Lincoln's last letter to General McClellan before firing him
Abraham Lincoln Autograph Letter Signed to General George
McClellan. One-page, 5" x 8", Executive Mansion, Washington
[DC]; October 29, 1862. In this letter, which appears to be
Lincoln's last written communication to General McClellan before he
fired him a week later, the president acknowledges several recent
communications from the general concerning troop movements into
Virginia against General Robert E. Lee's retreating Confederate
Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Antietam. In
Major Genl. McClellan,
Your dispatch of night before last, yesterday, & last night, all received. I am much pleased with the movement of the Army. When you get entirely across the river let me know.
What do you know of the enemy?
This letter is the last in a series of communications between President Lincoln and General McClellan concerning the Army of the Potomac's pursuit of the retreating Confederate Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Antietam. Two days earlier, on October 27, 1862, a frustrated Lincoln had written to McClellan demanding, "Is it your purpose not to go into action?" (Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 479.) When Lincoln writes that he is "pleased with the movement of the Army" in the letter offered here, the sentiment expressed is likely sarcasm as much as it is relief.
On September 17, 1862, the bloodiest day of the Civil War, Union forces defeated General Lee's Confederate army at Antietam Creek, thwarting Lee's invasion of Maryland. In addition to stopping Lee's advance into Union territory, the victory provided Lincoln with the opportunity he had been waiting for to move ahead on emancipation. In a July 22 cabinet meeting, the president shared a draft of what became the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Lincoln was ready to make the proclamation public, his cabinet disagreed. Secretary of State William Seward recommended that Lincoln wait until a military victory before announcing the policy, believing that issuing it now would be perceived as a move driven by desperation. Lincoln agreed and decided to hold off until a Union military victory. On September 22, five days after Antietam, Lincoln issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that those enslaved in territory under Confederate control would be freed in 100 days if the Confederacy did not cease its rebellion and re-join the Union. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln kept his promise and issued the final Emancipation Proclamation.
In the wake of Antietam, Lincoln urged McClellan to pursue Lee's retreating army while in a weakened condition. In a series of communications in October 1862, Lincoln pushed the general to move against Lee's army, while the latter offered excuses why he could not. On October 6, General in Chief Henry Halleck sent a telegraph to McClellan in which he communicated Lincoln's orders "to cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good." He informed the general that Lincoln "is very desirous that your army move as soon as possible." (Abraham Lincoln, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 452.) McClellan, however, did not move, proclaiming that he lacked adequate resources to do so. Lincoln, in an October 13 letter, reminded McClellan of his warning of "over-cautiousness." Are you not, Lincoln claimed, "over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what the enemy is constantly doing? Should you not claim to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?...you are now nearer Richmond than the enemy is by the route that you can, and he must take. Why can you not reach there before him, unless you admit that he is more than your equal on a march." (Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 460.) Still, McClellan stalled, at one point blaming fatigued horses for his delay. This drew a sharp retort from an exasperated Lincoln, who in an October 25 communication, posed this question to the general: "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?" (Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 474.) McClellan was insulted by Lincoln's sarcasm and, as a result, the president toned down his comments while expressing his frustration with the general's lack of movement. In a October 27 letter to McClellan, Lincoln wrote "To be told after more than five weeks total inaction of the Army, and during which period we have sent that Army every fresh horse we possibly could, amounting in the whole to 7918 that the cavalry horses were too much fatigued to move, presented a cheerless, almost hopeless, prospect for the future....I suppose the river is rising, and I am glad to believe you are crossing." (Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 479.)
McClellan finally did move his army across the Potomac after more than a month after Lincoln's initial directive to pursue Lee's army. On October 28, the day before Lincoln's letter offered here, McClellan informed the president via several dispatches that his army was on the move, with several regiments having crossed the river. In his October 29 letter to McClellan, Lincoln acknowledges the general's updates and expresses his pleasure that the Army of the Potomac was finally moving. One wonders when Lincoln wrote, "I am much pleased with the movement of the Army" whether he was expressing his relief, sarcasm, or both. McClellan's actions were too little, too late, however, for Lincoln fired the general on November 5, 1862.
This is an important letter; the last is a series of communications between a frustrated commander in chief and his over cautious and insubordinate general. The letter is housed in a custom made portfolio, measuring 6.75" x 9.75".
Condition: Flattened folds. Verso has traces of adhesive remnants and stray ink transference. Small cross tear with no loss of paper affecting the "or" in "Major".
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