Over the last year and a half we have been celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. As reenactors and festivals take place all over the east coast we should be reminded of the impatience that many were feeling in the mid-nineteenth century with the toll the war had taken up till that point. Many in the country, including prominent leaders, assumed this conflict between the states would end only in a matter of months. This frustration was apparent with President Lincoln and his aggravation with General George McClellan.
As a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War, McClellan was a nature choice to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Union army after Robert E Lee declined. As the war started he worked diligently at training a very green army into a well trained and organized military unit. However his greatest skill turned into his greatest weakness as it seemed all McClellan wanted to do was train his men. When it came to meeting the Confederacy on the field of battle he was always hesitant, reserved because he always felt he lacked the proper intelligence. In reality there were numerous moments in which the Union army had an advantage and held back, resulting in losing the battle. Since the majority of the public had expected this conflict to end in a matter of months the fact that it was now nearly 17 months it meant everyone, including Lincoln, was growing impatient.
McClellan did not show a lot of respect for Lincoln and his authority as President, in fact he felt it was his place to make decisions that were outside his authority. In a letter to Lincoln, McClellan wrote:
“This rebellion has assumed the character of a War: as such it should be regarded; and it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian Civilization. It should not be a War looking to the subjugation of the people of any state, in any event. It should not be, at all, a War upon population; but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of states or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment. In prosecuting the War, all private property and unarmed persons should be strictly protected; subject only to the necessities of military operations. All private property taken for military use should be paid for or receipted for; pillage and waste should be treated as high crimes; all unnecessary trespass sternly prohibited; and offensive demeanor by the military towards citizens promptly rebuked. Military arrests should not be tolerated, except in places where active hostilities exist; and oaths not required by enactments -- Constitutionally made -- should be neither demanded nor received. Military government should be confined to the preservation of public order and the protection of political rights.” – July 7, 1862
McClellan is making decisions that are the responsibility of the President's, with the opinions of a politician, instead of as a general who is meant to be taking orders and concerned with winning a war. Things could have changed in September 1862 when Lee and his forces went on the offensive and attacked Union territory. The two forces met at Antietam in Maryland where McClellan had the superior numbers and eventually drove Lee out of Union territory. The problem is yet again McClellan failed to close the deal and utilize those superior numbers he consistently had over Lee. By most accounts McClellan had the opportunity to destroy Lee’s army and possibly end the conflict but failed to put his reserves into action which allowed Lee and his men to escape back into the South and fight another day. So despite McClellan keeping Lee out of the North he showed his reservations in making the tough decision that could have possibly won the war. Although this “victory” gave Lincoln the ability to write the Emancipation Proclamation it further added to the idea that McClellan did not have the stomach to finish this war out like it needed to be.
As predicted the Union army fell silent after Antietam and Lincoln did not hesitate to show his anger.
“Yours of yesterday received. Most certainly I intend no injustice to any; and if I have done any, I deeply regret it. To be told after more than five weeks total inaction of the Army, and during which period we have sent to that Army every fresh horse we possibly could, amounting in the whole to Seven thousand nine hundred and eighteen, that the cavalry were too much fatigued to move, presented a very cheerless, almost hopeless prospect for the future; and it may have forced something of impatience into my dispatch. If not recruited and rested then, when could they ever be? I suppose the river is rising, and I am glad to believe you are crossing." - Oct 26, 1862
Even Mary Todd Lincoln chimed in on this issue in a letter to her husband stating, “Your name is on every lip and many prayers and good wishes are hourly sent up, for your welfare -- and McClellan & his slowness are as vehemently discussed. Allowing this beautiful weather, to pass away, is disheartening (Nov 2, 1862).” Although I would doubt his wife’s influence had any bearing on Lincoln’s final decision to remove McClellan he nevertheless pulled the trigger and relieved him of his command on November 5, 1862.
The public, as well as the White House’s frustration that the war had not ended at this point seemed to be focused upon McClellan. His lack of execution and inability to defeat the Confederacy, despite having superior forces at every turn, was reason many in the country were fed up and Lincoln realized he needed a change if this rebellion was going to be defeated. This act by Lincoln was a major turning point in the Civil War because without his removal of McClellan there is a good chance that Lee would have continued to have his way with the Union army. It’s even possible to consider that the Confederacy would have been victorious in the end through a war of attrition which ironically is how the Union army ended up winning in the end.