Did Lincoln and Halleck Order McClellan to "Attack" After Antietam? The Conspiracy Theory That Wasn't and Why Lincoln Fired McClellan.

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Nov 10, 2006
Did Lincoln and Halleck Order McClellan to "Attack" After Antietam? The Conspiracy Theory That Wasn't and Why Lincoln Fired McClellan.


This post was prompted by a post on an Antietam discussion group I am a member of. The post was about Halleck's 6th October telegram (received 7th October) directing McClellan to cross the Potomac and give battle. The noted author Steven Stotelmyer gave one thread of a response discussing McClellan's lack of supplies. This is true, but I think is only part of the answer. I gave another response, and this post contains my argument as to why McClellan didn't advance. The TL; DR is that McClellan was ordered not to advance in the same telegram that asked him to.

This of course sounds crazy. How can such contradictory orders be contained in a telegram? However, they were. What is more fascinating in my opinion is why commentators completely ignore the rest of the telegram apart from the opening part. This is likely done in an attempt to **** McClellan.

20th to 26th September: The Last Gasp of the Maryland Campaign

McClellan's movements post-Antietam bear some examination. It should be stated up-front that McClellan intended to maneouvre against Lee by crossing the Potomac and Shenandoah at Harper's Ferry, and cut Lee's escape route off. This, not Antietam, provided the opportunity to destroy the enemy army. He did not because Halleck forbade it, in the same manner he forbade McClellan's crossing of the James to attack Petersburg in July.

Lee crossed the Potomac on the night of the 18th through to the morning of the 19th. McClellan pursued at dawn. He dispatched the 6th Corps to head Lee off at Williamsport, and attacked Lee's rearguard at the Boteler Ford on the 19th and 20th. The result was disastrous, and neither side could make an opposed river crossing.

McClellan continued the campaign after Shepherdstown and Williamsport. The 12th Corps occupied the Maryland Heights at 1300 on the 20th, and for the next few days the army shifted to the Maryland Heights, with the 2nd and 1st Corps marching on the 22nd (see their marching orders). The 9th Corps marching on the 23rd (OR), along with the main body of the cavalry (OR). Thus by the 23rd, McClellan had shifted his main body to the Maryland Heights, leaving the 5th Corps watching the Shepherdstown Fords, and the 6th Corps the Williamsport Fords, both with a screen of cavalry.

On the 22nd, Sumner was ordered to throw a pontoon bridge over the Potomac, and occupy the far side. McClellan wrote to the President of the C&O Railroad to send construction teams to rebuild the rail bridge, and also to Halleck to have him authorise the expense. On the 23rd Halleck asked McClellan's intent, and on the 24th McClellan replied he was going to cross the Potomac and Shenandoah, and attack Winchester. McClellan noted the storm assisted them by making it impossible for Lee to cross the Potomac, whereas he could use the rebuilt bridges at Harper's Ferry. Halleck had also previously stated the 11th Corps would be released to McClellan, and on the 25th McClellan suggested the 11th Corps march to Knoxville (i.e. where the Potomac cut through South Mountain). On the same day, McClellan gave his plans to his wife; essentially he intended to let the Potomac rise (as it already was) to prevent Lee fording the river, then use the rebuilt bridges to attack Winchester. This is exactly what he told Halleck.

On the 26th, the hammer falls on the campaign. In one telegram, Halleck states he will not send any more troops until McClellan's plans are "agreed on", and that he believes there is a whole other rebel army waiting to strike Washington. In another, Halleck denies the requisition for the repair of the Harper's Ferry bridges until he agrees to McClellan's plans. This effectively ends the plans for immediate forward movement. Halleck has imposed control measures to stop McClellan from advancing.

On the other side, Lee was divined McClellan's intent by the 25th (when he writes to Jeff Davis), and believed McClellan was rebuilding the bridges. He never understood that Halleck had intervened. Lee withdrew hoping to rebuild his army to face the threat of a renewed offensive.

27th September - 6th October: Washington Forbids an Offensive

McClellan of course responded to Halleck's 26th September message forbidding further movements (or preparations for movements) by writing a fairly long reply recommending that he be allowed to rebuild the Harper's Ferry bridges. He notes that until the bridges are rebuilt, the army can't be supplied on the far side. He also plays down the idea of an advance, stating that he only intended to if the enemy made a mistake and great advantage could be gained. We should note that McClellan's intelligence at the time indicated that Lee was above him, and thus great advantage would be secured. Nothing is heard from Halleck. In the meantime, on the 28th intelligence reaches him that half the enemy force has fallen back to protect Winchester, and thus the period of advantage is lost. McClellan writes to his wife the next morning that he "will be able to arrange my troops more with a view to comfort" and that he will be able to ask for a leave to visit her.

