By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Even though it was Abraham Lincoln who promoted George B. McClellan to the position of General-in-Chief, McClellan had nothing but contempt for Lincoln. Underlying this contempt was a fundamental difference in the outlook toward the war.
Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan clashed repeatedly; Lincoln pushing McClellan to do something and receiving in return nothing but silence. McClellan would ignore him. He wouldn’t share his plans with his Commander-in-Chief. He had a constant stream of excuses for not moving against the Confederates.
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Political Differences Between the Democrats and the Republicans
McClellan was a Democrat. He was anti-emancipation. He had a set of political beliefs almost completely at odds with the dominant Republican Party, and that proved to be a problem.
Most of the officers in the United States Army were Democrats. The army was a conservative institution then as it usually has been in American history, and many of these officers didn’t agree with the vision for the United States that many of the Republicans, especially the radical Republicans in Congress, had, but they even departed tremendously from Lincoln.
As a result, there was a growing gulf between a number of these Democratic soldiers and the Republicans in the government in Washington. Many of the radical Republicans, in fact, whispered that McClellan wasn’t even loyal to the United States. They said, he doesn’t really want to beat the Rebels. He loves society as it was with slavery. And they were right in that regard.
What McClellan wanted to do was put Humpty Dumpty back together again. He wanted to restore the Union to what it had been. He was very happy with that Union. And that was not going to be possible during the war once it had gone past a certain point.
Learn more about the prelude to the American Civil War.
McClellan’s Contempt for Lincoln
McClellan let it be known that he had contempt for Lincoln. He called him the ‘original gorilla’ in public. Lincoln knew this. Lincoln was willing to overlook it. The depth of this contempt for Lincoln came out one night when Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward went to visit McClellan.
They went to visit McClellan rather than telling him to come to the White House. McClellan wasn’t home. Lincoln and Seward went off into a sitting room. McClellan came home and was told that the President and Secretary of State were there. He went on upstairs and 20 minutes later told his butler or one of his servants to go down and tell the President that he wasn’t going to come down and talk to them, but they were free to come back some other time if they wanted to talk to him.
Well, that’s astonishing. Lincoln never went back to McClellan’s house, but he was willing to put aside this behavior on McClellan’s part, still hoping that McClellan would give him victories.
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McClellan’s Delay Tactics
McClellan was very clear about what kind of war he wanted. He wanted to beat the Rebels just enough to persuade them to come back. He didn’t want to slaughter their armies. He didn’t want to overturn their civilization, and he wanted to keep emancipation out of the picture.
As he wrote to one influential Northern Democratic friend, and I’ll quote him here, “Help me to dodge the nigger. I’m fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union.” That’s McClellan’s take on the war.
Now, at that stage of the war, Lincoln was also emphasizing union. He didn’t want to emphasize emancipation because he thought it would alienate the border states, and he wanted to make sure that they stayed in line. Lincoln didn’t think the North was ready for emancipation, but McClellan never changed his attitude.
The bigger problem, as far as Lincoln was concerned, was that McClellan wouldn’t move against Joseph Johnston’s army in northern Virginia, and he kept his plans secret. He sat and he sat, and, in the end, the fall campaigning season of 1861 passed with no major movement on the part of McClellan.
Campaigning was seasonal in the Civil War for the most part because the roads were impassable. The weather was a problem in the winter, so you’d have a spring season of campaigning. You’d campaign through the summer and on into the fall, and then that was it. Well, McClellan had let the summer go by, and he’d let the fall go by, so now it meant it would be the spring of 1862 before anything happened in Virginia.
Learn more about the background to emancipation.
The Battle of Ball’s Bluff and Its Aftermath
One more clash of note did take place in Virginia. That’s the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, which took place on October 21 near Leesburg, Virginia, right on the bluffs overlooking the Potomac River there. Militarily it was a minor affair. McClellan ordered General Charles P. Stone to send part of his division on a reconnaissance across the Potomac River and see what the Rebels were up to on the Virginia side.
