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Lincoln at the Civil War Battlefields

By Roger Billings

Presentation to CCWRT on 16 October 2008, Summarized by Dan Bauer

©Cincinnati CWRT, 2008

Lincoln Meets McClellan at AntietamLincoln routinely walked next door from the White House to the Army telegraph office to get first news from the battlefields. But the telegraph only whetted Lincoln's appetite for on-site inspections so he would travel by steamer and railroad to visit the generals at the battlefields. These excursions allowed him to evaluate the progress of the war first hand, give his generals pep talks before a battle and reassurances after a loss.

Mr. Billing's talk was accompanied with a one page handout which included a chronology of Lincoln's fifteen battlefield visits and a map of the eastern theater. The same map was projected onto a large screen. As Mr. Billings would mention a location, he would identify the location with a laser pointer.

The first of Lincoln's war trips occurred two days after First Bull Run on July 23, 1861. Lincoln went to Fort Corcoran near Arlington, VA to confer with Erwin McDowell. Lincoln had decided that the job was too big for McDowell. Four days later, Lincoln appointed McClellan commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln and McClellan had a fundamental strategic difference on how the war should be fought. Lincoln wanted McClellan to go after the Confederate Army while McClellan wanted to go after Richmond, the confederate capital. Lincoln finally gave in to McClellan's plan and agreed to the Peninsula Campaign. Lincoln visited the union army at Fortress Monroe at Hampton Roads on May 6th, 1862. Fortress Monroe was the staging point for the Peninsula Campaign. McClellan was too busy to meet with Lincoln during this visit. During the six day visit, Lincoln did not seem to have much of an agenda.

Lincoln was unsure if he should send Irwin McDowell's Corps of 30,000 troops to join McClellan on the peninsula or if he should keep them in Northern Virginia to protect Washington from a possible attack by Stonewall Jackson. To help him decide, Lincoln met with Winfield Scott at West Point on June 23rd. Although Scott advised that sending McDowell to the peninsula would be best, the Seven Days Battles occurred before the shift could occur. McClellan retreated back down the peninsula to Harrisons Landing. Lincoln went to Harrison's Landing on July 7, 1862. During the visit, McClellan provided Lincoln with a horse that was too small. While some believed this was done on purpose, Lincoln was nevertheless cheered on by the 100,000 soldiers. Although Lincoln treated McClellan in a kindly manner during the visit, once returning to Washington, Lincoln placed Henry Halleck over McClellan as General in Chief of the army. This was a move recommended by Winfield Scott during the West Point visit. Lincoln wanted Halleck to serve as intermediary between himself and McClellan so as to translate Lincoln's strategic decisions into military terminology.

It was during Lincoln's October 3rd visit to Sharpsburg after the battle of Antietam that Alexander Gardner took his famous photos of Lincoln and McClellan. After McClellan crossed back over the Potomac a month later, Lincoln replaced McClellan with Burnside.

On four separate occasions Lincoln would meet with his generals around Fredericksburg as the army tried to advance south of the Rappahannock River. While the Army was encamped at Falmouth on the north bank of the Rappahannock River just across from Fredericksburg, Lincoln met Burnside at Acquia Creek on November 28, 1862. Acquia Creek was a major supply depot located on a tributary of the Potomac River and a short rail trip from Fredericksburg. The two met to discuss the impending attack on Fredericksburg. After the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Hooker. The following spring while the army was back at Falmouth; Lincoln met with Hooker on April 5th and again on April 19th at Acquia Creek. On May 7th, after the defeat at Chancellorsville, Lincoln went back to Falmouth to again meet with Hooker.

On June 28th Hooker was relieved of command and replaced with Meade. In November of 1863, four and a half months after the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln went to Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery and address the crowd.

Lincoln placed Grant over Meade as commander of all the Union Armies. After the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant established a base of operations at City Point for the siege of Petersburg. City Point is located at the confluence of the James River and the Appomattox Rivers just downstream from Petersburg. During the siege of Petersburg, Lincoln traveled to southeastern Virginia on four separate occasions. The first two of these visits involved meetings with Grant at City Point on June 21, 1864 and later on July 31 at Fortress Monroe. On February 3, 1865 Lincoln and Seward met with three prominent Confederates for an unsuccessful peace conference aboard the River Queen at Hampton Roads.

The last and longest of Lincoln's trips was prompted by an invitation from Grant's wife, Julia. It included a tour of the Petersburg battlefield, a March 25, 1865 meeting with Grant at City Point, and a review of General Ord's Division at Malvern Hill. The Malvern visit was in the company of General Ord's wife instead of the late arriving Mary Lincoln. This prompted an upset Mary Lincoln to return to Washington abruptly. After the fall of Richmond, Lincoln visited what had been the Confederate White House and was even able to sit at the desk of Jefferson Davis. Lincoln returned to Washington on April 5th.

In the question session, Mr. Billings described the July 11, 1864 Fort Stevens trip. While Grant had Lee pinned down at Petersburg, Jubal Early was threatening an attack on Washington. Early got as close as Fort Stevens, one of the 60 forts guarding Washington. Lincoln wanted to see the action first hand and rode out five miles from the White House to visit the fort. While at Fort Stevens, Lincoln was told to get down to avoid the bullets that were whizzing by.

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