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The removal of McClellan.

by Richard B. Irwin, Lieutenant-Colonel, Assistant Adjutant-General, U. S. V.
In some former notes1 I tried to trace with an impartial hand, and without intruding any prejudice or opinion of my own, the course of the unfortunate differences that had arisen between the Government and the commander of the Army of the Potomac. The acute stage was reached on the Peninsula; Pope's campaign marked the first crisis. On the 1st of September McClellan found himself a general without an army. On the 2d the Government gave him what was left of two armies, and only asked him to defend the capital. On the 5th the troops were in motion; on the 7th, without another word, and thus, as appears probable, overstepping the intentions of the Government,2 he set out to meet Lee in Maryland; and, moving deliberately under repeated cautions, ten days later he once more grappled fiercely with his antagonist, who stood waiting on the banks of the Antietam. Antietam strained the back of the Confederacy.

Hardly had the echo of the guns died away than again the angry ink began to flow. To follow its track would here be as tedious and unnecessary as it must always be painful. The sullen stage of the disorder had been reached; collapse was soon to follow. As one turns the pages of the history of the seven weeks after Antietam, or the scattered leaves that are some time to be gathered into history, it is impossible not to realize that we are reading of the last days of the first and best-loved commander of the Army of the Potomac; that the last hour is not far off.

Without going into the details, and without attempting to pass judgment, it must be said that no candid person, knowing anything of war and armies, can doubt that the Army of the Potomac, in the last days of September and early October, 1862, needed nearly everything before beginning a fresh campaign of its own choice. For some things, such as shoes, the troops were really suffering. It is [103] equally evident that the duty of providing these essential supplies rested with the administrative services in Washington; that some of the supplies did not reach the troops for a long time,3 and that certain subordinate chiefs were at least indulged in expending an amount of energy in combating the earnest representations that came pouring in from the army on the field; that they, or some one, might well have been required to devote to the task of seeing that the supplies reached the troops who needed them, instead of resting content with perfunctory declarations that the stores had “been sent.” Nor can any commander of an army be blamed for not liking this. The wonder is, that a railway journey of a few hours should have stood in the way of a complete understanding and swift remedy, on one side or the other.

President Lincoln visited General McClellan on the 1st of October, and. went over the battle-fields of South Mountain, Crampton's Gap, and Antietam in his company. When the President left him on the 4th, General McClellan appears to have been under the impression that his military acts and plans were satisfactory.4 What these plans were at this time, beyond the reorganization and refitting of his army, in the absence of direct evidence, one can but conjecture from a passage that occurs in a private letter dated October 2d, printed in “McClellan's own story” (p. 654). “His [the Presidents] ostensible purpose is to see the troops and the battle-field; I incline to think that the real purpose of his visit is to push on into a premature advance into Virginia. . . . The real truth is that my army is not fit to advance.” 5 However, on the 6th, two days after Mr. Lincoln's departure, General Halleck telegraphed to General McClellan:

The President directs that you cross the Potomac and give battle to the enemy or drive him south. Your army must move now, while the roads are good. If you cross the river between the enemy and Washington and cover the latter by your operation, you can be reenforced with 30,000 men. If you move up the valley of the Shenandoah, not more than 12,000 or 15,000 can be sent to you. The President advises the interior line between Washington and the enemy, but does not order it. He is very desirous that your army move as soon as possible.

General McClellan at first selected the valley route, but the tardy delivery of supplies delayed his movement, and when he crossed the Potomac on the 25th and began the advance the circumstances had somewhat changed.6 Then, leaving the Twelfth Corps to hold Harper's Ferry, he marched down the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, as the President had originally desired, picked up the Third and Eleventh Corps and Bayard's division of cavalry on striking the railway opposite Thoroughfare Gap, and on the 5th of November made his headquarters at Rectortown, with all his arrangements in progress for concentrating the army near Warrenton.

This movement in effect placed the Army of the Potomac, with a force double that of the Army of Northern Virginia,7 between the two halves of that army, farther separated by the Blue Ridge; for Lee, with Longstreet's corps, had kept pace with McClellan's movement and advanced to Culpeper, and Jackson was still in the Valley of Virginia, distant several days' march behind Thornton's Gap, with D. H. Hill holding the western entrance to the gap against Pleasonton, who was on the east, observing its debouch.

On that very day, the 5th of November, 1862, President Lincoln, with his own hand, wrote the following order:8

Executive Mansion, Washington, 1862
By direction of the President it is ordered that Major-General McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Major-General Burnside take command of that army. Also that Major-General Hunter take command of the corps in said army now commanded by General Burnside.

That Major-General Fitz John Porter be relieved from the command of the corps he now commands in said army, and that Major-General Hooker take command of said corps.

