Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The “Insolence of Epaulets”

Posted in Leadership by Andy Hall on June 28, 2010


A telling anecdote about George McClellan, from Goodwin’s Team of Rivals:

On Wednesday night, November 13, [1861] Lincoln went with [Secretary of State] Seward and [Lincoln's secretary John] Hay to McClellan’s house. Told that the general was at a wedding, the three waited in the parlor for an hour. When McClellan arrived home, the porter told him the president was waiting, but McClellan passed by the parlor room and climbed the stairs to his private quarters. After another half hour, Lincoln again sent word that he was waiting, only to be informed that the general had gone to sleep. Young John Hay was enraged. “I wish here to record what I consider a portent of evil to come,” he wrote in his diary, recounting what he considered an inexcusable “insolence of epaulets,” the first indicator “of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities.” To Hay’s surprise, Lincoln “seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette & personal dignity.” He would hold McClellan’s horse, he once said, if a victory could be achieved.

McClellan got away with this, of course, because Rolling Stone wouldn’t begin publication for another 106 years. McClellan’s snub, brazen and explicit as it was, occurred in front of a just a few witnesses, none of whom made it public at the time, so the president had the option of ignoring it.

One wonders, though, if he later wished he hadn’t.

Update, July 1: Dimitri Rotov isn’t sure this incident actually happened, as it comes from only a single source, highly partisan to Lincoln. Fair enough.

H/t Smeather’s Tavern.

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3 Responses

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  1. emilylhauser said, on June 30, 2010 at 3:06 am

    During the entire McChrystal brou-ha-ha, I was trying desperately to come up with a comparison from Lincoln’s war. I knew they were there, I knew McClellan had to be at the heart of a good half of them, but my mind couldn’t recall the details.

    Thank you for easing my troubled, fevered mind!

    • Andy Hall said, on June 30, 2010 at 3:20 am

      McClellan is just effing unbelievable. There’s a new book out specifically about their relationship — will have to add that to the stack.

      I don’t see what else the president could have done, really. And you notice, there’s not much blowback. Tom Ricks, the fantastic military blogger over at Foreign Policy, who is closely tied into people all over the Pentagon, observed that lots of his contacts had made their opinions known to him, and the higher up they were, the more unanimous that the general had to go.

      Also relevant, Truman fires MacArthur. Now that’s a termination letter.

      Thanks for swinging by.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 30, 2010 at 1:52 pm

      I should also state that the appointment of General Petraeus in McChrystal’s place is moderately brilliant, and that is largely responsible for this episode fading away relatively quickly — it’s one of those things that when it’s done, it’s the most obvious move in the world, that was foreseen by very few beforehand.

      Bonus MacArthur pun, no charge.


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