Complete coverage of CW150 in Fredericksburg
George McClellan says farewell
The ‘Behind the Lines” series made its debut
in 2005. Fortunately, not much has changed. This anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the
1862 Battle of Fredericksburg—the action, the major players, the
behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and
Spotsylvania National Military Park, produced the series. A native of Gettysburg, Pa.,
Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg
in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg
National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining
the Park Service here. He has written two books: ‘Abraham Lincoln
at City Point’ and ‘Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.’
NOV. 7, 1862, marked a beginning and an end for the Army of the Potomac.
It marked the beginning of the Fredericksburg Campaign, and it marked
the end of George B. McClellan's tenure as the army's commander.
“Little Mac,” as his men affectionately called him, had taken command
of the Union’s largest army more than a year earlier, in August 1861,
following its defeat at Bull Run. Over the next eight months he had trained
and reorganized the army, fashioning it into a formidable weapon.
But McClellan soon demonstrated that he was more skilled at creating
an army than in leading one. In a weeklong series of battles known collectively
as the Seven Days, he had allowed his army to be driven back from the
gates of Richmond by a much smaller Confederate army led by Gen. Robert
When Lee then moved north into Maryland, McClellan headed him off at
Antietam Creek, near the town of Sharpsburg. In the single bloodiest day
of fighting in American history, “Little Mac” forced Lee’s army to return
McClellan believed he had saved the Union. Upon closer inspection, however,
it appeared that he had not so much saved the Union as he had squandered
an opportunity to destroy the Southern army. At Antietam, Lee was heavily
outnumbered and had his back to the Potomac River, making retreat difficult.
Had he been more aggressive, McClellan could have smashed Lee’s army and
brought a quick end to the war.
But, unfortunately for the Union, McClellan was a cautious man. Slow,
sure movements were his way; bold risks and fast marches ran counter to
his nature. At the heart of his caution was the unshakable belief that
the Confederate army outnumbered him by at least two to one. No matter
that reliable intelligence sources placed the number of Confederate soldiers
at barely half his strength: McClellan continued to believe that he was
heavily outnumbered. And an outnumbered general should not take chances.
And so he continued to plod along, loved by his troops but doing little
to end the war. That brought him into conflict with President Abraham
Lincoln. Lincoln needed fighting generals that would bring the war to
a speedy conclusion, and McClellan simply would not fight.
Week after week the president prodded his idle general to advance and
engage the enemy, and week after week “Little Mac” put him off, stubbornly
refusing to risk his army in battle. The president tried to reason with
the general. “Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not
do what the enemy is constantly doing?” he asked. “Should you not claim
to be at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?”
The president urged McClellan to stick close to the Rebels and look
for a chance to strike. “I would press closely to him, fight him if a
favorable opportunity should present, and, at least, try to beat him to
Richmond on the inside track. I say ‘try’; if we never try, we shall never
Still, McClellan refused to budge. In an effort to prod the general
into action, Lincoln paid him a personal visit. The meeting only left
the president more frustrated than before. As he was returning to Washington,
he gazed back upon the sea of white tents stretched out below him. Turning
to an acquaintance, Lincoln asked, “Do you know what this is?”
“It is the Army of the Potomac,” the man replied, a bit puzzled.
“So it is called,” Lincoln replied, “but that is a mistake; it is only
The president’s patience was clearly wearing thin. When yet another
month passed without a battle, Lincoln determined to rid himself of the
popular general once and for all. On Nov. 7, he sent a War Department
official, Gen. Catharinus P. Buckingham, to the army with orders relieving
McClellan of command and appointing Gen.
Ambrose E. Burnside in his place.
McClellan took the news calmly. He viewed the situation as merely temporary.
When Burnside failed (as McClellan was sure he would) and the Confederate
army was threatening Washington, the administration would beg for him
to return. Until then, he would bide his time.
McClellan formally transferred command of the army to Burnside on Nov.
9, 1862. The news echoed through the army like a thunderclap. McClellan
had been like a father to the soldiers, and news of his dismissal elicited
strong emotion. Some officers resigned their commissions in protest; others
called on McClellan to resist the order, march on Washington, and set
up a military dictatorship.
To his credit, the general refused to countenance such action and relinquished
the command peacefully.
McClellan’s parting message to his army reflected his affection for
“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. ... 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. Farewell!”
Before departing for his home in New Jersey, the general held one last
review of his beloved army. As he rode along the broad ranks of men, the
soldiers cheered and threw their hats in the air. Others expressed their
love by shedding tears. No one who experienced the scene was unmoved.
“We have just come in from a funeral,” wrote one officer, “—the funeral
of departed hopes. A more sorrowful time I have never seen in the army
than just now.” No one felt McClellan’s departure more sensibly than Ambrose
Burnside, the genial Midwesterner on whose unwilling shoulders now rested
the mantle of command.
Next: Burnside takes command.