The general-in-chief is authorized, in [his] discretion, to issue an order substantially as the above, forthwith or as soon as he may deem proper.

A. Lincoln. November 5th, 1862.

Forthwith the following orders were issued:

Headquarters of the army, Washington, November 5th, 1862.
Major-General McClellan, Commanding, etc.--General: On receipt of the order of the President, sent herewith, you will immediately turn over your command to Major-General Burnside, and repair to Trenton, N. J., reporting, on your arrival at that place, by telegraph, for further orders.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

H. W. Halleck, General-in-Chief.


This order was inclosed:

War Department, Adjutant-General's office, Washington, November 5th, 1862.
General orders, No. 182: By direction of the President of the United States, it is ordered that Major-General McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Major-General Burnside take the command of that army.

By order of the Secretary of War:

E. D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General.

If we except Halleck's report of October 28th, obviously called for and furnished as a record, and containing nothing new, no cause or reason has ever been made public, either officially or in any one of the many informal modes in which official action so often finds it convenient to let itself be known. It is hard to credit that the Government did not know, or that knowing they did not appreciate, the military situation on the 5th of November; still harder to believe that, knowing and appreciating it, they threw away such an opportunity for any cause that appears in Halleck's letter.

General C. P. Buckingham, the confidential assistant adjutant-general of the Secretary of War, bore these orders from Washington by a special train. He arrived at Rectortown in a blinding snow-storm. First calling upon Burnside to deliver to him a counterpart of the order, late on the night of November 7th these two officers proceeded together to General McClellan's tent. McClellan says:9

“ I at once [when he heard of Buckingham's arrival] suspected that he brought the order relieving me from command, but kept my own counsel. Late at night I was sitting alone in my tent, writing to my wife. All the staff were asleep. Suddenly some one knocked upon the tent-pole, and upon my invitation to enter there appeared Burnside and Buckingham, both looking very solemn. I received them kindly and commenced conversation upon general subjects in the most unconcerned manner possible. After a few moments Buckingham said to Burnside: ‘ Well, General, I think we had better tell General McClellan the object of our visit.’ I very pleasantly said that I should be glad to learn it. Whereupon Buckingham handed me the two orders of which he was the bearer . . . .

I saw that both-especially Buckingham — were watching me most intently while I opened and read the orders. I read the papers with a smile, immediately turned to Burnside, and said: ‘Well, Burnside, I turn the command over to you.’


The movements of troops that had already been begun were completed on the 8th and 9th, at General Burnside's request; but there the execution of General McClellan's plans stopped. Burnside turned to the left and massed his army on the Rappahannock, opposite Fredericksburg; Lee conformed to this movement, called in Jackson, and concentrated on the opposite heights. The disaster of Fredericksburg followed.

On the 10th McClellan bade farewell to the Army of the Potomac. As he rode between the lines, formed almost of their own accord to do honor for the last time to their beloved commander, grief and disappointment were on every face, and manly tears stood in many an eye that had learned to look on war without a tremor. In the simple, touching words of the gallant and accomplished Walker: “Every heart was filled with love and grief; every voice was raised in shouts expressive of devotion and indignation; and when the chief had passed out of sight, the romance of war was over for the Army of the Potomac.” 11

In all that these brave men did, in all that they suffered, and great were their deeds, unspeakable their sufferings, never, perhaps, were their devotion and loyalty more nobly proved than by their instant obedience to this order, unwisely wrung from the President as many of them believed it to have been, yet still for them, as American soldiers, as American citizens, an implicit mandate. The men who could talk so glibly of “praetoriann guards” knew little of the Army of the Potomac. [105]

Hot work for Hazard's Battery. See P. 115.

1 “The Administration in the Peninsular campaign,” Vol. II. of this work, p. 435; “Washington under Banks,” Vol. II. of this work, p. 541.

2 See Vol. II., p. 542, and note. This is strongly confirmed by Chase's diary, September 2 (Warden's Life of Chase, p. 549): “The President repeated that the whole scope of the order was simply to direct McClellan to put the troops into the fortifications and command them for the defense of Washington.” September 3d (Ibid., p. 460), the diary says: “. . . the President . . . assured him [Pope] . . . that McClellan's command was only temporary, and gave him reason to expect that another army of active operations would be organized at once which he [Pope] would lead.” The same evening (September 3d) the President gave General Halleck an order, which never became known to General McClellan, “to organize an army for active operations . . . independent of the forces he may deem necessary for the defense of Washington, when such active army shall take the field.” ( “Official Records,” Vol. XIX., Part II., p. 169.)

