The American Civil War was triggered by slavery. As the West opened up, a growing abolitionist movement in the North refused to allow the spread of slavery to new states like Kansas. When the mildly abolitionist Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, 11 southern states, their economies largely dependent on cotton harvested by enslaved African Americans, seceded from the Union and formed a Confederacy.
Lincoln began the war without a large army. Many of its Southern-born officers put loyalty to their native states first and resigned their US commissions to serve the Confederacy.
Lincoln appealed for 75,000 volunteers to preserve the Union. But the first major clash between North and South at Bull Run/Manassas in July 1861 was a disaster for the Union. The inexperienced Northern army was routed, its commander Irvin McDowell was sidelined, and with Washington itself threatened, the search was on for a competent general to save the Union and its capital.
The chosen saviour was General George B McClellan, a charismatic, conceited, diminutive, and dapper 34-year-old, who had won two minor skirmishes against the Confederates in West Virginia, and had unbounded confidence that he could do the job. He modelled himself on Napoleon, posing for the camera Bonaparte-style with his hand thrust into his jacket; he even had French officers on his staff.
At first his confidence seemed justified. Appointed C-in-C of all the Union’s forces plus the new army he was raising in Washington, McClellan told Lincoln, ‘I can do it all.’ He demonstrated a gift for organisation, defence-works, and training new troops amounting to genius. Within weeks, some 50 new fortifications had sprung up around Washington; his raw recruits showed a proud esprit de corps as they became the ‘Army of the Potomac’; and an adoring press, and the General himself, were boasting that he would take the Confederate capital Richmond and crush the rebellion in a single short campaign.
An attack of ‘the slows’
‘If General McClellan is not going to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.’President Abraham Lincoln
As weeks turned into months, McClellan showed his Achilles heel. Allied to an insufferable arrogance that saw him play with the idea of becoming a military dictator and call the gangling Lincoln ‘the original gorilla’ and ‘a well-meaning baboon’, the General displayed a caution so excessive that it shaded into flinching timidity.
All through the autumn and winter, as the ranks of his new army swelled, and his men endlessly drilled and paraded, McClellan huffed and puffed, but stubbornly resisted presidential pressure to move south and take offensive action with the gleaming new military machine he had created. The never-ready General was like the proud owner of a spanking new sports car, forever waxing and polishing the vehicle, but unwilling to take it out on the road.
Lincoln was initially patient with both McClellan’s barely concealed contempt for him and his interminable delays. He even swallowed the General’s sneering snubs and insults, commenting that if only McClellan brought success he would be happy to hold his horse for him.
But as 1861 became 1862 with no sign of action, the President’s patience wore thin: ‘If General McClellan is not going to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time,’ he acidly remarked. Lincoln haunted the War Department’s library, borrowing books on strategy to gain a belated education in military matters, and supply himself with the ammunition to spur McClellan into action.
McClellan’s excuses for not taking the field were various: his troops were untrained; his supplies were insufficient; Washington needed to be secured against a surprise attack. Most frequently, he pleaded that his massive army was hugely outnumbered by the enemy.
Relying on faulty intelligence reports from inside the Confederacy fed to him by his friend Allan Pinkerton, founder of America’s foremost private detective agency, McClellan regularly estimated that the Confederates facing him across the Potomac river were twice the size of his forces. In fact, the exact opposite was the case: the Union army outnumbered the Southerners by a ratio of at least two and sometimes three to one.
The Peninsula Campaign
‘If he had a million men, he would swear that the enemy has two millions.’War Secretary Edwin Stanton
By spring 1862, Lincoln’s patience was exhausted. He peremptorily ordered the reluctant General to make a direct attack on the Confederates confronting him across the Potomac in Virginia. It had become apparent to the perceptive President that McClellan’s delaying tactics masked a deep psychological aversion to risk: for all his bustle and bluster ‘Little Mac’ was simply scared of defeat.
