Remind Me of That Spectacle

President Abraham Lincoln convened a meeting of his cabinet at 9 a.m. on November 1 to consider whether to accept the resignation of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the legendary general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. The president and cabinet had already acknowledged that the time had come for him to go, and so they unanimously agreed that Scott should retire and Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac, should replace him.

Lincoln initially considered leaving the general-in-chief role vacant, recalling the complaints McClellan had about Scott interfering with his affairs. Lincoln also wanted McClellan to stay focused on getting the Potomac army into fighting shape. However, the cabinet finally convinced Lincoln that he needed a general-in-chief to prevent him from micromanaging the war effort, and McClellan was the best man for the job.

Lincoln and his cabinet members called on Scott that afternoon to bid him farewell. Scott, who had to be helped off his sofa, greeted each man and expressed gratitude for their kind praise. Lincoln issued a statement paying tribute to Scott’s service and thanking him for “his faithful devotion to the Constitution, the Union, and the Flag, when assailed by parricidal rebellion.”

McClellan issued General Orders Number 19, a two-part directive that first declared that the United States would ultimately prevail because “Providence will favor ours as the just cause.” The second part honored Scott’s service:

“Let us all hope and pray that his declining years may be passed in peace and happiness, and that they may be cheered by the success of the country and the cause he has fought for and loved so well. Beyond all that, let us do nothing that can cause him to blush for us; let no defeat of the army he has so long commanded embitter his last years, but let our victories illuminate the close of a life so grand.”

That night, Lincoln and his secretary John Hay visited McClellan at his headquarters to inform him that he was the new general-in-chief. The president told McClellan, “I should be perfectly satisfied if I thought that this vast increase of responsibility would not embarrass you.” McClellan replied, “It is a great relief, sir! I feel as if several tons were taken from my shoulders to-day. I am now in contact with you and the Secretary. I am not embarrassed by intervention.” Lincoln said, “Well, draw on me for all the sense I have and all the information. In addition to your present command, the supreme command of the army will entail a vast labor upon you.” The new general-in-chief declared, “I can do it all.”

At 4 a.m. on the 3rd, McClellan rode with his staff and a cavalry squadron through strong wind and rain to bid a final farewell to General Scott at the Washington Depot. This was the same wooden railroad station where McClellan had arrived from western Virginia to take command of the Army of the Potomac. Scott was leaving for retirement at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.

Scott, who had read General Orders Number 19, complimented the new general-in-chief as one of the greatest commanders of all time. The generals exchanged kind words, with Scott imparting good wishes to McClellan’s wife and newborn child. The retiring general boarded the train and received a farewell salute as the train pulled out. That night, McClellan wrote his wife Ellen:

“It may be that at some distant day I, too, shall totter away from Washington, a worn-out soldier, with naught to do but make my peace with God. The sight of this morning was a lesson to me which I hope not soon to forget. I saw there the end of a long, active and ambitious life, the end of the career of the first soldier of his nation; and it was a feeble old man scarce able to walk; hardly anyone there to see him off but his successor. Should I ever become vainglorious and ambitious, remind me of that spectacle.”


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