On 1st October, McClellan writes to Halleck that the permanent occupation of Harper's Ferry is "taken for granted" by him, and without reference to future operations, the bridges are needed, if only for the proper defence of the place. Halleck's reply is that he cannot authorise the expenditure, only the President can, and he is en route. He states that the delay caused by rebuilding the bridges would be unacceptable. Hence Halleck decides to delay more, by refusing to get the work started.

That afternoon, Lincoln showed up unannounced at Harper's Ferry, having traveled by train, but having to disembark early (at Monocacy), travel down to Harper's Ferry in a carriage and cross the rivers by the pontoon bridges, because the main bridges had still not yet been repaired. McClellan rode down to see him, and Lincoln spent four days with the army. The consultation on further actions occurred on the 4th October, and was during a ride to South Mountain. McClellan recorded an immediate impression that he had convinced Lincoln of the problems with advancing before preparations (i.e. the bridges) were complete, and Stotelmyer found two additional confirmatory accounts. This seems to be true, as the next day Halleck orders Cox's division removed from McClellan's army. Deliberately weakening McClellan's army would not be done if McClellan was intended to take the offensive by Washington.

Thus, as of ca. the sixth of October, the policy of Lincoln and Halleck was that McClellan should remain on the defensive.

7th October - 16th October: Washington Asks for a Plan for an Offensive, and then Rejects it.

On the morning of the 7th October, this apparent understanding is shattered. The following telegram from Halleck is received:
"I am instructed to telegraph you as follows: The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good. If you cross the river between the enemy and Washington, and cover the latter by your operation, you can be re-enforced with 30,000 men. If you move up the Valley of the Shenandoah, not more than 12,000 or 15,000 can be sent to you. The President advises the interior line between Washington and the enemy, but does not order it. He is very desirous that your army move as soon as possible. You will immediately report what line you adopt and when you intend to cross the river; also to what point the re-enforcements are to be sent. It is necessary that the plan of your operations be positively determined on before orders are given for building bridges and repairing railroads.
I am directed to add that the Secretary of War and the General-in-Chief fully concur with the President in these instructions.''

This telegram is often mis-quoted. Some parse it as an order for an immediate movement (even Lincoln, two years later, recalled that he'd issued a peremptory order, which he clearly hadn't). However, the bolded sentence reveals that it is not. Washington's control measures are still in place, and they wish to approve any action before it is undertaken. McClellan writes an immediate response, which is correct in every particular:

After a full consultation with the corps commanders in my vicinity, I have determined to adopt the line of the Shenandoah for immediate operations against the enemy, now near Winchester. On no other line north of Washington can the army be supplied, nor can it on any other cover Maryland and Pennsylvania. Were we to cross the river below the mouth of the Shenandoah, we would leave it in the power of the enemy to recross into Maryland, and thus check the movements. In the same case we would voluntarily give him the advantage of the strong line of the Shenandoah, no point of which could be reached by us in advance of him. I see no objective point of strategical value to be gained or sought for by a movement between the Shenandoah and Washington. I wish to state distinctly that I do not regard the line of the Shenandoah Valley as important for ulterior objects. It is important only so long as the enemy remains near Winchester, and we cannot follow that line far beyond that, simply because the country is destitute of supplies, and we have not sufficient means of transportation to enable us to advance more than 20 or 25 miles beyond a railway or canal terminus. If the enemy abandon Winchester and fall back upon Stanton, it will be impossible for us to pursue him by that route, and we must then take a new line of operations, based upon water or railway communication. The only possible object to be gained by an advance from this vicinity is to fight the enemy near Winchester. If they retreat we have nothing to gain by pursuing them-in fact, cannot do so to any great distance. The object I propose to myself are to fight the enemy if they remain near Winchester, or, failing in that, to force them to abandon the Valley of the Shenandoah; then to adopt a new and decisive line of operations which shall strike at the heart of the rebellion.

I have taken all possible measures to insure the most prompt equipment of the troops, but from all that I can learn it will be at least three days before the First, Fifth, and Sixth Corps are in condition to move from their present camps. They need shoes and other indispensable articles of clothing, as well as shelter-tents, &c. I beg to assure you that not an hour shall be lost in carrying your instructions into effect. Please send the re-enforcements to Harper's Ferry. I would prefer that the new regiments be sent as regiments, not brigade, unless already done so with old troops. I would again ask for Peck's division, and, if possible, Heintzelman's corps. If the enemy gives fight near Winchester it will be a desperate affair, requiring all our resources. I hope that no time will be lost in sending forward the re-enforcements, that I may get them in hand as soon as possible.

Essentially, McClellan rules out crossing east of the Blue Ridge because it does not fix the enemy. Lee would be free to cross the Potomac above Harper's Ferry and sever McClellan's supply lines. McClellan sees no great advantage in advancing down the Shenandoah Valley, except the enemy are there, and he wishes to fight them.

Halleck will not reply. Instead on the 16th October, ten days later, a letter is received from Lincoln, having taken three days to arrive:

(1) 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?

(2) 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.

(3) 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 twenty-four 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.