But McClellan’s popularity with the troops he had trained, and the worship given him by press and public, made it politically impossible for Lincoln to dismiss their hero before he had demonstrably failed. McClellan’s exaggeration of the enemy’s strength was exposed when the Confederates pulled back from the Potomac, leaving behind the ‘artillery’ that McClellan had feared: logs painted black to resemble cannon from a distance – derisively known as ‘Quaker guns’ for their ‘pacifism’.
In response to Lincoln’s order to move, McClellan dusted down an earlier alternative plan to outflank the rebels. Rather than risk a full frontal assault, he proposed transporting his army by water to the tip of Virginia’s peninsula between the James and York rivers, then advancing up the peninsula to capture Richmond and end the war.
Lincoln was dubious, but at least McClellan was stirring at last, so he reluctantly agreed to the scheme. In March, in another triumph of organisation, the General successfully landed 121,000 men at Fort Monroe and prepared for battle.
McClellan remained convinced that he faced a numerically superior foe, an impression reinforced by the clever camouflage tactics of Confederate General ‘Prince John’ Magruder, who rapidly switched his few troops from place to place, and split his artillery batteries into single guns firing at frequent intervals.
The ruses succeeded in fooling McClellan, who sat down to besiege Yorktown while he awaited the reinforcements he deemed essential to beat an enemy he estimated to number 200,000. In reality, Magruder had just 11,000 men. Escaped black slaves who reached the Union lines and told the truth about Confederate numbers were not believed.
Lincoln did what he could to overrule and bypass a General he now considered a roadblock on the path to victory. He chose the officers to command the corps in McClellan’s army; removed him from command of all the Union’s armies with the excuse that McClellan needed to concentrate on the Peninsula Campaign; and denied him the reinforcements he requested, considering that McClellan had more than enough men already.
Edwin Stanton, the abrasive new War Secretary, a former friend of McClellan, but now thoroughly disillusioned, exploded: ‘If he had a million men, he would swear that the enemy has two millions, and then he would sit down in the mud and yell for three.’
The Seven Days
Meanwhile, moving with his customary extreme caution, McClellan began to creep up the peninsula with his vast army. Fortunately for him, the Confederate commander opposing him, Joseph E Johnston, shared his cautious nature and beat a gradual retreat, fighting inconclusive holding engagements as he went.
McClellan’s sheer weight of numbers began to tell, and by the end of May his forward units were five miles from Richmond. Victory seemed within his grasp. It was then that fate took a hand.
Johnston launched an attack to push McClellan back at Seven Pines/Fair Oaks. In the midst of battle, the Confederate commander was wounded by shell splinters and put out of action. Confederate President Jefferson Davis immediately appointed his own military adviser, Robert E Lee, to the vacant post.
Though some 20 years older than McClellan, Lee nimbly ran circles around the lumbering Union military machine. Over a single week, in a lightning campaign known as the Seven Days Battles, Lee fought an action a day. Using a tactic he would repeatedly employ later, he daringly divided his small army to attack at different points, and drove McClellan away from Richmond and back down the peninsula. The grand campaign of the ‘Young Napoleon’ had failed.
McClellan literally distanced himself from his defeat. During the last engagements of the Seven Days, he boarded a gunboat on the James River, watching events from afar and letting one of his corps commanders, FitzJohn Porter, lead the fighting.
Typically, McClellan blamed others for the setback. He bitterly wrote to Stanton: ‘If I am to save this army, it will be no thanks to you or any other person in Washington. You have sacrificed this army.’
This was a jibe at Lincoln, who had used the troops he had held back from reinforcing McClellan to attempt his favoured plan for a full frontal assault into Virginia. But the President had reckoned without the formidable Confederate General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, a Bible-bashing, lemon-sucking eccentric with a rare gift for war.
Using similar hit-and-run tactics to Lee, Jackson’s tiny army of 17,000 darted along the Shenandoah Valley, marching 650 miles in 50 days, repeatedly striking at three separate Union forces totalling 52,000, leaving the Northerners in confused disarray. Lincoln’s plan to seize Richmond from two directions – the Peninsula and the Shenandoah – lay in ruins.
Jackson’s audacious attacks were so successful that he was able to move to help Lee in the Peninsula, beginning a brilliant military partnership that would give the Confederacy the advantage until Stonewall’s death.
