“Forward to Richmond!”
June 26, 1861. Sometimes just the right slogan or catch phrase appears at just the right time to have a dramatic effect on policy makers and events.
On June 26, 1861, the briefest of articles appeared in the New York Tribune. It was only 30 words in length, but it struck a chord with the public and was widely quoted in Washington. “Forward to Richmond!” was the headline. The text read, “The Rebel Congress must not be allowed to meet there on the 20th July! By that date the place must be held by the National Army!”
That phrase “Forward to Richmond,” invoked repeatedly, created a momentum that would not be stopped. A military incursion from Washington into central Virginia was ambitious and risky, but “saner military counsels were overwhelmed by the public’s demand for action.”
On June 29, President Lincoln met with military leaders, his cabinet, and other civil leaders to discuss long-term strategy. Old (74 years), extremely overweight, and suffering from a number of medical problems, General Winfield Scott delegated the field command of the federal army to Brigadier General Irwin McDowell. McDowell was a West Point graduate with a good record from the Mexican War, but he had spent the intervening twelve years in administrative posts. Now McDowell’s first task would be to carry out the “Forward to Richmond” campaign. (1)
Lincoln was understandably anxious to prosecute the war, in part because he did not want Northern commitment to the war to dissipate through the passage of time and inaction. An astute reader of public sentiment, he felt a certain urgency.
Lincoln determined that the army should attack a crucial railroad junction twenty miles west of Washington, at Manassas, in northern Virginia. Generals Scott and McDowell were strongly opposed, arguing that they were not ready and that their soldiers were still “green.”
“You are green, it is true,” the President replied, “but they are green too; you are green alike.” (2)
— Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council
(1) Bishop, Chris, and Ian Drury, 1400 Days: The US Civil War Day by Day, p.34.
(2) Philip Kunhardt, Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography, p. 152.