Lincoln Finally Drops the Axe – Orders McClellan Relieved from Command

November 5, 1862 (Wednesday)

Mac will soon have a lot more time for this.

President Lincoln may have waited for the last of the fall elections to be held to deal with General George McClellan, but it wasn’t like McClellan was giving him many reasons to keep him around. Lincoln had claimed that he was giving McClellan one more chance. There would be a test. He saw that the Army of the Potomac had a great chance to beat Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Richmond. If McClellan could pull that off, Lincoln would let him stick around. If he couldn’t, the curtain would draw on McClellan’s second attempt to save the Union.

Word trickled in from the front – probably from one of General Franz Sigel’s scouts – that James Longstreet’s Corps of Lee’s Army had made it to Culpeper, effectively blocking McClellan’s clear road to Richmond. It was then, with this news on the day after the last elections, that Lincoln made up his mind. He had been the last hold out of his administration to trust George McClellan. He had given him chance after chance, as Cabinet members and Senators demanded the General’s removal. But it was now time. It was now safe.

Lincoln understood that McClellan wasn’t a traitor, as many of his fellow Republicans blustered. He had made mention to his secretary, John Hay, that he believed McClellan was “playing false,” that he didn’t want to “hurt the enemy,” but it was probably little more than idle talk. Lincoln knew, or at least wanted to believe, that McClellan was truly doing his best for his beloved Army of the Potomac. Since the battle of Antietam, however, it seemed even more impossible than usual to get the General to move across the Potomac River to confront Lee’s Confederate Army.

When he did finally move, it was unbelievably slow and propped up by numerous complaints, excuses, and requests submitted by McClellan in some fantastical attempt to keep Washington off his back, while, at the same time, taking what he wanted from the coffers of the government and military.

By direction of the President, it is ordered that Major-General McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Major-General Burnside take the command of that army. Also that Major-General Hunter take command of the corps in said army which is now commanded by General Burnside. That Major-General Fitz John Porter be relieved from the command of the corps he now commands in said army, and that Major-General Hooker take command of said corps.

What me worry?

Clearly, there was a lot more to this order than the sacking of George McClellan. Lincoln had selected Ambrose Burnside to fill the commander’s shoes, and left him little choice in the matter (though it had been offered and refused twice before). Radical Republican-favorite, David Hunter, was at first pegged to take over Burnside’s IX Corps, but Secretary of Edwin Stanton would soon find a more suitable roll for him: testifying against Fitz John Porter.

Porter had been removed from command following the debacle of Second Manassas, but, due to McClellan’s sway, he was given his old job back. Now, without McClellan to raise a fuss, Porter was ousted and soon to be court martialed.

Lastly, Lincoln’s order saw the rise of the wounded and recovering Joseph Hooker, who had led a corps at Antietam. This promotion would lead to bigger things in the not too distant future.

Lincoln handed the order off to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, allowing him to decide when it should be officially ordered. Halleck chose to do it almost immediately, ordering McClellan to “repair to Trenton, N. J., reporting, on your arrival at that place, by telegraph, for further orders.”

There doesn’t seem to be any real political or military reason for ordering McClellan to Trenton, New Jersey. He wasn’t being reassigned. Lincoln had no thoughts of sending McClellan to the West as some kind of backwater punishment. He simply wanted him gone.

“…and your little dog, Fitzie, too!”

McClellan had sold his house in Washington before the fall campaigning began, and his wife had moved back to her mother’s house in Orange. Getting McClellan out of Washington was the first priority, placing him in close proximity to his wife was a far distant second. Nevertheless, McClellan would soon end up in Trenton.

Before all of that, however, he had to be relieved of duty. As it often did, word would soon spread, and McClellan could read about it in the newspapers. It had happened to him once before, when being removed from his General-in-Chief position prior to the Peninsula Campaign, and it had just happened to Don Carlos Buell.

Halleck penned his order, a mere rewording of Lincoln’s, and let silence keep its own secret. So far, only he and Lincoln knew of the order. That would remain so through the night, and so Halleck let it rest as he slept. The next morning, he would put the wheels in motion.1

  1. Sources: Lincoln’s Darkest Year by William Marvel; Lincoln and McClellan by John C. Waugh; George B. McClellan by Stephen W. Sears; Henry Halleck’s War by Curt Anders; Commanding the Army of the Potomac by Stephen Taaffe; Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame. []
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