The published extracts from Chase's diary, though voluminous in the earlier stages, are silent on the subject of McClellan's final removal. In Warden's Life of Chase (p. 506) we read: “Another chapter 2 offers a few words relating to our hero's responsibility for that fall,” and the foot-note refers us to “2 Post Chapter LVII.,” but not another word is said, and “Chapter LVI:, Conclusion,” ends the book. This is at least curious, if not significant.--R. B. I.

3 In particular the statement of General Rufus Ingalls ( “Official Records,” Vol. XIX., Part I., p. 95) seems to me conclusive, although the contrary view is strongly held by high authority.--R. B. I.

4 “We spent some time on the battle-field and conversed fully on the state of affairs. He told me that he was entirely satisfied with me and with all that I had done; that he would stand by me against ‘ all comers ’ ; that he wished me to continue my preparations for a new campaign, not to stir an inch until fully ready, and when ready to do what I thought best. He repeated that he was entirely satisfied with me; that I should be let alone; that he would stand by me. I have no doubt he meant exactly what he said. He parted from me with the utmost cordiality. We never met again on this earth.” [ “McClellan's own story,” pp. 627, 628.]

5 President Lincoln's views as to the comparative readiness to move of the Federal and Confederate armies may be found tersely expressed in his letter to General McClellan, dated October 13th, 1862, printed on p. 105.

6 Among other things, Stuart crossed the Potomac at Williamsport on the 10th of October, on his famous raid into Maryland and Pennsylvania, rode completely around the rear of the Army of the Potomac, and, eluding Pleasonton's vigorous but ineffectual pursuit, safely recrossed the river near the mouth of the Monocacy. One effect of this raid on the mind of the President is indicated in an anecdote related in “Washington under Banks,” Vol. II. of this work, p. 544.--R. B. I.

7 The “Official Records” show that at this time McClellan's effective force was about 145,000, Lee's about 72,000. Longstreet and Jackson each had about 32,000.--R. B. I.

8 It is virtually certain that General McClellan never saw this order, which, in the form as written by the President, was never promulgated. General Hunter was not placed in command of Burnside's corps. Hooker was ordered to relieve Porter by Special Orders from the War Department, Adjutant-General's Office, dated November 10th, 1862.

9McClellan's own story,” pp. 652, 653.

10 General Buckingham, in a letter printed in the “Chicago Tribune,” of September 4th, 1875 (quoted in the “History of the civil War in America,” by the Comte de Paris, Vol. II., p. 555), writes substantially to the same effect. He also states that General Burnside at first declined the command (as there is good reason for believing he had done twice before, namely, in August, and again early in September). He adds: “General McClellan has himself borne testimony to the kind manner in which I communicated the order, and I can bear testimony to his prompt and cheerful obedience to it.”--R. B. I.

11 “History of the Second army Corps,” by General Francis A. Walker, p. 137.

From “McClellan's last service to the Republic,” by George Ticknor Curtis (N. Y.: D. Appleton & Co.), pp. 81-83, we take the following description of McClellan's farewell to the Army of the Potomac:

After he had reached Warrenton, a day was spent in viewing the position of the troops and in conferences with General Burnside respecting future operations. In the course of that day the order was published, and General McClellan issued a farewell address to the army. On the evening of Sunday, the 9th, there was an assembly of officers who came to take leave of him. On the 10th he visited some of the various camps, and amid the impassioned cries and demonstrations of the men he took a last look of the troops who had followed him with such unfaltering devotion. ‘ History,’ he said to the officers who crowded around him--‘ history will do justice to the Army of the Potomac, even if the present generation does not. I feel as if I had been intimately connected with each and all of you. Nothing is more binding than the friendship of companions in arms. May you all in future preserve the high reputation of our army, and serve all as well and faithfully as you have served me.’ On the 11th, at Warrenton Junction, he entered with his staff a railroad train that was about to start toward Washington. Here there was stationed a detachment of 2000 troops. They were drawn up in line, and a salute was fired. The men then broke their ranks, surrounded the car in which le was seated, uncoupled it from the train and ran it back, insisting wildly that he should not leave them, and uttering the bitterest imprecations against those who had deprived them of their beloved commander. The scene has been described to us by an officer who was present as one of fearful excitement. The moment was critical. One word, one look of encouragement, the lifting of a finger, would have been the signal for a revolt against lawful authority, the consequences of which no man can measure. McClellan stepped upon the front platform of the car, and there was instant silence. His address was short. It ended inthe memorable words, ‘Standby General Burnside as you have stood by me, and all will be well.’ T ihe soldiers were calmed. They rolled the car onward, recoupled it to the train, and with one long and mournful huzza bade farewell to their late commander, whom many of them were destined never to behold again. General McClellan reached Washington on the following day, and without tarrying for an hour proceeded at once to Trenton, where he arrived at 4 o'clock in the morning of the 12th. From that time he never again saw Lincoln, or Stanton, or Halleck.


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