(4) 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.

(5) 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.
(6) 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, towit: 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.
(Paragraph no.s are my insertions)

This is highly revealing, and damning of Lincoln. Before examining the contents we should note that McClellan is in limbo until this letter is received. Washington has not approved his plans, and thus he has not been free to take the offensive.

Firstly (1), Lincoln starts with a bizarre statement that McClellan should act like Lee. Lee and Jackson, of course, have just almost destroyed their own army by detaching from their supply lines.

Secondly (2), Lincoln does not understand that the Shenandoah River is a river. Lee's river crossings (around Front Royal) are intact, and hence Lee's supplies can run up the macadamised Valley Pike. McClellan OTOH has been arguing to bridge the Shenandoah precisely because of this problem, and Halleck has been briefing Lincoln not to allow it.

The third paragraph (3) is rather amazing. Lincoln misuses a maxim or war and declares that if Lee was in McClellan's place, he'd break the rebel communications with Richmond within 24 hours. This of course is not physically possible, even if the rebels did nothing. Lincoln also heavily implies that McClellan should have let Lee invade Pennsylvania and then operate against Lee's communications, but also followed him and beaten him. These are contradictory, and it seems Lincoln believed that unless the rebel army was physically standing on a territory, then their wagons could not traverse it.

The instructive lesson is the Pennsylvania Campaign of 1863, which proved that Lincoln was out of his depth, and did not have the courage of his convictions. We should note that as soon as it was known Lee was moving north, Hooker proposed ignoring Lee, and instead marching south and capturing Richmond, effectively ending the war. Halleck refused permission, and Lincoln wrote on the 10th June that Hooker, rather than operating offensively, should cover Washington instead.

The fourth thought sixth paragraphs (4-6) again has Lincoln being ignorant of the geography. He suggests McClellan should move directly at Richmond on the "inside track", ignoring all the rivers in the way, such as the Potomac, Rappahanock and Rapidan, the North Anna, and several other smaller rivers. Meanwhile, Lee is actually roughly the same distance from Richmond as McClellan, and would only need to go "round the arc", meaning ascending the Shenandoah Valley and going through Swift Run Gap if McClellan had stolen a march. This distance is 192 miles for Longstreet, and 167 for Jackson. For McClellan, if he ignored all concerns about his flank security and simply marched fairly directly at Richmond, the distance would be 159 miles for his main body, and 178 miles for the 6th Corps. If both armies move at the same pace (10 miles/ day was average for both), then McClellan only has a 1-2 marches shorter route, but unlike Lee he must bridge the Potomac at Berlin (now Brunswick), the Rappahanock at Fredericksburg, and the Chickahominy. The North Anna can likely be forded. If everything works perfectly, and the pontoons arrive on time, at each of these three rivers the Federal Army will face a delay of several days. Lee will beat McClellan, even on the "outside track".

Of course, Lee historically used Chester Gap, which at 173 miles for Longstreet and 149 miles for Jackson, cuts off two marches and means Lee is actually closer to Richmond than McClellan, despite the "outside track", which really isn't. Indeed, if McClellan moved towards Fredericksburg directly, Longstreet has a 113 mile march and Jackson has an 89 mile march to get there, and McClellan's main body a 93 mile march. McClellan doesn't have much, if any, distance advantage and it evaporates in the real world. This is especially true once you consider McClellan would need to be occupying the Blue Ridge gaps, as he historically did in November '62, and Meade did in July '63.

Finally, the bolded sentences are crass statements by Lincoln, especially calling it "unmanly" to suggest that the Federals couldn't move as fast as the Confederates, despite the geographical problems.

This letter is highly instructive of Lincoln. It is obvious that he is a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Essentially, Lincoln has learnt a little bit about warfare, how armies move etc., and has complete confidence in himself and his abilities to direct armies. However, in this dangerous state of half-knowledge, he simply can't comprehend what he doesn't understand. Thus since he believes himself competent, when presented with facts he can't comprehend properly, he falls back on believing that that facts must be wrong, and his ideas right. Sadly, there is an argument to be made that this lengthened the Civil War by about 2.5 years, and if Lincoln had simply let the generals fight the war then it would have been resolved by Christmas '62. A lot of the blame for this rests with Bates, and though I've never written it up here, the argument I have made on this board here.

Lincoln would soon thereafter condone and defend the slaughter of the Army of the Potomac at Maryes Heights. In 1864 he'd defend Grant's futile assaults in the like manner. This is what Lincoln wanted.

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Nov 10, 2006
17th-23rd October: McClellan Wins Washington's Approval for an Offensive

Lincoln's letter reached McClellan as he was departing for the field on 16th October. In preparation for his submitted offensive, McClellan had decided to mount a recce-in-force of both Longstreet and Martinburg, and Jackson at Winchester. He tapped the 5th Corps for Martinsburg and the 2nd Corps for Winchester. Both Corps stood ready, and pushed forward a division of infantry to a point that they were supported by their main body, but within striking range of the enemy. From there the cavalry ranged forward. Hancock's division was the nominated division for Jackson, and it looked like Jackson might come out and fight. An artillery duel started, and McClellan rode to the front.