Still searching for a winning General to replace McClellan, Lincoln and Stanton offered the job to Ambrose Burnside, a friend of Little Mac (whose magnificent facial hair gave us the word ‘sideburns’). Rightly doubting his own limited abilities, and out of loyalty to his friend, Burnside turned them down. Lincoln next tried General John Pope, who had performed well in the war in the West.
Lincoln reinforced Pope with three corps transferred from McClellan’s command. Pope faced Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on the old battlefield of Bull Run/Manassas, where the Union had suffered such humiliation one year before. History repeated itself. In a confused three-day battle at the end of August, Pope, despite a superiority of 63,000 to the Confederates’ 50,000, was outwitted by Lee and Jackson and roundly defeated.
McClellan had predicted that Pope would be ‘thrashed’ and that Lincoln would have to turn to him again for succour. He was right: although Pope tried to blame his defeat on McClellan’s friend FitzJohn Porter for refusing to obey his orders, he was summarily sacked a fortnight later.
Lee quickly followed up his victory by invading Maryland – the first Confederate incursion into Union territory. His motives were mixed: Maryland was a slave-owning border state with many Southern sympathisers, and its lush farmland offered rich pickings for his famished soldiers; above all, however, such a bold stroke might show neutral Britain and France that the South was a viable entity, causing them to recognise the Confederacy diplomatically and break the Union naval blockade that was strangling the Southern economy.
For Lincoln, a speedy victory was equally vital. It would show neutral foreign nations that the South could not win the war; lift Northern morale depressed by the recent defeats; and give him cover for the radical political move he was contemplating – announcing the emancipation of the slaves. So, much depended on the Maryland campaign. But was McClellan the man to win it?
Invasion of Maryland
‘If I cannot whip Bobby Lee with this paper, then I am willing to go home.’General George B McClellan
Lincoln had his doubts, but he had little choice. Refusing his own Cabinet’s calls for McClellan’s replacement, he admitted that retaining the foot-dragging General was ‘having the hair of the dog that already bit us’. But, as he explained to his secretary, ‘There is no man in the army better at licking our troops into shape… If he can’t fight himself, at least he can get others to fight.’
In short, he hoped that Maryland would play to McClellan’s organisational strengths as a defensive commander in protecting Washington, and reinvigorate Pope’s beaten troops. Besides, there was no time to find anyone else: Lee and Jackson were on the march.
On 13 September, Corporal Barton Mitchell, a Union soldier from Indiana, found a packet in a field near the town of Frederick, where Confederate troops had recently bivouacked. The packet contained three cigars wrapped in a handwritten document. A Union officer recognised the writing as that of Robert Chilton, Lee’s Adjutant.
This ‘lost order’ revealed Lee’s depositions for the campaign. It showed that he was employing his favourite tactic of splitting his forces, detaching Stonewall Jackson to seize the Federal armoury at Harpers Ferry. The order was passed rapidly up the Union chain of command to McClellan himself.
The delighted General waved the order at his staff, exclaiming, ‘Now I know what to do. If I cannot whip Bobby Lee with this paper, then I am willing to go home.’
McClellan then sat on his hands for the next 18 hours and did… precisely nothing. His habitual caution kicking in, he worried that the order was a plant deliberately designed to deceive him. His hesitation allowed Lee to concentrate his whole army of 55,000 at the town of Sharpsburg and give battle against McClellan’s 100,000-strong army.
The Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg on 17 September was the bloodiest single day in American military history. Almost 23,000 Americans became casualties, out-doing the butcher’s bill for any 24-hour period in both World Wars, and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts too.
The Union army flung in attack after attack against the Confederate defences, but Lee skilfully parried every one. True to cautious form, McClellan held back the reserves with which he could have crushed the outnumbered Confederates. The day thus ended in bloody stalemate. But Lee’s casualties had been so severe that he withdrew south across the Potomac, ending the campaign.
The indecisive outcome was hardly the ringing triumph that Lincoln had hoped for, but he judged it good enough for him to proclaim the end of slavery. He visited McClellan to urge him to follow up his tactical victory, and the two conferred in the General’s tent. According to McClellan, the President expressed every confidence in his leadership. If that was true, it was short-lived.
