Lincoln’s trip to Harpers Ferry proved the end for McClellan

CHARLES TOWN — President Abraham Lincoln made only one visit to Harpers Ferry.

En route to Sharpsburg during the first four days of October 1862, obstensibly to meet with soldiers to congratulate them for the recent battle at Antietam two weeks earlier, Lincoln was determined to meet with Union Gen. George McClellan to learn why the general was still resting in Maryland and not pursuing his enemy, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Lincoln, who was accompanied by his personal bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, a Summit Point native, Union Major Gen. John A. McClernand, Ozias M. Hatch, a friend from Illinois and John W. Garrett, who was president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, arrived by rail in Harpers Ferry from Washington on Oct. 1, and reviewed troops from Gen. Edwin Sumner’s 2nd Corps at Bolivar Heights with McClellan by afternoon.

In this 1862 photograph taken by Alexander Gardner, Ward Hill Lamon, seated to the left of President Lincoln, was told to sit so as not to be confused with the president..

That evening, the president sent a telegram to his wife saying, “General McClellan and myself are to be photographed tomorrow a.m. by Mr. Gardner if we can be still long enough. I feel Gen. M. should have no trouble at his end, but I may sway in the breeze a bit. Signed, A. Lincoln.”

The handwritten message was conveyed by Lamon to the telegraph office in Harpers Ferry’s lower town. The president stayed at the house where the superintendent of the federal arsenal lived on Camp Hill in Harpers Ferry.

The next day, the group traveled by buggy stopping to review the troops at Loudoun Heights, Maryland Heights and then through Pleasant Valley, to Boonsboro and on to Sharpsburg.

On Oct. 3, the president was taken on a tour of the battlefield with several of the Union generals, including Fitz John Porter and Ambrose Burnside, led by McClellan. The battle had long been over, the dead and wounded had all been removed from the field. But it was apparent that fresh graves were within sight of the visitors and the president. They reviewed the men of Porter’s 5th Corps and then did the same in visiting Burnside’s 9th Corps. A twenty-one gun salute was provided the president by the artillery batteries. He visited wounded from both the Union and Confederacy at the Grove Farm.

During the trip, Lincoln asked Lamon to sing some songs to entertain him, as was a common occurrence.

A newspaper cartoonist later lambasted the incident, prompting Lamon to ask Lincoln to defend himself as he was in the midst of an election campaign.

Lincoln insisted he would not respond to the misleading cartoon for he disliked being an apologist for an act for which he knew he was right.

Alexander Gardner, photograph-er for Matthew Brady Studios, took a number of photographs, including one of Lincoln with McClellan at the general’s tent on the Grove Farm west of Sharpsburg. Lamon appeared in one of the photographs. Lamon, who at 6 feet 4 inches was the same height as Lincoln, later wrote that the photographer insisted he sit down so that no one would think he was the president. But Lamon was stocky and didn’t look much at all like the country’s commander-in-chief.

Lincoln and his entourage also visited Gen. Israel Richardson, who was being treated at the Pry House near Keedysville for his wounds, and visited more wounded soldiers at Burkittsville and Frederick, where a large crowd greeted the president. From there, Lincoln boarded a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad train for his trip back to Washington.

There is no record of the actual meetings of McClellan and the president, but McClellan wrote in his memoirs: “I found the President at Gen. Sumner’s headquarters at Harpers Ferry; none of the cabinet were with him, merely some Western officers, such as McClernand and others. His ostensible purpose is to see the troops and the battlefield; I incline to think that the real purpose of his visit is to push me into a premature advance into Virginia. I may be mistaken but think not. The real truth is that my army is not fit to advance. The old regiments are reduced to mere skeletons and are completely tired out. They need rest and filling up. The new regiments are not fit for the field. The remains of Pope’s army are pretty well broken up and ought not to be made to fight for some little time yet. Cavalry and artillery horses are broken down. So it goes. These people don’t know what an army requires, and therefore act stupidly…”

When he returned to Washington, Lincoln sent a telegram to the general he had just visited. The Oct. 6 telegram sent by General Halleck said as follows: “The President directs you to cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now while the roads are good.”

On Nov. 5, McClellan was still resting in Sharpsburg, when Lincoln ordered that he be relieved of his command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced by Burnside.

— Bob O’Connor is the author of “The Virginian Who Might Have Saved Lincoln.”

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