Major General George B. McClellan, who had recently been removed as commander of the Army of the Potomac, agreed to stay on to acclimate his successor, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, to the job. Burnside had no desire to command the army, but his performance at First Bull Run and on the North Carolina coast had made a good impression on President Abraham Lincoln. Of the other corps commanders in the army, Burnside had the fewest liabilities or political aspirations; the others were either too old, too reluctant to fight, too politically vocal, or too difficult to control.
On the morning of November 8, officers and men of the Army of the Potomac woke to news that their beloved “Little Mac” no longer led them. Troops reacted with shock, disbelief, horror, and rage. McClellan had turned this disorganized, demoralized force into one of the strongest armies on earth, and he had been as popular among his men as he was unpopular among his superiors. Major General George G. Meade wrote, “The Army is filled with gloom. Burnside, it is said, wept like a child and is the most distressed man in the Army, openly says he is not fit for the position and that McClellan is the only man we have who can handle the large army collected together.”
A captain in the 22nd Massachusetts stated that “you wouldn’t give much for the patriotism of the Army of the Potomac, and as for being in good spirits and ready to advance, as the papers say, it is all bosh!” A soldier in the 18th Massachusetts wrote that McClellan’s removal was “the severest blow ever dealt the Army of the Potomac.” Another soldier wrote, “You don’t know what a commotion the change in the army has made. Officers threaten to resign, and men refuse to fight. In Heaven’s name, why make the transfer now, when all plans are made, and McClellan is our leader, the idol of the army? Why give the enemy the victory?”
Command transferred from “Little Mac” to “Old Burn” the next day. McClellan met with some senior officers at Major General Fitz John Porter’s headquarters that evening to say farewell. When the officers condemned Republican politicians and the press for demanding McClellan’s removal, McClellan said, “Gentlemen please remember that we are here to serve the interest of no one man. We are here to serve our country.”
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, learned of his opponent’s dismissal and realized that this was the reason why the Federals had stopped their advance. Some Confederates thought McClellan’s removal would demoralize the Federals, while others thought the new commander would be even more reluctant to fight.
Lee offered a different opinion, telling Lieutenant General James Longstreet, “We always understood each other so well. I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don’t understand.” But Longstreet noted, “The change was a good lift for the South, however; McClellan was growing, was likely to exhibit far greater powers than he had yet shown, and could not have given us opportunity to recover the morale lost at Sharpsburg, as did Burnside and Hooker.”
At 8 a.m. on the 10th, McClellan emerged from his headquarters for the last time, and as he rode through the Warrenton camps, troops cheered and waved their hats for their beloved commander. Some “cried like babies,” others shouted, “Send him back! Send him back!” Some regiments threw down their arms and vowed never to fight again. Some threatened to march on Washington, and one general allegedly shouted, “Lead us to Washington, General, we’ll follow you!”
As McClellan and Burnside rode down the Centreville pike to the train station at Warrenton Junction, Federal troops lined the route. Color bearers threw down their flags in his path. An officer described the men as “thunderstruck. There is but one opinion among the troops, and that is that the government has gone mad.” McClellan respectfully removed his hat one last time for his men.
The 2,000-man force that was assigned as an honor guard for McClellan at the train station gave a final salute. Cannons roared as McClellan boarded the waiting train. Grieving soldiers surrounded the train, uncoupled the car, and begged their former commander to stay. McClellan calmed the men and his disheartened honor guard by stepping out onto the train car’s rear platform and announcing, “Stand by General Burnside as you have stood by me, and all will be well. Good-by lads.”
Colonel Edward Cross of the 5th New Hampshire said, “A shade of sadness crossed his (McClellan’s) face. He carried the hearts of the army with him.” The troops finally composed themselves, recoupled the car, and allowed McClellan to leave the Army of the Potomac for the last time.
McClellan left behind an emotional farewell address to his army:
“In parting from you I cannot express the love and gratitude I bear to you. As an army you have grown up under my care. In you I have never found doubt or coldness. The battles you have fought under my command will proudly live in our nation’s history. The glory you have achieved, our mutual perils and fatigues, the graves of our comrades fallen in battle and by disease, the broken forms of those whom wounds and sickness have disabled–the strongest associations which can exist among men–unite us still by an indissoluble tie. We shall ever be comrades in supporting the Constitution of our country and the nationality of its people.”
A soldier wrote, “When the chief passed out of sight, the romance of war was over for the Army of the Potomac.”
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