Lincoln had indicated that the courier from Washington, Colonel Delaven D. Perkins, was to return with McClellan's reply on the morning train. On the morning of the 17th, McClellan replied, and Perkins carried the reply back to Washington. McClellan stated he was not wed to any plan of operations, and would only not adopt Lincoln's idea if there were reasons which he would explain, and give Lincoln the chance to make it an order. He stated he'd move as soon as his men were shod, and his cavalry horses renovated. McClellan would do exactly what he said.

McClellan and Ingalls, his quartermaster, had been complaining for many weeks that supplies were not arriving. This is well known and is discussed well in Stotelmyer's recent work, which I'd say is the most complete discussion of the issue to date. In brief, on the receipt Halleck's 7th October telegram, McClellan states it will take at least three days to reshod the 1st, 5th and 6th Corps, and Ingalls put in immediate requisition. On the 11th McClellan queried where the requisition was, and Meigs replied the next day (to Halleck) that it had been sent. Halleck wrote McClellan to this effect on the 14th, this arriving on the 17th or 18th. McClellan wrote on the 18th (arriving ca. 21st), and Halleck forwarded this to Meigs, who replied to Halleck on the 24th essentially denying that there could be any lack of supplies. On the 25th Stanton noted McClellan had "publicly alleged" that Meigs had not forwarded supplies. He was beginning to construct a paper-trail to **** McClellan.

Sometime in mid-October, this matter came to Lincoln's attention, and he sent Col. Thomas A. Scott, the assistant secretary-of-war, to investigate. On the 21st October, Scott reported back to Lincoln that the supplies had not been forwarded, and were sitting in sidings or in the forts at Washington. MG Fitz-John Porter accompanied him and stated that the army had not received any supplies. The next day Meigs wrote to McClellan that a "special wagon-train" had been dispatched, whilst maintaining he had fulfilled all requisitions. Clearly, it had become known that McClellan really hadn't been supplied. However, for days after this was known, Meigs etc. continued to deny what they'd done, probably because this had been picked up by the press.

On the 21st McClellan wrote Halleck that shoes, winter clothing and horses for the cavalry and artillery were absolutely essential for an advance. Halleck's reply was:

Your telegram of 12 m. has been submitted to the President. He directs me to say that he has no change to make in his order of the 6th instant. If you have not been and are not now in condition to obey it, you will be able to show such want of ability. The President does not expect impossibilities, but he is very anxious that all this good weather should not be wasted in inactivity. Telegraph when you will move, and on what lines you propose to march,
To Lincoln, this appears to have been "move now", but of course Halleck's 6th October telegram, which is being reiterated, said no such thing. Halleck then effectively states that McClellan is under suspicion and needs to prove that Meigs hasn't supplied his army. The line about impossibilities is a veiled threat - if Lincoln has said that "he doesn't expect impossibilities", then he has declared that the fault must lie with McClellan, because what is being asked is not impossible (by virtue of Lincoln asking it). The last line is again a control measure; Halleck must approve further movements. McClellan, in his report, stated that he filtered this (and assumidly previous despatches) through what Lincoln had told him face-to-face two weeks earlier, and that it was still for him to judge when to move.

McClellan replied that he would move according to Lincoln's desires, and Halleck replied at 1530 hrs on the 23rd October that this movement was approved. Halleck further stated that the 3rd and 11th Corps would move from Washington to Thoroughfare Gap. McClellan's retained copy of this telegram is timestamped received at 1730 hrs. Importantly, this means it is too late for the daily orders-group at 1700 hrs. McClellan acknowledged the receipt at 1845 hrs. McClellan finally had approval for an offensive movement, and would rapidly move.

24th October-3rd Novermber: Crossing the River

McClellan's developed plan consisted of four columns:

1. A force left at Harper's Ferry and on the Upper Potomac to prevent Lee attacking. (5th, 6th and 12th Corps)
2. A column from Harper's Ferry crossing the Shenandoah near Harper's Ferry into the Piney Run Valley (2nd Corps)
3. A column crossing the Potomac at Berlin (1st and 9th Corps plus the divisions of Whipple and Stoneman from Washington, under Burnside)
4. A column out of Washington reinforcing him at Thoroughfare Gap (3rd and 11th Corps)

If Longstreet moved south, then the 5th and 6th Corps could also be tapped as a reinforcement, giving him a field force of seven corps. However, for the movement into the Loudoun Valley he could initially count on only three corps (1st, 2nd and 9th).

