Letter to President Lincoln from Harrison's Landing (1862, by General George B. Mcclellan)

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Although Abraham Lincoln has since achieved almost mythical status in American historical and popular memory, in 1861 he entered the White House with remarkably humble credentials and perilously little experience. As a result, Major-General George B. McClellan ("Little Mac") possessed a low opinion of him. In his capacity as the highest-ranking Union officer in the field and commander of the Army of the Potomac, Little Mac considered himself best suited for advising the president as to how the war should be prosecuted.

McClellan's letter from Harrison Landing urged Lincoln not to upset the status quo in antebellum Southern social relations, especially with regard to slavery. Believing the Confederate states could be successfully returned to the fold of the Union through a crushing victory on the battlefield, McClellan failed to recognize deeper problems underlying secession and a movement toward modern warfare. He underestimated the integral role morale at home played in sustaining the Confederate war effort, believing armies and political institutions to be the only Union enemies. And unlike Lincoln, McClellan could not see that slavery lay at the heart of the sectional conflict.

As the course of events would later prove, "total war" and a commitment to abolishing the institution of slavery were necessary before peace could return to a reunited nation. The combatants waged war on the home front as well, and the Southern populace would have to experience the horrors of war firsthand before the Union could break its will to continue the conflict. McClellan's sentiments, on the other hand, depicted a man still attempting to fight a Napoleonic-style war and demonstrated why eventual success would come from replacements like U. S. Grant and William T. Sherman rather than himself. Lincoln worked diligently to devise a masterful grand strategy for victory, and through trial and error found the right personnel to execute it.

Paul S.Bartels,
Villanova University

See also Civil War .

Mr. President: … I earnestly desire … to lay before Your Excellency for your private consideration my general views concerning the existing state of the rebellion. … These views amount to convictions, and are deeply impressed upon my mind and heart. Our cause must never be abandoned; it is the cause of free institutions and self-government. The Constitution and the Union must be preserved, whatever may be the cost in time, treasure, and blood. If secession is successful, other dissolutions are clearly to be seen in the future. Let neither military disaster, political faction, nor foreign war shake your settled purpose to enforce the equal operation of the laws of the United States upon the people of every State.

The time has come when the Government must determine upon a civil and military policy covering the whole ground of our national trouble. The responsibility of determining, declaring, and supporting such civil and military policy, and of directing the whole course of national affairs in regard to the rebellion, must now be assumed and exercised by you, or our cause will be lost. The Constitution gives you power sufficient even for the present terrible exigency.

This rebellion has assumed the character of a war. As such it should be regarded, and it should be conducted upon the highest principles known to Christian civilization. It should not be a war looking to the subjugation of the people of any State in any event. It should not be at all a war upon population, but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of States, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.

In prosecuting the war all private property and unarmed persons should be strictly protected, subject only to the necessity of military operations; all private property taken for military use should be paid or receipted for; pillage and waste should be treated as high crimes, all unnecessary trespass sternly prohibited, and offensive demeanor by the military toward citizens promptly rebuked. Military arrests should not be tolerated, except in places where active hostilities exist, and oaths not required by enactments constitutionally made should be neither demanded nor received. Military government should be confined to the preservation of public order and the protection of political rights. Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude, either by supporting or impairing the authority of the master, except for repressing disorder, as in other cases. Slaves, contraband under the act of Congress, seeking military protection, should receive it. The right of the Government to appropriate permanently to its own service claims to slave labor should be asserted, and the right of the owner to compensation therefor should be recognized. This principle might be extended, upon grounds of military necessity and security, to all the slaves of a particular State, thus working manumission in such State; and in Missouri, perhaps in Western Virginia also, and possibly even in Maryland, the expediency of such a measure is only a question of time. A system of policy thus constitutional, and pervaded by the influences of Christianity and freedom, would receive the support of almost all truly loyal men, would deeply impress the rebel masses and all foreign nations, and it might be humbly hoped that it would commend itself to the favor of the Almighty.

Unless the principles governing the future conduct of our struggle shall be made known and approved the effort to obtain requisite forces will be almost hopeless. A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies. The policy of the Government must be supported by concentrations of military power. The national forces should not be dispersed in expeditions, posts of occupation, and numerous armies, but should be mainly collected into masses, and brought to bear upon the armies of the Confederate States. Those armies thoroughly defeated, the political structure which they support would soon cease to exist.

… I have written this letter with sincerity toward you and from love for my country.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Geo. B. McClellan,
Major-General, Commanding

SOURCE: McPherson, Edward, ed. The Political History of the United States of America During the Great Rebellion, from November 6, 1860, to July 4, 1864; etc., etc. Washington: Philip and Solomons, 1864.

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Letter to President Lincoln from Harrison's Landing (1862, by General George B. Mcclellan)

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