Major General John Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia ended its retreat on September 2 when the troops reached the entrenchments outside Washington. Skirmishing continued between the Federal rear guard and Confederate cavalry in the area around Fairfax Court House, Vienna, Falls Church, and Flint Hill, but the Confederates lacked the strength to attack the capital’s nearly impregnable fortifications.
As Federal troops filtered into Washington, their morale sank to a new low. Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard wrote, “Who will ever forget the straggling, the mud, the rain, the terrible panic and loss of life from random firing, and the hopeless feeling–almost despair–of that dreadful night march!” The colonel of the 55th New York wrote:
“Those who for eight days had done nothing but march and fight were worn out with fatigue. Everyone knew that the enemy was no longer at our heels. No salutary fear kept them in the ranks and many gave way to the temptation to take a few hours rest. They lighted great fires, whose number became greater and greater, so that at a few leagues from Alexandria the whole country appeared to be illuminated. There was everywhere along the road the greatest confusion. Infantry and cavalry, artillery and wagons, all hurried on pell mell, in the midst of rallying cries of officers and calls and oaths of the men.”
General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck ordered a general concentration of all available troops at Washington. Gunboats were brought up the Potomac River from Chesapeake Bay, and government workers were ordered to join the ranks. At the same time, liquor sales were banned throughout the District of Columbia.
Rumors quickly spread–some alleged to have been started by Major General George B. McClellan, now commanding the Washington defenses–that 20,000 Federal stragglers remained between Centreville and the capital. Pope denied this rumor, but he wired his superiors early on the 2nd that “unless something can be done to restore tone to this army it will melt away before you know it.” Halleck sent a staffer to investigate the rumors, and it was reported that the situation was actually much worse than just 20,000 stragglers. And since Pope had denied this, it made him out to be the liar that many claimed he was.
President Abraham Lincoln and Halleck met with McClellan at 7:00 that morning. With great reluctance, Lincoln approved Halleck’s suggestion to remove Pope and restore McClellan to overall command of both the Armies of the Potomac and Virginia. Lincoln had not consulted with any of his advisors before making this decision. The formal order simply read:
“Major General McClellan will have command of the fortifications of Washington and all the troops for the defense of the capital.”
McClellan later wrote his wife Ellen, “I was surprised this morning when at bkft by a visit from the Presdt & Halleck, in which the former expressed the opinion that the troubles now impending could be overcome better by me than anyone else. Pope is ordered to fall back upon Washn & as he reenters everything is to come under my command again!… A terrible & thankless task… I only consent to take it for my country’s sake & with the humble hope that God has called me to it.”
Although Lincoln and McClellan had clashed over military strategy and tactics for nearly a year, Lincoln knew that only McClellan could restore troop morale. He noted that bringing McClellan back was like “curing the bite with the hair of the dog,” but as he explained to his secretary, John Hay, “We must use the tools we have. There is no man in the Army who can man these fortifications and lick these troops of ours into shape half as well as he. If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight.”
Meanwhile, Lincoln’s cabinet met in his office for the usual Tuesday meeting. Lincoln had not yet arrived when the members began discussing the petition that most of them had signed that demanded the removal of McClellan from the army for his failure to reinforce Pope in a timely manner. This had enraged Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, whose clerk recalled “that if McClellan had been present when the news of Pope’s defeat came in, the Secretary would have assaulted him.” But what especially angered most of the cabinet members was the rumor now circulating that McClellan had been reinstated.
Just as Chase declared that reinstating McClellan would “prove a national calamity,” Lincoln entered the room and explained he was late for the meeting because he and Halleck had just restored McClellan to overall command. Stanton said, “No order to that effect has been issued from the War Department.” Lincoln replied, “The order is mine, and I will be responsible for it to the country.”
Chase said, “I cannot but feel that giving command to McClellan is equivalent to giving Washington to the rebels.” Lincoln acknowledged the protests of some members who accused McClellan of treason for failing to adequately reinforce Pope, calling it “unpardonable.” But Lincoln explained that no other commander could motivate the troops like McClellan, and such motivation was sorely needed after the recent defeats. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who had refused to sign the petition, explained that McClellan was needed because Pope “is a braggart and a liar, with some courage, perhaps, but not much capacity,” and could therefore not be depended on to rise to the occasion of the crisis at hand.
Lincoln did not, however, mention one of the most important reasons why he felt the need to reinstate McClellan, as explained by William Stoddard: “A host of tongues and pens are busy with the assertion that the officers and men of the Army of the Potomac half-way refuse to serve under any other commander than McClellan.” One of McClellan’s top generals even told the Daily National Intelligencer that if McClellan was not reinstated, “it would be a question between” whether the Confederates or McClellan’s own men would overthrow the Lincoln administration.
Lincoln tried to explain his decision to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles: “I must have McClellan to organize the army and bring it out of chaos, but there has been a design–a purpose in breaking down Pope, without regard of consequences to the country. It is shocking to see and know this; but there is no remedy at present. McClellan has the army with him.” Considering that Lincoln’s decision was made “in the face of… treasonable misconduct,” it was the “greatest trial and most painful duty of his official life.” The cabinet’s unanimous opposition to McClellan deeply troubled Lincoln and threatened to divide his administration, but the decision stood nonetheless.
Attorney General Edward Bates was not satisfied. He wrote, “The thing I complain of is a criminal tardiness, a fatuous apathy, a captious, bickering rivalry, among our commanders who seem so taken up with their quick made dignity, that they overlook the lives of their people & the necessities of their country. They in grotesque egotism, have so much reputation to take care of, that they dare not risk it.” Welles wrote, “Personal jealousies and professional rivalries, the bane and curse of all armies, have entered deeply into ours.”
The main reason for Lincoln’s decision was clear when McClellan rode out of Washington on the Fairfax road to take command in the field. Riding in toward the capital was Pope and his entourage. The two parties stopped and McClellan informed Pope that he was now in command of all troops. Pope continued on toward Washington, and as word of the change spread among the troops, Pope could hear the men cheering as loud as they could to celebrate his departure.
Brigadier General John Gibbon, commanding the Black Hat Brigade of the Potomac army, wrote his wife, “It did my heart good to hear my brigade cheer when I told them he was in command. They were perfectly wild with delight, hurling their caps in the air and showing the greatest enthusiasm right within hearing too of Genl. Pope.” Brigadier General George G. Meade summed it up: “Everything tho’ new is changed. McClellan’s star is again in the ascendant, and Pope’s has faded away.”
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