Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln and McClellan

(March 7, 2018) Provided below is Chapter Eleven of my Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies book. Source citations are available in the book whereas they have been removed from this online version. Generally, modern historians condemn McClellan for what he failed to do instead of applauding him for what he did do. Among the things he did do was to take command of a panicked and demoralized army and converted it into a victorious one that stopped Lee’s first invasion of the North in less than three weeks.


Ultimately Civil War students must take a position on Major General George McClellan. It is necessary to decide whether Lincoln was correct in growing impatient with him, or whether the general was driven to a natural resentment of the President—and especially Radical Republican leaders—by their unfair treatment of him. While most modern historians side with the Republicans, McClellan apparently had powerful endorsements among experts of his time.

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One example was Helmuth Von Moltke who was the leader of the Prussian armies that won the 1870-1871 Franco Prussian War, which paved the way for the creation of a German state. George Curtis, who was co-counsel to Dred Scott when the slave’s case reached the Supreme Court in 1857, cited a conversation that Moltke had with another American whom Curtis “had no reason to doubt.” The American said, “Some of us in America do not estimate McClellan so highly as we do some of our other generals.” Moltke replied, “It may be so, but let me tell you that, if your Government had supported General McClellan in the field as they should have done, your war would have ended two years earlier.” However, since Moltke met with McClellan in 1868 when the latter visited Europe, it may be presumed that the Prussian was influenced by whatever information McClellan provided.

Similarly, during the last summer of his life Robert E. Lee visited his cousin Cassius Lee and they shared reminiscent conversations. Cazenove Lee who was Cassius Lee’s twenty-year-old son, claimed to be present. Cazenove later told Robert E. Lee, Jr. that he asked the former Rebel leader, “ . . . which of the Federal generals he considered to be the greatest.” According to Cazenove, the old general answered, “McClellan, by all odds.”

While both the Von Moltke and Cazenove Lee incidents cannot be absolutely verified, they were told under circumstances that suggest validity. But whether or not they are true, a case for McClellan or Lincoln can be made independent of the statements.

Following defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 the principal federal army in the east was in disarray. Lincoln called upon 34-year-old George McClellan to take command, bring order out of chaos and prevent the capital from being captured by the jubilant Rebels. The President chose McClellan for two reasons. First, he was familiar with him from before the war because Lincoln did legal work for the Illinois Central Railroad when McClellan was an executive in the company. Second, news reports had generally credited McClellan with winning four small victories in the western mountains of Virginia during the preceding month or so. In truth, the victories were actually won by subordinates, although McClellan had overall command. Nonetheless, they had the effect of separating the strategically important western part of Virginia from the Confederacy. Continue reading


Other Generals Shared McClellan’s Disease

(July 5, 2017) Modern historians commonly condemn Union Major General George McClellan for almost uniquely overestimating the size of his opposing Confederate armies. According to the Civil War Trust, for example, the general’s “most grievous error [of] hugely overestimating Confederate numbers [was] a delusion [that] dominated his military character.” In truth, however, a number of Federal commanders were prone to overestimate the size of the enemy’s army.

During the Battle of Shiloh, for example, General Ulysses Grant sent a note to the commander of a reinforcing Federal army that Grant was under attack by more than 100,000 Rebels whereas the Confederates only numbered about 45,000. While that overestimation might be excused  because it was made in the heat of battle, Grant continued to overestimate his opponents strength at 70,000 even after the battle.

Similarly, on the eve of the Battle of Antietam where McClellan  would lead the Federal troops, Union General in Chief Henry Halleck in nearby Washington estimated Robert E. Lee’s opposing army at 150,000 men compared to its true strength of only 40,000. Nine days before the battle McClellan’s own commander of cavalry estimated Lee’s strength at 115,000. The prize for exaggeration, however, goes to Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin who wired the War Department five days before the battle that Lee had 190,000 men north of the Potomac River and another 250,000 men in northern Virginia ready to cross the stream. In short, Curtin estimated Lee’s army to be more than ten times bigger than it actually was.

As explained in an earlier post, President Lincoln was afraid that Stonewall Jackson would attack Washington following the latter’s repeated victories in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862. Even though Jackson had only 17,000 soldiers Lincoln estimated it at 30,000. Union commanders in the Valley, James Shields and Charles Fremont, estimated Jackson’s numbers to range from 20,000 to 60,000.

When Major General Jubal Early led a Confederate army in a second Shenandoah Valley campaign two years later and did, if fact, reach the outskirts of Washington, Lincoln’s War Secretary Edwin Stanton claimed Early’s army contained 35,000 men. In reality, Early had only 12,000.

