June 18, 1863 (Thursday)
It all started during the failed attack by General Grant’s forces upon the Confederate defenses at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant had launched an all-out assault, sending all three of his present corps against the enemy’s works. From the Federal left, General John McClernand sent word that he needed reinforcements, that he had broken through, captured a couple of the parapets, and with another thrust, the Union Army of the Tennessee would prevail.
From Grant’s vantage point, he could see none of what McClernand described, but, upon the urgings of William Tecumseh Sherman, he sent the requested reinforcements. Certainly, thought Sherman, McClernand wouldn’t just make something like that up.
As it turned out, McClernand did make it up – or at least believed it to be true. Grant had ridden over to McClernand’s front and seeing that there was no breakthrough of which to take advantage, he declined to hand over more men for the slaughter.
Needless to say, McClernand was livid. When the attacks failed, he blamed Grant for their failure. That would have been bad enough, but in an official message to his corps, General McClernand, after thanking his men for their hard work throughout the trying Mississippi Campaign, openly accused Grant of allowing the assault to fail.
In a very wordy and boringly complex statement towards the end of the missive, McClernand stated:
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 attack 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.
As if casting blame upon Grant before his fellow officers and men was not enough, instead of sending the official document to General Grant as he was supposed to do (according to accepted military conduct), McClernand sent it to the press. Grant had specifically forbade the publication of official military reports in the autumn of 1862. The punishment would be dismissal from the army.
It must have taken awhile for McClernand’s congratulatory order to make it to the papers, as it first appeared in the Missouri Democrat on June 10th, and then, a few days later, in the Memphis Evening Bulletin. Both papers had found their way into the Union camps. Frank Blair, commanding a division in General Sherman’s Corps, read it on the 16th and immediately went to see Sherman about it.
The next day (the 17th), Sherman sent McClernand’s order, as printed in the newspaper, to General Grant, calling it “such an effusion of vain-glory and hypocrisy.” Sherman, at least in writing, seemed to believe it was somehow falsified – that McClernand didn’t write it and have it published. “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.”
If the order was genuine, Sherman continued, it clearly wasn’t written for the army, but to impress constituents that McClernand was “the sagacious leader and bold hero he so complacently paints himself.”
Sherman reasoned that the order was not official. It was politicking at its worse, but McClernand didn’t submit an official order to the press. On the other hand, reminded Sherman, there was Grant’s order forbidding the publication of all official letters. Of course, Sherman knew very well that McClernand’s order was official and addressed to the men of his own corps (and, of course, the press).
It was also on this day (again, the 17th), that McClernand submitted his official report of the campaign thus far. The congratulatory order was for his troops, but he needed to write out a report for Grant. After reading it, Grant put it aside – there were more pressing issues concerning McClernand transpiring. For instance, Sherman’s letter, which was joined very late that night by a similar letter written by James McPherson, Grant’s other Corps commander.
Now Grant had to act. He first wrote a short note to McClernand asking if the newspaper clipping was, in fact, the true report. He wanted to know if McClernand actually and officially addressed it to his men and then submitted it to the press without sending it to army headquarters.
“The newspaper slip,” replied McClernand, “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.”
It probably seemed a bit fishy to Grant that every single order, aside from this one, had been sent to army headquarters. Also, passing the blame to one’s adjutant was hardly a way to win Grant over.
Grant’s decision was not a difficult one for him to make. He had never liked McClernand and never wanted him in his army. McClernand was a politician with no military training. He was appointed by President Lincoln, and Grant believed it was his duty to deal with the man for as long as possible. It was now, however, no longer possible.
“Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand is hereby relieved from the command of the Thirteenth Army Corps,” ordered General Grant. “He will proceed to any point he may select in the State of Illinois, and report by letter to Headquarters of the Army of orders.”
It was written probably around 1am, technically on the 18th. Grant had intended for the order to be delivered in the morning, but his staff officers, John Rawlins and Charles Wilson, thought it far too important to wait till dawn. Also, they never liked McClernand and probably couldn’t wait to tell him the news.
Wilson arrived at McClernand’s headquarters around 3am. The General was sleeping, but was roused from his slumber to receive the message. Wilson handed it to McClernand, but McClernand just tossed it on the table, refusing to open it. Wilson told him that he had been instructed to stay and make sure that it was read.
Probably knowing what it contained, McClernand tore it open. “Well sir!” he exclaimed to Wilson, “I am relieved! By God sir, we are both relieved!” Wilson was indeed relieved, but not from the army. McClernand was simply acknowledging that Wilson was relieved to see him dismissed. Nobody believed that McClernand would go quietly. Even before Wilson could make his egress, McClernand asserted that he “very much doubted the authority of General Grant to relieve a general officer appointed by the President.”
After the dawn (still on this date), McClernand penned a quick letter to Grant. “Having been appointed by the President to command of that corps, under a definite act of Congress,” he began, “I might justly challenge your authority in the premises, but forbear to do so at present.” He also told Grant that if he had any problems with what was said in the order, he could take the issue up in an official investigation.
Grant did not reply specifically to McClernand. But on the next day (the 19th) he did reply to McClernand’s official report of the campaign. “This report,” stated Grant, “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.”
This issue was, of course, hardly resolved and would drone on for months upon months. It started with a letter to President Lincoln himself on June 23: “I have been relieved for an omission of my adjutant. Hear me.” He also wrote to both General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on June 27. Through the months of July, August, September and October, McClernand would try his best to convince anyone who would listen that he was in the right.
Finally, in February of 1864, Lincoln reinstated him at the head of his old XIII Corps. By that time, however, it had been transfered out of the Army of the Tennessee.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p137, 157, 159, 161-162, 165, 166; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Nothing But Victory by Steven E. Woodworth; Vicksburg by Michael Ballard. [↩]