Close Reading –Letter to George McClellan

By Susan Segal, Understanding Lincoln, Summer 2013

Over the course of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had many challenges as Commander-in-Chief.  General McClellan was one of them.  Quite simply, McClellan, who was well trained and skilled at preparing for battle, seemed unable to put the army into action in a strategic and timely fashion.  An example is how he lost a tremendous advantage in the days before Antietam.  Another is McClellan’s continued unwillingness to move the troops into Virginia, across the Potomac, and on to Richmond ahead of the enemy.  His reluctance ultimately led to his removal General of the Army of the Potomac in late 1862.

On September 17, 1862, the Union and the Confederate Armies fought the “bloodiest single day’s battle of the war . . .  at Antietam Creek” (Burlingame 2008, 2: 382).  Two days before the battle, General McClellan had fortuitously obtained General Lee’s orders and had the advantage of knowing Lee’s plans ahead of time—a distinct advantage . Yet, he procrastinated and the Confederate army ended up uniting its forces and preparing for battle at Antietam Creek.

Lee ended up retreating from the battlefield first and, for that reason, the Union was able to claim victory at Antietam.  However, the battle was “in effect a draw, with neither side clearly victorious” (Burlingame 2008, 2: 382).  Lee and his Confederate troops were able to retreat safely back into Virginia.

Lincoln was clearly upset that McClellan had failed to pursue Lee, as he believed that McClellan missed a golden opportunity to strike a decisive blow to Lee’s army had he aggressively followed Lee across the Potomac and attacked.  After the battle, Lincoln met with McClellan at Antietam and offered candid criticism of McClellan’s tactics.  Despite McClellan’s boasts after the battle, Lincoln considered McClellan to have failed in his mission.  Lincoln then “instructed McClellan to advance within two weeks” (Burlingame 2008, 2: 426). General Halleck followed up with an order to cross the Potomac and pursue the enemy.  McClellan continued to procrastinate and offer reasons why the Army was not ready.  Later, the New York Times characterized this behavior as “disobedience” and noted that McClellan’s reasons for not crossing the Potomac were “utterly without foundation” (“The Removal of Gen. McClellan” 1862).

On October 13, 1862, Lincoln wrote the following letter, in which he once again prods General McClellan to move across the Potomac and proceed to Richmond.  This letter was “one final and carefully crafted effort to reach his general and make him see reason” (Sears 1994, 48).  The letter starts out as follows:

My dear Sir
You remember my speaking to you of what I called your over-cautiousness. Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim? (Lincoln 1862a).

The term “over cautious,” is just one way that Lincoln described McClellan’s recalcitrance.  He reportedly told McClellan on his visit to Antietam a little over a week before that McClellan had a “fault” in his character in these.  His strong words should have left no question in McClellan’s mind that Lincoln was displeased:

I wish to call your attention to a fault in your character— a fault which is the sum of my observations of you, in connection with this war. You merely get yourself ready to do a good thing— no man can do that better— you make all the necessary sacrifices of blood and time, and treasure, to secure a victory, but whether from timidity, self-distrust, or some other motive inexplicable to me, you always stop short just on this side of results. (Burlingame 2008, 2:426).[1]

In the second part of the first paragraph of the October 13 letter, Lincoln expresses his confidence in the “prowess” of the Union army.  Lincoln is stating “something he felt deeply about—his belief that northerners were as good soldiers as those of the enemy, that they were just as capable of doing “what the enemy is constantly doing” (Sears 1994, 48).   By pointing out that the “prowess” of the Union army should be at least equal to that of the Confederacy, Lincoln is also telling McClellan that his hesitation and concerns are unwarranted.

Lincoln then continues to compare the two armies in terms of their respective resources, strategic advantage, location, and capabilities in the next paragraph:

As I understand, you telegraph Gen. Halleck that you can not subsist your army at Winchester unless the Railroad from Harper’s Ferry to that point be put in working order. But the enemy does now subsist his army at Winchester at a distance nearly twice as great from railroad transportation as you would have to do without the railroad last named. He now wagons from Culpepper C.H. which is just about twice as far as you would have to do from Harper’s Ferry. He is certainly not more than half as well provided with wagons as you are. I certainly should be pleased for you to have the advantage of the Railroad from Harper’s Ferry to Winchester, but it wastes all the remainder of autumn to give it to you; and, in fact ignores the question of time, which can not, and must not be ignored.  (Lincoln 1862a).

