Getting the Message to McClellan – How to Keep Secrets in Washington

November 6, 1862 (Thursday)

“The army still advances, but the machine is so huge & complicated that it is slow in its motions.”
-General George McClellan to his wife, on this date.

Mac to Wife: It’s slow going, but there’s no reason why Lincoln would mind that, right?

Most modern retellings that explain how McClellan lost his job skip November 6th. President Lincoln wrote the order on the 5th, and McClellan received it on the 7th. But what of the time in between?

On this chilly morning, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck was the only other person, aside from President Lincoln (and perhaps Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), who knew that McClellan was to be fired. Secrecy was of the utmost importance. He couldn’t have McClellan finding out about this in the next morning’s paper, could he?

It seems that sometime, during the afternoon of this day, Halleck went to the War Department. There, he met Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. It’s possible that this was the first time Stanton had heard about the order relieving McClellan of duty.

Catherinus Buckingham – In the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stanton, however, was not alone. General James Wadsworth, who had just narrowly lost the campaign for Governor of New York, was there as well. Wadsworth, under General Samuel Heintzelman, was in command of troops defending Washington. But mostly, he was looking for a new job. He wanted to command in the field – not sit at a desk in Washington.

In the presence of Wadsworth, Halleck called upon General Catherinus Buckingham, an officer on special duty in the War Department. Buckingham had graduated West Point in the same class as Robert E. Lee and Joe Johnston. Though working as a professor of experimental philosophy, he’s given credit for designing Zanesville, Ohio’s third “Y” bridge, a wholly unique structure that is actually three bridges in one, with each span meeting in the middle of the confluence of the Licking and Muskingum Rivers. The “Y” Bridge, in its fifth incarnation, still stands today. Buckingham’s was the only one that was a covered bridge.

At the outbreak of the war, Buckingham dove into the confusion, putting his organizational skills to the test as more than enough Ohioans answered Lincoln’s call for troops. He was soon head of the commissary department for the state, where he worked with George McClellan, who was then raising troops for his foray into Western Virginia.

Buckingham’s version of Zanesville’s Y Bridge

Buckingham became a commissioned officer in the Federal Army and, on this chilly November day, found himself occupying an office next door to Edwin Stanton’s. Around 10pm at night, in the company of Stanton, Halleck and General Wadsworth, Buckingham was called into the room. Stanton did the talking.

He told Buckingham that he wanted him to find the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. He was incredibly specific concerning the route that was to be taken. After Buckingham agreed, Stanton handed him two unsealed envelopes. He was told to take them to his room, read them, and then seal them up.

When he repaired to his room, he discovered just what he had gotten himself into. The first envelope contained the orders from President Lincoln and Henry Halleck, removing McClellan from command. The second, was for General Ambrose Burnside, placing him in command of the Army of the Potomac.

Sometime during the day, Halleck also contacted Brigadier-General Herman Haupt, head of the Army’s railroad bureau. Haupt had taught engineering at Gettysburg College before giving his attention fully to the rails. Tunnels and bridges were his game, and he brought that expertise to the Union army. Lincoln was so impressed with his work, that he made him a Brigadier-General. Haupt politely refused the promotion, and even offered to work without pay. For the time being, however, he was a General and his railroad was needed.

But Halleck did not contact Haupt directly. For some reason, Assistant Secretary of the War Department Peter Watson, arranged for a special train to bring the bearer of messages to Burnside and McClellan. Haupt was never told the identity of the messenger. It’s possible that at the time when he was contacted, they were unsure who would do their bidding. Even after the war, Haupt didn’t know, but suspected that it was General Wadsworth who did the firing.

Herman Haupt was, perhaps, not the most practical man.

Haupt made the arrangements, and with full knowledge that General McClellan was soon to be dismissed from his post, agreed to dine with him the following evening. And what an awkward dinner that must have been – for Herman Haupt, anyway.

And so it was in motion. Lincoln told Halleck, who told Stanton, who told Wadsworth, Buckingham, and Watson, who told Haupt. If all went according to plan, Buckingham would tell Burnside, who would tell McClellan, and the others would tell no one.

As Catherinus Buckingham tried that night to sleep, he must have considered the enormity of his next morning’s task. He must have been unclear just how to do it. Was he to go first to McClellan and then to Burnside? What if he did and Burnside refused to take command as he had done twice before? More clarification was needed, and so he resolved to drop by Secretary Stanton’s house in the morning before leaving for the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac.1



  1. Sources: History of the Civil War in America by Compt de Paris – his book contains Buckingham’s own version of the story; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders; General Wadsworth by Wayne Mahood; Reminiscences by Herman Haupt; Politics & Peril, Mount Vernon, Ohio in the Nineteenth Century by Lorle Porter; Civil War High Commands by John H.Eicher and David J. Eicher. []
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Getting the Message to McClellan – How to Keep Secrets in Washington by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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