November 8, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan formally turned the Army of the Potomac over to Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and bid his troops a sad farewell.
McClellan, who was boastful and confident, gave way to Burnside, who was modest and timid. Burnside had also professed no desire for army command. But his performance at First Bull Run and on the North Carolina coast had made a good impression on President Abraham Lincoln. Of the other corps commanders in the Army of the Potomac, Burnside had the fewest liabilities or political aspirations; the others were either too old, too reluctant to fight, too politically vocal, or too difficult to control.
Burnside, uncertain about his new role, begged McClellan to stay on and help transition the command. McClellan agreed. On the morning of the 8th, the army was officially notified that McClellan had been removed. Troops expressed shock, disbelief, horror, and rage upon learning that their beloved “Little Mac” no longer led them. McClellan had turned this disorganized, demoralized force into one of the strongest armies on earth, and he had been as popular among his men as he was unpopular among his superiors.
A captain in the 22nd Massachusetts stated that “you wouldn’t give much for the patriotism of the Army of the Potomac, and as for being in good spirits and ready to advance, as the papers say, it is all bosh!” A soldier in the 18th Massachusetts wrote that McClellan’s removal was “the severest blow ever dealt the Army of the Potomac.” Another soldier wrote:
“You don’t know what a commotion the change in the army has made. Officers threaten to resign, and men refuse to fight. In Heaven’s name, why make the transfer now, when all plans are made, and McClellan is our leader, the idol of the army? Why give the enemy the victory?”
Command transferred from “Little Mac” to “Old Burn” on November 9. At 8 a.m. the next morning, both men emerged from McClellan’s headquarters tent and rode to the train station. Federal troops lined the route, cheering and waving their hats for their departing commander. Some “cried like babies,” and others threatened to march on Washington. Color-bearers threw down their flags in his path. An officer described the men as “thunderstruck. There is but one opinion among the troops, and that is that the government has gone mad.” McClellan respectfully removed his hat for the men.
That same day, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, learned of his opponent’s dismissal. This explained why the Federals had stopped their advance. Some Confederates thought McClellan’s removal would demoralize the Federals, while others thought the new commander would be even more reluctant to fight. Lee offered a different opinion, telling Lieutenant General James Longstreet, “We always understood each other so well. I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don’t understand.”
McClellan met with some senior officers at General Fitz John Porter’s headquarters that evening to say farewell. When the officers condemned Republican politicians and the press for demanding McClellan’s removal, McClellan said, “Gentlemen please remember that we are here to serve the interest of no one man. We are here to serve our country.” McClellan wrote an emotional farewell address to his army:
“In parting from you I cannot express the love and gratitude I bear to you. As an army you have grown up under my care. In you I have never found doubt or coldness. The battles you have fought under my command will proudly live in our nation’s history. The glory you have achieved, our mutual perils and fatigues, the graves of our comrades fallen in battle and by disease, the broken forms of those whom wounds and sickness have disabled–the strongest associations which can exist among men–unite us still by an indissoluble tie. We shall ever be comrades in supporting the Constitution of our country and the nationality of its people.”
On the 11th, McClellan boarded a train that took him to Warrenton Junction. Grieving soldiers surrounded the train, uncoupled the car, and begged their former commander to stay. McClellan calmed the men and his disheartened honor guard by stepping out onto the train car’s rear platform and announcing, “Stand by General Burnside as you have stood by me, and all will be well. Good-by lads.”
Colonel Edward Cross of the 5th New Hampshire said, “A shade of sadness crossed his (McClellan’s) face. He carried the hearts of the army with him.” The troops finally composed themselves, recoupled the car, and allowed McClellan to leave the Army of the Potomac for the last time.
Bailey, Ronald H., The Bloodiest Day: The Battle of Antietam (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 170; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 234; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 756-57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 230; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 286; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 164-66, 167