November 1, 1861 – Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, was promoted to general-in-chief of all armies after the retirement of Winfield Scott.
President Abraham Lincoln convened a meeting of his cabinet at 9 a.m. on November 1 to consider whether to accept Scott’s letter of resignation submitted the day before. The cabinet unanimously agreed that Scott should retire and McClellan should replace him.
Lincoln initially considered leaving the general-in-chief role vacant, recalling the complaints McClellan had about Scott interfering with his affairs. Lincoln also wanted McClellan to stay focused on getting the Army of the Potomac into fighting shape. However, the cabinet finally convinced Lincoln that he needed someone as general-in-chief to prevent him from micromanaging the war effort, and McClellan was the best man for the job.
Lincoln and his cabinet members called on Scott that afternoon to bid him farewell. Scott, who had to be helped off his sofa, greeted each man and expressed gratitude for their kind praise. Lincoln issued a statement paying tribute to Scott’s service and thanking him for “his faithful devotion to the Constitution, the Union, and the Flag, when assailed by parricidal rebellion.”
McClellan issued General Orders No. 19, a two-part directive that first declared that the U.S. would ultimately be victorious because “Providence will favor ours as the just cause.” The second part honored Scott’s service:
“Let us all hope and pray that his declining yearn may be passed in peace and happiness, and that they may be cheered by the success of the country and the cause he has fought for and loved so well. Beyond all that, let us do nothing that can cause him to blush for us; let no defeat of the army he has so long commanded embitter his last years, but let our victories illuminate the close of a life so grand.”
That evening, Lincoln visited McClellan at his headquarters to inform him that he was the new general-in-chief. Lincoln said, “Draw on me for all the sense I have, and all the information. In addition to your present command, the supreme command of the Army will entail a vast labor upon you.” McClellan replied, “I can do it all.”
At 4 a.m. on the 3rd, McClellan rode with his staff and a cavalry squadron through strong wind and rain to bid a final farewell to Scott at the Washington Depot. This was the same wooden railroad station where McClellan had arrived from western Virginia to form the Army of the Potomac. Scott was leaving for retirement at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.
Scott, who had read General Orders No. 19, complimented the new general-in-chief as one of the greatest commanders of all time. The generals exchanged kind words, with Scott imparting good wishes to McClellan’s wife and newborn child. Scott boarded the train and received a farewell salute as the train pulled out.
That evening, McClellan wrote his wife that “the sight of this morning was a lesson to me which I hope not soon to forget. I saw there the end of a long, active, and industrious life, the end of the career of the first soldier of the nation; and it was a feeble old man scarce able to walk; hardly any one there to see him off but his successor. Should I ever become vainglorious and ambitious, remind me of that spectacle.”
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 53; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 91; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6719; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 110; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 133-34; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 360; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 662-63