Burnside Relieved of Duty – By His Own Request

January 25, 1863 (Sunday)

Burnside in a tizzy.

There was hardly such a thing as rest upon this unseasonably warm Lord’s Day. General Burnside was in Washington, up early to catch a meeting with the President. The previous day, he had tried to convince Lincoln to fire nine of his top generals, offering his resignation should the Executive refuse. Having to consult with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Burnside was sent away and told to come back the following day.

After an unanswered midnight rapping at the White House door (which was technically the following day), Burnside got some sleep and was up early for another attempt. Showing up at 6am, he still wasn’t allowed to see Lincoln. No doubt crestfallen, he returned to Willard’s for some breakfast and a side of sour grapes.

In the meantime, Lincoln was beckoning Secretary Stanton and General-in-Chief Halleck to an early meeting. His mind was already made up, he told them. Burnside had to go, and he would be replaced by Joseph Hooker, the man Burnside most despised.

When the General dutifully came back to the White House around 10am, he found Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck waiting for him. He was immediately informed that he was being relieved from duty as commander of the Army of the Potomac, and that General Hooker was slated to replace him.

There was nothing Burnside could do, and so he wore a brave face, telling them that he sincerely wished Hooker the greatest victory at his new post. But Burnside’s complaints had not be cast off to the wind.

He had complained bitterly of William Franklin’s near treasonous talk and singled him out for removal, pending Lincoln’s approval. In this, Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck approved. Franklin, along with General Edwin Sumner, who had asked to be relieved, had to go.

This was all well and good, thought Burnside, but really no longer any of his concern. “I suppose,” he said in some sort of response, “you accept my resignation, and all I have to do is go to my home.”

“General,” replied Lincoln (according to Burnside), “I cannot accept your resignation. We need you, and I cannot accept your resignation.”

But, answered Burnside, he had some private business to attend to and it was really incredibly important now since he no longer had an army to command. He really ought to get on it or something.

General Foster our sideburning Burnside.

“You can have as much time as you please for your private business,” said the President, “but we cannot accept your resignation.” There was, Lincoln assured him, no reason at all to resign.

After some talks with Stanton and Halleck, Lincoln had decided that the best place for General Burnside was North Carolina. But, countered Burnside, the General commanding that department, John Foster, had served well under him, and knew more about the department – he shouldn’t be relieved just to give Burnside a new job.

However, Lincoln countered, they were thinking of combining the Department of North Carolina with the South Carolina portion of the Department of the South, under David Hunter. What about that?

Burnside replied that they had just sent Hunter there (which wasn’t really true) and that he was doing a fine job (also questionable) and that he outranked Burnside, so it wouldn’t be proper. Apparently Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck said some less-than-gracious things about Hunter, which Burnside simply could not repeat in his weird little retelling.

As a last measure, they informed Burnside that his friend General Foster had requested that Burnside come down to North Carolina – he would love to serve under him again. What a coincidence, replied Burnside, Foster had written him a similar letter (yes, this whole conversation could have been averted)! Of course, Burnside took it all to be mere compliments from a dear friend. But still, he insisted, it just wouldn’t be proper, even if everyone assembled agreed and everyone else simply didn’t give a damn.

In what must have been a gargantuan sigh of exasperation, Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck said, “General, make your application for a leave of absence, and we will give it to you.” In that case, Burnside wanted thirty days. And it was granted.

But the day was not over. After everybody returned to their regular positions, Burnside ventured over to the War Department. There, he saw the order officially relieving him of duty “at his own request.”

Though Burnside had personally handed his unsolicited letter of resignation directly to the President, he felt that this simply wouldn’t do. It was, he told Halleck, “not a just order.” Burnside “did not want to appear before the country as a man who voluntarily gave up his command without some reason.” He wanted to to maintain “the reputation of remaining as long as it was found advisable for me to remain.”

What Burnside wanted was for his resignation to stand on its own. He did not want to be relieved “at his own request.” Halleck told him that Stanton had written the order and that there was nothing he could do about it. “You can go to the Secretary of War and say to him that this order does not express the facts of the case,” advised Halleck, probably before shaking his head in utter amazement, overglad that this Burnside fellow would soon be leaving his office.

Stanton: Have a fun vacation, Burnside, I know we will!

And so Burnside fluttered his way to the Secretary of War, who did his best to humor him. Think of yourself, said Stanton to Burnside, think of the cause that your resignation would (somehow and inexplicably) damage.

“I don’t care a snap about myself,” shot Burnside, “for I feel that I am right; but I do not want to injure the cause.” How noble.

After a bit more chatting, Burnside relented, telling Stanton to issue whatever order he wanted to, for he (Burnside) was about to leave on a thirty day furlough and would return refreshed and ready to serve in any capacity they saw fit – even at the head of his old IX Corp in General Joe Hooker’s army.

But all this was eons in the future. First, they had to deal with Joe Hooker. Thankfully, that could wait till tomorrow.1



  1. Sources: Most of this snarky little post was sapped from Burnside’s own testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, given on February 7, 1863. Other sources include: Burnside by William Marvel; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly. []
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