An indication of the error of forcing the President into a course not commended by his judgment, in a matter where his responsibility was so grave, was seen immediately. On March 8 he issued General War Order No. 3: That no change of base should be made “without leaving in and about Washington such a force as, in the opinion of the general-in-chief and the commanders of army corps, shall leave said city entirely secure;” that not more than two corps (about 50,000 men) should be moved en route for a new base until the Potomac, below Washington, should be freed from the Confederate batteries; that any movement of the army via Chesapeake Bay should begin as early as March 18, and that the general-in-chief should be “responsible that it moves as early as that day.” This greatly aggravated McClellan’s dissatisfaction; for it expressed the survival of the President’s anxiety, it hampered the general, and by its last clause it placed upon him a responsibility not properly his own.
Yet at this very moment weighty evidence came to impeach the soundness of McClellan’s opinion concerning the military situation. On February 27 Secretary Chase wrote that the time had come for dealing decisively with the “army in front of us,” which he conceived to be already so weakened that “a victory over it is deprived of half its honor.” Not many days after this writing, the civilian strategists, the President and his friends, seemed entitled to triumph. For on March 7, 8, and 9 the North was astonished by news of the evacuation of Manassas by Johnston. At once the cry of McClellan’s assailants went up: If McClellan had only moved upon the place! What a cheap victory he would have won, and attended with what invaluable “moral effects”! Yet, forsooth, he had been afraid to move upon these very intrenched positions which it now appeared that the Confederates dared not hold even when unthreatened! But McClellan retorted that the rebels had taken this backward step precisely because they had got some hint of his designs for advancing by Urbana, and that it was the exact fulfillment, though inconveniently premature, of his predictions. This explanation, however, wholly failed to prevent the civilian mind from believing that a great point had been scored on behalf of the President’s plan. Further than this, there were many persons, including even a majority of the members of the Committee on the Conduct of the War, who did not content themselves with mere abuse of McClellan’s military intelligence, but who actually charged him with being disaffected and nearly, if not quite, a traitor. None the less Mr. Lincoln generously and patiently adhered to his agreement to let McClellan have his own way.