From Antietam to Chancellorsville: September 1862 to May 1863
The Emancipation Proclamation
What did Lincoln mean by “McClellan’s bodyguard”?
One morning while in army camp, Lincoln rose early to take a walk with a friend from Illinois. The two walked to the highest ridge, or point, taking in the immensity of the Army of the Potomac, whose tents and fires seemed to stretch for miles. The two were silent for a time, then Lincoln suddenly asked his friend, “Do you know what this is?” Puzzled, his friend replied that of course he knew, it was the Army of the Potomac. “So it is called,” Lincoln replied, “but that is a mistake. It is McClellan’s bodyguard.”
Like so many witty words from Lincoln, these could be construed in several ways. The obvious meaning, of course, was that McClellan was a fearful man who did not wish to risk his splendid army in combat, and there was much truth to the assertion. But a second, hidden meaning was that Lincoln, as commander-in-chief, did not feel able to get rid of McClellan, so long as the general was admired by his men. And at this point, he still was.