Monday, March 12, 2012

Taking the Field

Wherein Little Mac gets more free time than he wanted

On the morning of March 12, 1862, Brig. General Randolph Marcy, chief of staff to the general-in-chief, as well as his father-in-law, sat in Army Headquarters in Washington City looking at the National Intelligencer. Something of a cross between today's Politico and New Republic, the Intelligencer was full of all the savviest political news and analysis, with a sharp Whig bent. As a political paper whose political party had joined the dinosaurs, the Intelligencer had found new life in the national crisis as the critique from center of the President's war policies.

Whether Marcy discovered it first for himself or someone else brought the paper to his attention, the paper led with Lincoln's war orders from March, including a new one that must have panicked Marcy--one relieving George B. McClellan of the duties of general-in-chief.
Major-General McClellan having personally taken the field at the head of the Army of the Potomac, until otherwise ordered he is relieved from the command of the other military departments, he retaining command of the Department of the Potomac.
Seemingly without any warning or any direct communication, Lincoln had stripped McClellan of his authority. It was a vicious slight. Marcy hurried to telegraph McClellan at Fairfax Court-House, who, though deeply wronged, pledged himself to the President's war plan. Or at least this is the scenario that was later presented by McClellan himself, and subscribed to by pro-Union, but anti-Lincoln Northerners. The real story of McClellan's demotion is much more complex and harder to nail down.

Lincoln was well aware that McClellan would be upset at losing his status as the nation's top general. Though he didn't know about the vague fantasies of dictatorship that his general-in-chief had expressed in his private letters to his wife, he was well aware that McClellan believed all military matters should be in the military's control. But Lincoln had lost faith in McClellan during the two weeks that changed the war, and could not have the momentum of Union armies in the West slowed by McClellan's finicky insistence on ideal warfighting.

Like with his assignment of corps commanders for the Army of the Potomac, he also may have been holding try-outs for a new general. If McClellan's massive army around Washington created a natural power center within the Northern military, Lincoln intended to create two new ones to provide balance. First, he combined the Departments of Missouri and Kansas and the half of the Department of the Ohio west of Knoxville into a new Department of the Mississippi with McClellan's top rival, Maj. General Henry Halleck, in command. Halleck now had a command that straddled the mighty Mississippi, as well as all its major tributaries, giving him full authority over an advance downriver that would cut the Confederacy in two and reopen the Midwest's primary trade routes. It was a resurrection of Winfield Scott's war strategy, and if Halleck could pull it off he would be the nation's savior.

The second power center Lincoln created to rival McClellan's was a Mountain Department under Radical Republican favorite, Maj. General John C. Fremont. Running from the ridge of the Alleghenies all the way to Knoxville, Fremont was well located for a strike deep into East Tennessee, a strongly loyal region that had been dragged into the Confederacy by West Tennessee. Severing the railroad to Virginia would give Fremont something heroic to do that aided the war effort, but Lincoln must have also realized from that position Fremont could easily take charge of the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia if the time came to fully usurp McClellan.

But Lincoln's best-case scenario still included McClellan, just a fighting McClellan, and so he sent the general's close personal friend, former Ohio governor William Dennison to break the news. Dennison had made his name in politics as a strong anti-slavery crusader, and been one of the founders of the Ohio Republican Party. When war broke out, it was Dennison, not the Lincoln administration, that had sent the Ohio militia under George McClellan into Western Virginia, where it had secured large areas for pro-Union inhabitants. It was Dennison that brought McClellan to former Ohio governor and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, and Chase that provided the coup de grace that replaced Scott with McClellan. But Dennison had angered Republicans and War Democrats alike by some of his decisions as governor, and failed to be nominated for a second term. He had accepted this gracefully, and continued to advise the new governor and Lincoln, and the President hoped he might persuade McClellan to be equally magnanimous in his own downfall.

After meeting with Lincoln in the morning, Dennison found Marcy at headquarters in Washington City on the afternoon of March 11. Lincoln had gone off to the Navy Yard to consult with Commander John Dahlgren, probably about the recent battle between the Monitor and the Virginia, and did not plan to inform the cabinet about the plan to relieve McClellan until that evening. That gave Dennison a window to discuss with McClellan before the news leaked out. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Dennison did not explain his conversation with Marcy. Whatever their discussion, Marcy telegraphed McClellan's field headquarters at Fairfax Court-House that he should return to Washington City that night without his staff to meet with Dennison.

