Monday, August 8, 2011


Wherein the old and new Fuss and Feathers blast each other to pieces

George B. McClellan
"How does he think that I can save this country when stopped by Genl Scott?" George McClellan fumed to his wife, Mary Ellen, in his nightly letter after a frustrating meeting with Secretary of State William Seward.

I do not know whether he [Scott] is a dotard or a traitor! I can't tell which. He cannot or will not comprehend the condition in which we are placed & is entirely unequal to the emergency. If he cannot be taken out of my path I will not retain my position, but will resign & let the admn take care of itself. I have hardly slept one moment for the last three nights, knowing well that the enemy intend some movement & fully recognizing our own weakness.
The trouble should hardly have been a surprise. Too alike in temperament, the aged Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott and the ambitious Major General George McClellan had grown tired of each other in less than two weeks. Each was a man obsessed with professionalism, each believed himself a master of grand strategy, and each regarded everyone as a threat to his own special mission to save the Union.

Scott had battled many other men across decades of service, always triumphing in the end and afterwards always leading the forces of the United States to victory under his own direction. McClellan regarded himself as the future of the United States military, the father of the new American army who would realize the professional force that Scott had sought to imitate. But first, McClellan believed divine Providence had placed him on hand for this crisis in American history, to be the fulcrum that made a new America.

Which is why neither was willing to budge on his personal assessment of the capital's safety. McClellan had first sounded the alarm on August 4, then renewed it again on August 6. But the attacks had not come and -- worse in McClellan's opinion -- Scott had seemed unimpressed with McClellan's "sources". So on August 8, McClellan decided to torch the entire command structure. He wrote in a letter to Scott:

General: Information from various sources, reaching me to-day, through spies, letters and telegrams confirm my impressions derived from previous advices, that the enemy intend attacking our positions on the other side of the river, as well as to cross the Potomac north of us... I am induced to believe that the enemy has at least 100,000 men in our front. Were I in Beauregard's place, with that force at my disposal, I would attack the positions on the other side of the Potomac and at the same time cross the river above the city in force.
Feeling "confident that our present army in this vicinity is entirely insufficient for the emergency," McClellan "respectfully and most urgently urge[d]" that Scott consolidate all troops in the region to Washington, to bring McClellan's forces up to 100,000, at the expense of every other theater (including, presumably, John Fremont's offensive in Missouri that was days away from catastrophe). He also added:
A sense of duty which I cannot resist, compels me to state that in my opinion military necessity demands that the departments of N.E. Virginia, Washington, the Shenandoah, Pennsylvania including Baltimore, and the one including Fort Monroe should be merged into one Department under the immediate control of the Commander of the main army of operations, and which should be known and designated as such.
Winfield Scott
McClellan barely concealed that he was this commander of the main army of operations, and no one doubted who he meant. He had the letter copied that morning and sent one off to Scott and the other to President Abraham Lincoln. As intended, Scott blew his top. "Rose early today (having retired at 3 am)," McClellan told Mary Ellen, "and was pestered to death with Senators etc & a row with Genl Scott until about 4 o'clock, then crossed the river & rode beyond & along the line of pickets for some distance..." In that time, Scott had been to see the President and the Cabinet and become convinced that McClellan was only part of a larger conspiracy against him.