Shortly before launching his offensive against Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville in May 1863 Union commander Joseph Hooker told Lincoln that Lee outnumbered him, whereas Hooker actually outnumbered Lee two-to-one.

The prevailing tendency among historians is to judge McClellan for what he did not do as opposed to what he did. Thus, he is not admired for accomplishing in a matter of three weeks the transformation of a defeated Union army into one that stopped Robert E. Lee’s first invasion at Antietam. He is not applauded for immediately cancelling the orders of Stanton and Halleck to ship the weapons in Washington’s arsenal to New York and keep a steamer ready to evacuate political leaders in the panicked aftermath of Second Bull Run. Nor is he credited with earlier reaching the gates of Richmond before the Battle of Seven Pines by suffering only modest casualties and inflicting more casualties on Lee than Lee did on him during the ensuing fighting on the peninsula. Two years later, Grant would sacrifice over sixty thousand soldiers to put Petersburg under siege and force the surrender of the Confederate capital. Grant’s maneuver was much like the one proposed by McClellan in July 1862 but overruled by then General in Chief Halleck.

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Best of the Blogs (6-2-2017)

  1. This article from Circa1865.org provides an excerpt from a book about Arkansas’s post World War II and Vietnam Era Senator J. William Fulbright and his discussion about the Reconstruction-Based origins of Southern poverty. Although the Rhodes scholar opposed school integration he was otherwise quite liberal. He was, for example, an early proponent for the United Nations, an early opponent of McCarthyism and a mentor to future President Bill Clinton.  The senator was also the originator of the Fulbright merit-based scholarship program.
  2.  A second article from Circa1865.org discloses Abraham Lincoln’s real estate holdings in Council Bluffs, Iowa when the town was selected as the eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad authorized by the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act early in Lincoln’s first term as president.

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The Spin In This Lecture Will Give You Whiplash

(December 29, 2016) Yesterday while proceeding through Eric Foner’s Civil War lectures on YouTube I came to this one about the Emancipation Proclamation. Chiefly because of contextual omissions the professor puts enough spin on it to give the listener whiplash by saying:

[Consider] how Lincoln addresses the freed people directly…“I urge you to refrain from violence”…but then adds “except in self defense.”…[I]sn’t that interesting. He didn’t have to say it…[Lincoln is showing that he] is not cowed by the chorus of warnings of these slaves massacring their owners.

Actually, to anyone who knows the full story Lincoln was almost compelled to use the language Foner quotes. The professor fails to clarify how two versions of the Emancipation Proclamation—issued about three months apart—differed. The preliminary version that was announced on September 22, 1862 was the more impactful one because it signaled the President’s intent to officially free Confederate slaves on January 1, 1863 when a formal version would be signed if the Rebels did not surrender.

Lincoln’s advice that freedmen “refrain from violence except in self defense” is only contained in the second version. More importantly, the reason it is included is because the language in the preliminary version suggested that Lincoln may have wanted to deliberately provoke a slave rebellion as a means of winning the war quickly. The statement in the September proclamation that triggered such concerns was that the “[US] military and naval authority…will do no act to repress [slaves], or…any efforts [the slaves] may make for their actual freedom.” Many critics concluded the statement ordered the military to do nothing to protect Southern civilians should a slave rebellion arise.

Among them was Charles A. Dana, a trusted civilian observer of generals and armies in the field for Lincoln. Dana immediately urged that the statement by erased or changed because of its potential to incite servile insurrection. Another example was former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis from Massachusetts. Although he did not believe Lincoln intended to instigate a slave rebellion, he concluded the proclamation’s likely result would be to “incite a part of the inhabitants of the United States to rise in insurrection against valid laws.” He foresaw “scenes of bloodshed” and “servile war.”

Boston maritime mogul and friend to abolitionist Charles Sumner, Robert Forbes, concluded that Sumner’s followers genuinely wanted the slaves to “be made free by killing or poisoning their masters and mistresses.” Similarly, New York’s Continental Monthly urged that a “thousand mounted men” be recruited to raid deep into the South with authority to assemble and arm the slaves.” Finally, Massachusetts Senator Sumner said, “I know of no principle…by which our [Southern White] rebels should be saved from the natural consequences of their own action…They set the example of insurrection…They cannot complain if their slaves…follow it.”

