November 7, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan received orders removing him as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
After over a year of frustration with McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness in Virginia, President Abraham Lincoln’s patience finally ended. Lincoln had been under immense pressure to relieve McClellan because of his constant reluctance to attack the Confederates. Some accused McClellan of political duplicity because, as a Democrat, he regularly disagreed with Lincoln’s Republican policies and possibly tried to undermine him. Others accused him of outright treason.
Lincoln had supported McClellan long after most other Republicans had demanded the general’s removal. He had given McClellan one more chance to destroy General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, especially since the Federals had the inside track on the race to Richmond. But Lee hurried to cut him off before he could take advantage. This prompted Lincoln to finally make a move.
Lincoln told John Hay, his private secretary, that when McClellan resumed “delaying on little pretexts of wanting this and that I began to fear that he was playing false–that he did not want to hurt the enemy.” If Lee beat him to the punch again, “I determined to… remove him. He did so & I relieved him.”
Lincoln drafted the order even before the midterm election results were tallied; the Democratic victories were expected. Many Republicans feared that if McClellan remained in command, he would lead a refreshed Democratic Party from his army headquarters. Lincoln did not necessarily agree, but he saw that McClellan would never share the administration’s sense of urgency to defeat the enemy.
Thus, the president issued the order, which included more than just relieving McClellan:
“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. Also that Major-General Hunter take command of the corps in said army which is 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 Radical Republicans admired David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, and would be happy to see him sent north. Fitz John Porter had been accused of failing to obey orders during the Battle of Second Bull Run and would face charges by a court-martial now that McClellan, his strongest ally, was gone. Joseph Hooker would be promoted to full corps command after his brave conduct during the Battle of Antietam.
Lincoln passed the order to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who added the directive that McClellan “repair to Trenton, N. J., reporting, on your arrival at that place, by telegraph, for further orders.” Halleck delivered the order to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on the 6th. Stanton, formerly a close friend of McClellan’s and now one of his harshest critics, wanted to take special precautions to keep the order secret until it was delivered to McClellan. Stanton feared that McClellan might learn about his removal in the newspapers and organize his supporters to resist.
Stanton assigned Brigadier General C.P. Buckingham, a “confidential assistant adjutant-general to the Secretary of War,” to deliver two orders. One removed McClellan from command, and the other replaced McClellan with Ambrose E. Burnside. When Buckingham expressed doubt that Burnside would accept the promotion (Burnside had already refused twice), Stanton instructed him to use the “strongest arguments to induce him not to refuse.” Buckingham was to “carry the full weight of the President’s authority.”
On the 7th, Buckingham took a special train to Salem (now Marshall), Virginia, and then rode 15 miles south to arrive at Burnside’s headquarters in an evening snowstorm. When he delivered the order, Burnside immediately refused, having already argued he “was not competent to command such a large army as this.” Burnside was also close friends with McClellan and would not want to take his job from him.
Buckingham countered that McClellan would be removed regardless of whether Burnside took his place. And if Burnside refused, the promotion would go to Hooker, whom Burnside strongly disliked. After nearly two hours of debating, Burnside finally relented and accepted the command. The two men rode through the snow to Salem and then took the train to McClellan’s headquarters at Rectortown to deliver the second part of the order.
McClellan warmly received the men around 11 p.m. He had expected the news after learning about the special train. They handed him the order, which he read with no expression. Then, seeing that Burnside did not want this, McClellan consoled him and reminded him that they had to obey orders.
After the men left, McClellan wrote his wife that Burnside had “never showed himself a better man or truer friend than now.” Upon receiving the order, “I am sure that not a muscle quivered nor was the slightest expression of feeling visible on my face… They (the administration) shall not have that triumph. They have made a great mistake–alas for my poor country–I know in my innermost heart she never had a truer servant.”
McClellan admitted that although he might have made some mistakes, he did not know of “any great blunders.” Refusing to accept blame to the end, he wrote that “if we have failed it was not our fault.”
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