When the telegraph came in, McClellan was sitting on top of Henry Hill. He, McDowell, and their staffs had ridden out to the site of the big battle with Brig. General Philip St. George Cooke's regular cavalry as guard. It was all new to McClellan, but nearly everyone else on the hill had personal memories and shared them, including Charles Griffin who rode over to the spot where he lost his men and guns to the 33rd Virginia. Cooke's son-in-law, Jeb Stuart, had played an important role in the aftermath of the battle, and he rode over to where he had started the maneuver that routed McDowell's army.

On the way back to Centreville, McClellan discussed with McDowell the next operation of the Army of the Potomac. While the Confederate retreat towards Fredericksburg seemed to invite a pursuit, he would stick to his plan and move by water to get a better position. The Rapphannock appeared probably not far enough, so McClellan would land at Fort Monroe and move straight on Richmond. At Centreville, he and McDowell parted, and McClellan reached Fairfax Court-House at about 8:30 pm. He immediately sat down to send a telegram to the Secretary of War, detailing the retreat of the Confederates and the abandoned state of their camps and the ground.
Except the turnpikes the roads are horrible--the country entirely stripped of forage and provisions. Having fully consulted with Genl McDowell I propose occupying Manassas by a portion of [Nathaniel P.] Banks' command, and then at once throwing all the forces I can concentrate upon the line agreed upon last week. The Monitor justifies this course.
That task completed, he was then handed Marcy's urgent request for him to return to Washington. He telegraphed him back at about 9:00 pm: "Dispatch received. It is impossible for me to come in tonight--I am completely tired out. Besides I think the less I see of Washington the better."

Then he set to work on a letter to his wife. He described the spartan night he spent previously, before his headquarters wagons arrived in Fairfax Court-House, and again the devastation around Manassas. "The country through which we passed today was very desolate," he told her. "I think Manassas is the most desolate & forbidding spot I ever beheld."

Perhaps that night McClellan had had premonitions, or perhaps he was merely returning to his old martyr act. But he commented to Mary Ellen on efforts to unseat him before even knowing of Lincoln's new order.
I regret that the rascals are after me again. I had been foolish enough to hope that when I went into the field they would give me some rest, but it seems otherwise--perhaps I should have expected it. If I can get out of this scrape you will never catch me in the power of such a set again--the idea of persecuting a man behind his back.
McClellan had already been up several hours when Marcy's March 12 telegram was handed to him, informing him that he had been relieved as general-in-chief. He sent a telegram to his wife reassuring her he was okay, and then threw himself into planning for an attack on Fort Monroe, including swapping e-mails with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, who had sailed to Hampton Roads to inspect the damage of the Virginia himself. He also sent for all five of the corps commanders, planning to get their approval of his plan either that day or the next, as required by War Orders No. 2.

Governor Dennison reached Fairfax Court-House sometime in the afternoon and sat down to have a long talk with McClellan about Lincoln's order. He stressed that Lincoln meant to hold the position of general-in-chief vacant, until McClellan captured Richmond, at which point he would be returned to it. Judging by the letter that McClellan wrote in reply, he probably also spent a fair amount of time counseling him on how to best respond for political survival.

Dennison headed out as McDowell arrived, as usual first of the corps commanders. The letter he brought back with him could not have been more perfect for Lincoln's political situation and his own personal concerns about McClellan. The former general-in-chief wrote:
I beg to say to you that I cordially endorse all [Dennison] has said to you in my behalf, and that I thank you most sincerely for the official confidence & kind personal feelings you entertain for me. I believe I said to you some weeks since, in connection with some western matters, that no feeling of self interest or ambition should ever prevent me from devoting myself to your service--I am glad to have the opportunity to prove it, & you will find that under present circumstances I shall work just as cheerfully as ever before, & that no consideration of self will in any manner interfere with the discharge of my public duties.
Meanwhile, McClellan was busy planning his Peninsula Campaign, the grand operation with which he hoped to capture Richmond, and win back his command, stronger than ever.

Print Sources:
  • Sears, 201-207.
  • Beatie, 85-102.

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