Burnside Throws Down the Gauntlet – Lincoln Must Decide

January 24, 1863 (Saturday)

Burnside: “It’s either them or me, Old Abe!”

With his whiskers caught up in a dander of spite and fury, General Ambrose Burnside had relieved nine officers under him in the Army of the Potomac, including Joe Hooker and William Franklin, his top two Grand Division commanders. A house cleaning such as this, however, needed the Presidential seal of approval, and Burnside was on his way to receive just that or die trying.

After flagging down a train to Aquia Landing and taking a steamer to Washington, he arrived in the capital at 7am. He had hoped to be there by midnight, but a delay of seven hours was hardly significant, considering. Lincoln had told him that he’d be ready to meet his dear General at any hour, the breakfast hour, apparently, not excepting.

Along with General Orders No. 8, which did the firing, Burnside wrote up a quick letter of resignation, just in case Lincoln refused to do his bidding. When he met with the President, he handed him both.

Since more than a little explanation was needed, Burnside told Lincoln that he simply couldn’t lead the army unless these nine men were forced out. He also took the time to remind the President that he never wanted the job.

When asked to take over in October and November of 1862, he had flatly refused, explaining again and again that he didn’t feel himself to be qualified to lead an army in the field. Now, with the aid of hindsight and the Battle of Fredericksburg, one could easily see that General Burnside was not under the sway of false humility.

All he wanted now, he explained to Lincoln, was to retire from the army, unless these changes could be made.

As the story goes, Lincoln claimed to agree with Burnside, though which part he agreed with is up to some debate. “I think you are right,” the President was to have said, “but I must consult with some of my advisers about this.”

Burnside was a bit crestfallen. “If you consult with anybody, you will not do it, in my opinion.” But Lincoln insisted and away he went to muse over the matter with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. He implored Burnside to stay in Washington until the matter was settled, but Burnside (again, apparently) insisted that he needed to be back with his army.

He went back to Willard’s Hotel, packed his things (if he even unpacked them) and began the trek back. Before leaving, he told his friend Henry J. Raymond, a New York politician who was currently in between jobs and soaking up the Washington social scene, all about the meeting.

Lincoln: “Oh, I reckon we’ll have to see about that.” (Photo taken on this date by Alexander Gardner.)

The rest of Lincoln’s day was an absolute blur, with a Cabinet meeting, a photo sitting for Alexander Gardener and a White House levee, which Raymond made sure to attend. As one of many in a long line to shake hands with the President, Raymond caught Lincoln’s ear.

He explained to the Executive that he had been with the army and had seen for himself what Burnside was up against. There were many things, said Raymond, that were going on that Lincoln should know about.

Raymond then explained, succinctly as possible, these many obstacles, focusing much of his ire upon Joe Hooker’s near treasonous talk.

The tall President then put his hand on Raymond’s shoulder, and bent slight down to whisper in his ear. “This is all true,” he said, “Hooker does talk badly; but the trouble is stronger with the country to-day than any other man.”

In reply, Raymond asked him how long he thought the country would hold true to these warm feelings after they learned the truth of his behavior and talk.

“The country,” said Lincoln, “would not believe it; they would say it is all a lie.”

General Burnside checked in with the army and returned to Washington almost immediately, arriving back in the city by midnight. He tried to see Lincoln, but was refused and banished to Willard’s Hotel for some sleep. The meeting would take place the next morning.1



  1. Sources: Burnside by William Marvel; Conversations With Lincoln edited by Charles M. Segal; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders. []
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