Stone selected Colonel Edward D. Baker, a senator from Oregon and a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, to head the mission. Baker’s force was, in effect, ambushed by Confederates on the other side. Baker was inept as a military leader. The Federals were driven back toward the river and pushed down the bluff at Ball’s Bluff.
Many of them were shot in the back as they went down the hill, and a number of them drowned in the Potomac River. Edward Baker himself was killed. There were nearly 1,000 Union casualties at Ball’s Bluff.
The political repercussions of this little battle were enormous. Congress created a joint committee to investigate the conduct of the war. It focused initially on Ball’s Bluff. It later looked at a range of things. It looked at graft in procurement and it looked at a number of things related to the Union war effort, but it was especially interested in examining, under a microscope, the activities of Democratic generals.
If a Democratic general hadn’t done well, they would pull him in to testify. They did it with George Gordon Meade later. They did it with a number of Democrats. They wanted the war to run their way. The committee was dominated by Republicans, and they held the Democratic generals’ feet to the fire.
Stone was the committee’s first target. He was a Democrat. He was a friend of McClellan’s. He was blamed for the failure of the operation led by Baker at Ball’s Bluff. It was Baker’s fault, but Stone is the scapegoat.
In the course of their investigation, the committee found that Stone had ordered slaves who had escaped into his lines to be returned to their masters. They found as well—they didn’t actually find; they listened to rumors, I should say—that Stone had been in contact with Rebel officers in Virginia.
Ugly questions were raised. Was Stone disloyal? Had he deliberately sent Edward Baker into a trap at Ball’s Bluff? There were all kinds of innuendo and not much solid evidence, but the committee brought Stone in. They bullied him during the examination. They refused to tell him what charges he faced when he came before them.
Stone’s loyalty cannot be questioned. His crime was that he was a Democrat, he had pro-slavery opinions, and he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The price he paid was six months in prison without ever having a trial or even a military inquiry. Later he was restored to minor commands, but his career was ruined.
The Ball’s Bluff episode and subsequent treatment of Stone by the committee on the conduct of the war showed that there was a struggle going on in the North over just what kind of war this was going to be.
Is this going to be a war that eventually will strike at the social system of the Confederacy and try to overturn this slave-based social system, or is it going to be the kind of a war that McClellan would prefer and Stone would prefer: a more gentlemanly war where the armies fight but you don’t really strike at the broader fabric of either side’s society?
Well, powerful congressional Republican forces were determined that they were going to shape what kind of war it was, and Ball’s Bluff gave them the opportunity to create this committee that would do a great deal of work toward that end in the course of the war.
Common Questions about Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan’s Relationship
Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan clashed repeatedly. McClellan was guilty of constantly ignoring Lincoln’s orders, and not sharing his plans with him. Also, McClellan let it be known that he had contempt for Lincoln. He called him the ‘original gorilla’ in public.
George B. McClellan had several flaws, including direct insubordination of President Abraham Lincoln. However, Lincoln was willing to overlook it, as long as McClellan brought him victories. McClellan’s fatal flaw was that he was a procrastinator. His delay tactics and refusal to move against the Confederates allowed them to call in reinforcements and win key battles with less than half the manpower.
The Battle of Ball’s Bluff took place on October 21, 1861 near Leesburg, Virginia, right on the bluffs overlooking the Potomac River.
George B. McClellan had ordered General Charles P. Stone to send part of his division on a reconnaissance across the Potomac River to find out what the Rebels were up to on the Virginia side. Stone selected Colonel Edward D. Baker to head the mission. But Baker’s force was ambushed by Confederates, driven back toward the river, and pushed down the bluff at Ball’s Bluff. Many of the soldiers were shot in the back as they went down the hill, and a number of them drowned in the Potomac River. In fact, Baker himself was killed. The number of Union casualties at Ball’s Bluff was close to 1,000.