Nearing Mutiny in the Army of the Potomac

By January 22, nearly everyone in the Federal Army of the Potomac acknowledged that Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside’s second offensive had failed, just as many of his subordinates had predicted (and some even hoped). The troops attempting to get around the Confederate left flank had gotten bogged down in impassable mud until they were forced to return to their gloomy camps around Falmouth on the Rappahannock River.

Lieutenant Henry Ropes summed up the general feeling by writing that as Burnside rode past the troops, he was “followed by hooting and yells. The troops are in a dreadful state” because Burnside “has brought the Army to the verge of mutiny and the country to the worst case it has ever been in.” Army morale plummeted to new depths. The desertion rate continued rising, along with the number of men on the sick list due to poor sanitation and a lack of rations.

Several of Burnside’s top officers openly criticized him, including Major-General William B. Franklin. Franklin had tried to get Burnside to cancel the offensive, and when Burnside would not, Franklin voiced loud opposition to the plan. This was seconded by Major-General William F. “Baldy” Smith, one of Franklin’s subordinates.

Another Burnside critic was Major-General Joseph Hooker. According to William Swinton of the New York Times, Hooker “talked very openly about the absurdity” of Burnside’s “mud march.” Hooker raged that Burnside was incompetent, and he condemned “the President and Government at Washington as imbecile and ‘played out.’” Hooker declared that the country needed a dictator to win the war.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit:

All this finally caused Burnside’s frustration to boil over. He invited Franklin and Smith to a turkey luncheon on the 23rd, where he told them, “In a day or two you will hear of something that will surprise you all.” Burnside then drafted one of the most extraordinary orders in U.S. military history. According to General Order Number 8, Hooker was charged with:

“… unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the actions of his superior officers, and of the authorities, and having, by the general tone of his conversation, endeavored to create distrust in the minds of officers who have associated with him, and having, by omissions and otherwise, made reports and statements which were calculated to create incorrect impressions, and for habitually speaking in disparaging terms of other officers.”

Consequently, Hooker was “hereby dismissed from the service of the United States as a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present, when so much patience, charity, confidence, consideration and patriotism are due from every soldier in the field.” Others were also subjected to Burnside’s wrath:

  • Brigadier-General W.T.H. Brooks, commanding a division within the Sixth Corps, was dismissed for complaining about the Lincoln administration in a way that demoralized his troops.
  • Brigadier-Generals John Newton and John Cochrane, commanding a division and brigade respectively in the Sixth Corps, were dismissed for “going to the President of the United States with criticisms of the plans of their commanding officer.” Burnside found out that Newton and Cochrane were the ones who had gone to Washington in late December by verifying which officers had passes to leave during that time.
  • Six other officers were ordered relieved of their command but not dismissed from the service, “it being evident that they can be of no further service to this army”: lunch guests Franklin and Smith, Franklin’s assistant adjutant general Lieutenant Colonel John H. Taylor, and Brigadier-Generals Samuel D. Sturgis and Edward Ferrero of Burnside’s old Ninth Corps. For some reason, Burnside added Cochrane to this list as well.

Burnside showed a draft of this order to New York Times owner Henry J. Raymond and Dr. William H. Church, his medical director. Raymond worried that Hooker might lead a revolt to try to take over the army. Burnside replied that if he tried, Burnside would “swing him before sundown.” Church pointed out that dismissing an officer from the army required a court-martial, whose decision needed the president’s approval. This prompted Burnside to add that his orders were “subject to the approval of the President of the United States.”

Burnside then wrote President Abraham Lincoln that night, “I have prepared some very important orders, and I want to see you before issuing them. Can I see you alone if I am at the White House after midnight?” Lincoln replied, “Will see you any moment when you come.” Burnside left his headquarters at 9 p.m. and went by train to a steamer at Aquia Creek.

Burnside met Lincoln at the White House in mid-morning on the 24th and presented him with both General Order Number 8 and his resignation. Lincoln would have to approve one or the other. Burnside reminded Lincoln that he had not wanted the army command in the first place, having turned it down twice before finally accepting.

When Burnside explained the officers’ duplicity, Lincoln said, “I think you are right, but I must consult with some of my advisers about this.” He told Burnside he needed a day to think it over. Burnside said, “If you consult with anybody, you will not do it, in my opinion.” But Lincoln consulted with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck nonetheless.

That same day, Lincoln received a letter from Brigadier-General Carl Schurz, a political insider within the Army of the Potomac. Schurz painted a gloomy picture of army conditions at the time:

“I am convinced the spirit of the men is systematically demoralized and the confidence in their chief systematically broken by several of the commanding-generals. I have heard generals, subordinate officers and men say they expect to be whipped anyhow, ‘that all these fatigues and hardships are for nothing and that they might as well go home.’ Add to this, that the immense army is closely packed together in the mud, that sickness is spreading at a frightful rate, that, in consequence of all these causes of discouragement, desertion increases every day and you will not be surprised if you see the army melt away with distressing rapidity.”

At a White House levee that night, Lincoln met with Times owner Henry Raymond, who said he thought that the main problem was Hooker’s insubordinate rhetoric. Lincoln said, “That is all true–Hooker does talk badly. But the trouble is, he is stronger with the country to-day than any other man. Even if the country were told of Hooker’s talk they would not believe it. They would say it is all a lie.”

Lincoln was faced with a difficult decision: either remove Burnside from the Army of the Potomac, or endorse an order removing two grand division commanders, a corps commander, a division commander, and a brigade commander. In the end, Lincoln did not need to consult his advisors. He revealed his decision the next day.


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  1. I enjoy reading all these entries. One request, can each start with identifying the year in which the event occurred? Thanks.

    1. Thank you for reading! Each article generally spotlights an event that occurred 160 years ago on or around the same date. So events in this article took place around 23 January 1863. Will try to do better to make sure that’s more clear!

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