Lincoln Issues Two General War Orders

March 8, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln demonstrated his flagging confidence in General-in-Chief George B. McClellan by creating a corps command structure within the Army of the Potomac.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:
Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan | Image Credit:

Lincoln and McClellan met at the White House on the morning of the 8th to discuss McClellan’s plan to load the army on transports and move down Chesapeake Bay, landing at Urbanna on Virginia’s coast. During the discussion, Lincoln said that a “very ugly matter” had come up concerning rumors that the plan “was conceived with the traitorous intent of removing its defenders from Washington, and thus giving over to the enemy the capital and the government, thus left defenseless.”

McClellan quickly snapped that no man would call him a traitor, and, according to McClellan, Lincoln relented and “said that he merely repeated what others had said, and that he did not believe a word of it.” To prove his loyalty, McClellan announced that he would share the Urbanna plan with his division commanders, most of whom knew nothing about it yet, and ask them to vote on whether it was sound.

McClellan summoned the 12 division commanders to his headquarters, where he explained the plan and took the vote. He then returned to the White House that same day to report to Lincoln that the commanders had voted in favor of the plan, 8 to 4. This seemed to satisfy Lincoln enough to allow McClellan to proceed with his Urbanna strategy.

However, Lincoln was not completely satisfied until he issued two peremptory orders to McClellan later that day. The first, titled “President’s General War Order No. 2,” dismantled McClellan’s division-command structure by grouping the 12 divisions within the Army of the Potomac into four corps, to be led by Generals Irvin McDowell, Edwin V. Sumner, Samuel P. Heintzelman, and Erasmus D. Keyes. A fifth corps was also created and assigned to operate in the Shenandoah Valley under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.

McClellan had considered creating a corps system, but he wanted to select his corps commanders himself once they were tested in battle. Lincoln had not only made the selections, but he had consulted with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, not McClellan, beforehand. None of those promoted were McClellan’s favorites, and worse, three of the four (McDowell, Sumner, and Heintzelman) had voted against McClellan’s Urbanna plan.

Lincoln’s second directive, titled “President’s General War Order No. 3,” officially approved the Urbanna plan on several conditions:

  • McClellan had to leave enough troops behind so that Washington remained “entirely secure;”
  • He had to reach a consensus among his top officers as to how many men to leave behind;
  • He could not move the bulk of his army until the Confederate blockade of the lower Potomac River was broken;
  • He had to begin operations within 10 days.

Thus, McClellan got the approval he sought for his plan, but he feared that the conditions placed upon the approval might compromise his overall strategy. This would play a significant role in the way he conducted operations in the future.



Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-85; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7164-75; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 252-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; 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. 424; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172-75, 598; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 773-74

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