January 23, 1863 – The defeat at Fredericksburg and the failed “Mud March” sparked recriminations among the Federal army command, leading to wholesale changes.
By the 22nd, nearly everyone in the Army of the Potomac acknowledged that Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s second offensive had failed, just as many of his subordinates had predicted. Army morale plummeted to new depths. The desertion rate continued rising, along with the number of men on the sick list due to lack of adequate rations or sanitary living conditions.
Some loudly condemned Burnside, especially Major General Joseph Hooker. Possibly drunk (along with many other commanders), Hooker raged to a New York Times reporter that Burnside was incompetent, and President Abraham Lincoln was an imbecile for keeping Burnside in command. Calling the administration “all played out,” Hooker declared that the country needed a dictator to win the war.
All this finally caused Burnside’s frustration to boil over. His extraordinary General Order No. 8 charged Hooker with:
“… unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the actions of his superior officers, and of the authorities, and having, by the general tone of his conversation, endeavored to create distrust in the minds of officers who have associated with him, and having, by omissions and otherwise, made reports and statements which were calculated to create incorrect impressions, and for habitually speaking in disparaging terms of other officers.”
Consequently, Hooker was “hereby dismissed from the service of the United States as a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present, when so much patience, charity, confidence, consideration and patriotism are due from every soldier in the field.”
Burnside also dismissed division commanders W.T.H. Brooks and John Newton, and brigade commander John Cochrane. Burnside had learned that Newton and Cochrane were the ones who went to Washington in late December to complain about him by verifying which officers had passes to leave during that time.
Six other officers were ordered relieved of their command but not dismissed from the army: Grand Division commander William B. Franklin, VI Corps commander William “Baldy” Smith, division commander Samuel Sturgis, brigade commander Edward Ferrero, and Right Grand Division assistant adjutant general Lieutenant Colonel John H. Taylor. For some reason, Burnside added Cochrane to this list as well.
Burnside’s aides persuaded him to discuss the order with Lincoln before issuing it, especially since dismissing an officer from the army required a court-martial. Burnside wrote Lincoln on the night of the 23rd, “I have prepared some very important orders, and I want to see you before issuing them. Can I see you alone if I am at the White House after midnight?” Lincoln replied, “Will see you any moment when you come.” Burnside left his headquarters at 9 p.m. and took a train to a steamer at Aquia Creek.
Burnside met Lincoln at the White House in mid-morning on the 24th and presented him with both General Order No. 8 and his resignation. Lincoln would have to approve one or the other. Burnside reminded Lincoln that he had not wanted the army command in the first place, having turned it down twice before finally accepting.
When Burnside explained the officers’ duplicity, Lincoln said, “I think you are right, but I must consult with some of my advisers about this.” He told Burnside he needed a day to think it over. Burnside said, “If you consult with anybody, you will not do it, in my opinion.” But Lincoln consulted with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck nonetheless.
At a White House levee that night, Lincoln met with Henry J. Raymond, a New York Republican who had discussed the matter with Burnside earlier that day. Raymond said he thought the main problem was Hooker’s insubordinate rhetoric. Lincoln said, “This is all true, Hooker does talk badly; but the trouble is stronger with the country to-day than any other man.” When Raymond asked how the public might react when they learn about what Hooker said, Lincoln replied, “The country would not believe it; they would say it is all a lie.”
Burnside met with Lincoln again on Sunday morning the 25th, where Lincoln informed him that he would be replaced as commander. Burnside said, “I suppose you accept my resignation, and all I have to do is go to my home.” Lincoln replied, “General, I cannot accept your resignation. We need you, and I cannot accept your resignation.”
Burnside argued that he had private business to handle, and Lincoln said, “You can have as much time as you please for your private business, but we cannot accept your resignation.” Burnside would instead await reassignment; in the meantime, Lincoln told him, “General, make your application for a leave of absence, and we will give it to you.”
After Burnside left, Lincoln directed Halleck to issue orders relieving Burnside from command. Major General Edwin V. Sumner, one of Burnside’s Grand Division commanders, was also relieved at his own request, along with Franklin. The order concluded “that Maj. Gen. J. Hooker be assigned to command the Army of the Potomac.”
Lincoln had weighed several options except the most popular one: reinstating George B. McClellan. Lincoln considered bringing Major Generals William S. Rosecrans or Ulysses S. Grant from the west to command. He also considered officers within the army, but he believed Sumner was too old, and both Franklin and “Baldy” Smith were too loyal to McClellan. So Lincoln reluctantly picked Hooker.
Lincoln was well aware of Hooker’s disparaging comments about his superiors, including the president himself. However, Lincoln wanted a fighter to lead the army, and his combat record on the Peninsula and at Antietam was excellent. And nobody seemed more confident in his own ability to bring the fight to the Confederates than “Fighting Joe.”
Burnside, who had managed the Federal debacles at Fredericksburg and the “Mud March,” was out. Having offered to resign several times before, Burnside could have very well welcomed this move. But he could not have been pleased to learn that Hooker, a man whom he despised, would replace him.
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