Tag Archive | georgemcclellan

Bickering Generals

By Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

mssEC_01_020 - bickering_generals

The telegraph offered a revolutionary breakthrough in communications, however, no technology could ease personal tensions or alleviate turf wars. Two telegrams spotted by hungmung, one of our valiant volunteers, offer an intriguing insight into one of such conflict.

Both telegrams were received in Washington on February 7, 1862.  Both involved Henry W. Halleck (Alden), then the commander of the Department of the Missouri; George B. McClellan (Andes), the general-in-chief of Union armies; and Don Carlos Buell (Alvord), the head of the Department of the Ohio. The telegrams were part of a complicated but little known conflict over the course of action in the West.

Lincoln urged speedy occupation of the heavily Unionist Tennessee, but McClellan and his old friend Buell wanted instead to target Nashville. The heads of two Western departments, Halleck and Buell, could not get along. When Buell came up with a plan to launch a dual advance on the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers, Halleck dismissed the plan as “madness” on the grounds that the Union troops in the West were too scattered to provide for any sort of sustained campaign.

Things got even more complicated in late January 1862. McClellan, perhaps hoping to score some political points, proposed to shift the fighting to Kentucky and then move on to East Tennessee. Upon his request, the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent his Assistant Secretary Thomas A. Scott to explore the logistics of transferring some 60,000 troops from McClellan’s command to Buell’s headquarters in Louisville.

On January 29, McClellan fired off a telegram to Halleck warning him of the impending Confederate expedition into Kentucky. The next day, Halleck ordered Ulysses S. Grant to start immediately for Fort Henry.

At the same time Buell decided to go to East Tennessee after all. When Halleck, who was getting cold feet about the operation, asked Buell either to transfer some of his troops or to stage a diversion, Buell was less than enthusiastic, even after McClellan urged his friend to help Halleck by switching the line of attack from East Tennessee to Bowling Green, Ky.

In the second telegram, Buell telegraphed McClellan complaining about Halleck’s move which, although “right in its strategic bearing” had been commenced without “appreciation, preparation, or concert.” Now that it had “become of vast magnitude,” Buell noted that he was indeed contemplating “a change of the line to support” but warned that this sudden change of direction was “hazardous.”

The telegram appears in on pp. 587-588 of vol. 7 of the 1st Series of the Official Records. It is clear that the publication differs from the ledger record. For example, the phrase “without appreciation, preparation, or concert,” was edited to read “without appreciation – preparative or concert.”

Moreover, the publication does not include the telegram that, as the ledger shows, immediately preceded it.  The telegram at the top of the page was published some sixteen years later; it appears on p. 206 of vol. 52 (part I). It was also printed with errors: it seems to indicate that the telegram was sent from Washington, D.C. and addressed to an “L. Thomas.” As seen in the ledger, the telegram was in fact addressed to General George Thomas and sent from Buell’s headquarters in Louisville. Because the telegrams were printed out of sequence and with serious errors, the connection between them has long been overlooked.

As the ledger shows, Buell was indeed contemplating the transfer of some Ohio and Indiana regiments. Also, the published version of the telegram from Buell to McClellan features a time-stamp that seems to show it took almost 12 hours to transmit it: the message sent at midnight of February 6 was received at 11:30 a.m. of February 7. The ledger, however, shows no time stamp on this or the preceding telegram. In fact, there were only two more telegrams that similarly lacked the time stamp. All four were received on February 7 and all followed a confidential report from Thomas A. Scott, the Assistant Secretary of War to his boss Edwin M. Stanton.

That report, which also does not appear in OR, describes Scott’s effort to facilitate the confusing and bitter communications between Halleck’s and Buell’s departments. It appears that our telegrams were attached to the report. The ledger shows that the telegrams were received along with the report by a USMT operator in Washington at 1:30 a.m. rather than 11:30 a.m. of February 7.

Generals bickering on the battlefield is nothing new. What is interesting is to see how that bickering has been captured and then reinterpreted over time. These messages  offer a confirmation of the primary importance of our job here at Decoding the Civil War.

