Weary of Waiting, Lincoln Issues the Order to Move

January 27, 1862 (Monday)

In the eyes of President Lincoln, what little forward momentum that existed in the Union war effort had been coldly swept away in the snows of January. While it was true that there was a victory in Kentucky and some stirrings in Missouri, it was clear that the Army of the Potomac, nestled into its winter camp around the capital, wasn’t budging an inch. General Ambrose Burnside’s North Carolina Expedition appeared to be stalled just off the shore. The army in West Virginia was, likewise, sleeping.

Since recovering from his illness, General George McClellan, the Union army’s general-in-chief, “found that excessive anxiety for an immediate movement of the Army of the Potomac had taken possession of the minds of the Administration.”1 The cause of this anxiety came in two parts, and McClellan soon came to possess an anxiety all his own.

General Irvin McDowell’s plan to sidestep McClellan in his sickbed and launch a campaign towards Richmond over the same basic ground as the Manassas Campaign was first to light up the eyes of the administration as it shook the typhoid fever right out of the General. Things seemed to be moving forward until McClellan joined the meetings and refused to submit a plan of his own.

It was around that time that Lincoln fired Secretary of War Simon Cameron, appointing Edwin Stanton to the position. At first, Stanton and McClellan appeared to have much in common, especially in the realm of politics. Both were adept politicians in their own right, but Stanton was the Secretary of War, and McClellan was the commander of the army at war.

Stanton immediately whipped the War Department into shape. He was strict, disciplined and organized, and expected his army to be the same. He put an end to the multitudes of officers seeking promotions in Washington, to special favors and the other frivolities that were rampant under Simon Cameron.

Part of this new way of doing things fell hard upon McClellan, as Secretary Stanton joined the ever-growing chorus of administration officials crying for the army to move. Each attempt to convince McClellan to reveal a plan of operation was met with scorn and disbelief that mere politicians could know a thing about war.

President Lincoln quickly grew weary of McClellan’s refusal to submit a plan. He became certain that nothing would be done unless he gave a direct order for the armies to move. Finally, on this date, at the very end of his patience, President Lincoln issued such an order.2


Lincoln’s General War Order No. 1, written without the consultation of any other official, ordered that the “22nd day of February 1862 [George Washington’s birthday], be the day for a general movement of the Land and Naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces.”

He specifically mentioned the forces at Fortress Monroe, the Army of the Potomac, the army in Western Virginia, General Buell’s Army of the Cumberland in Kentucky, and General Halleck’s army under General Grant at Cairo, Il (soon to be the Army of the Tennessee). He also wanted a Naval force to be ready in the Gulf of Mexico by that date.

As for the other forces, such as the 30,000 troops under Generals Pope and Curtis in Missouri, as well as that of Col. Canby in New Mexico, Lincoln ordered them to “obey existing orders, for the time, and be ready to obey additional orders when duly given.”

In closing, Lincoln ordered “That the Heads of Departments, and especially the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, with all their subordinates; and the General-in Chief, with all other commanders and subordinates, of Land and Naval forces, will severally be held to their strict and full responsibilities, for the prompt execution of this order.”3

General McClellan’s reaction to General War Order No. 1 seems to be lost to history. In his memoirs, McClellan tells of his reaction after receiving a more specific order a few days later [which we’ll get to then]. No doubt, like when he received previous requests to move, he took offense and mostly ignored it.

Surprisingly, however, it seems as if McClellan had already been working on a plan prior to receiving Lincoln’s order. McClellan, most likely after being urged to do so, met with Secretary Stanton and divulged a plan to attack Richmond via the lower Chesapeake Bay. According to a report submitted by McClellan in August of 1863, Stanton asked the General to “develop it to the President.” It seems that McClellan submitted a plan to Lincoln, possibly in writing, detailing his lower Chesapeake idea.4

While McClellan was drafting his paper, Lincoln was preparing a follow up order, specifically to McClellan and the Army of the Potomac. Before the month was out, Lincoln and McClellan would know each others’ true expectations.



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p41. []
  2. Abraham Lincoln: A History by John Nicolay and John Hay, American Historical Foundation, 1914. There was also some guidance from Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  3. Abraham Lincoln, War Order No. 1, January 27, 1862. The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p41. []
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Weary of Waiting, Lincoln Issues the Order to Move by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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