March 11, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order removing George B. McClellan as general-in-chief of all Federal armies and creating new military departments that would report directly to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
Lincoln had long been concerned that McClellan could not command all the Federal armies while staying in the field with the Army of the Potomac at the same time. This concern intensified when Stanton reported “great ignorance, negligence and lack of order and subordination–and reckless extravagance” within the Army of the Potomac. Now that McClellan had finally taken the field by leading that army into northern Virginia, the time was right for a military reorganization.
In addition to limiting McClellan’s authority to the Department of the Potomac, Lincoln assigned Major General Henry W. Halleck to command the new Department of the Mississippi. This consolidated the Departments of Kansas, Missouri, the Tennessee, and the Ohio, totaling 128,810 men ranging from Knoxville to Kansas.
Halleck had lobbied for this change since the fall of Fort Donelson; he had taken most of the credit for Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of that fort as well as Fort Henry. Major General Don Carlos Buell, who had been reluctant to cooperate with Halleck as an equal, became Halleck’s subordinate, commanding the Army of the Ohio within Halleck’s new department. Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of Kansas, was transferred east.
In a surprise move, Lincoln brought back controversial Major General John C. Fremont to command the new Mountain Department. This absorbed Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans’s Department of Western Virginia, and included southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Rosecrans would command the new department until Fremont arrived. He was expected to invade eastern Tennessee in support of the Unionists in that region.
Fremont had been removed as commander of the Department of the West the previous November and later censured by the House of Representatives (103 to 28) for mismanaging that department. However, Fremont had backing from Radical Republicans, abolitionists, and the influential Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, so Lincoln bowed to their pressure and reinstated him.
McClellan, Halleck, and Fremont, now commanding the three major theaters of operation, were to “report severally and directly to the Secretary of War.” This put Stanton in charge of military administration and efficiency.
Before issuing this order, Lincoln had shared it with Stanton, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. All three cabinet members endorsed it, with Seward suggesting that Stanton issue the order through the War Department. Stanton demurred to avoid causing further animosity between himself and his once-close friend McClellan. So Lincoln officially signed the order and issued it under his authority.
Hoping to notify McClellan of the order before it became public, Lincoln dispatched one of his supporters, Ohio Governor William Dennison, to McClellan’s headquarters. Dennison bore a message from the president explaining that the move was not a demotion; rather, “having personally taken the field,” Lincoln wanted McClellan to fully concentrate on the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln also stated that McClellan would take on this lesser role “until otherwise ordered,” implying that he might reinstate him as general-in-chief in the future.
Dennison was too late. On the morning of the 12th, the National Intelligencer released details of the order, and McClellan’s allies in Washington telegraphed his headquarters at Fairfax Court House. Dennison arrived with Lincoln’s explanation after the fact, and McClellan wrote a reply: “I shall work just as cheerfully as before, and that no consideration of self will in any manner interfere with the discharge of my public duties.”
Most Washington insiders, especially Stanton and the Radical Republicans, pushed for this reorganization to elevate Halleck and Fremont while stripping McClellan of some of his authority. Many hoped that McClellan’s removal as general-in-chief would be permanent. Speculation soon abounded that, despite Lincoln’s assertions, the order indicated his doubts about McClellan’s abilities.
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