The divisions of Whipple and Stoneman (the latter from the 3rd Corps) had been sent to guard the Potomac in the region of Point-of-Rocks and White's Ferry (respectively), i.e. where Lee crossed his army in September. They had been assigned to McClellan's army just over a week prior, and McClellan used Whipple's division to occupy Berlin and protect the pontoon train. The engineers recorded that they begun the pontoon bridge at Berlin on the 24th October, and we know the first troops across were Pleasonton's cavalry on the morning of the 26th. The bridge was a large one, 61 pontoons and a trestle.

Thus we know McClellan acted immediately upon receipt of Halleck's approval of the movement, in moving the engineers and a protective force into place.

The first troops to cross would be the 9th Corps, who were the nearest corps, being encamped in the Pleasant Valley. On the 25th the whole corps was paraded for a general inspection by Captain Duane of the engineers and in the evening Burnside was ordered to cross a division of 9th Corps in support of Whipple's division the next morning. Burnside objected, on the basis that his troops did not have shelter tents and a storm was coming. It was immediately clarified that Burnside should move the whole of the 9th Corps, plus Whipple, over the river on the 26th. Stoneman was ordered to concentrate at Edward's Ferry (the site of the Battle of Ball's Bluff) on the 27th, whence they would operate as part of 9th Corps, giving the corps 5 divisions. In actuality, Burnside disobeyed orders and didn't cross the rest of 9th Corps until the 27th, as he explained, and McClellan endorsed as the decision of the man on the ground.

On the same day (26th), on McClellan's orders Reynolds marched the 1st Corps 15 miles from Bakersville to Burkettsville, east of South Mountain, and within supporting distance of 9th Corps. They advanced to Berlin the next day.

With active operations beginning, on the 25th McClellan asked Halleck about withdrawing the 5th and 6th Corps from the line of the upper Potomac for use in the field army. Halleck's reply answered none of McClellan questions, and part of it is worth quoting:

Since you left Washington I have advised and suggested in relation to your movements, but I have given you no orders. I do not give you any now. The Government has intrusted you with defeating and driving back the rebel army in your front. I shall not attempt to control you in the measures you may adopt for that purpose. You are informed of my views, but the President has left you at liberty to adopt them or not, as you may deem best. You will also exercise your own discretion in regard to what points on the Potomac and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad are to be occupied or fortified. I will only add that there is no appropriation for permanent intrenchments on that line.
Thus, according to Halleck, McClellan had been given no orders. Halleck had only "advised and suggested". Of course, when McClellan had decided to act contrary to suggestions, Halleck had moved to prevent this. Given no actual orders regarding whether he should leave the 5th and 6th Corps on the upper Potomac, McClellan decided not to once it was known Longstreet had moved, and shifted the whole force to the offensive.

On the 28th there was a false report that Lee was going to try to assault Harper's Ferry, which McClellan gave little credence too. McClellan suspended the movement of 2nd and 5th Corps, and sent Averell's cavalry over the Potomac to determine where Longstreet was. The 6th Corps was marched from their camps at Hagerstown and Boonsboro to Williamsport, to support this movement. He would start the movement again the next day, and Averell would report (late on the 29th) that Longstreet was gone. Thus McClellan was free to use the 5th and 6th Corps. To be fair, McClellan had prettymuch already decided to use them, and this seems to be an attempt to head off a repeat of the "1st corps debacle". On the 29th McClellan sends to Halleck essentially "if you won't make a decision, I will".

On the 29th, McClellan ordered Couch to cross the 2nd Corps from Harper's Ferry into the Piney Run Valley before Averell had reported in. In the evening it becomes known that Longstreet has left Martinburg (the day before), and thus the upper Potomac is not threatened. Hence on the 30th McClellan sends orders to the 5th Corps (having arranged for Gordon's Bde of 12th Corps to relieve him), and 6th Corps to move and cross the river. To conceal the movements, rather than marching along the Potomac, the forces were to take a more circuitous route.

On the 30th, two divisions of the the 2nd Corps had crossed the Shenandoah, and the 1st Corps crossed the Potomac. Two divisions of the 5th Corps marched to Brownsville, leaving Morell's (soon to be Butterfield's) division at Sharpsburg.

On the 31st, 5th Corps reached Harper's Ferry. They drew clothing and shoes, started filling the wagon trains and pushed two divisions (Butterfields, under Griffin, and Sykes') over the Shenandoah to link up with Couch's 2nd Corps. The 6th Corps finally departed Williamsport, and marched to Boonsboro, leaving the Vermont brigade behind awaiting relief.

The 1st November saw the 5th Corps completing resupply and Humphrey's division and the remainder of the trains crossing the Shenandoah and rejoining the Corps. The 6th Corps crossed South Mountain and marched to Berlin. The 6th Corps spent the 2nd resupplying and finally crossed the Potomac on the 3rd November.

