Headquarters Army of the Potomac
Fairfax Court House, VA., March 14, 1862
SOLDIERS OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC!
For a long time I have kept you inactive, but not without a purpose: you were to be disciplined, armed and instructed; the formidable artillery you now have, had to be created; other armies were to move and accomplish certain results. I have held you back that you might give the death-blow to the rebellion that has distracted our once happy country.
The patience you have shown, and your confidence in your General, are worth a dozen victories. These preliminary results are now accomplished. I feel that the patient labors of many months have produced their fruit; the Army of the Potomac is now a real Army, – magnificent in material, admirable in discipline and instruction, excellently equipped and armed; – your commanders are all that I could wish.
The moment for action has arrived, and I know that I can trust in you to save our country. As I ride through your ranks, I see in your faces the sure presage of victory; I feel that you will do whatever I ask of you. The period of inaction has passed. I will bring you now face to face with the rebels, and only pray that God may defend the right.
In whatever direction you may move, however strange my actions may appear to you, ever bear in mind that my fate is linked with yours, and that all I do is to bring you, where I know you wish to be, – on the decisive battlefield. It is my business to place you there. I am to watch over you as parent over his children; and you know that your General loves you from the depths of his heart. I shall be my care, as it has ever been, to gain success with the least possible loss; but I know that, if it is necessary, you will willing follow me to our graves, for our righteous cause.
God smiles upon us, victory attends us, yet I would not have you think that our aim is to be attained without a manly struggle. I will not disguise it from you: you have brave foes to encounter, foemen well worthy of the steel that you will use so swell. I shall demand of you great, heroic exertions, rapid and long marches, desperate combats, privations, perhaps. We will share all these together; and when this sad war is over we will all return to our homes, and feel tat we can ask no high honor than the proud consciousness that we belonged to the ARMY OF THE POTOMAC.
Geo. B. McClellan
Major General Commanding
Ready To Embark
General McClellan’s address on March 14 came just prior to the embarkation of the Army of the Potomac on March 17, 1862. The general had been the army commander and organizer since summer 1861 and had massed, trained, and prepared a massive army, numbering about 121,500. He had spent weeks wrangling with the president, executive cabinet, and other military leaders over strategies and the details of the coming campaign.
His “encouragement” to the army seemed like a high point in his career, a pinnacle of his achievements. And in 1862, the president, the army, and the country waited for his command. Would McClellan and the Army of the Potomac end the war? That was the plan.
Embark? Yes. McClellan’s grand plan called for his army to be ferried down the Potomac River and along the Chesapeake Bay until they reached Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. (Fortress Monroe overlooked Hampton Roads, the scene of the recent ironclad battle.) The general confidently believed the USS Monitor and the remaining navy ships would prevent any disruption of his deployment. Once landed, the army would march up the Peninsula – passing famous sites of American history like Yorktown and Williamsburg – and eventually battle its way into Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.
That was the plan. The coming weeks of 1862 would reveal its success or failure, but for the present, the nation and world watched McClellan and the Army of the Potomac, confidently waiting for a quick and decisive victory.
Stealing A Napoleonic Image?
George McClellan had been dubbed “Young Napoleon” by the press, and he didn’t mind the comparison. Napoleon – conqueror of most of Europe about five decades early – was a military genius studied in American military academies. His lightening victories, “love” for his army, and power games seemed like a good image for the young American general. Like other commanders before him, McClellan adopted the famous “Napoleonic” pose for his portraits (though Napoleon was definitely not the only commander of his era to strike the pose).
In fact, some researchers have pointed out similarities (if not down-right plagiarism) toward the end of McClellan’s address to his army and Napoleon’s supposed address to the French army prior to the Italian Campaign. He’s promising them love, victory, success, and national adulation – and he’s positioning himself as the caring commander who will give them all that and more if they are loyal to him. Interesting…
Why the name “Army of the Potomac”? Union commanders and leaders had a tendency to name armies and battles after bodies of water – rivers, streams, creeks, etc. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but typically Confederate armies christened their forces and battles after towns and the Union preferred “water-based” names.
Why? One plausible reason is the maps. U.S. Army maps marked bodies of water, but didn’t always carry details about towns. Confederates tended to fight on their “home ground” and had better knowledge of the local villages. Thus, you’ll have an example like the July 21, 1861 Battle; the Union calls it Battle of Bull Run (after Bull Run Creek), the South calls it Battle of Manassas (after nearby Manassas Junction).
Back to armies – organized and trained near Washington D.C. which sits on the Potomac River, McClellan’s army in 1862 acquired the name Army of the Potomac and would retain the name throughout the rest of the war. Perhaps it’s ironic that they began their first major military campaign, ferried down the Potomac River.