November 10, 1862 (Monday)
The cold, and very winter-like night had, by morning, frozen the water in the boys’ canteens. As light spread across the frosted fields around Warrenton, Virginia, rumors spread as well. To a man, the troops of the Army of the Potomac knew their beloved General George B. McClellan had been relieved of command. They knew that Ambros Burnside, the undistinguished head of the IX Corps, was now their leader. But they did not know – not for sure – if McClellan was relieved of all duty or being sent to Washington to replace General-in-Chief Henry Halleck.
Many assumed the latter. They loved their General and, though they understood that the Lincoln administration and McClellan had had some difficult times, it was, in their hearts, quite possible he was now the General-in-Chief.
On this chilly morning, they would say their good-byes to General McClellan. As many troops as could be wrangled along the streets and roads in and around Warrenton were arrayed to stand in review. Men from the I, II and V Corps, mostly, formed by brigades waited in the dull autumn light.
They were downcast, even angry at losing their General, who loved his Army so much. Some saw it as purely political. President Lincoln had recently announced his idea for emancipating the slaves. McClellan was a Democrat and in opposition to the plan. Some in the ranks wished the Abolitionists “to be murdered and the army defeated.” A captain in the 22nd Massachusetts noted that “you wouldn’t give much for the patriotism of the Army of the Potomac, and as for being in good spirits and ready to advance, as the papers say, it is all bosh!”
Another, from the 18th Massachusetts, in writing home, called McClellan’s removal “the severest blow ever dealt the Army of the Potomac.” Nearly everyone blamed Washington and its politics.
“You don’t know what a commotion the change in the army has made,” wrote one soldier home. “Officers threaten to resign, and men refuse to fight. In Heaven’s name, why make the transfer now, when all plans are made, and McClellan is our leader, the idol of the army? Why give the enemy the victory?”
At 8am, General McClellan emerged from his headquarters with General Burnside. Accompanied by their staffs, both mounted and rode towards their faithful soldiers. When the assembled troops saw McClellan, they erupted in cheers, throwing up their hats, waving their swords and screaming their support for their former leader and eternal friend.
Some regiments, even some whole brigades, cheered in unison, “One more and all together” came the command. It was unnecessary, their throats were already hoarse and tears stung their eyes.
Following behind McClellan, and being largely ignored, was General Burnside. As the procession advanced, passing one division after another, officers left their ranks to join with Burnside, following their old commander one last time. In respect and acknowledgement, McClellan rode the length of the parade head uncovered.
Officers and soldiers alike all admitted that they “cried like babies when he left.”
That evening, McClellan met with some fellow officers at General Fitz John Porter’s headquarters, nearby, to say their tearful (and tipsy) farewells. This was “so long” for both officers, as the same order dismissing McClellan took out Porter as well. He would later be brought before a court martial for his conduct at Second Manassas.
As the night wore on and the spirits freely flowed, the officers openly spoke their uninhibited thoughts. They blamed the Radical Republicans and the press who both tried to force McClellan to attack before the army was ready. A New York Tribune reporter, finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, was attacked and beaten by a mob led by George Armstrong Custer. McClellan tactfully put an end to such thoughts and deeds: “Gentlemen please remember that we are here to serve the interest of no one man. We are here to serve our country.”
The ire which had soaked the entire army was hardly directed at McClellan’s replacement, Ambrose Burnside. It was well known that “Little Mac” and “Old Burn” were close friends, at least publicly. McClellan had once said that Burnside wasn’t fit to command a regiment, but that was just angry ranting in a letter to Mrs. McClellan. He now wrote that Burnside “never showed himself a better man or truer friend.”
To his cherished army, he wrote a heartfelt farewell:
“In parting from you I cannot express the love and gratitude I bear to you. As an army you have grown up under my care. In you I have never found doubt or coldness. The battles you have fought under my command will proudly live in our nation’s history. The glory you have achieved, our mutual perils and fatigues, the graves of our comrades fallen in battle and by disease, the broken forms of those whom wounds and sickness have disabled—the strongest associations which can exist among men—unite us still by an indissoluble tie. We shall ever be comrades in supporting the Constitution of our country and the nationality of its people.”
((Sources: Four Brothers in Blue, Or, Sunshine and Shadows of the War of the Rebellion by Robert Goldthwaite Carter; Fighting With the Eighteenth Massachusetts by Thomas H. Mann; The Second United States Sharpshooters in the Civil War by Gerald L. Earley; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly; The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears.))