This Day (My Baby Wrote Me a Letter Edition)

Published:September 5, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day 150 years ago, Union general George B. McClellan wrote a letter to his wife, Mary Ellen, explaining (or boasting, depending on how you take your McClellan):

Again I have been called upon to save the country—the case is desperate, but with God’s help I will try unselfishly to do my best & if he wills it accomplish the salvation of the nation.

Some context: the Union Army of Virginia, under John Pope, had just gotten whipped at the Second Battle of Manassas, and President Lincoln was understandably concerned about the safety of Washington, D.C. As such, on September 2, he placed McClellan in charge of the capital’s defenses. He did so over the objections of most of his cabinet, which remained unimpressed by the former general-in-chief’s performance in the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days’ Battles. (It should be noted that they also unimpressed by the general personally and politically—and whether you think that’s fair again depends on how you take your McClellan.)

As it happens, the very next day Confederate general Robert E. Lee ordered the Army of Northern Virginia to cross the Potomac River into Maryland, and by the fifth—that is to say, the same day McClellan wrote his letter—those troops had reached the crossroads of Frederick, giving Lee access to both Baltimore and D.C.

Scary stuff—somebody needed to take to the field and engage the Confederates. But who? Lincoln offered command to Ambrose E. Burnside, but he refused, deferring to his old friend McClellan. Another general also refused, leaving Lincoln and his general-in-chief, Henry W. Halleck, no other choice but to approach McClellan. They did so on September 5, verbally offering him command in the field. McClellan verbally accepted, and off he went after Lee. The verbal part is important, because later Lincoln and Halleck both denied having been the one to offer McClellan command.

Someone is lying! Could it have been Honest Abe? Whatever the case, McClellan heaved a huge sigh and continued on to his wife:

How weary I am of this struggle against adversity. But one thing sustains me—& that is my trust in God—I know that the interests at stake are so great as to justify his interference—not for me, but for the innocent thousands, millions rather, who have been plunged in misery by no fault of theirs. It is probably that our communications will be cut off in a day or two—but don’t be worried. You may rest assured that I am doing all I can for my country & that no shame shall rest upon you willfully brought upon you by me …

And where the Battle of Antietam was concerned, by which McClellan sent Lee packing for Virginia, that was very true.

PS: Dimitri Rotov argues that McClellan’s “letters to his wife” deserve to be scare-quoted. The historian Stephen W. Sears, who collected said letters, responds.

UPDATE: The above-mentioned Mr. Rotov seeks to complicate the command scenario even further by reminding us that, “ever so briefly,” John Pope was the man in charge of confronting Lee in Maryland—not Burnside, not McClellan, not Halleck. See here and here for more.

IMAGE: George McClellan with His Wife, Mother, Child and Nurse (Library of Congress)