The last sentence refers to the fact that it was already the middle of October and winter would soon be setting in.  General Halleck later reported that he warned McClellan of the “disadvantages of delaying till the Autumn rains had swollen the Potomac and impaired the roads” (“General McClellan, Letter from Gen. Halleck to the Secretary of War Concerning Gen. McClellan’s Complaints of Lack of Supplies” 1862).  Yet, McClellan stayed put in Antietam for most of October, wasting precious time.

Lincoln was also reminding McClellan in this paragraph that that time was of the essence in getting to Richmond before the enemy did. In fact, it was not until October 27, 1862, that McClellan finally started to cross the Potomac.  However, before the Union army did so, Confederate troops under Jeb Stuart had “again rode a circle around the Army of the Potomac” (Burlingame 2008, 2:428).  While this action turned out to be of no military consequence, it no doubt made the Union army look weak and impotent.

In the next paragraph, Lincoln addresses McClellan’s proffered excuse that moving toward Richmond would allow the enemy to go into Pennsylvania.  Lincoln dismisses McClellan’s apprehension and points out that such a move by the enemy toward Pennsylvania could instead result in a strategic advantage for the Union army:

Again, one of the standard maxims of war, as you know, is “to operate upon the enemy’s communications as much as possible without exposing your own.” You seem to act as if this applies against you, but can not apply in your favor. Change positions with the enemy, and think you not he would break your communication with Richmond within the next twentyfour hours? You dread his going into Pennsylvania. But if he does so in full force, he gives up his communications to you absolutely, and you have nothing to do but to follow, and ruin him; if he does so with less than full force, fall upon, and beat what is left behind all the easier. (Lincoln 1862a).

Lincoln then points out that McClellan is closer to Richmond that the enemy and could get there before the enemy.  He also describes the advantage that the Union army has in terms of the route to Richmond.  In the following arc versus chord description, Lincoln’s “image of the two armies advancing through Virginia . . . is remarkably apt” (Sears 1994, 48).

Exclusive of the water line, you are now nearer Richmond than the enemy is by the route that you can, and he must take. Why can you not reach there before him, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on a march. His route is the arc of a circle, while yours is the chord. The roads are as good on yours as on his.  (Lincoln 1862a).

In the next paragraph, Lincoln implores—almost begs–McClellan to at the very least “`try”; if we never try, we shall never succeed” to get to Richmond before the enemy (Lincoln 1862a). He explains that even if the enemy travels northward to Winchester, Virginia, McClellan’s army will still have an advantage:

You know I desired, but did not order, you to cross the Potomac below, instead of above the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge. My idea was that this would at once menace the enemies’ communications, which I would seize if he would permit. If he should move Northward I would follow him closely, holding his communications. If he should prevent our seizing his communications, and move towards Richmond, I would press closely to him, fight him if a favorable opportunity should present, and, at least, try to beat him to Richmond on the inside track. I say “try”; if we never try, we shall never succeed. If he make a stand at Winchester, moving neither North or South, I would fight him there, on the idea that if we can not beat him when he bears the wastage of coming to us, we never can when we bear the wastage of going to him. (Lincoln 1862a).

Lincoln continues in this paragraph to note the advantage of making the enemy come to fight the Union army away from Richmond.  He also points out the difficulty of defeating the enemy once it is entrenched in Richmond.  To this point, he states:

In coming to us, he tenders us an advantage which we should not waive. We should not so operate as to merely drive him away.  As we must beat him somewhere, or fail finally, we can do it, if at all, easier near to us, than far away. If we can not beat the enemy where he now is, we never can, he again being within the entrenchments of Richmond (Lincoln 1862a).

In my opinion, the following last paragraph of this letter shows Lincoln at his best as a military strategist.  Although hesitant at the beginning of the war to overrule his generals, knowing he was unschooled in military strategy, by October of 1862, Lincoln had become skilled and knowledgeable in military tactics and principles of warfare.  He “enunciated a clear national policy, and through trial and error evolved national and military strategies to achieve it” (McPherson 2008a).   Just as any skilled army commander would do, in this last paragraph, Lincoln outlines, in detail, how McClellan should proceed.