Thus, all things considered, crossing the Potomac can be divided into 3 phases:

  1. The 9th Corps (+ 2 extra divisions) crossed the Potomac river and formed a defended bridgehead opposite Berlin from 25th-28th October, and 1st Corps moved to support them on the near bank.
  2. The 2nd Corps crossed the Shenandoah river and forms a defended bridgehead on the 29th-30th
  3. On the 30th McClellan ordered the 5th and 6th Corps to abandon the upper Potomac and march to the bridgeheads. The 5th Corps is complete over the river on 1st November, and the 6th Corps on 3rd November.
What is not commonly considered is that Lee had decided to move into that area, before Halleck had approved McClellan's offensive. On the 22nd October Lee ordered Walker's division to move to Upperville, as a prelude to moving Longstreet's whole corps. They crossed the Blue Ridge via Snicker's Gap. Lee had not divined McClellan's intention, for he expected McClellan to move his army by water to attack Petersburg, and he was simply clearing the way for his army to race back to Richmond.

1st-7th November: The Offensive and McClellan is Dismissed

McClellan did not wait for his whole army to be over the river before attacking. He had moved a heavily reinforced 9th Corps (now 5 divisions) over the Potomac to seize the bridgehead, and had 1st Corps in support of it. On the 30th he had committed the 1st and 2nd Corps to a forward movement south of the river, and ordered 5th and 6th Corps to leave the line of the Upper Potomac, and join the main thrust.

Essentially, McClellan's initial movement was for Porter's Wing (2nd and 5th Corps) to cover the flank by seizing the mountain gaps etc., whilst Burnside's Wing (1st and 9th Corps) pushed south, seizing the river crossings over Goose Creek, and the Hazel River, and getting astride the O&A railroad. All we need to say about this is that it was completely successful. When Lincoln authorised the removal of McClellan on the 5th November, the situation was:


Longstreet, writing in Battles and Leaders after the war, said that Burnside should have marched on Chester Gap, and cut Jackson off. Then he could have destroyed Longstreet and Jackson in detail. This of course was McClellan's plan, and everyone of a military mind who seriously examined it reckoned it would have been successful.

However, the analysis at the time was being made by Lincoln, Stanton, Halleck and Burnside. In due course they would create the Fredericksburg debacle, and then further debacles. The Federal army would not get across the Rappahanock until 19 months after McClellan was removed.

Why Lincoln Actually Fired McClellan, According to Lincoln

When discussing why Lincoln fired McClellan, it is sometimes stated it was for military reasons, and a couple of lines of a diary entry from John Hay (25th September 1864) is quoted. If one reads the whole entry a different story emerges. What Lincoln actually believed, according to Lincoln via Hay, is that McClellan really was a traitor:

Some time ago the Governor of Vermont came to me ‘on business of importance,' he said. I fixed an hour and he came. His name is Smith. He is, though you would not think it, a cousin of Baldy Smith. Baldy is large, blond, florid. The Governor is a little, dark sort of man. This is the story he told me, giving Gen’l Baldy Smith as his authority:

When Gen’l McClellan was here at Washington[,] B. Smith was very intimate with him. They had been together at West Point, and friends. McClellan had asked for promotion for Baldy from the President, and got it. They were close and confidential friends. When they went down to the Peninsula their same intimate relations continued, the General talking freely with Smith about all his plans and prospects, until one day Fernando Wood and one other politician from New York appeared in camp and passed some days with McClellan.

“From the day this took place Smith saw, or thought he saw, that McClellan was treating him with unusual coolness and reserve. After a little while he mentioned this to McClellan, who, after some talk, told Baldy he had something to show him. He told him that these people who had recently visited him had been urging him to stand as an opposition candidate for President; that he had thought the thing over and had concluded to accept their propositions, and had written them a letter (which he had not yet sent) giving his idea of the proper way of conducting the war, so as to conciliate and
impress the people of the South with the idea that our armies were intended merely to execute the laws and protect their property, etc., and pledging himself to conduct the war in that inefficient, conciliatory style.

This letter he read to Baldy, who, after the reading was finished, said earnestly: ‘General, do you not see that looks like treason, and that it will ruin you and all of us?' After some further talk the General destroyed the letter in Baldy’s presence, and thanked him heartily for his frank and friendly counsel. After this he was again taken into the intimate confidence of McClellan.

Immediately after the battle of Antietam, Wood and his familiar came again and saw the General, and again Baldy saw an immediate estrangement on the part of McClellan. He seemed to be anxious to get his intimate friends out of the way and to avoid opportunities of private conversation with them. Baldy he particularly kept employed on reconnoissances and such work. One night Smith was returning from some duty he had been performing, and, seeing a light in McClellan’s tent, he went in to report. He reported and was about to withdraw when the General requested him to remain. After every one was gone he told him those men had been there again and had renewed their proposition about the Presidency: that this time he had agreed to their proposition, and had written them a letter acceding to their terms and pledging himself to carry on the war in the sense already indicated. This letter he read then and there to Baldy Smith.

Immediately thereafter B. Smith applied to be transferred from that army. At very nearly the same time other prominent men asked the same — Franklin, Burnside, and others.

