In a Wartime Telegram, a Look at a Frustrated Lincoln

One way to think of it is this: It is a page from the script for the script for “Lincoln.”

The script for the script? Historical documents and reference materials served as the basis for the movie’s script, and this is an original document, a 106-word draft of a telegram signed by Abraham Lincoln himself. So it was not polished by the writers in Hollywood.

Lincoln wrote it in May 1862, when, as the movie made clear, Lincoln was focusing on the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln sent the telegram — to be displayed at the Winter Antiques Show, which opens to the public on Jan. 25 at the Park Avenue Armory — in reply to a 10-page message from Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who has been described by one historian as Lincoln’s “never-ready” general.

By May 1862, Lincoln had had it with McClellan. He had stripped McClellan of overall command of the Union forces in March. McClellan, who remained in charge of the Army of the Potomac, was plotting an amphibious attack on Richmond from the east that became known as the “peninsula campaign.”

It was a spectacular failure. McClellan had more than 100,000 men but lost to a smaller Confederate force led by Robert E. Lee.

The historian Reid Mitchell said that McClellan took the Army “up the Virginia peninsula to within sight of Richmond — and then back down the peninsula, under his panicked orders.” McClellan retreated apparently believing that he was outnumbered by Confederate forces in Virginia. Mr. Mitchell said it was not a story of Lee defeating McClellan, but of “McClellan defeating himself.”

In the telegram, Lincoln countermanded McClellan, who wanted 40,000 troops under General Irvin McDowell sent south from Northern Virginia by ship. “McDowell can reach you by land sooner than he could get aboard of boats if the boats were ready at Fredericksburg,” Lincoln wrote. “By land he can reach you in five days after starting, whereas by water he would not reach you in two weeks, judging by past experience.”

The telegram was sold at Christie’s in 2000 for $468,000. Kenneth Rendell acquired it recently from the collector who bought it then, and is offering it at the antiques show through the Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery for $575,000.

“What I see in this letter is he’s showing the leadership,” Mr. Rendell said. “He’s overruling his commander, McClellan, with fundamental common sense, about withdrawing the troops by sea and thereby exposing Washington to a Confederate attack. Lincoln wanted them to head south by land, so the troops would be between Washington and the Confederates.”

He also said Lincoln was showing frustration. “I know Lincoln was finally totally fed up with McClellan,” Mr. Rendell said. “He was like Montgomery in World War II. He had to have overwhelming force, and he hesitated all the time.”

Historians have described McClellan as reluctant to attack and exaggerated claims about the enemy he was facing. Some say he had a Napoleonic sense of himself. That would explain a passage in the dispatch he had sent Lincoln that prompted the telegram.

“I believe there is a great struggle before this army but I am neither dismayed nor discouraged,” McClellan declared. “I trust that the result may either obtain for me the permanent confidence of my government or that it may close my career.”

McClellan went on to run against Lincoln in 1864. He was the governor of New Jersey from 1878 to 1881.

His son George McClellan Jr., born in 1865, the year the Civil War ended, had considerable success on the other side of the Hudson River. He was secretary and treasurer of the Brooklyn Bridge; worked for The New York World; was president of the Board of Aldermen, the 19th century version of the City Council; served eight years in the House of Representatives; and, in 1903, was elected mayor.

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