President Abraham Lincoln ordered Major General George B. McClellan to move his Federal Army of the Potomac out of its camps in western Maryland and back into Virginia to confront General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army. McClellan opted not to obey the commander-in-chief and instead turned his attention to the president’s recent Emancipation Proclamation.
McClellan was a prominent Democrat who only supported a war to preserve the Union, not to interfere with slavery. As such, he seriously contemplated either openly defying Lincoln’s decree or resigning from the army. He consulted influential Democratic politicians to get their opinion on what he should do; he also drafted a letter protesting the Proclamation which he considered sending to Lincoln.
On October 7, the day after being ordered to move, McClellan called in three of his generals (Ambrose E. Burnside, Jacob D. Cox, and John Cochrane) to show them his protest and ask them if he should come out against the Emancipation Proclamation. The generals unanimously warned McClellan against such a thing because it could be seen as trying to usurp power from his superiors, which was tantamount to treason. Cox told McClellan that this might turn the troops against their commanders, as “our volunteer soldiers were citizens as well as soldiers, and were citizens more than soldiers.”
McClellan next called in Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, confident that Smith would support the protest letter. But when Smith read it, he was horrified. “General do you not see that looks like treason: & that it will ruin you and all of us,” Smith said, as he “could not imagine a more suicidal thing.” Next came a surprise visit from William Aspinwall, a prominent Democrat whom McClellan had asked for advice on the matter. McClellan wrote his wife Ellen that Aspinwall “is decidedly of the opinion that it is my duty to submit to the President’s proclamation and quietly continue doing my duty as a soldier… I shall surely give his views full consideration.”
McClellan ultimately issued General Orders Number 163, “publishing to the Army the Presdnts proclamation of Sept 22nd.” The order was not to be read aloud, but simply issued for the men to read themselves. Following Lincoln’s order, McClellan added his own commentary. He announced that “the Constitution confides to the Civil Authorities legislative judicial and executive” power over all, including the military.
McClellan went on: “Discussions by officers and soldiers concerning public measures determined upon and declared by the Government, when carried at all beyond temperate and respectful expressions of opinion,” caused political animosity and were therefore not permitted. Hinting at the approaching midterm elections, McClellan concluded, “The remedy for political errors, if any are committed, is to be found only in the action of the people at the polls.”
The pro-Lincoln New York Tribune applauded McClellan’s order in the hopes that it would stop the “zanies” and “dangerous ringleaders” in the Potomac army from “threatening the most unutterable vengeance of ‘the army’ on ‘the abolitionists’ if they don’t stop interfering with Gen. McClellan!”
This may have stopped open resistance to the Emancipation Proclamation, but it did nothing to conform to Lincoln’s order to get the Potomac army back in motion. On the same day that McClellan issued his order, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote his wife, bemoaning “if I could only get Genl McClellan to move. He has now lain still twenty days since the battle of Antietam, and I cannot persuade him to advance an inch.”
McClellan apparently felt emboldened enough to ignore his superiors’ pleas to move because he felt a unity between himself and his men that his superiors could never have. He told an officer, “The Army of the Potomac is my army as much as any army ever belonged to the man that created it. We have grown together and fought together. We are wedded and should not be separated.”
In fact, McClellan felt so emboldened that he decided to take a short vacation. On the 9th, he boarded a private train car courtesy of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad president. Accompanied by his father-in-law (and chief of staff) Randolph Marcy, the men traveled as civilians to visit their wives and McClellan’s baby daughter at Philadelphia. From there, McClellan and Marcy visited Harpers Ferry, and then on into Pleasant Valley, where they “really enjoyed the trip immensely.”
During this time, Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s Confederate cavalry rode around McClellan’s army and raided as far north as Pennsylvania. A Confederate horseman noted, “Everything indicated our coming to be unexpected, and not a shadow of opposition appeared.” With the Federal army chief away, virtually nothing was done to stop the raid.
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
- 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.
- Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- 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.