Colonel Charles Francis Adams, Jr. who was the son of Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain and the great-grandson and grandson of two US presidents later remarked that the prevailing belief in the North at the time of the proclamation was that it would spark an immediate slave uprising to bring the war to a sudden end. Major General George McClellan similarly complained that the President sought to stir up slave rebellions in an attempt to end the war. McClellan cannot be dismissed as an isolated example because he was Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 wartime presidential election when he received about 45% of the total vote.

According to historian Howard Jones, initial reaction that the Emancipation Proclamation might provoke slave rebellions was also common in Europe. The Europeans especially worried that it could trigger a race war that would extend beyond American borders. Instead of concluding that emancipation gave the United States the moral high ground the Europeans were contemplating whether they should ally with the Confederacy before a genocidal race war began to infect the entire Western Hemisphere and thereby disrupt international trade.

Even President Lincoln admitted the possibility of such insurrections before he issued the preliminary proclamation. On September 13, 1862 he replied to a delegation of Chicago abolitionists visiting Washington that he recognized the potential “consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South” that such a proclamation might provoke. Whatever the moral benefits, or immoral consequences, of emancipation he “view[ed] the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the [Confederate] rebellion.”

Whatever Lincoln’s intent, the preliminary proclamation led to an uproar about its potential to incite slave rebellions. Contrary to Foner’s interpretation, Lincoln’s inclusion of qualifying language in the final version was not a bold action to signal that he refused to be cowed by warnings of slave uprisings. To the contrary, it was a reactionary step to try and convince others that he did not originally intend to provoke such uprisings.

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Eric Foner Perceives Beyond the Truth

(December 27, 2016) In this lecture Columbia University’s history professor Eric Foner condemns Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan as “perhaps the worst President in American history.” The professor begins by explaining that Buchanan was immediately under the thumb of Southern politicians. He points to the President’s initial cabinet selections as compelling evidence that Southerners dominated the administration from the beginning.


As the table above illustrates, citizens of states that voted for Buchanan got five out of seven cabinet posts. Four of the five were Southerners. However, Foner’s claim that Buchanan’s initial cabinet alone is sufficient verification that Southerners controlled him from the start is dubious. In the politics of the era cabinet posts were commonly awarded to residents of states that supported the winning Presidential candidate.

That practice did not change when Lincoln was elected. Five of his seven cabinet posts also went to men who lived in states that Lincoln carried in the election. Two of Lincoln’s cabinet members were from slave states, even though slave states were almost half of all sates at the time.

Some observers will, no doubt, argue that Lincoln’s choices were narrower than Buchanan’s because eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. Only seven, however, seceded before Lincoln took office. More importantly, Lincoln’s list of candidates for cabinet posts had been settled more than a month before even the first state (South Carolina) seceded.

On the night after the November 6, 1860 election, Lincoln wrote-down a list of candidates for cabinet appointments. Six of the eight were appointed. The two that were not chosen were from New Jersey and Illinois, which were states where he received electoral votes. The seventh selection was Simon Cameron who bargained for a cabinet position at the earlier Republican nominating convention in exchange for committing Pennsylvania’s delegates  to  Lincoln (David Donald, 249 & 261).


On the night after the November 6, 1860 election, Lincoln wrote-down a list of candidates for cabinet positions. Six of the eight were appointed. The two that were not chosen were from New Jersey and Illinois, which were also states where Lincoln received electoral votes. The seventh selection was Simon Cameron who was to receive a cabinet appointment based upon a bargain to get Pennsylvania’s delegates committed to Lincoln at the earlier political convention where Lincoln won the Republican nomination. (David Donald, 249 & 261.)

Although Foner later gave other reasons in his lecture why he feels that Buchanan was a Southern sympathizer he also he also provided evidence that Buchanan was not. Nonetheless, the professor’s conclusion that Buchanan’s sectional sympathies were obvious from the start based  only upon the initial cabinet selections fails to take into account the conventional political practices of the era.

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The Truth About Lincoln

The 45-minute YouTube video below is provided by Stefan Molyneux who has a regular podcast titled Freedomain Radio, which he started eleven years ago.

Prior to starting the podcast, Stefan was a software entrepreneur who sold his company at the turn of the century. Most of his podcasts are on relationships, politics, and economics. While I do not agree with some of his analysis of President Lincoln I was impressed by the trenchant and fresh perspective he brings to the 16th president who has otherwise been overly deified.

Stefan was born in Ireland and moved to Canada when he was eleven years old. He has a BA in History from McGill University and a MA in History from the University of Toronto. He is married and fifty years old.