Major General John Pope, commanding the Federal Army of Virginia, telegraphed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck on the morning of September 1. The wire indicated a loss of confidence following Pope’s recent defeats. It also showcased his bitterness toward the officers and men from the Army of the Potomac whom Pope believed had failed him:
“My men are resting; they need it much… I shall attack again tomorrow if I can; the next day certainly. I think it my duty to call to your attention to the unsoldierly and dangerous conduct of many brigade and some division commanders of the forces sent here from the Peninsula. Every word and act and intention is discouraging, and calculated to break down the spirits of the men and produce disaster. My advice to you–I give it with freedom, as I know you will not misunderstand it–is that, in view of any satisfactory results, you draw back this army to the intrenchments in front of Washington, and set to work in that secure place to reorganize and rearrange it. You may avoid great disaster by doing so.”
Pope singled out Major General Fitz John Porter, close friend of Potomac army commander George B. McClellan, who had twice refused to obey Pope’s orders to advance on the Federal left flank, and “worse still, fell back to Manassas without a fight, and in plain hearing… of a furious battle, which raged all day.” Pope wrote, “You have hardly an idea of the demoralization among officers of high rank in the Potomac Army, arising… from personal feeling in relation to changes of commander-in-chief.”
There had been much talk in Washington about Major General McClellan, and how he had been slow in sending his troops to aid Pope. John Hay, secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, wrote that the president was “very outspoken in regard to McClellan’s present conduct… unquestionably he has acted badly toward Pope! He wanted him to fail.”
The Radical Republicans in Congress feared that McClellan, a Democrat, secretly wanted to overthrow the Lincoln administration. Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson alleged that “there is a conspiracy on foot among certain generals for a revolution and the establishment of a provisional national government.” Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler declared, “It is treason, rank treason. (Lincoln has) been bullied by those traitor Generals. How long will it be before he will by them be set aside & a military dictator set up.” Prominent New Yorker George Templeton Strong feared that McClellan would “agree on some compromise or adjustment” with the Confederates, “turn out Lincoln and his ‘Black Republicans’ and use their respective armies to enforce their decision… and reestablish the Union and the Constitution.”
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton drafted a petition citing all of McClellan’s failings and demanding his removal from the army. Attorney General Edward Bates argued that the failings should not be listed, and the petition should only be a declaration of no confidence in McClellan. Chase and Stanton agreed and wrote up a new draft: “The undersigned… do but perform a painful duty in declaring to you our deliberate opinion that, at this time, it is not safe to trust to Major General McClellan the command of any of the armies of the United States.”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote, “Chase frankly stated that he deliberately believed McClellan ought to be shot, and should, were he President.” All but three of Lincoln’s cabinet members signed the memo. Secretary of State William H. Seward was out of town, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair preferred to stay out of it. Welles agreed that McClellan’s “removal from command was demanded by public sentiment and the best interest of the country,” but he believed the protest was “discourteous and disrespectful to the President.” The memo was to be presented to Lincoln at the next cabinet meeting on September 2.
Meanwhile, Halleck had summoned McClellan to Washington to offer any kind of assistance with the rapidly deteriorating military situation, as Halleck had run out of ideas. McClellan had agreed, and he rode into the capital on the 1st. When he reached the War Department, Halleck was waiting for him along with Lincoln.
McClellan was given command of the Washington defenses, and then was given Pope’s message regarding the Potomac army. McClellan denied any animosity between the armies and asserted that his men were “cheerfully co-operating with and supporting Pope.” Lincoln asked McClellan to urge Porter and the other McClellan loyalists to serve under any superior officer the same that they would under McClellan himself. McClellan wrote Porter:
“I ask of you for my sake, that of the country, and of the old Army of the Potomac, that you and all my friends will lend the fullest and most cordial co-operation to General Pope in all the operations now going on. The destinies of our country, the honor of our arms, are at stake, and all depends now upon the cheerful co-operation of all in the field. This week is the crisis of our fate. Say the same thing to my friends in the Army of the Potomac, and that the last request I have to make of them is that, for their country’s sake, they will extend to General Pope the same support they ever have to me. I am in charge of the defenses of Washington, and am doing all I can do to render your retreat safe should that become necessary.”
This seemed to satisfy Lincoln and Halleck. McClellan believed that he had emerged from this situation a hero once more, as he wrote his wife Ellen that Halleck had summoned him to the capital, “begging me to help him out of this scrape and take command here. Of course I could not refuse, so I came over this morning, mad as a March hare and had a pretty plain talk with him & Abe–a still plainer one this evening. The result is that I have reluctantly consented to take command here & try to save the capital.”
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.