do, McClellan especially lamented that Lincoln’s death catapulted Andrew Johnson into the presidency.

Months later, citizens of Geneva invited Americans in Europe to a Fourth of July celebration. McClellan received an invitation but had to decline. He sent his regrets in a letter, in which he spoke again of Lincoln’s assassination. “I most sincerely unite with you in the feelings of sorrow and indignation which have been so universally expressed for the cowardly murder which deprived the country of its Chief Magistrate,–and in the desire to afford the most loyal support to his successor.”

Then, almost echoing Lincoln’s own thoughts and words, the former general continued, “I trust, too, that you will unite with me in the hope that, since we have completely vindicated our national strength and military honor by the entire defeat & ruin of our late enemies, our people will pursue a magnanimous and merciful course towards a fallen foe–one that will tend to soften the bitter feelings inevitably caused by a long & earnest war, & to restore the confidence and kind feeling that should exist between those who owe allegiance to the same Government & belong to the same People.”

5 Responses to George B. McClellan Reacts to Lincoln’s Assassination

  1. Lincoln famously lamented his generals had a “case of the slows”. That definitely applies here. Grant was the solution. A real bulldog on the battlefield along with his friend Sherman.

  2. thanks for this thoughtful piece … and nice to see some good words from Little Mac who commented not once, but twice … good for him.

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