When McClellan returned he "had a long interview with Seward about my 'pronunciamento' against Genl Scott's policy..." Lincoln was doing his best to diffuse the situation, hoping that Seward could talk McClellan into apologizing for his attempt to embarrass Scott. The interview with Seward appeared to have done little more than make McClellan more defiant, though, as evident in his letter to Mary Ellen.
If Beauregard does not attack tonight I shall look upon it as a dispensation of Providence--he ought to do it. Every day strengthens me... but that confounded old Genl always comes in the way--he is a perfect imbecile. He understands nothing, appreciates nothing & is ever in my way.
Scott, for his part, was having none of it. The best that could be done was to delay the letter he eventually sent to Secretary of War Simon Cameron on August 9.
I received yesterday from Major-General McClellan a letter of that date, to which I design this as my only reply. Had Major-General McClellan presented the same views in person, they would have been freely entertained and discussed. All my military views and opinions had been so presented to him, without eliciting much remark, in our few meetings, which I have in vain sought to multiply...
Scott scoffed at the idea that Washington was in danger. "Relying on our numbers, our forts, and the Potomac River, I am confident in the opposite opinion." Scott didn't spare the Cabinet his own melodrama.
Having now been long unable to mount a horse, or to walk more than a few paces at a time, and consequently being unable to review troops, much less to direct them in battle--in short, being broken down by many particular hurts, besides the general infirmities of age--I feel that I have become an incumbrance [sic] to the Army as well as to myself, and that I ought, giving way to a younger commander, to seek the palliatives of physical pain and exhaustion.
Was Scott deliberately trying to invoke the memory of another Virginia general that he admired? When George Washington faced mutiny in the Continental Army in the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, he had famously told the aggrieved soldiers who had presented him with a list of demands, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country" and won them over. Either way, Scott too tried to place Lincoln in a position where he was forced to choose between the two generals, asking the President to order he be retired.
Accordingly, I must beg the President, at the earliest moment, to allow me to be placed on the officers' retired list, and then quietly to lay myself up--probably forever--somewhere in or about New York. But, wherever I may spend my little remainder of life, my frequent and latest prayer will be, "God save the Union."
McClellan seems to have been aware of Scott's resignation letter. In his August 9 letter to Mary Ellen he reports spending the day in busy activity preparing defenses (he doesn't write until after midnight) certainly a helpful contrast to Scott's health-mandated inactivity, even if McClellan probably would have done it anyway. "Genl Scott is the great obstacle," he stews again,
he will not comprehend the danger & is either a traitor or an incompetent. I have to fight my way against him & have thrown a bombshell that has created a perfect stampede in the Cabinet--tomorrow [August 10] the question will probably be decided by giving me absolute control independently of him. I suppose it will result in a mortal enmity on his part against me, but I have no choice--the people call on me to save the country--I must save it & cannot respect anything that is in the way.
In the early morning hour of his writing, McClellan again indulged in his worst delusions of grandeur. He told Mary Ellen about "letter after letter" and "conversation after conversation" that was "alluding to the Presidency, Dictatorship &c."
As I hope one day to be united with you forever in heaven, I have no such aspirations--I will never accept the Presidency--I will cheerfully take the Dictatorship & agree to lay down my life when the country is saved. I am not spoiled by my unexpected & new position--I feel sure God will give me strength & wisdom to preserve this great nation--but I tell you, who share all my thoughts, that I have no selfish feeling in this matter. I feel that God has placed a great work in my hands--I have not sought it--I know how weak I am--but I know that I mean to do right...
McClellan finished his letter as the heavy rain continued outside his office with a note about the return of Prince Napoleon, who had gone to see the battlefield and the Confederate Army. They met up in Alexandria during the afternoon of the 9th and the Prince had said "that Beauregard's head is turned & that he acts like a fool. That Joe Johnston is quiet & sad, & that he spoke to him in very kind terms of me."


View Forces Around Washington, Early August 1861 in a larger map

Prince Napoleon was barred by the gentlemanly code from reporting more than chit-chat to McClellan, but no doubt he was more than a little amused by McClellan's histrionics about attack. The Army of the Potomac was still critically short of supplies and had at most half of the troops McClellan's sources reported.

G.T. Beauregard had, in fact, issued orders to move his forces towards Washington, but only to lengthen his trip-wire and make sure that McClellan couldn't move around his army's flank undetected. He had placed his brigades (now reorganized by state) thusly:
  1. Bonham's South Carolina: Flint Hill [Oakton] with an outpost at Vienna
  2. Ewell's Alabama (and the 13th Mississippi): Sangster's Crossroads [a lost town, existing at the off-set intersection of present-day Fairfax Station Rd and Colchester Road]
  3. Jones' South Carolina: Germantown
  4. Longstreet's Virginia: Fairfax Court House [City of Fairfax]
  5. Cocke's Virginia: replacing Longstreet at Centreville
  6. Early's North Carolina (plus the 24th Virginia and Hampton's Legion): Occoquan and Wolf Run Shoals roads [now a residential area; the Occoquan road is Davis Ford Road and Wolf Run Shoals road is incorporated into parts of Bacon Race Road]
  7. Evans' Mississippi: Leesburg to join Eppa Hunton's 8th Virginia
  8. Seymour's Louisiana: Mitchell's Ford [where Old Centreville Road crosses Bull Run]
In addition, Beauregard encouraged Johnston to place Elzey's brigade at Fairfax Station and Jackson's brigade (already being called the "Stonewall Brigade") at the present site of George Mason University. It was a cordon, not an offensive.

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