Recurring to the idea of going to Richmond on the inside track, the facility of supplying from the side away from the enemy is remarkable—as it were, by the different spokes of a wheel extending from the hub towards the rim—and this whether you move directly by the chord, or on the inside arc, hugging the Blue Ridge more closely. The chord-line, as you see, carries you by Aldie, Hay-Market, and Fredericksburg; and you see how turn-pikes, railroads, and finally, the Potomac by Acquia Creek, meet you at all points from Washington. The same, only the lines lengthened a little, if you press closer to the Blue Ridge part of the way. The gaps through the Blue Ridge I understand to be about the following distances from Harper’s Ferry, to wit: Vestal’s five miles; Gregorie’s, thirteen, Snicker’s eighteen, Ashby’s, twenty-eight, Mannassas, thirty-eight, Chester fortyfive, and Thornton’s fiftythree. I should think it preferable to take the route nearest the enemy, disabling him to make an important move without your knowledge, and compelling him to keep his forces together, for dread of you. The gaps would enable you to attack if you should wish. For a great part of the way, you would be practically between the enemy and both Washington and Richmond, enabling us to spare you the greatest number of troops from here. When at length, running for Richmond ahead of him enables him to move this way; if he does so, turn and attack him in rear. But I think he should be engaged long before such point is reached. (Lincoln 1862a).

Lincoln, in essence, draws McClellan a verbal “how to” map, using terms such as “different spokes of a wheel extending from the hub towards the rim,”  “move directly by the chord, or on the inside, arc, and “hugging the Blue Ridge more closely” (Lincoln 1862a).  He gives him distances between gaps.  He lays out a plan of action that is very clear.  He anticipates the enemy’s reaction.  Of course, it goes without saying that Lincoln should not have had to go to this extent in giving directions to one of his generals who had excellent credentials and training.  However, given McClellan’s history of finding reasons why not to advance toward Richmond, his procrastination, and his outright obstinacy, Lincoln obviously felt that such detailed instructions were necessary at this point.

Then, Lincoln ends this paragraph with a parting shot that is obviously meant to bring McClellan to his senses–a verbal “slap in the face”– by implicating McClellan’s manhood, stating, “It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy; and it is unmanly to say they can not do it (Lincoln 1862a).  Finally, as he had done in the past, Lincoln closes the letter with the statement that it “is in no sense an order.”  However, we know that, while this may have not been an order, to do otherwise than instructed was foolish for any general and particularly for McClellan whose relationship with Lincoln was very stormy by this time.[2]

Two days after this letter was written, a New York Times editorial criticized McClellan’s delay.  With a headline that asked “Why Should There be Delay?,” the editorial strongly urged the Army of the Potomac to get on the move.  Addressing what was perceived to be McClellan’s hesitation for fear he would carry out a less than perfect campaign with “consummate military strategy” and “ideal warfare,” the author said the following:

[T]here are now no possible reasons for delay, except such as impugn the motives, the capacity or the courage of our leaders. It is too late for the public to accept any theories of consummate military strategy, or to put any faith in that ideal warfare supposed to be carried on without loss of life, in which the weapons are spades; too late to believe any magnificent prophecies whatever, while our forces lie immobile — wary, but not hold, too cautious to strike, timorously prudent in the face of an enemy less in numbers, ragged, half-fed and worn down by constant marching and fighting.  (“Why Should There be Delay?” 1862).

Once McClellan commenced moving the troops across the Potomac into Virginia, it took twelve days to even get to Warrenton, Virginia, which was still about one hundred miles away from Richmond.  In comparison to the movement of Lee’s troops, this was incredibly slow. As McPherson (2008b) notes:

[I]t took the army six days to get across a river that Lee’s forces had crossed in one night after Antietam. And the lumbering Army of the Potomac required another six days to move south forty miles to the vicinity of Warrenton. During those twelve days Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps marched almost twice as far to take up a blocking position to the south, while Jackson’s corps remained in place to threaten the Union flank. (141).

By early November, Lincoln had had enough and decided to fire McClellan.  When Francis  Preston Blair, a powerful ally and friend of Lincoln tried to talk him out of replacing McClellan, Lincoln told Blair that “[h]e had ‘tried long enough to bore with an auger too dull to take hold’ . . .  He has got the ‘slows,’ Mr. Blair.’” (McPherson 2008b, 141).  McClellan was relieved of his command on November 5, 1862, and replaced by General Ambrose Burnside. Whatever it was that caused McClellan’s recalcitrance and hesitation, it was a fatal flaw.  In retrospect, “Lincoln could do everything for [McClellan] but make him fight—and in the end, that is the measure of the general. George McClellan was simply in the wrong profession” (Sears1994, 50).

