The day after the Federal midterm elections, President Abraham Lincoln decided the time had come to remove Major General George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln had been frustrated for over a year by McClellan’s lack of aggression, and he had endured tremendous pressure to fire him. Some accused McClellan of political duplicity because, as a Democrat, he regularly disagreed with Lincoln’s Republican policies and possibly tried to undermine him. Others accused the general of outright cowardice or even treason.
Lincoln had supported McClellan long after most other Republicans had demanded the general’s removal. He had given McClellan one more chance to destroy General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, especially since the Federals had the inside track on the race to the Confederate capital of Richmond. But Lee hurried Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps to cut McClellan off before he could take advantage. This prompted Lincoln to finally make a move.
Lincoln told John Hay, his private secretary, “I saw how he (McClellan) could intercept the enemy on the way to Richmond. I determined to make that the test. If he let them get away I would remove him.” When an advisor warned Lincoln that firing McClellan could have dire political consequences, Lincoln replied that he had “tried long enough to bore with an auger too dull to take hold.”
Hay wrote his fiancée, “The President’s patience is at last completely exhausted with McClellan’s inaction and never-ending excuses.” Lincoln knew that McClellan had vast influence over the troops, which led the president to “indulge him in his whims and complaints and shortcomings as a mother would indulge her baby, but all to no purpose. He is constitutionally too slow, and has fitly been dubbed the great American tortoise.”
Lincoln drafted the order even before the midterm election results were tallied, as the Democratic victories were expected. Many Republicans feared that if McClellan remained in command, he would lead a refreshed Democratic Party from his army headquarters in undermining the administration’s war policies. Lincoln did not necessarily agree, but he saw that McClellan would never share the administration’s sense of urgency to defeat the enemy.
Thus, the president issued the order, which included more than just relieving McClellan:
“By direction of the President of the United States, it is ordered that Major-General McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Major-General Burnside take the command of that army. Also that Major-General Hunter take command of the corps in said army which is now commanded by General Burnside. That Major-General Fitz John Porter be relieved from the command of the corps he now commands in said army, and that Major-General Hooker take command of said corps.”
The Radical Republicans admired David Hunter, currently commanding the Department of the South, and would be happy to see him sent north. Fitz John Porter had been accused of failing to obey orders during the Battle of Second Bull Run and would face charges by a court-martial now that McClellan, his strongest ally, was gone. Joseph Hooker would be promoted to full corps command after his brave conduct during the Battle of Antietam.
Lincoln passed the order to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who added the directive that McClellan “repair to Trenton, N. J., reporting, on your arrival at that place, by telegraph, for further orders.” Halleck delivered the order to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on November 6. Stanton, formerly a close friend of McClellan’s and now one of his harshest critics, wanted to take special precautions to keep the order secret until it was delivered to McClellan. Stanton feared that McClellan might learn about his removal in the newspapers and organize his supporters to resist.
Stanton assigned Brigadier General C.P. Buckingham, a “confidential assistant adjutant-general to the Secretary of War,” to deliver two orders. One removed McClellan from command, and the other replaced McClellan with Ambrose E. Burnside. When Buckingham doubted that Burnside would accept the promotion (Burnside had already refused twice), Stanton instructed him to use the “strongest arguments to induce him not to refuse.” Buckingham was to “carry the full weight of the President’s authority.”
On the 7th, Buckingham took a special train to Salem (now Marshall), Virginia, and then rode 15 miles south through an evening snowstorm to Burnside’s headquarters. When he delivered the order, Burnside immediately refused, having already argued that he “was not competent to command such a large army as this.” Burnside was also close friends with McClellan and did not want to take his job from him.
Buckingham countered that McClellan would be removed regardless of whether Burnside took his place. And if Burnside refused, the promotion would go to Hooker, whom Burnside strongly disliked. After nearly two hours of debating, Burnside finally relented and accepted the command. The two men rode through the snow to Salem and then took the train to McClellan’s headquarters at Rectortown to deliver the second part of the order.
McClellan knew that a special train had come from Washington, and he knew that a War Department official had met with Burnside. When Buckingham and an embarrassed Burnside came to see him at 11 p.m., McClellan warmly received them, even though he most likely knew why they were there. After a brief friendly discussion, they handed McClellan the order, which he read with no expression. He then looked up and said, “Well, Burnside, I turn the command over to you.”
Seeing that Burnside did not want this, McClellan consoled him and reminded him that they had to obey orders. Burnside, with tears in his eyes, begged McClellan to stay on and help transition the command. McClellan agreed. After the men left, McClellan wrote his wife Ellen that Burnside had “never showed himself a better man or truer friend than now.”
McClellan boasted that after receiving the order, “I am sure that not a muscle quivered nor was the slightest expression of feeling visible on my face… They (the administration) shall not have that triumph. They have made a great mistake–alas for my country–I know in my innermost heart she never had a truer servant… I do not see any great blunders–but no man can judge of himself… Our consolation must be that we have tried to do what was right–if we failed it was not our fault.”
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