Some reflections on the Dennison-McClellan chronology.
McClellan’s rise to the position of ranking major general in the Regular Army (behind Scott) occurs within 31 days: (1) GBM is offered MG, USV on April 14 (and on April 24, GBM offers to resign); (2) on May 3 his commission is foreshortened to 90 days by Lincoln’s assumption of new powers; at the same time he is made commander of the federal Department of the Ohio (3) on May 11, Dennison seeks federal extension of GBM’s USV commission; (4) on May 14, GBM is appointed MG RA.
This occurs without GBM accomplishing anything publicly apart from organizing, planning, conferencing, and advising. The invasion of Western Virginia comes later.
I don’t want to get into the complexities of McClellan’s initial Ohio commissioning except to say (1) by his initial actions, GBM clearly rated this opportunity lower than others and (2) Pinkerton left record of what appears to be a Lincoln intervention in Ohio during GBM’s commission hunt (see Spy of the Rebellion).
Neither Dennison nor Chase knew GBM when his commission hunt began. I don’t have to remind readers of this blog of the hours Lincoln and McClellan spent in each other’s company on railroad business in Illinois or that McClellan was Lincoln’s employer/paymaster before the war. We would be foolish not to consider that Lincoln, operating as usual through cutouts, obtained a result that he wanted for McClellan.
The problem with this is the parallel example of Fremont. Fremont is elevated to the same senior RA grade as GBM at the same time, and Fremont is in no way a Lincoln deal. He is in fact a political threat to Lincoln, being a former Republican Party presidential candidate, now with a major military command in position to win headlines and plaudits. He was the pet project of Montgomery Blair and a tool for levering Gen. Harney out of Missouri.
If Blair could win the necessary evil of Fremont top MG rank without Lincoln’s enthusiasm, Chase could possibly have won McClellan the same rank on the same basis. In fact, given the enmity of Blair and Chase, this dual promotion has the flavor of Lincoln’s peacekeeping within the Cabinet. Except at this point, Chase did not know McClellan except second-hand.
There is a third possibility which I like best. Dennison was a Lincoln admirer; while guarding Lincoln after the inauguration, Pinkerton, well known to Lincoln as another Illinois Central consultant, suggested Lincoln recommend McClellan to Dennison. This is speculation based on what might have been in Lincoln’s coded telegram, referred to by Pinkerton.
After that, matters snowball. The Administration sees military conferences, plans, and a partnership that threatens to re-center the war in Columbus. Dennison, for all his goodwill towards Lincoln, emerges as an hyperactive power center. McClellan is his capable military counterpart and tool. The Dennison-McClellan team, with its electrifying effect on Curtin and the western governors, destabilizes the Administration’s control of the war, moreso even than New York’s Union Committee, with its fleets of blockaders, privateers, and national supply operations.
Hesseltine is decisive on the point that Lincoln’s three-year enlistment proclamation with the asserted right to appoint generals was a political action against the governors and recognized by them as such.
I would go farther: the effect of the act specifically limited the tenure of incumbent USV MGs. Every state USV commander now faced an expiration date by which he had to please Washington or give it up.
For McClellan, there was a doubling down in that on the same day Washington also attempted to take him out of Dennison’s control by making him commander of a new federal department. For his part, McClellan tried to “play ball with D.C.” by engaging Scott and Cameron with queries, reports, and interactions and this fails due to their “apathy.”
On the other hand, as the chronology shows, he continued to be drawn into Dennison’s interstate combinations – presenting the picture of continued collaboration to re-center the war in the west.
The picture Dennison-McClellan offered to those in the know was in shocking contrast to that of Lincoln-Scott (even with the McDowell-Franklin skunkworks thrown in). The promotion of McClellan to MG, RA, is I think, yet another attempt to get McClellan under federal control. But Dennison-McClellan continues to its spectacular conclusion, regardless.
What is that conclusion? With no support or interest from Lincoln, Dennison and Curtin obtain a political separation of Western Virginia from Virginia – Lincoln calls it a secession – at the second Wheeling Convention. McClellan, with state men, money, and supplies, conquers that ephemeral polity that was conjured out of the Second Wheeling Convention. He does it. He delivers them territory for a new state.
At this point, McClellan has infinite federal tenure, a federal department with claims against federal resources, wide backing of the western states, and yet he is still working for Dennison. By enlarging McClellan, Washington accidentally enlarged Dennison and his gubernatorial allies.
I think of Dennison in terms of a paraphrased witticism by Lincoln: “Excuse me Mr. President, but if you are not going to make use of this war, I would like to borrow it for a time.”
McDowell’s defeat and McClellan’s victory make “natural” McClellan being brought to Washington. Unnaturally, this move separates the governor from his military alter ego. It kills the Dennison-McClellan project dead and restores Washington’s control of the war. That was no accident.
Chase claimed to have brought McClellan to Washington. So says Welles diary. If true, perhaps he hoped for a reprise of Dennison-McClellan on the Potomac with himself as Dennison.
In their first meeting after McClellan's arrival, Lincoln told McClellan that he had brought GBM east to take command of Mansfield's and McDowell's departments. So says McClellan's Own Story. If so, Lincoln left out motivations.
But I think I know them.