On November 10, 1862, the New York Times wrote an extensive article on Lincoln’s action removing McClellan, which is nothing short of a powerful condemnation of General McClellan’s military performance.[3]  The article also criticizes Lincoln (the “Administration”) for not removing McClellan earlier.  It sums up McClellan’s record as follows

It is pretty generally understood that [McClellan’s removal] is only the culmination of a systematic disregard of orders, of a steady and obstinate tardiness in the conduct of the campaign against the rebels, and of a consequent inefficiency in command, which would long ago have secured his dismissal under any Administration less timid than that which has now possession of power. The fifteen months during which he has had virtual control of the war have been utterly barren of results to the cause he has professed to serve. Few commanders in history have had such splendid opportunities, and fewer still have so ostentatiously thrown them away . . . [H]e has accomplished absolutely nothing but successful retreats from inferior forces, and the defence of the Capital at Washington, which he should have left no foe capable of menacing. The rebel armies have grown up in his presence, and by his toleration. (“The Removal of Gen. McClellan 1862).

We will never know for sure what would have happened if McClellan had acted sooner and not dawdled in Maryland after the Battle of Antietam.  We don’t know whether the war would have ended more quickly  and with fewer casualties.  Professor Pinsker has pointed out in our course that he believes that Lincoln did act fairly swiftly in removing McClelland.  In retrospect, I think I agree.  However, at the time, McClellan’s command probably seemed like a very long time to the general public and possibly some of the troops who had high hopes for his leadership in the beginning but were sorely disappointed in the end.


[1] Lincoln’s belief that McClellan excelled at preparation, but was short on follow through was shared by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, who wrote in September of 1862 that McClellan had “an inherent vice of mind, often in the accompaniment of great organizing power, which makes him never ready to act.  The whole power and energy of his nature seems to be devoted to making armies, not using them” (Hay 1862, 316).  This piece appeared in “an unsigned newspaper article that anonymously but intentionally expressed Lincoln’s sentiments on the subject” (McPherson 2008b, 139).

[2] McClellan got another nasty letter from Lincoln on October 24, 1862, after McClellan had complained that his horses were fatigued.  Lincoln says in that letter that he had “just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatiegued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”  (Lincoln 1862b). Although Lincoln later apologized for this comment, I think the letter aptly conveys his mounting sentiment of anger, despair, and frustration at McClellan’s inaction.

[3] In the same edition, the paper also published General Halleck’s damning report to Secretary of War Stanton, in which Halleck advised Stanton that McClellan’s complaints about the lack of supplies were groundless and should not have prevented McClellan from crossing the Potomac.  Whether this report was deliberately published at the same time as the story about McClellan’s removal as a preemptive strike to mute those who supported McClellan is up for speculation.


Burlingame, Michael.  2008.  Abraham Lincoln: A Life.  Vol. 2. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

“General McClellan, Letter from Gen. Halleck to the Secretary of War Concerning Gen. McClellan’s Complaints of Lack of Supplies.”  October 28, 1862.  New York Times, November 10, 1862.  Accessed September, 2013.….

Hay, John.  1862. “Washington Correspondence, September 30, 1862.”  InLincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, edited by Michael Burlingame, 314-316.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.  1998.

—. 1862a. “Abraham Lincoln to George Brinton McClellan, October 13, 1862.” Lincoln’s Writings, The Multi-Media Edition.

—.  1862b. “Abraham Lincoln to George McClellan, October 24 [25], 1862.” Lincoln’s Writings, The Multi-Media Edition.

McPherson, James.  2008a. “Lincoln as Commander in Chief.”  Lecture presented at Abraham Lincoln in His Time and Ours: A Symposium, Columbia University.  November 22, 2008.  Gilder Lehrman Institute.….
McPherson, James.  2008b. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. New York: Penguin Books.

Sears, Stephen.  “Lincoln and McClellan.”  In Lincoln’s Generals, edited by Gabor Boritt, 2-50.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.  1994.

“The Removal of Gen. McClellan.”  1862.  New York Times. November 10, 1862.  Accessed September 28, 2013.…

“Why Should There be Delay?”  1862.  New York Times.  October 19, 1862.  Accessed September 2, 2013.….

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