From the Union perspective, the dawn of 1862 presented as good an opportunity as ever for an attack on Richmond. If successful, it could force the Confederacy into surrendering and negotiating its reconciliation with the federal government with the only question being the extent of the retribution for secession. However, to be a successful strike on the Confederate capital, Abraham Lincoln must have known that military leadership as well as his administration heads would need to flawlessly execute a plan. This was particularly true given the Confederacy’s posture in the war: one that was entirely comfortable maintaining the status quo of defending its territory from the aggressor.
In early 1862, General George McClellan received a diagnosis of typhoid fever, guaranteed to confine him to rest for approximately six weeks.[i] On the 14th of January, Lincoln held the ultimate meeting in a series of meetings with his generals, and McClellan was in attendance albeit “pale and shaky.”[ii] General Irwin McDowell, whom Lincoln had tasked with devising a plan of attack on Richmond, found McClellan’s presence a cause for concern and was hesitant to present his plan, causing McClellan to erupt: “You are entitled to have any opinion you please!”[iii] As the discussion opened, McClellan remained quiet, and Lincoln probed for details as to the execution of McDowell’s plan for attacking Richmond.[iv] He would not bite his tongue for long. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, and an ambitious man in his own right, Salmon P. Chase, brought his attention to McClellan, asking whether he had a plan of his own for attacking the Confederacy.[v]
McClellan confirmed that he had a plan but would not discuss it in the presence of civilians unless Lincoln ordered him to disclose it, which McClellan knew carried the risk of escaping the room and being transmitted, inadvertently or advertently, to Confederate spies. After Lincoln confirmed that McClellan had a timeframe in mind for his plan, he adjourned the meeting with the impression that McClellan was prepared to execute once he had recovered from his illness.[vi]
Having the General in Washington presented an opportunity for examination not only by the Lincoln administration but also the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. With Senators Ben Wade and Zachariah Chandler leading the questioning, McClellan had to justify the lethargic movements of the army to that point with his testimony that there were not sufficient paths of retreat should an advance on Richmond fail.[vii] Losing patience, Wade said, “General, you have all the troops you have called for, and if you haven’t enough, you shall have more. They are well organized and equipped, and the loyal people of this country expect that you will make a short and decisive campaign. Is it really necessary for you to have more bridges over the Potomac before you move?”[viii] McClellan did not agree with the characterization of the issue and was excused not long thereafter, but Wade went directly to Lincoln with the hope that replacing the general was an option Lincoln would consider. Wade insisted that he must be discarded as general as anybody else would be superior. Lincoln responded: “Wade, anybody will do for you, but I must have somebody.”[ix]
Lincoln had already discovered that he needed somebody rather than anybody at every position in the command of the military and his administration. The same week that he met with McClellen he had dismissed Simon Cameron, the Secretary of War, as a result of his facilitating the War Department’s pattern of poorly conceived contracts: a pattern that prompted one man to observe, “You can sell anything to the government at almost any price you’ve got the guts to ask.”[x] Upon Lincoln’s learning of the extent of Cameron’s dealings, he banished him to the Siberian cold, writing to him: “I . . . propose nominating you to the Senate next Monday as Minister to Russia.”[xi]
The search for Cameron’s replacement did not go far as Lincoln determined that Cameron’s legal adviser, Edwin McMasters Stanton, was a worthy successor. Stanton possessed an intimidating presence with his “black little near-sighted eyes,” bushy hair, and “surprisingly sensitive mouth.”[xii] He was a man known for his tempestuous nature: one petitioner was left badly shaken by Stanton’s “piercing shrillness,” which the petitioner described as Stanton coming at him “like a tiger.”[xiii] Stanton once said, “As soon as I can get the machinery of the office working, the rats cleared out, and the rat holes stopped, we shall move.”[xiv] He was not any more kind to visitors, as one man who visited Stanton to lobby for the release of his friend charged with treason learned when Stanton responded: “If I tap that little bell, I can send you to a place where you will never hear the dogs bark. And by heaven I’ll do it if you say another word!”[xv]
Lincoln, anxious for progress in the war, would likely have been pleased had he heard Stanton roar upon taking office: “This army has got to fight or run away. And while men are striving nobly in the West, the champagne and oysters on the Potomac must be stopped.”[xvi] Horace Greeley, the New York Tribune publisher, wrote that Stanton was going to deal with “the greatest danger now facing the country—treason in Washington, treason in the army itself, especially the treason which wears the garb of Unionism.”[xvii]
While McClellan’s plan was not known, Lincoln and the Union as a whole could feel a swelling of optimism and empowerment as 1862 began. At the helm of the army was a man capable of training and rousing his men into battle with as good a chance of success as any general. In the Lincoln administration, the Union presently had a leader in the War Department that would focus his energy and hold his subordinates accountable until the Union had achieved success in the war. Even with these changes, however, it remained a question as to how the Union would make its advance and whether that advance would end the war that was approaching its first anniversary.
[i] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 240.
[iv] Id. at 240-41.
[v] Id. at 241.
[viii] Id. at 241-42.
[ix] Id. at 242.
[xii] Id. at 244-45.
[xiii] Id. at 245.
[xvi] Id. at 246.
[xvii] Id. at 247.