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.