January 23, 1863 (Friday)
“You will presently hear of something that will astonish you all!” exclaimed Ambrose Burnside to his lunch guests, Generals William Franklin and “Baldy” Smith. Burnside had seen the two passing his headquarters, returning worn out and bedraggled from the failed “Mud March” – the attempt to get around General Lee’s left flank. When they were spied, he beckoned them over, offering to share his meal.
The two generals acquiesced and found their commander’s moods and emotions to be all over the place. Sometimes, he seemed happy and full of good cheer, but in the next second, he was stoic with his mind miles away. “You will presently hear of something that will astonish you all!” he repeated. Neither Franklin nor Smith ventured to guess what could possibly have been on his mind, and the weirdly cryptic Burnside wasn’t telling.
Ambrose Burnside was not a very well-liked man. Few of the higher officers in his Army of the Potomac had ever been enamored by him, and now, in the midst of the “Mud March,” it would be a tough thing to find one who wasn’t cursing him. And by this time, the feelings were very mutual.
In light of the action General Burnside was about to take, it was a strange thing to have Franklin and Smith over for lunch. If Burnside got his way, soon both would be relieved of command. They would be in good company, however, since Burnside was acting to relieve seemingly any officer who had ever breathed a harsh word about him.
Burnside’s General Orders No. 8 had been prepared and needed to be approved by the President. It’s fairly difficult to believe that Burnside even entertained the notion that Lincoln would sign off on such an order, so perhaps the “something that will astonish you all” was to be Burnside’s reaction to Lincoln’s refusal.
The order was terse and minced few words.
Burnside started with Joe Hooker, who commanded the Center Grand Division, accusing him of “unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the actions of his superior officers.” Of course, Hooker’s only “superior officers” were Burnside, himself. Hooker “endeavored to create distrust in the minds of officers who have associated with him.” He “made reports and statements which were calculated to create incorrect impressions,” and finally “for habitually speaking in disparaging terms of other officers.” By Burnside’s order (upon approval of the President), Hooker was “hereby dismissed the service of the United States as a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present, when so much patience, charity, confidence, consideration, and patriotism are due from every soldier….”
Oddly, Hooker was the only officer in the Center Grand Division to incur Burnside’s ire. The Left Grand Division, commanded by his lunch companion, William Franklin, was his true focus. Both Franklin and “Baldy” Smith, who led the VI Corps, were relieved, as were William T.H. Brooks, who commanded the First Division and John Newton, who commanded the Third.
In Newton’s Third Division, John Cochrane of the 1st Brigade was also relieved. Two general’s from Burnside’s old IX Corps, Samuel Sturgis and Edward Ferrero (a division and brigade commander, respectively), were also to be sent packing. Rounding it out was Lt. Col. John H. Taylor, assistant adjutant general of the Right Grand Division.
Burnside had told only two members of his own staff about General Orders No. 8, and bothtried to talk him out of it. While the charges were true, they conceded, it would force the President’s hand. Lincoln would either have to fire all of the officers listed or flatly deny the charges (and thus call Burnside a reactionary liar).
But then, that was the point. Burnside, like a scored lover, was throwing down the gauntlet. For Lincoln, it was either him or the accused officers.
Burnside wired Lincoln, “I have prepared some very important orders and I want to see you before issuing them. Can I see you alone if I am at the White House after midnight?” Lincoln shortly replied: “Will see you any moment when you come.”
Around 8pm, Burnside left his camp, but wouldn’t arrive in Washington until 7am the next morning.1
- Sources: “Burnside Relieved” by William Smith, as printed in The Magazine of American History, Vol. 15.; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 21, p998-999; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 6; The Fredericksburg Campaign by Francis Augustin O’Reilly. [↩]