Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan
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. McCellan's tenure as the army's commander.
„Little Mac,š 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 General Robert E. Lee. When Lee
then moved north into Maryland, McClellan headed him off Antietam Creek,
near the town of Sharpsburg.
In the single bloodiest day of fighting in American history, „Little
Macš forced Lee‚s army to return to Virginia.
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
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 Macš put him off, stubbornly
refusing to risk his army in battle. The president tried to reason with
„Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you can not do what
the enemy is constantly doing?š he asked. „Should you not claim to be
at least his equal in prowess, and act upon the claim?š
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 őtry‚; 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?š
„It is the Army of the Potomac,š the man replied, a bit puzzled.
„So it is called,š 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
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 his men.
„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,š wrote one officerš -- the funeral
of departed hopes. „A more sorrowful time I have never seen in the army
than just now.š