On this day in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln pays a late night visit to General George McClellan, who Lincoln had recently named general in chief of the Union army. The general retired to his chambers before speaking with the president.
This was the most famous example of McClellan’s cavalier disregard for the president’s authority. Lincoln had tapped McClellan to head the Army of the Potomacâ€”the main Union army in the Eastâ€”in July 1861 after the disastrous Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, Virginia. McClellan immediately began to build an effective army, and was elevated to general in chief after Winfield Scott resignedthat fall. McClellan drew praise for his military initiatives but quickly developed a reputation for his arrogance and contempt toward the political leaders in Washington, D.C. After being named to the top army post, McClellan began openly associating with Democratic leaders in Congress and showing his disregard for the Republican administration. To his wife,McClellan wrote that Lincoln was “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon,” and Secretary of State William Seward was an “incompetent little puppy.”
Lincoln made frequent evening visits to McClellan’s house to discuss strategy. On November 13, Lincoln, Seward, and presidential secretary John Hay stopped by to see the general. McClellan was out, so the trio waited for his return. After an hour, McClellan came in and was told by a porter that the guests were waiting. McClellan headed for his room without a word, and only after Lincoln waited another half-hour was the group informed of McClellan’s retirement to bed. Hay felt that the president should have been greatly offended, but Lincoln replied that it was “better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.” Lincoln made no more visits to the general’s home. In March 1862, the president removed McClellan as general in chief of the army.