President Abraham Lincoln designated February 22 as “the day for a general movement of the Land and Naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces.” This order, written and signed by Lincoln without consulting any advisors, was without precedent. It was designed to celebrate Washington’s Birthday, disrupt the upcoming Confederate inaugural ceremonies, and force General-in-Chief George B. McClellan to move. The order reflected the frustration both Lincoln and his new secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, had with McClellan’s reluctance to divulge his plans. It also addressed Stanton’s assertion that “the armies must move or the Government perish.”
Lincoln specifically ordered advances by army forces at Fort Monroe, northern Virginia, western Virginia, and Kentucky, along with the naval squadrons at Cairo and the Gulf of Mexico. He also directed Generals Samuel R. Curtis and John Pope in Missouri, and Colonel Edward R.S. Canby in the New Mexico Territory, to “obey existing orders, for the time, and be ready to obey additional orders when duly given.”
The order concluded: “That the Heads of Departments, and especially the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, with all their subordinates; and the General-in Chief, with all other commanders and subordinates, of Land and Naval forces, will severally be held to their strict and full responsibilities, for the prompt execution of this order.”
The directive did not take into account intangibles such as weather, road conditions, lines of communication or supply, or logistics. It served more as a desperate warning to Federal commanders that they could not remain idle any longer.
McClellan, who had recovered from typhoid and “found that excessive anxiety for an immediate movement of the Army of the Potomac had taken possession of the minds of the Administration,” ignored this order. Four days later, Lincoln followed this up with the President’s Special War Order Number 1. While the first order had directed general movements for nearly all Federal forces, this order specified the movement that Lincoln sought from the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln directed:
“That all the disposable force of the Army of the Potomac, after providing safely for the defense of Washington, be formed into an expedition for the immediate object of seizing and occupying a point upon the railroad southwestward of what is known as Manassas Junction, all details to be in the discretion of the commander-in-chief, and the expedition to move before or on the 22d day of February next.”
These two war orders represented Lincoln’s desperate effort to be the commander-in-chief by forcing his commanders, particularly McClellan, to begin offensive operations. When McClellan received this order, he rushed to the White House and objected to being ordered to make an overland advance. He had spent the last week writing a proposal to move the Potomac army by water down the Virginia coast and land at Urbanna, between the Confederate army at Manassas Junction and Richmond.
Lincoln agreed to allow McClellan “to submit in writing my objections to his plan, and my reasons for preferring my own.” McClellan spent the weekend revising his proposal to argue why Lincoln’s overland plan would be untenable. Lincoln spent the weekend formulating a series of questions about McClellan’s counterproposal. If these questions were answered to his satisfaction, the president wrote, “I will gladly yield my plan to yours.”
Lincoln finally got McClellan to divulge his plans. But that was the only tangible result that came from his two orders because for the most part, the Federal armies in the field remained stationary.
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