It was on this date of January 23, 1863 that Lincoln made the decision to replace Ambrose Burnside as the Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac. The disastrous Mud March was the final straw – the blame for which Burnside placed upon the insubordination of officers. He sought to have a number of them dismissed or relieved, but found instead that Lincoln had replaced him with Joseph Hooker.

ihookej001p1“Fighting Joe” had performed aggressively well in engagements on the Peninsula and at Antietam, though he was not without certain defects – such as a reputation for hard drinking and bombastic speech. Among his indiscreet comments was one to a reporter where he said that the government in Washington was “imbecile” and that “nothing would go right until we had a dictator, and the sooner the better.”

Hooker was called to appear at the White House where he was given a thoughtfully composed letter by President Lincoln, containing both positives and negatives. Lincoln praised his considerable skills displayed in battle command, while also decrying some of his undermining insubordination of Burnside. Frontally addressing Hooker’s ill-conceived opinions, Lincoln wrote that his “recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator … Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators … What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”  Lincoln was brilliant!

For one summary reaction of the removal of Burnside, I’ll quote here again the words of William Swinton – the NY Times correspondent who said:

General Burnside’s career as head of the Army of the Potomac was as unfortunate as it was brief; and there is much in its circumstances and in his character to inspire a lenient judgment. His elevation to the command was unsought by him; for, with a good sense that was creditable to him, he knew and proclaimed his unfitness for the trust. It was right to try him, because it was impossible to tell whether his own gauge of his fitness was correct, or whether he wronged himself by a self-distrust that he might soon surmount. When, however, the trial had proved the absolute justness of his measure of his own incapacity (and there can be no doubt that this was fully proved by the events of the battle of Fredericksburg), they must be held accountable for the consequences who retained him in a position which his own judgment, now fortified by the general verdict of the army, pronounced him unequal to fill. His retention after this, if there be any fidelity in the portrayal I have presented of the condition of the army, imperiled not only its efficiency but its existence. Desertions were going on at the rate of about two hundred a day … It was not possible to continue a condition of affairs that neutralized the best forces of the army, and the President wisely relieved General Burnside from a position deeply humiliating to any man of honor. He lapsed from the greatness thrust upon him without forfeiting the respect of the country for his zeal and patriotism; but he left behind him no illusions respecting his capacity for the command of an army.

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed 3-4 hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and am the editor of a Baltimore/Maryland sports blog called "The Baltimore Wire." My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with a Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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