September 2, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln reinstated Major General George B. McClellan as overall Federal commander in Virginia and Washington, merging Major General John Pope’s defeated Army of Virginia with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
Pope’s Federals ended their retreat on the 2nd, reaching the entrenchments outside Washington. Skirmishing continued between the Federal rear guard and Confederate cavalry in the area around Fairfax Court House, Vienna, Falls Church, and Flint Hill, but the Confederates lacked the strength to attack the capital’s nearly impregnable fortifications.
As Federal troops filtered into Washington, their morale sank to a new low. Rumors quickly spread–some alleged to have been started by McClellan–that 20,000 Federal stragglers remained between Centreville and the capital. Pope denied this rumor, but he wired his superiors early on the 2nd that “unless something can be done to restore tone to this army it will melt away before you know it.”
Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck met with McClellan at 7:00 that morning, where news arrived confirming the rumor about the stragglers. This proved that Pope was the liar many claimed him to be. Lincoln approved Halleck’s suggestion to remove Pope and restore McClellan to overall army command. Lincoln had not consulted with any of his advisors before making the decision, and McClellan reluctantly accepted the assignment after “a pretty plain talk” about his new responsibilities. The formal order read:
“Major General McClellan will have command of the fortifications of Washington and all the troops for the defense of the capital.”
Although Lincoln and McClellan had clashed over military strategy and tactics for nearly a year, Lincoln knew that only McClellan could restore troop morale. He noted that bringing McClellan back was like “curing the bite with the hair of the dog,” but as he explained to his secretary, John Hay, “We must use the tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”
Meanwhile, Lincoln’s cabinet gathered in his office before he arrived and discussed the rumors already circulating that McClellan had been reinstated. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton strongly opposed such a move, having already drafted a petition urging “the immediate removal of George B. McClellan from any command in the armies of the United States” for his sluggishness in reinforcing Pope during the Second Bull Run campaign.
McClellan’s suggestion that he should “leave Pope to get out of his own scrape” especially infuriated Stanton, prompting him to ask Halleck if McClellan had been too slow in executing Halleck’s directive to leave the Virginia Peninsula. Halleck replied that the order “was not obeyed with the promptness I expected and the national safety, in my opinion, required.” Stanton’s clerk recalled “that if McClellan had been present when the news of Pope’s defeat came in, the Secretary would have assaulted him.”
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase helped write Stanton’s protest, declaring that the time had come when “either the government or McClellan must go down.” Attorney General Edward Bates also approved after moderating the petition’s language to read that it was “not safe to entrust to Major General McClellan the command of any of the armies of the United States.”
Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith endorsed the protest as well, but Navy Secretary Gideon Welles refused. While he agreed that McClellan’s “removal from command was demanded by public sentiment and the best interest of the country,” Welles believed the protest was “discourteous and disrespectful to the President.” Secretary of State William H. Seward was absent, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair offered no opinion.
Just as Chase declared that reinstating McClellan would “prove a national calamity,” Lincoln entered the room and explained he was late for the meeting because he and Halleck had just restored McClellan to overall command. Stanton said, “No order to that effect has been issued from the War Department.” Lincoln replied, “The order is mine, and I will be responsible for it to the country.”
Chase said, “I cannot but feel that giving command to McClellan is equivalent to giving Washington to the rebels.” Lincoln acknowledged the protests of some members who accused McClellan of treason for failing to adequately reinforce Pope, calling it “unpardonable.” But Lincoln explained that no other commander could motivate the troops like McClellan, and such motivation was sorely needed after the recent defeats.
The cabinet’s unanimous opposition to McClellan deeply troubled Lincoln and threatened to divide his administration, but the decision stood nonetheless. The main reason for Lincoln’s decision was clear when Pope and McClellan crossed paths on the road to Centreville. The Federal troops cheered loudly for McClellan’s arrival, while Pope heard the men behind him celebrating his departure.
But Pope would not leave right away. He believed that since the order only gave McClellan command of all troops in and around Washington, Pope would resume command of the Army of Virginia as soon as that body marched out of the capital’s vicinity once more.
Pope met with Lincoln on the 3rd and submitted his official report of the battle, in which he bitterly blamed Major General Fitz John Porter for refusing to obey orders to attack the Confederates. He also condemned McClellan for refusing to send reinforcements that could have turned the battle’s tide. Lincoln reviewed the report with his cabinet and directed Pope to make substantial edits before its official publication.
Two days later, McClellan directed Pope to lead his force out of Washington. Pope responded to McClellan’s chief of staff, “McClellan has ordered my troops to take post at various places, and I have never been notified in a single instance of their positions.” Pope then wrote Halleck, “What is my command, and where is it? McClellan has scattered it about in all directions, and has not informed me of the position of a single regiment. Am I to take the field under McClellan’s orders?” Pope sent another message to Halleck that afternoon:
“I must again ask your attention to the condition of things in this army. By the present arrangement you are doing me more injury than my worst enemy could do. It is understood, and acted on, that I am deprived of my command, and that it is assigned to McClellan. An order defining his exact status here as well as my own is necessary at once. I send you an official protest against his action.”
Halleck simply replied, “The armies of the Potomac and Virginia are being consolidated, you will report for orders to the Secretary of War.” Halleck then directed McClellan to “act accordingly in putting forces in the field. The President has directed that General Pope be relieved and report to War Department.”
Halleck then sent another message to Pope, explaining that he had not been able to answer Pope’s queries until the administration made its final decision. Halleck added, “Do not infer from this that any blame attaches to you. On the contrary, we think you did your best with the material you had. I have not heard any one censure you in the least.”
A week later, the Army of Virginia became part of the Army of the Potomac:
- Major General Franz Sigel’s I Corps became XI Corps
- Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s II Corps became XII Corps, with Banks replaced by Major General Joseph Mansfield
- Major General Irvin McDowell’s III Corps became I Corps, with McDowell replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker
Pope was sent to command the new Department of the Northwest, which consisted of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Nebraska and Dakota territories. Pope’s primary mission would be to put down the Sioux uprising in Minnesota.
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