Finally, Lincoln and Stanton gave up their roles as strategists and pulled Gen. Henry Halleck from the West to take over as general in chief.
Still within striking distance of Richmond, McClellan now suggested that his army be sent south to take the critical railroad junctions at Petersburg, Va., a strategy that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would use two years later to win the war. But Halleck ranked the security of Washington higher and decided to advance on Richmond from the north with both Pope’s and McClellan’s armies. On Aug. 3 McClellan was ordered to withdraw from the Peninsula and join Pope.
McClellan has been accused of stalling, but moving a large army without notice is a complex undertaking. McClellan first had to bring back part of his army, which had advanced toward Richmond under Halleck’s orders. He also had to evacuate some 12,500 sick, but few transports were available, most already in use moving another command or transporting prisoners of war. Some of the largest transports could not reach his army because the James River was too shallow. When the army did move on Aug. 14, they had to march 40-55 miles to port.
McClellan sent his infantry before his artillery and cavalry, because the latter two required more time to ship. Almost half of his army got there before they were stopped by Jackson’s men who, unbeknownst to Union generals, had slipped around behind Pope.
As 1,200 of McClellan’s infantry rode the train to reinforce Pope, they found Jackson’s rebels with ample artillery waiting for them. Without cannons, the Federals were sitting ducks and lost a quarter of their men before they could escape. For the next two days, McClellan refused to send the remainder of his forces forward until his artillery was ready to accompany them. A frustrated Halleck overruled McClellan and ordered his troops forward, leaving McClellan without an army. (When Pope was defeated, Lincoln returned the army to McClellan.)
After the battle of Second Manassas, Lee marched north into Maryland and Lincoln called on McClellan to stop the invasion. More accusations of slowness and stupidity were leveled against him, even though he became one of the few generals to defeat Lee, in the battle of Antietam [to be addressed in the next Civil War section in September.] Finally, after the November elections, Lincoln cashiered McClellan.
Two years later, McClellan became the Democratic candidate for president. An army of newspaper writers and politicians sympathetic to Lincoln went after McClellan’s character, questioning and condemning every military action he had taken in his career.
Obscured by all this were some truly great accomplishments. Perhaps the most impressive was building an army from scratch and advancing it to within six miles of the Confederate capital at a cost of 10,000 men — all within the first year of the war. That same feat was only accomplished by one other Union commander — Grant, who lost six times as many men fighting a rebel army half the size and worn out by two years of fighting and attrition.
Perhaps the greatest testament came from Lee. According to Lee’s son, on the afternoon of July 15, 1870, Lee visited his first cousin and lifelong friend, Cassius Lee. When the general was asked which of the Federal generals he considered to be the greatest, “He answered most emphatically ‘McClellan by all odds.’ ”