Now that letter must be in the possession of F. Wood, and it will not be impossible to get it. Mr. Weed has, I think, gone to Vermont to see the Smiths about it.”

(Hay interjects, and Lincoln continues)

After the battle of Antietam I went up to the field to try to get him to move, and came back thinking he would move at once. But when I got home he began to argue why he ought not to move. I peremptorily ordered him to advance. It was nineteen days before he put a man over the river. It was nine days longer before he got his army across, and then he stopped again, delaying on little pretexts of wanting this and that. I began to fear he was playing false — that he did not want to hurt the enemy. I saw how he could intercept the enemy on the way to Richmond. I determined to make that the test. If he let them get away I would remove him. He did so, and I relieved him. I dismissed Major [Key]. for his silly, treasonable talk because I feared it was staff talk, and I wanted an example. The letter of Buell furnishes another evidence in support of that theory. And the story you have heard Neill tell about [Governor Horatio] Seymour’s first visit to McClellan all tallies with this story.

The Governor Smith in question is John Gregory Smith, who at the time in question (1862) was not governor (which he ascended to in 1863) but rather the Speaker of the House of the Vermont legislature. As even Stephen Sears noted, Smith's information was garbled and incorrect. Lincoln did send to Smith for a written account, and Smith checked with Baldy Smith. He then sent a letter to Lincoln (30th December 1864) which confirmed the entire episode was false. I have no access to this letter, which is in the University of Vermont library archives and has not been digitised, but if Sears, who has an interest in Smith's story being true, says the letter contradicts the story I must accept it. Hence, Lincoln was acting at the time on false information. The conspiracy was a confabulation.

That McClellan's relief was not on military grounds can be demonstrated with Lincoln telling Orville Browning after the relief that McClellan was the "superior to any other general ... at handling an army in the field." (ref) Lincoln essentially said McClellan was the best battlefield general they had, but his movements were too slow. He told Browning what he told Hay nearly two years later; that he'd issued a peremptory order and it took McClellan two weeks to start moving, and that it took McClellan six days to cross the Potomac. Of course we know that there was no "peremptory order" issued to McClellan. Possibly Lincoln gave it to Halleck as such, but Halleck's order was simply to ask McClellan to submit a plan, as discussed above.


We must conclude that the general narrative is very flawed, and the flaws seem to be there to protect the Washington establishment. It is quite possible that the disconnect between what Lincoln said and what Halleck said can be attributed to Halleck. Lincoln said he gave Halleck a peremptory order for McClellan to move, but the order McClellan received was a request to submit a plan of action for a forward movement.

McClellan thus did exactly what Halleck had ordered him to do. It took another 10 days to receive Washington's response. Halleck had previously nixed McClellan's planned advance, and this time it was Lincoln who replied. Lincoln indicated displeasure with McClellan's plans, and tried bargaining with him to get him to move east of the Blue Ridge. McClellan, accepted Lincoln's idea in principle, but first wished to check that it was practical.

Appendix 1: The Potomac River Dilemma

In September Lee had managed to cross ca. 76,000 effectives (ca. 92,000 PFD as the Federals reckoned it) over the Potomac in just three days, at a rate of ca. 30,000 men/day. He mainly utilised a single crossing , but the river was low and the men could wade across with the water being knee deep, and wagons could just drive across. If McClellan's army late October army had crossed in the same manner, it would have taken 5 days to move the army across due to it simply being bigger.

Appendix 2: The Length of McClellan's March Columns

Using Ingalls report, we can determine that if the Army of the Potomac was placed on a single road, it would be a column 71 miles long. This assumes 1,000 infantry per 300 yds (i.e. column of fours), 16 yards for each vehicle (wagon, ambulance, artillery piece, caisson etc., and that each arty vehicle has 6 horses) and 2 yds per cavalry horse (4 yards per rank, and a column of twos). It assumes that 1 man per cavalry mount, 4 men per wagon/ ambulance and 8 men per arty vehicle are subtracted from the marching infantry. It also assumes no intervals between units etc., and everyone closed up. Of these, 20 miles is marching infantry, 40 miles are the trains, and 10 miles are the cavalry (adds up to 71 due to rounding differences).

  • 1st Corps = 11 miles
  • 2nd Corps = 10 miles
  • 5th Corps = 12 miles
  • 6th Corps = 12 miles
  • 9th Corps = 14 miles
  • HQ = 3 miles
  • Cavalry Corps = 9 miles
This is understating the length by maybe 10%, due to lack of intervals.

Hence you can see why, for example, it took two days for a corps to cross the Potomac. At both crossings there was only a single pontoon bridge, which the vehicles had to slowly file over in single file. Had this whole force filed over a single pontoon bridge it would likely have taken between 5 and 10 days.

