Close To The Sun:
The Court-Martial of General George B. McClellan
By Chris Oakley
The American Civil War was one of the greatest catastrophes in US history. It tore the nation in half, left thousands of people dead or maimed, and left scars in the American psyche that remain to this day. It dragged on nearly a decade and consumed resources on a scale that even now still staggers the imagination. But perhaps the most dangerous effect the Civil War had on America was to call into serious question the traditional American concept of civilian control of the nation’s armed forces; at the height of the bloodshed, when it seemed as if the Union might perish in flames, then-Union Army commander-in-chief General George B. McClellan tried to topple President Abraham Lincoln from office in the belief that Lincoln would destroy the Union forever if he were allowed to remain in power.
However, in a tragic irony McClellan’s actions nearly wiped out the very nation he was trying to save. His failed attempt to force Lincoln out of the White House constituted a dangerous distraction at a time when the American people could least afford one and gave the Confederacy a breathing space in which to regroup its forces for a fresh wave of offensives against the Union Army. Had it not been for McClellan’s bungled coup d'état, many historians believe, the Civil War could have been ended much sooner and with far fewer casualties. As it was, the general’s actions ensured that the war would not only continue to rage throughout the remainder of Lincoln’s tenure in the Oval Office but would also stretch into the early days of the term of Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson; years after the war finally came to an end, McClellan’s name could not be spoken by many people North or South without being made to sound like a curse word.
McClellan himself, in his final hours before his execution by firing squad, would come to express bitter regret at the rash course of action he’d taken. In a note written to his family on the eve of his execution, the general said: "The moment I made the rash decision to oust Mr. Lincoln by force, I condemned myself to an intolerable perdition...it would have been better for me and all if a Reb bullet had struck me down before I could act on the notion, for I have not only brought down disgrace and condemnation on myself but also shamed all of you and desecrated the uniform of our army."
Despite dogged efforts by McClellan’s defenders to rehabilitate his legacy, he is still one of the most reviled figures on either side of the American Civil War. So hated was he in the immediate aftermath of his execution that many people who shared his last name hastened to change it even if they had no ties to him whatsoever. For generations after the war ended, any attempt to defend McClellan’s record as a soldier was answered with mocking dismissal at best and some vehement accusations of treason at worst. Scores of presidential candidates from both major parties in the post-Civil War era invoked McClellan as a symbol of the social, political, and diplomatic ills for which they blamed the other side; one Republican aspirant to the White House used a blood-stained shirt worn by one of McClellan’s fallen soldiers as a prop in a speech denouncing the Democrats, crying: "The blood on this shirt also stains the hands of the McClellanite archtraitors and their henchmen in the Democratic Party!" The Democrats’ response to this was to issue a "bloody shirt" speech of their own, blaming so-called GOP "warmongers" for inciting McClellan to make his ill-fated bid to seize control of the federal government.
But before we dive into the aftermath of the McClellan coup d’etat attempt, let’s look at the circumstances leading up to the conception of that attempt. In early 1863, when the Union Army was still recovering from the gruesome stalemate at Antietam, McClellan made up his mind that Lincoln had to go; he gathered a team of like- minded officers around him to lay the preliminary groundwork for a plan to oust Lincoln from the presidency and replace him with a new leader who would negotiate what McClellan deemed an honorable end to the hostilities with the Confederacy.
The account of what happened at that meeting reads like something out of Vince Flynn or Robert Ludlum. For the better part of two and a half hours(three and a half, according to Gen. McClellan’s posthumous autobiography) the participants at that meeting argued over what would be the best way to overcome the White House guard detail and overthrow Lincoln. At least one man present at the gathering pondered whether it might not be safer to detain Lincoln when he was away from the White House and then commandeer the Oval Office while his deputies were kept otherwise occupied.
On the matter of what was to be done with Lincoln once he’d been deposed, General McClellan and his co-conspirators were in unanimous agreement: it had already been decided that Lincoln should be put on trial for what McClellan referred to as "crimes against the Republic" and imprisoned for the rest of his days once he’d been convicted. As for Lincoln’s cabinet, those men in it willing to switch allegiance to McClellan would be granted amnesty and allowed to retain their posts after the coup; those who remained loyal to Lincoln would join him in prison.
McClellan might have managed to pull it off but for one small detail. One of the servants refreshing his coffee cup at the fateful meeting was related to a staunch Lincoln supporter who worked at the War Department in Washington; though his outward facial expression gave nothing away, inwardly he was horrified at what the McClellan cabal was proposing to do. As McClellan and the other conspirators adjourned their illicit conclave, the servant slipped out a back door and down to a telegraph office to warn his relative of the impending danger.
At first, the White House was understandably skeptical about the warning. But when the servant’s story was corroborated by a McClellan aide who was still loyal to Lincoln and had secretly kept a written account of the meeting, Lincoln’s security people changed their tune and began counter-planning to halt the nascent coup d’etat dead in its tracks. A detachment of Union Army guards was quietly recalled from patrol duty along the Mason-Dixon line to arrest General McClellan and his cohorts when they finally made their move. The coup plotters had no idea they were walking into a trap....
On March 2nd, 1863 the McClellanites made the final preparations for mounting their intended takeover of the federal government. Not realizing that their operational security had been compromised, they expected to make short work of what they mistakenly thought was a weak guard detail and capture Lincoln and his vice-president, former Maine senator Hannibal Hamlin, after only token resistance; once Lincoln and Hamlin had been captured, they thought, it would only be a matter of time before Lincoln’s cabinet capitulated to them. But in the famous words of poet Robert Burns, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry-- and McClellan’s hopes for overthrowing Lincoln fell apart within hours after the coup attempt was launched. No sooner had the McClellanites started to make their move on the White House than they came under ferocious gunfire from the Federal guards deployed to guard the Executive Mansion.
The first rifle volley killed a dozen men; many others, desperate to avoid falling prey to the second volley, ran away as far as their legs or horses could carry them. Once President Lincoln’s safety had been assured, the guards moved to arrest McClellan’s co-conspirators while additional Federal troops were dispatched to capture McClellan himself. The general would be easier to find than they expected: as it turned out, McClellan was staying in a hotel on the other side of the Potomac awaiting word of President Lincoln’s ouster. The general found himself in Federal custody before he knew what hit him.
To Be Continued...