Civil War History: Farewell, L’il Mac
Library of Congress photo
President Lincoln and General McClellan meet in Maryland during the fall of 1862.
Following Antietam and the Battle of Shepherdstown at the Potomac River crossing near the town, Gen. George B. McClellan failed to pursue Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, the Army of the Potomac encamped along Antietam Creek to recuperate.
The decision frustrated President Abraham Lincoln who made an unannounced visit to McClellan’s headquarters. Though it is reported the two men repaired some of their differences, Lincoln still carried doubts about his army commander. When the president surveyed the tents of the Army of the Potomac, which McClellan referred to as “his army,” Lincoln jokingly referred to the assemblage as “it is only McClellan’s bodyguard.”
Whatever amends were accomplished on Oct. 3, they quickly eroded as McClellan fell into the identical pattern so well established on the Virginia Peninsula — excuse followed excuse.
After over three weeks had passed in camp, McClellan informed the War Department he could not move until his men received new shoes and “articles of clothing.” The following day a request for cavalry remounts was received at the War Department although nearly 9,000 horses had been delivered over the prior six weeks. When an exasperated Lincoln heard of the horse request he countered in a telegraph back to the general, “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”
Finally, on Oct. 22, over five weeks after Antietam and the passage of beautiful campaign weather, the Army of the Potomac received orders to prepare to advance.
McClellan was following Lincoln’s recommendation to sever communications between Lee and Richmond and then bring Lee to battle. Surprisingly, when the Federals started to move south they were actually closer to Richmond than Lee’s forces.
Four days later the first troops actually crossed the Potomac River, but even with McClellan’s assurances that “other troops will be pushed across as rapidly as possible,” the advance switched to a crawl.
By Oct. 28 only one corps and the cavalry had crossed the river and the army’s headquarters had not yet left Maryland.
The onset of early winter weather slowed the troops on both sides, but up to Nov. 7 Union forces never engaged Lee’s infantry, only the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart. The Southern horsemen fought in a number of skirmishes, which slowed McClellan’s pace further. The Army of the Potomac had only moved 20 miles into Virginia.
Lincoln possessed a great deal of patience, but finally McClellan’s action — or lack of action — taxed his limits.
The president had endured McClellan’s inactivity as general of the armies before stripping him of that title in 1862, then took away portions of the Army of the Potomac as it sat idle in camp on the James River. Only Gen. John Pope’s mismanagement at the Second Bull Run forced Lincoln to reinstate McClellan to the full Army of the Potomac command. The draw at Antietam partly saved McClellan’s position, but six weeks of little movement raised Lincoln’s ire.
One Nov. 5, Lincoln ordered Henry Halleck, general of the armies, to replace McClellan. The president selected Ambrose Burnside as the Army of the Potomac’s new commander. Burnside had gained success in an expedition against Roanoke Island and New Bern, N.C., and at that time led the IX Corps. To impress upon McClellan that the termination was indeed a serious matter, the War Department sent Brig. Gen. Catharinus Buckingham to McClellan’s headquarters with the dispatch. Buckingham first stopped and saw Burnside, convincing the Rhode Islander to accept the leadership post. Burnside expressed doubts in his abilities, but Buckingham convinced the general of his worthiness.
The pair then proceeded to McClellan’s headquarters and delivered the orders late on the night of Nov. 7. McClellan read the dispatch, turned to Burnside and said, “Well, Burnside, I turn command over to you.”
The news of McClellan’s firing rippled through the Army of the Potomac, prompting talk of mass resignations by the officers in protest. The general calmed the anger and urged loyalty imploring as he left, “Stand by General Burnside as you have stood by me, and all will be well.”
As for his counterpart from the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee, he accepted the change rather passively. Since June he had fought against McClellan, Pope, and then McClellan again. He remarked, “I fear they may continue to make these changes till they find someone whom I don’t understand.”
When he departed Virginia and his beloved Army of the Potomac, McClellan headed to his Trenton, N.J., home to await further orders from the War Department. They never arrived.