Reverse Engineering Lost Codebooks


Apl 21 1862
Andes Your dispatch of the nineteenth
was received that day Fredericksburg is
evacuated and the palate destroyed by
the rampant & a small part
of Anthons command occupies this side
of the Sabel opposite the town
He proposes moving his whole force
to that point signed Berlin good

Let it never be said that no good comes from spending time on Twitter! As I was scrolling through Decoding the Civil War’s feed I came across a handwritten copy of a telegram from Lincoln to McClellan, and I asked myself whether we might have a copy in the Eckert Collection as well. It turns out that we do, it’s a lightly coded version, and Project Leader Mario had already done some initial work on it for the folks developing education modules based on the Eckert materials. He had determined, in fact, that the message was sent in a code that has not survived (as far as we know).

By using the original message we can start to reconstruct this missing codebook, which may help us decipher other messages in the future. So far we have learned:

Andes = McClellan
Palate = bridge
Rampant = enemy
Anthon = McDowell
Label = Rappahannock River
Berlin = Lincoln

It may not seem like much, but it’s a start! Thanks to   for inspiring this blog post!

Do I Detect a Hint of Sarcasm?

mssEC_01_148 - mcclellan drawing lincolns excellencys attention - cropped.jpg

McClellans 5th 4 PM June 5 62
For A Lincoln May I again invite
Your Excellencys attention to the great
importance of occupying Chattanooga & Dalton
by our Western forces The evacuation
of Corinth would appear to render
this very easy The importance of
the move in force cannot be
exaggerated signed Andes

Little Mac was certainly gung-ho for others to move. While bogged down in his own offensive in Virginia, McClellan is urging Lincoln to push Halleck south from Corinth to Chattanooga and Northern Georgia. As Halleck responded, “Preparations for Chattanooga made five days ago, and troops moved in that direction. Mitchel’s foolish destruction of bridges embarrassed me very much, but I am working night and day to remedy the error, and will very soon re-enforce him.”

The lack of bridges and railroad stymied Halleck’s progress. But this message is really about Little Mac. He must have been feeling pressure to move and sought to focus Lincoln and Stanton elsewhere.

Harpers Ferry in Trouble

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From Fredrick Sep 14
9 AM
For Abortion [insert]Genl Halleck[/insert] A courier from Col
Miles who left in the night
has just arrived and says Col
Miles is surrounded by a large
force of the Enemy but thinks
he can hold out two days
Genl White has joined him with
his command from Martinsburg Miles is
in possession of Harpers Ferry
& Loudon heights – if he
holds out today I can
probably save him – the whole
Army is moving as rapidly
as possible the Enemy is
in possession of Maryland Heights
signed Gel B McClellan – nice country this

The Battle of Harpers Ferry is generally overshadowed by the Battle of Antietam which took place a couple days later, but it probably occupied most of the thoughts of Colonel Miles, who was tasked with defending the fort against a substantial Confederate force. At this point the Union forces have already lost control of Maryland Heights, and it was only a matter of time before they were surrounded and forced to surrender.

McClellan’s Great Discovery

mssEC_22_018 - mcclellan report sept 13 - p 1 of 4.jpg

Frederick City Sept 13′ 11 PM
For Applause An order of vermin
R E Lee addressed to vernon
D H Hill which has accidentally
come into my hands this evening
the authenticity of which is unquestionable
discloses some of the plans of
the windham and shows most conclusively
that the main Simms walpole is
now before us including Longstreets Jacksons
the two Hills McLaws Walkers &
R H Andersons & Hoods Commands
That walnut was ordered to March
on the tenth & to wales
& wayne our forces at Harpers
Ferry & Martinsburg yesterday by surrounding
them with such a heavy force
that they conceived it impossible they
could escape They were also ordered
to take possession of the B
& O Soap afterwards to concentrate

On this day in 1862, Major General George McClellan came into possession of General Robert E. Lee’s orders to his subordinates, and the above is just the beginning of his (typically) long-winded telegram to Washington describing what he has learned. The intelligence starts out well, but on the next page he states that he has “good reason for believing” that the Confederate force “amounts to one hundred & twenty thousand men or more”, a considerable over-estimate. He later argues that “upon the success of this walnut [army] the fate of the nation depends”. McClellan failed to act quickly on this intelligence, however, and the Battle of Antietam took place a few days later.