On this date of November 7, 1862, General George B. McClellan was officially removed as commander of the Army of the Potomac. The extensive reservoir of patience of President Lincoln had at last drained to the last dregs. The end had come.
Though Lincoln was gratified that at long last the Army was on the move and had crossed into Virginia, he was not encouraged by the slow movement of it, along with the ability of Lee to move more quickly and interpose his force between McClellan and Richmond. Lincoln’s fear that such would happen was completely prescient, and it therefore became the final straw.
It had taken the Army of the Potomac six days to cross the river – an action that Lee had accomplished overnight on the evening of September 18-19. It then took another six days to travel 40 miles to the area of Warrenton, VA.
What was a reasonable expectation? Historians have fought about that ever since. Even at the time, it was seen from varied perspectives. Interestingly, even McClellan himself spoke of it as slow. On November 6th, the General wrote to his wife Nellie, “The army still advances, but the machine is so huge and complicated that it is slow in its motions.” On the other hand, speaking of the same movement of the same time over the same terrain, John Gibbon wrote (of the effects of McClellan’s removal), “But the “brakes” had already been applied to our “swiftly moving train” and the few days delay required to transfer the command brought the army to a full stop whilst the “legs” of Lee’s forces were rapidly concentrating his army in front of us.
Lincoln had decided to give the command to Ambrose Burnside, whether he wanted it or not – and of course, he did not, having previously demurred twice. Burnside doubted his ability for such high command, and he was not desirous of seeing this removal happen to a dear friend. But he was told by the special courier Brigadier General Catharinus P. Buckingham (a classmate at the Point with Robert E. Lee), that McClellan was a goner – that if Burnside did not take the command, it would be granted rather to Joseph Hooker. There was no way that Burnside wanted such to eventuate, so he reluctantly agreed and accompanied Buckingham to deliver the orders to McClellan.
The Little Napolean amazingly took the news well in stride. His written word to the Army to announce the occasion in a special order is a beautiful piece of writing: “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 association which can exist among men—unite us still by an indissoluble tie.”
The good soldier in McClellan caused him to depart in the most gracious fashion imaginable. Reactions of various contemporaries to this departure will be the theme of three postings in this blog over the next three days.