Appendix 3: March Tables

There are the movements of the five main corps in the campaign:







Feb 18, 2017
Of these, 20 miles is marching infantry, 40 miles are the trains, and 10 miles are the cavalry (adds up to 71 due to rounding differences).
And this also explains why it is that Lee could get over the Potomac on the night of the 18-19th, because his trains had already been moving over the river; moving all night he got most of his (smaller) army over before sunrise.

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Nov 2, 2019
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Interestingly, on the Emerging Civil War website this week Chris Mackoski wrote that the current issues of The Ciivil War Monitor & Civil War Times magazines have front page articles on the subject of Lincoln's firing of McClellan. The famous quip asking McClellan what his horses had done to get fatigued, which Lincoln apologized for, had a basis in fact. There was a remount crisis in the AoP. Those who are interested in this topic will want to pick up a copy of those two mags.


Feb 18, 2017
The famous quip asking McClellan what his horses had done to get fatigued, which Lincoln apologized for, had a basis in fact. There was a remount crisis in the AoP.
Well, yes. It's good it's getting publicity, but it's been in the ORs for more than a hundred and fifty years.
Honestly the biggest surprise to me is that Lincoln apologized for it.

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Nov 2, 2019
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Well, yes. It's good it's getting publicity, but it's been in the ORs for more than a hundred and fifty years.
Honestly the biggest surprise to me is that Lincoln apologized for it.
The Civil War Times issue has an article by Steven R. Stotelmyer titled "McClelland's Supply Crisis: Were Supplies Deliberately Withheld from the Army of the Potomac After Antietam?"

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Nov 10, 2006
The trains has come up today in another forum. Essentially as of the 16th all of Lee's trains were across the Potomac. Some because they went with their commands to Harper's Ferry, some because they crossed at Williamsport on the 14th-15th (where the tail of the column was intercepted by Federal cavalry escaping HF), and finally on the morning of the 16th Lee sent all his trains over the river.

Lee didn't expect a fight at Sharpsburg on the morning of the 16th, and was disabused of this notion when the Federal artillery opened fire and then Hooker crossed the Antietam. The wagons then ran back over the river to deliver ammunition. Some of the divisional commissary wagons also delivered food; we know Hood's and DH Hill's divisions were fed on the night of the 16th-17th for the first time since the 13th.

Suffice to say, Lee did not have a lot of wagons east of the Potomac. Indeed, he didn't have enough to move his wounded, and abandoned thousands.

Bruce Vail

1st Lieutenant
Jul 8, 2015
The trains has come up today in another forum. Essentially as of the 16th all of Lee's trains were across the Potomac. Some because they went with their commands to Harper's Ferry, some because they crossed at Williamsport on the 14th-15th (where the tail of the column was intercepted by Federal cavalry escaping HF), and finally on the morning of the 16th Lee sent all his trains over the river.

Lee didn't expect a fight at Sharpsburg on the morning of the 16th, and was disabused of this notion when the Federal artillery opened fire and then Hooker crossed the Antietam. The wagons then ran back over the river to deliver ammunition. Some of the divisional commissary wagons also delivered food; we know Hood's and DH Hill's divisions were fed on the night of the 16th-17th for the first time since the 13th.

Suffice to say, Lee did not have a lot of wagons east of the Potomac. Indeed, he didn't have enough to move his wounded, and abandoned thousands.

Interesting. I don't dispute your info that DH Hill's commissary wagons re-crossed the Potomac just prior to the battle, but that doesn't mean that all of Hill's units were properly fed on the night of the 16th. The men of the 1st and 3rd NC (Ripley's Brigade) certainly were not. Col. Brown of the 1st wrote years later that his unit "feasted on green corn and pumpkins" gathered from the surrounding fields. Other accounts also mention that the men were not fed that night. Col. DeRosset of the 3rd, for example, noted that some of his men were so hungry that they paused in their attack on the Yankees the next morning to eat from an apple orchard near the Mumma farmstead.
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67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Nov 10, 2006
Interesting. I don't dispute your info that DH Hill's commissary wagons re-crossed the Potomac just prior to the battle, but that doesn't mean that all of Hill's units were properly fed on the night of the 16th. The men of the 1st and 3rd NC (Ripley's Brigade) certainly were not. Col. Brown of the 1st wrote years later that his unit "feasted on green corn and pumpkins" gathered from the surrounding fields. Other accounts also mention that the men were not fed that night. Col. DeRosset of the 3rd, for example, noted that some of his men were so hungry that they paused in their attack on the Yankees the next morning to eat from an apple orchard near the Mumma farmtead.

You are correct. It was the following evening that DH Hill's men got their breakfasts they started preparing on the 14th.

An officer of Pickett's Brigade explained that their commissary was on the far bank, and they didn't get fed. Interestingly, he notes their strength doubled on the 18th with stragglers rejoining.

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Nov 10, 2006
Wasn't that the one where Carman claimed their recruiting area was nearby?

That's the explanation the Lt who wrote the memoir gave; as they moved through their recruitment areas a lot of the men absented themselves to visit home.

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