As Major-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee continued its relentless siege of Vicksburg, Grant had the time to finally address a longstanding problem with one of his commanders. Major-General John A. McClernand, commanding the Thirteenth Corps, was a former Illinois politician who had gained his position through political connections rather than military experience. Grant had long sought to remove McClernand but refrained due to his popularity in the North and his ability to get Democrats to support the war.
In mid-June, Major-General Francis P. Blair, Jr., commanding a division in Major-General William T. Sherman’s Fifteenth Corps, discovered an article in the Memphis Evening Bulletin that included a congratulatory order issued by McClernand to his men for their valiant efforts in the Second Battle of Vicksburg on May 22. The order itself was not improper, but McClernand then went further:
“How and why the general assault failed, it would be useless now to explain. The Thirteenth army corps, acknowledging the good intentions of all, would scorn indulgence in weak regrets and idle criminations. According justice to all, it would only defend itself. If while the enemy was massing to crush it, assistance was asked for a diversion at other points or by reinforcement, it only asked what, in one case, Maj. Gen. Grant had specifically and peremptorily ordered, namely, simultaneous and persistent attacks all along our lines, until the enemy’s outer works should be carried: and what in the other by massing a strong force in time upon a weakened point, would have probably insured success.”
This implied that the defeat had been caused by Grant and his other two corps commanders failing to do enough to support McClernand’s men. McClernand compounded his poor judgment by sending this order to newspapers politically friendly to him, without first sending it through the commanding officer per army regulations. Thus, neither Grant nor anyone else outside McClernand’s corps knew about the order until Blair found it two weeks later.
Disgusted, Blair brought the article to Sherman. Blair declared that if the other corps commanders (i.e., Sherman and Major-General James B. McPherson) did not deal with McClernand, then Blair would use the political connections in his influential family to bury McClernand himself. Sherman needed no such threats; he called McClernand’s accusation that he was not properly supported a “monstrous falsehood.” McPherson read the article and agreed.
Sherman sent the article to Grant, calling it an outrage to the rest of the army and “an effusion of vain-glory and hypocrisy.” In fact, it was so offensive that Sherman, who had served under McClernand in the Fort Hindman campaign, initially believed that he had neither written it, “Nor can I believe General McClernand ever published such an order officially to his corps. I know too well that the brave and intelligent soldiers and officers who compose that corps will not be humbugged by such stuff.”
Sherman added that the order, if real, was not intended for the troops, “but to a constituency in Illinois” that McClernand, “the sagacious leader and bold hero he so complacently paints himself.” McPherson wrote Grant on the 18th calling the order an effort “to impress the public mind with the magnificent strategy, superior tactics and brilliant deeds” of McClernand.
Grant was reminded of General Orders Number 151, issued last year by the War Department, “which actually forbids the publication of all official letters and reports, and requires the name of the writer to be laid before the President of the United States for dismissal.” He sent the newspaper article to McClernand with a message: “Inclosed I send you what purports to be your congratulatory address to the Thirteenth Army Corps. I would respectfully ask if it is a true copy. If it is not a correct copy, furnish me one by bearer, as required both by regulations and existing orders of the Department.”
McClernand replied, “The newspaper slip is a correct copy of my congratulatory order, No 72. I am prepared to maintain its statements. I regret that my adjutant did not send you a copy promptly, as he ought, and I thought he had.” Noting that all of McClernand’s orders had gone through the proper channels without incident except this one, Grant immediately issued a directive:
“Major General John A. McClernand is hereby relieved of command of the Thirteenth Army Corps. He will proceed to any point he may select in the state of Illinois and report by letter to Headquarters of the Army for orders.”
Grant assigned Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Wilson, the army’s chief engineer, to deliver the order. Since the order was issued late on the 18th, Grant expected Wilson to deliver it to McClernand the next day. But Grant’s chief of staff, Major-General John A. Rawlins, did not want to delay in case the Confederates tried to break through McClernand’s sector of the siege line the next day. Wilson, who despised McClernand, had no issue with hurrying the delivery.
Wilson arrived at McClernand’s headquarters at 3 a.m. and woke the general. When he finally read the message, McClernand, knowing that Wilson hated him, invoked a pun: “Well, sir, I am relieved. By God, sir, we are both relieved!”
McClernand quickly wrote a reply: “Having been appointed by the President to command of that corps, under a definite act of Congress, I might justly challenge your authority in the premises, but forbear to do so at present.” Grant did not acknowledge this veiled threat, but he did address McClernand’s official report on the Battle of Vicksburg, which he submitted just before being relieved: “This report contains so many inaccuracies that to correct it, to make it a fair report to be handed down as historical, would require the rewriting of most of it. It is pretentious and egotistical, as is sufficiently shown by my own and all other reports accompanying.”
Grant replaced McClernand with Major-General E.O.C. Ord, a Regular army officer who, according to an officer, “materially increased the efficiency of the Thirteenth Corps.” McClernand returned to Illinois, where he wrote President Abraham Lincoln: “I have been relieved for an omission of my adjutant. Hear me.” But with Grant poised to score one of the greatest victories of the war by capturing Vicksburg, Lincoln would not hear McClernand. The general spent the rest of the year lobbying Washington for reinstatement. Lincoln finally returned him to command of the Thirteenth Corps in early 1864, after the corps had been transferred to the Department of the Gulf.
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