January 26, 1863 (Monday)
General Ambrose Burnside, now relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, returned to his headquarters to tie up all the loose ends that went along with such a change. He first met with his aging Grand Division commander, Edwin Sumner, who had tendered his resignation. The two stayed up much of the previous night talking of old times. It must have been a nice respite for Burnside, whose past week had been rather hellish.
By morning, Burnside was at his headquarters celebrating the old fashion by drinking straight from the bottle of champagne. He was bitter. “They will find out before many days that it is not every man who can command an army of one hundred and fifty thousand men,” blubbered Burnside to some passing Colonel.
At 10:30am, several officers, including Joseph Hooker, now in command of these 150,000 men, dropped by Burnside’s headquarters. They were there to say their good-byes. The exiting General wasn’t exactly cold to them, the spirits lifting his mood. He was, however, overheard muttering somewhat inappropriate asides such as: “There are no pleasant reminiscences for me connected with the Army of the Potomac.” As the awkwardness grew, the meeting broke up.
At some point, Burnside issued his farewell address, allowing that under his leadership, the Army of the Potomac had no victories and didn’t advance their lines. The army was, however, brave and “under more favorable circumstances would have accomplished great results.” He implored the army to give their full support to Joe Hooker, a “brave and skillful general.”
And then he was gone. Burnside and Sumner boarded the Carrie Martin and threw themselves one hell of a farewell party, as they steamed up the Potomac River to Washington.
General Joseph Hooker was now the commander of the Army of the Potomac. While this was decided upon by the President himself, Lincoln was not fully comfortable with this decision. On this date, he put pen to paper and expressed himself very candidly to General Hooker.
Lincoln began by conceding that he felt Hooker more or less up to the job, “and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you.”
With a litany of praise, Lincoln began: “I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable, quality.”
That aside, Lincoln mixed compliments with criticism, and began to season the concoction with advice. “You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm,” he wrote, “but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.”
Lincoln explained that he had heard from others (mostly Burnside) that Hooker had said that “‘both the Army and the Government needed a dictator.’ Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command.”
Playing upon this, Lincoln mused into strange and somewhat jovial, mocking territory: “Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”
Lincoln feared that the criticism Hooker heaped upon Burnside would turn back upon him. “Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it.”
“Beware of rashness,” advised the President in closing, “but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.”
Hooker would receive the letter from Lincoln the following day when he visited him at the White House. The letter, which Hooker regarded as a rebuke, was kept hidden from all but a few until after his death in 1879.
Soon, sweeping changes would run through the Army of the Potomac, which would alter it for the coming Spring campaign.1
- Sources: Burnside by William Marvel; Fighting Joe Hooker by Walter H. Hebert; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p1005, Vol. 25, Part 2, p4. [↩]