General McClellan Receives the Word

November 7, 1862 (Friday)

An unsuspecting George McClellan

The morning was unseasonably cold, with rain washing from sleet to snow and back again, covering some places with a blanket of white, while turning others to autumn mud. As the Army of the Potomac started its day, many of the troops, bellies empty for want of rations, were on the move. The army’s leader, General George B. McClellan was busy concentrating his corps towards Warrenton, Virginia as he directed traffic from his headquarters in Rectortown.

Commanding the IX Corps, General Ambrose Burnside was fifteen miles south of Salem (modern day Marshall), and nearing the Rappahannock. In the advance moving south, Burnside commanded the right flank, while John Reynolds’ I Corps had the left. Generals Couch, Porter, and Franklin were steadily moving up from the rear.

Catherinus Buckingham

Meanwhile, in Washington, Catherinus Buckingham, a Brigadier-General working in the War Department, was tasked with delivering two incredibly important messages. One was relieving General George McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac, and the other was placing General Ambrose Burnside in command of that same Army.

General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had entrusted Buckingham, but had apparently not fully explained what to do. The previous evening, they simply handed him two envelopes, one for McClellan, the other for Burnside, and told him to read them later. When he did, he was stunned, and on this morning, as the snow began to fall in earnest, he tramped to Secretary Stanton’s house to sort this all out.

Stanton explained that Buckingham was to first see Burnside and do what he could to convince him to take command of the Army. If he agreed, they were to go to McClellan, but if Burnside refused, Buckingham was to return to Washington.

Herman Haupt and his very own train.

Another question that was on Buckingham’s mind was why the War Department would send a Brigadier-General to carry a message. Stanton explained that he didn’t expect Burnside to accept the promotion. Stanton instructed him to use the “strongest arguments to induce him not to refuse.”

Also, Stanton seemed to doubt not only McClellan’s military abilities, but his loyalty. He suspected that McClellan might not be so willing to give up his Army of the Potomac. He wanted General Buckingham there “so as to carry the full weight of the President’s authority.”

And with that, Buckingham boarded a special train, arranged by General Herman Haupt, the Federal military’s director of railroads. As the train carried Buckingham out of Washington, towards Manassas Junction, and west to Salem and his first stop at Burnside’s headquarters, Herman Haupt was braving the snowstorm to dine with a very unsuspecting George McClellan.

As they ate their dinner in the cold of McClellan’s tent, the General explained to Haupt some of the details and machinations that he planned in the coming days. Haupt sat there, probably feeling incredibly awkward, and listened to proposals that he knew would never come to be.

Map of approximate positions.

General Buckingham left his train at Salem and rode fifteen miles south to Burnside’s headquarters, squirreled away in a little chamber of a house. Buckingham got right down to business. McClellan was out and the President wanted Burnside to take his place. Burnside, completely shocked, immediately refused.

First, explained Burnside, he did not want the command. He didn’t want it when it was offered to him twice before, and he saw no reason why he should want it now. Second, he claimed to have no confidence in himself as the head of an army. He had told the President as much. He had told Stanton. He had told anyone who would listen that he “was not competent to command such a large army as this.”

A very unwilling Ambrose Burnside.

Buckingham, along with two of Burnside’s staff, debated for an hour an a half. Burnside had always gotten along, even liked, McClellan. How could he do such a thing to a friend? Countering, Buckingham told him that McClellan’s fate was already decided. He was gone. If Burnside refused to accept, Washington planned to put Joe Hooker in charge of the army.

Finally, after much discussion, Burnside gave in. Together, Buckingham and Burnside rode through the blowing snow to Salem, hopping the train five miles to Rectortown and McClellan’s headquarters.

They arrived at his tent around 11pm, finding him going over some papers. He was, no doubt, surprised to see them, especially Burnside, whose corps was twenty or so miles away. Nevertheless, he seemed happy to let them in. Burnside was full of worry and anxiety, and it showed. When they handed McClellan the order from the President relieving him of his command, he said very little, keeping a blank countenance, so as to not betray his true feelings.

Instead, he counseled Burnside. As soldiers, McClellan explained without a hint of irony, it was their duty to follow orders. Just as he could not refuse the command to give up the Army, Burnside could not refuse the command to lead it.

Depiction of Burnside relieving McClellan of command.

And with that, it was finished. Burnside returned to his headquarters for the night, while Buckingham soon reported back to Secretary Stanton. Once again alone, George McClellan wrote to his wife.

He assured her that Burnside had “never showed himself a better man or truer friend than now.” While he was surprised, he boasted, “I am sure that not a muscle quivered nor was the slightest expression of feeling visible on my face…. They [Washington] shall not have that triumph. They have made a great mistake – alas for my poor country – I know in my innermost heart she never had a truer servant.”

The next day, he and Burnside would meet in Warrenton to make it all official. He would stay on a few days to make sure that his successor was up to speed on everything.

In closing, he admitted that he may have made some mistakes, but could not see “any great blunders.” He had always tried to do what was right, and refused to take the blame – “if we have failed it was not our fault.”1

  1. Sources: History of the Civil War in America by Compt de Paris – his book contains Buckingham’s own version of the story; Committee on Conduct of War, Report (1863), 1:650 (Burnside’s testimony); Reminiscences by Herman Haupt; The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears. []
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