The Generals and Admirals: John A. McClernand (1812-1900)

Union General who was an Illinois Congressman (Democrat, 1843-51, 1859-61) before the Civil War, John A. McClernand was a bundle of political egotism proclaiming "Glorious! Glorious" when he thought things on the battlefield were contributing to his political ambition.

Off the battlefield, McClernand was a bundle of political intrigue, convincing the president to allow him to raise an army to take Vicksburg. Tended to glorify or falsify his own military accomplishments along the Mississippi River, especially Vicksburg. A valuable recruiter of troops but divisive commander, he feuded with General Henry W. Halleck, disobeyed orders from General Ulysses S. Grant, aggravated General Sherman and was finally dismissed by General Grant in 1863 after his actions in siege of Vicksburg. Vain and ambitious, indelicate and pushy, his attempt to commandeer leadership of the Vicksburg expedition for himself caused confusion and some embarrassment within the Lincoln Administration.

"The most obvious evidence of Lincoln's doubts about Grant was his decision to outfit an expedition to capture Vicksburg under the command of John A. McClernand. Lincoln and McClernand had first met as political opponents in Illinois, president, seeking as much bipartisan aid as possible, welcomed McClernand as an ally, and McClernand was not long in trying turn this to his advantage," wrote historian Brooks Simpson. "In August 1862 he traveled east to visit the president to secure an independent command with the mission to capture Vicksburg."1 In October 1862, McClernand accompanied Mr. Lincoln to visit Union troops on the battlefield of Antietam. The two had their photo taken there by Matthew Brady.

Historian T. Harry Williams wrote that Mr. Lincoln "should have been able to take the measure of McClernand and avoid a situation from which he would eventually extricate himself only with embarrassment. The documents in the McClernand case begin with a very long letter that he wrote to Lincoln under a Washington date line of September 28. In view of his previous unsolicited letters, his opening sentence of apology may be disregarded. While Lincoln may have been 'pleased to invite' the letter, he surely did not have to urge it upon a bashful caller who had dropped in for a cup of tea. McClernand's trip could have had no other purpose than to persuade Lincoln to give him an independent command with orders to take 'the comparatively insignificant garrison at Vicksburg' and open the Mississippi."2 On September 27, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase visited Mr. Lincoln and asked his opinion of McClernand. The President said "he thought him brave and capable, but to desirous to be independent of every body else."3

McClernand first proposed an army of 50,000 and later cut it to 20,000 along with key officers from Grant's command. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton authorized McClernand on October 21 to organize troops in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa" for the purpose of an expedition to take Vicksburg. President Lincoln endorsed Stanton's order: This order, though marked confidential, may be shown by general McClernand to governors, and even others, when in his discretion he believes so doing to be indispensable to the progress of the expedition. I add that I feel deep interest in the success of the expedition and desire it to be pushed forward with all possible dispatch consistent with the other parts of the military success."4

Eventually, Ulysses S. Grant took over complete control of the Vicksburg operation from McClernand—and the Confederates surrendered on July 4, 1864. "The president thought McClernand 'brave and capable, but too desirous to be independent of every body else.' Nevertheless, Lincoln, frustrated with the military situation elsewhere, approved McClernand's plan. David D. Porter, whose Mississippi flotilla was supposed to cooperate with McClernand, explained that Lincoln was responsible for saving the day at Shiloh, an impression McClernand shared and most probably cultivated in the president's mind," wrote Brooks Simpson.

Grant subsequently relieved McClernand of command on June 18, 1863 after he leaked materials to a newspaper that claimed unjustified credit for army successes. President Lincoln wrote McClernand: "All there is, so far as I have heard is General Grant's statement of his reasons for relieving you. And even this I have not seen or sought to see, because it is a case, as appears to me, in which I could do nothing without important successes, and for me to interfere and thus magnify a breach between you could not but be of evil effect. Better leave it where the law of the case has placed it. For me to force you back upon General Grant would be forcing him to resign. I cannot give you a new command, because I have no forces except such as already have commanders. I am constantly pressed by those who scold before they think, or without thinking at all, to give commands respectively to Frémont, McClelland, Butler, Sigel, Curtis, Hunter, Hooker, and perhaps others, when all else out of the way, I have no commands to give them. This is now your case..."

"The President badgered Dana a good deal about McClernand, leaving the impression that he was not altogether satisfied with the dismissal, which presently brought it about that Grant's staff man, Rawlins, also came east, ostensibly with dispatches, actually for a long session with the cabinet. The McClernand matter was gone into thoroughly, and a final decision against the politician-general was somewhat reluctantly taken," wrote historian Fletcher Pratt.5 McClernand served in the Red River campaign in the winter of 1864 and finally retired from the army in November 1864.

Naval officer David Dixton Porter argued: “I do not suppose that so great a piece of folly was ever before committed’ as the appointment of McClernand.6 Historian Williams concluded: "The affaire McClernand is an excellent example of what can happen when correct procedures are not followed, and Lincoln cannot be absolved of initial responsibility. Though in the end he stood firmly behind grant, it is hard to see how anyone can read the McClernand letters to Lincoln... and not experience a sense of exasperation that no adequate reproof was ever given to the intriguer. Lincoln could reprimand in a masterful way, but he had received from McClernand so many letters without reproof that, when the matter came to a climax, he was so much a party to what had taken place that he could not censure without admitting his own fault. That, however, was something he on occasion unhesitatingly did."7

As a congressman, McClernand was a key ally of Senator Stephen A. Douglas—especially in the controversies over Kansas' government. McClernand had practiced law along with Lincoln in Springfield and served with him in the State Legislature in the late 1830s (pro-improvement Democrat) and Congress (Democrat, 1843-51, 1859-61) but was a key Douglas lieutenant at the 1860 Charleston convention. In 1838, he had been appointed Illinois Secretary of State; Lincoln represented his predecessor in a dispute over McClernand's right of succession to the state office. McClernand had been the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for House Speaker in 1859. Subsequently returned to law practice and judicial service, serving as president of the 1876 Democratic National Convention.


Footnotes

  1. Frank J. Williams, William D. Pederson, and Vincent J. Marsala, editors, Abraham Lincoln: Sources and Style of Leadership, p. 112 (Brooks Simpson).
  2. T. Harry Williams, Lincoln Finds a General, Volume III, p. 147.
  3. David Donald, editor, Inside Lincoln's Cabinet, p. 161.
  4. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General, p. 148.
  5. Fletcher Pratt, Stanton: Lincoln's Secretary of War, p. 315.
  6. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 434.
  7. Williams, Lincoln Finds a General, p. 431.

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