Lincoln was again appalled by McClellan’s failure in allowing Lee to escape. When McClellan claimed that his horses were too tired, Lincoln sarcastically observed that he did not know what they had been doing to make them so fatigued.
After more such goading, the General finally moved off in pursuit, but only agonisingly slowly: he took nine whole days to get his army across the Potomac. Finally, the President had had enough: on 5 November, he relieved McClellan of his command, and the General at last ‘went home’.
Apart from Lincoln’s exasperation at McClellan’s failure to fight effectively, he had other, political, grounds for distrusting the insubordinate General. McClellan was no abolitionist and there were grounds for thinking that his reluctance to hit the enemy hard reflected a lukewarm attitude to vigorous prosecution of the war, combined with a revulsion at the brutal realities of the battlefield.
The General went some way to confirm such doubts in 1864 when he accepted the Democratic nomination for President and ran against Lincoln. He was soundly beaten.
The search continues
McClellan’s departure still left Lincoln without a war-winning general. For the second time of asking, Ambrose Burnside was tapped, and this time the amiable officer agreed.
It was a total disaster. In December 1862, barely a month after taking command, Burnside threw repeated frontal attacks uphill, Somme-style, against an impregnable Confederate position held by Lee and Jackson on the heights above the town of Fredericksburg. Some 12,000 Union men fell, more than 2,000 of them never to rise again. Burnside quit before he was sacked.
The following year, it was the turn of General ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker to lead the Army of the Potomac into yet another defeat at the hands of the dynamic Confederate duo. A long-running battle in the Virginia forests around Chancellorsville in May 1863 saw Lee split his outnumbered army in his usual way and triumph once more.
The victory was marred by the death of Stonewall Jackson: the victim of his own side’s friendly fire while returning from a reconnaissance. Hooker – who, to be fair, spent part of the battle unconscious after a doorpost he was leaning on was shelled and knocked him cold – went the same way as McDowell, Pope, McClellan, and Burnside before him.
Hooker’s departure came at a bad moment for the Union. In the summer of 1863, Lee had invaded the North again, penetrating deep into Pennsylvania. Hooker’s most senior corps commander, George Meade, was hastily promoted to take his place.
A crotchety, goggle-eyed officer known as ‘the snapping turtle’, Meade took over the Army of the Potomac in early July, just as it blundered into the Army of Northern Virginia at the small town of Gettysburg. This time it was Lee – deprived of his ‘right arm’ (Jackson) – who made the unforced error of flinging his troops into uphill attacks against entrenched positions. After three days of it, he retreated back to Virginia, defeated.
Cometh the man
The same day that Gettysburg was won, Vicksburg, the key to the Mississippi, fell after a long siege led by General Ulysses S Grant, splitting the Confederacy in two and spelling its eventual doom.
Grant, rough, tough, slovenly, a former alcoholic though he was, had one quality prized by Lincoln above all. When his enemies intrigued against Grant, the President responded: ‘I cannot spare this General: he fights.’
Before Vicksburg, Grant had already taken Forts Henry and Donelson, and won the bloody Battle of Shiloh, proving his mettle. Lincoln brought him east and made him chief of all the Union’s armies, though Meade retained nominal command of the Army of the Potomac. At last the President had found his man.
For the rest of the war, it was Grant’s drive and grim determination that dictated events: in a long series of bloody encounters over the hallowed ground of northern Virginia, he ruthlessly drove his rival back, at last besieging Richmond and Petersburg, and eventually forcing Lee’s surrender. The war ended in April 1865.
Lincoln did not live to savour his hard- won triumph. In the week of victory, he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, a fanatical Southern-sympathising actor. Grant, who had declined an invitation to join Lincoln at the theatre, went on to succeed again where McClellan had failed, becoming, in 1869, the 18th President of the United States. •
Nigel Jones is a historian and journalist. He has published eight books and is currently writing his ninth – a study of sex, spying, and surveillance in Nazi Germany.