McClellan’s Fears of Attacking the Rebels Justified?; Jobs Lost and Gained

March 11, 1862 (Tuesday)

After a chilly night wrapped in someone else’s blanket, Union General George McClellan stirred to waking and rode from Fairfax Court House to Centreville, former base of operations for the Confederate Army of the Potomac, under General Joe Johnston. Just recently, McClellan had ordered his own Army of the Potomac towards the Rebel position, with near certainty that the enemy had retired towards Richmond after holding the ground since the Battle of Manassas.

There, he examined “quite a formidable series of works” constructed by the Confederates over the autumn and winter. These defenses bolstered his own defense for not attacking Johnston’s Army. He later remarked that the Rebel works “would have been somewhat uncomfortable for new troops to carry by storm.”1

Across the several months, Johnston had built both an impressive defense and an impressive facade. On a hill near the town was an earthen fort that could be filled with artillery. Protecting the town were two lines of entrenchments. One faced north, the other, east. The eastern-facing defense, at nearly two miles long, held seven fortifications for forty pieces of artillery. The entrenchments facing north were a half mile shorter and could hold thirty-one guns. Connecting the batteries were redoubts for infantry.

McClellan was correct that attacking these fortifications would have been “uncomfortable.” If an army were to approach the Centreville defenses from the the north or east (as the Union army was poised to do), there was no cover for two miles before reaching the ramparts. Confederate artillery completely commanded the ground.

As each Union officer explored the Rebel bastion, it was largely agreed that the Union Army of the Potomac would have paid a dear price had they attacked. One officer later asserted that the Rebel withdraw from Centreville should be seen as one of the greatest victories of the war, though bloodless.

All of these sentiments were spoken, thought and written with a full knowledge of the Confederate ruse. The Rebels cunningly placed “Quaker Guns,” fake artillery fashioned out of logs painted black, in many of the embrasures. From a distance they were convincing enough to give the appearance of a well-fortified stronghold.

Following the brief tour of the impressive Centreville defenses, Generals McClellan and McDowell, plus 2,000 Regular Cavalry, made their way towards the old battlefield at Manassas, seven miles west. There, they found all sorts of debris and supplies scattered haphazardly about the ground. At the junction of the Orange & Alexandria and Manassas Gap Railroads, smoke was still rising from the burned out remains of the locomotive works and storehouses.

The hills around the junction had also been turned into a fortress rising fifty feet above the ground. If the Rebels had fallen back from Centreville to Manassas Junction, the pursuing Union troops would have had just as difficult a time in assailing these works.

McClellan and McDowell then visited the former battlefield, each burying whatever hatchet they held against the other long enough to pay respect to the first major battle of the war. McDowell, at McClellan’s request, told the story of the battle, pointing out landmarks, all while displaying poise through his humiliation. When McDowell finished with tears in his eyes, McClellan said nothing, but ordered the men back to Centreville.2

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McClellan is Demoted

While McClellan and McDowell examined the Confederate works at Centreville and Manassas, the Army of the Potomac was technically in the field. They had left their winter quarters around Washington and had marched as many as twenty miles into Virginia. McClellan, General-in-Chief of all the Union armies, was also the commanding General of the Army of the Potomac. Since they were in the field and he was at their head, McClellan had personally taken the field.

Knowing all of this, Lincoln finally made a decision and issued his President’s War Order No. 3. This order removed McClellan from his General-in-Chief ranking, a position with which Lincoln was never quite comfortable. The President wrote the order with his own pen and called Secretaries Salmon P. Chase, Edwin Stanton and William Seward together to formally discuss it.

All assembled agreed that it was necessary. Seward opined that the order should be issued under Stanton’s name, as he was the Secretary of War. Stanton, however, didn’t care for the idea at all. There was already too much conflict between him and McClellan. Why make more? Lincoln decided to take responsibility for his own order and officially put his name to it.3

Lincoln wished for the order to remain secret until McClellan could be notified of it, so that he wouldn’t have to hear it as rumor or read it in the newspapers. To deliver the message, he sent Ohio Governor William Dennison, a strong McClellanite, to Fairfax Court House. Unfortunately, the news would travel faster than Dennison’s horse.4

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The Return of General Fremont; Rosecrans and Buell Lose Their Jobs, Too

McClellan’s demotion wasn’t the only item on President’s War Order No. 3. There were some departmental reorganizations made to keep up with the ever-changing war. The Department of Missouri, commanded by General Henry Halleck, was enlarged to include all of Kansas and much of Buell’s Department of the Ohio. It would be renamed the Department of the Mississippi.

A new department was also created out of the remnants of the Departments of the Ohio and West Virginia. It included all of western Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as parts of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. This move was a surprise to all, even Fremont, who had been unceremoniously fired from the Department of Missouri four months before.

These changes left Generals William Rosecrans and Don Carlos Buell without departments. While Rosecrans would soon be fighting along the Mississippi, Buell’s job would hardly change at all. Although he was technically a department commander, he did little to command his department. Instead, he took the field with his Army of the Ohio and was currently holding Nashville. The biggest difference was that he would now have to obey (rather than ignore) the orders of General Halleck.5



  1. McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan. []
  2. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. []
  3. Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume 5 by John George Nicolay and John Hay. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p54. []
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McClellan’s Fears of Attacking the Rebels Justified?; Jobs Lost and Gained by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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