Tag Archives: Alternative Civil War History

Should Lincoln Have Moved the Federal Capital?

(July 3, 2017) Fifty-six years ago Otto Eisenschiml’s Hidden Face of the Civil War suggested that Lincoln should have moved the Federal capital to Philadelphia or another Northern city. Eisenschiml reasoned that Lincoln’s obsession to safeguard Washington with overly large garrisons prevented the Union armies from ending the war at least twice in 1862, which was over two-and-a-half years before Robert E. Lee surrendered.

First, he argued that it was not necessary to occupy Washington to win the war. He pointed out, for example, that even after the British captured Washington during the War of 1812, the Americans were still victorious. Similarly the Russians defeated Napoleon even though they abandoned Moscow.

Second, Washington was vulnerably located between two slave states where secession sentiment ran higher than in in any eastern city above the Mason-Dixon line. Thus, Philadelphia could be safeguarded with a smaller garrison than Washington.

If Lincoln did not withhold large numbers of troops to protect Washington, Eisenschiml reasons that the Union could have won decisive victories in either May-June or September 1862.

As the map below indicates, in May Union Major General George McClellan was approaching close to the Confederate capital at Richmond with a 100,000-man army from the east. He was opposed by the biggest Confederate army, which had only 50,000 soldiers. To augment his advantage McClellan planned to have a 40,000-man Union army stationed near Washington under Major General Irvin McDowell approach the Confederate army from the north thereby overwhelming the Rebels between the jaws of two Federal armies with a near three-to-one numerical advantage.

 

Despite objections from both McDowell and McClellan, on 24 May Lincoln revoked McDowell’s orders to join McClellan on the Richmond front. Instead, the President sent McDowell to join two Union armies totaling 25,000 troops in the Shenandoah Valley in the northwestern part of present-day Virginia to combat a 17,000-man Confederate army under Major General Stonewall Jackson who Lincoln feared was preparing to attack Washington. Instead, Jackson joined Lee at Richmond in June and in seven days of nearly continuous fighting broke McClellan’s offensive while the Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley were basically off on a wild goose chase.

A similar situation developed in September that prevented the battle of Antietam from being a decisive Union victory. As Lee’s 40,000-man army—reduced through straggling—was invading north of the Potomac River and situated northwest of Washington, on 7 September Lincoln sent McClellan with an 85,000-man army to hunt down and repel the Rebels. Yet once again fearful for the Federal capital, the President retained 70,000 soldiers in Washington. If he had released only half of them he would have given McClellan an invincible numerical advantage, which even the cautious Little Mac might have used to end the war at the battle of Antietam on 17 September.

In fact, late in the day McClellan was at the point of executing a coupe de grace against Lee’s weakened defense line with a 10,000-man charge. The corps commander selected to lead the attack, however, dissuaded McClellan by warning, “Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.” If Lincoln had provided more soldiers from Washington, even the cautious McClellan would have had enough reserves to dismiss the warning.

While Eisenschiml’s suggestion is thought provoking, he fails to consider how such a change might have affected Maryland’s choice between the Union and the Confederacy. It would likely have increased secession feeling in the state and may have led Maryland to join the South.

After the Rebel victory at First Manassas in July 1861, secession gained popularity in the state. The legislature was set to meet in September where it could vote on the matter. According to Assistant Secretary of State Fred Seward, the legislature would likely have voted to secede had not Lincoln told the army to illegally arrest pro-Confederate legislators.

The rest of Eisenschiml’s book reaches other thought-provoking conclusions, including that Jackson was a better general than Lee and that Forrest was the best of all on either side. The author also gave low marks to Ulysses Grant, partly by emphasizing that the general normally had overwhelming advantages in numbers, supplies, technology and weapons, which is a point that most of Grant’s present-day fans don’t like to consider. They are too prone to conclude, “Lee surrendered to Grant. End of story.”

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