McClellan Removed as General-in-Chief

President Abraham Lincoln had long been concerned that General-in-Chief George B. McClellan could not command all the Federal armies while staying in the field with the Army of the Potomac at the same time. This concern intensified when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reported “great ignorance, negligence and lack of order and subordination–and reckless extravagance” within the Potomac army. Now that McClellan had finally taken the field by leading that army into northern Virginia, the time was right for a military reorganization.

Lincoln held a cabinet meeting on March 11, where many expressed dissatisfaction with McClellan’s performance. The fact that he did not pursue the Confederate army as it retreated from the Centreville-Manassas line only made matters worse. Attorney General Edward Bates wrote that he thought McClellan “has no plans but is fumbling and plunging in confusion and darkness.” With the immense Peninsula campaign about to get under way, Lincoln announced that changes would be made.

Under the President’s Special War Order Number 3, McClellan was removed as general-in-chief, ostensibly so he could focus all his energies on the Army of the Potomac. In addition, Lincoln assigned Major General Henry W. Halleck to command the new Department of the Mississippi. This consolidated the Departments of Kansas, Missouri, the Tennessee, and the Ohio, totaling 128,810 men ranging from Knoxville to Kansas.

Halleck had lobbied for this change since the fall of Fort Donelson; he had taken most of the credit for Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of that fort as well as Fort Henry. Major General Don Carlos Buell, who had been reluctant to cooperate with Halleck as an equal, became Halleck’s subordinate, commanding the Army of the Ohio within Halleck’s new department. Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of Kansas, was transferred east. The failed “Jayhawk expedition” in Kansas may have prompted Lincoln to put that department under Halleck.

In a surprise move, Lincoln brought back controversial Major General John C. Fremont to command the new Mountain Department. Fremont had been removed as commander of the Department of the West the previous November and later censured by the House of Representatives by a bipartisan vote of 103 to 28 for mismanaging that department. However, Fremont had backing from Radical Republicans, abolitionists, and the influential Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, so Lincoln bowed to their pressure and reinstated him.

The Mountain Department superseded Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans’s Department of Western Virginia and absorbed the four military districts in the region:

  • The Railroad District under Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley;
  • The Cumberland District under Brigadier General Robert C. Schenck;
  • The Cheat Mountain District under Brigadier General Robert H. Milroy;
  • The Kanawha District under Brigadier General Jacob D. Cox.

Rosecrans would command the new department until Fremont arrived. Fremont was expected to lead Federal troops into eastern Tennessee in support of the Unionists in that region. McClellan, Halleck, and Fremont, now commanding the three major theaters of operation, were to “report severally and directly to the Secretary of War.” This put Stanton in charge of military administration and efficiency.

Before issuing this order, Lincoln had shared it with Stanton, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. All three men endorsed it, with Seward suggesting that Stanton issue the order through the War Department. Stanton demurred to avoid causing further animosity between himself and his once-close friend McClellan. So Lincoln officially signed the order on the night of the 11th and issued it under his authority.

Lincoln appointed Ohio Governor William Dennison, a close McClellan friend, to break the news to the former general-in-chief. McClellan’s Chief of Staff Randolph Marcy wired McClellan at Fairfax Court House to return to Washington because “Mr. Dennison desires to see you before you see any one else… All this is very important.” McClellan refused: “I think the less I see of Washington the better.” He then wrote his wife Ellen, “I regret that the rascals are after me again… If I can get out of this scrape you will never catch me in the power of such a set again–the idea of persecuting a man behind his back.”

On the morning of the 12th, the National Intelligencer released details of the order, and McClellan’s allies in Washington telegraphed his headquarters at Fairfax Court House. Dennison arrived with Lincoln’s message after the fact. The president explained that the move was not a demotion; rather, “having personally taken the field,” Lincoln wanted McClellan to fully concentrate on the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln also stated that McClellan would take on this lesser role “until otherwise ordered,” implying that he might reinstate him as general-in-chief in the future. Lincoln wrote, “You command the Army of the Potomac wherever it may go. Everything is right–move quick as possible.”

McClellan, initially insulted by having to learn of the move from a newspaper, now seemed satisfied. He wrote to Lincoln, “I shall work just as cheerfully as before, and that no consideration of self will in any manner interfere with the discharge of my public duties.” Most Washington insiders, especially Stanton and the Radical Republicans, pushed for this reorganization to elevate Halleck and Fremont while stripping McClellan of some of his authority. Many hoped that McClellan’s removal as general-in-chief would be permanent. Speculation soon abounded that, despite Lincoln’s assertions, the order indicated his doubts about McClellan’s abilities.


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