November 8, 1862
…I am glad to do McClellan this justice [grateful for promotion], because altho’ I do not think he has treated me altogether as well as I had a right to expect yet I am thankful for what he has done, & wish to give him all the credit that is due particularly as to day the order has been received relieving him from duty with this Army & placing Burnside in command.
I must confess I was surprised as this, as I thought the storm had blown over. If he had been relieved immediately after the battle of Antietam, or at any period before he moved, I could have seen some show of reason on military grounds. This removal now proves conclusively that the cause is political, and the date of the order Nov. 5 (the day after the N. Yk election) confirms it. I presume they have said – Well if the Democrats choose to come out openly against us & organise [organize] a formidable opposition, we will not permit them to have the comd. Genl. of the Army, and as they look on McClellan as the military representative of the Democracy, they have struck a blow at the party thro’ him…
Indeed, I should not be surprised if t results in bring about a revolution at the North & in the pople demanding his restoration. – I understand he takes it very quietly… The army is filled with gloom and their spirit greatly depressed. – Burnside it is said wept like a child, and is the most distressed man in the army – openly says he is not fit for the position, and that McClellan is the only man we have who can handle the large army now collected together, 120,000 men.
It will be a great triumph to the South, will raise & inspirit their army, for McClellan is the only man they respect & fear… – I am sick & tired of the whole business, and most heartily wish I could be honorably released…
General George Meade to his wife Margaret Meade, Camp near Warrenton, VA, November 8, 1862.
Good-bye McClellan, Hello Burnside
On November 5, 1862, General George McClellan was relieved of command by President Lincoln’s order. Four days later, General Ambrose Burnside received command of the Union’s Army of the Potomac.
As we’ve said before, McClellan had his good character qualities along with his problems. He was a good organizer. He was charismatic and gained thousands of soldiers’ respect. He was cautious and conscientious, not waiting to needless sacrifice his men.
McClellan had held center stage in the east for over a year as he built the Army of the Potomac, crept up the Peninsula, sat at the gates of Richmond, and final managed to give Lincoln a “victory” at Antietam to prompt the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, in the leading role, McClellan failed to decisively defeat a Confederate army or capture Richmond; worse yet, he refused to act quickly or move the army in the weeks following Antietam, irritating the longsuffering president. And it didn’t help that McClellan had started dictating, insisting that he should be commander in chief of Union forces (not General Halleck) because he had won Antietam.
General Ambrose Burnside – McClellan’s replacement – had fought since the beginning of the war, serving in Virginia and the Carolinas before receiving command of the “right wing” of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the Antietam Campaign. Burnside was a political choice general, one who would hopefully keep the political factions in Washington happy. However, the new commander wasn’t pleased with his new position, declaring that he felt unqualified to command the army. (Unfortunately, unfolding events in 1862 would prove that Burnside honestly judged his abilities and was definitely out of his comfort zone.)
General George Meade
George Meade (b. 1815) had graduated West Point in 1835, fought in the Mexican War, and served as an engineer with the U.S. army. In 1861, he was a captain but got promoted to brigadier general at the insistence of his state governor, Andrew Curtain of Pennsylvania. He had guarded fortifications around Washington, fought in McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (and was wounded), returned and continued to command his troops at Second Manassas and Antietam.
At Antietam, McClellan selected Meade to command the I Corps after its commander (General Joseph Hooker) was wounded. This decision moved Meade into a significant command position ahead of several other officers who had seniority.
Meade’s corps would gain success at the coming Battle of Fredericksburg, and in less than year, George Meade would received command of the Army of the Potomac – just days before the Battle of Gettysburg. McClellan was exiting the stage, but in his final weeks of command, he had “introduced” a rising star in Union army command.
Despite his corps command, Meade was sick of the war. Perhaps the new position contributed to his distress. In this letter to his wife, Meade revealed the political games involved with the military command. He doubted Burnside’s abilities and wasn’t sure anyone other than McClellan could command the huge army.
The sense of squabbling, shaky leadership, and the pressure to win a decisive victory frustrated this general. More was at stake than political careers and fortunes. Men’s lives and the future of the county hung in the balance. How could Meade feel confident as a soldier when the new commander openly said he shouldn’t have the army command?
However, Meade would stay and endure two more large scale battlefield defeats. Ironically, he would eventually have command of the Army of the Potomac at the battle that would begin to turn the tide of war in the Union’s favor on the eastern fields.
P.S. Want to jump ahead on the historical timeline and read about Meade at Gettysburg? Click here