Lincoln and the Problem of Virginia: Part One

In the fall of 1862 Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated man. During the year he had seen George McClellan approach the gates of Richmond, only to be turned away during the Seven Days Battles. The Union commander pointed to Lincoln’s own concern with Confederate activity in the Shenandoah Valley as depriving the Army of the Potomac of critical manpower, while Lincoln’s own preference for an overland campaign moving upon Richmond from the north had not borne fruit. Lee’s invasion of Maryland after defeating the Yankees at Second Manassas looked to be as much an opportunity as a threat to the president, but he wondered whether McClellan had frittered away his chance for success at Antietam. In the aftermath of that battle, Lincoln had gone to visit McClellan in the field in a meeting that did not go well … and certainly failed to achieve the results the president desired. Just over a week after returning to Washington, he penned this letter to his general:

Executive Mansion, Washington, Oct. 13, 1862.

Major General McClellan
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?

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.

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.

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.

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. This proposition is a simple truth, and is too important to be lost sight of for a moment. 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.

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. It is all easy if our troops march as well as the enemy; and it is unmanly to say they can not do it.

This letter is in no sense an order.

Yours truly

A. Lincoln.

So much for on to Richmond: advancing southward created more problems than it solved. So much too for the James River option, a proposal Lincoln never embraced. He had no problem risking another Confederate thrust northward, believing that would leave the enemy vulnerable. On the other hand, he believed it essential for his commander to keep Washington covered, suggesting that to do so would allow McClellan to receive the additional men he always wanted.

Over the next week or so we’ll trace Lincoln’s evolving thought on what to do in the eastern theater. For now, you may also want to look at this analysis and resource.

One thought on “Lincoln and the Problem of Virginia: Part One

  1. Shawn Woodford October 7, 2015 / 6:11 am

    Professor Simpson, when do you think Lincoln actually decided to relieve McClellan? It does not seem to me that Lincoln had made his mind up when he sent the message you cited. It strikes me more as an implicit test, a way for Lincoln to determine whether McClellan had become more aggressive in the wake of Antietam. When Lincoln finally did fire McClellan in November, the general was in the process of moving aggressively, albeit on his own timeline. The Army of the Potomac was well positioned at that point to strike the separated elements of the Army of Northern Virginia. The elections seem more of a pretext than a deciding factor. So my question is this: at what point between 13 October and 7 November did Lincoln finally make up his mind, and why?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s