150 Years Ago This Week: Lincoln sacks ‘Little Mac’

November 1862

November 1862 opened with Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the Union commander in New Orleans, issuing orders tightening pass requirements and authorizing the discharge from confinement of “all slaves not known to be slaves of loyal owners.” In Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was concerned about the relationship of the Confederate states to the central government, the raising of troops and the danger of Federal invasions of the coasts. On Nov. 2, Mrs. Lincoln traveled to New York City.

One of the regiments used in a Federal expedition along the coasts of Georgia and east Florida from Nov. 3-10 was the First South Carolina Volunteers (African Descent) commanded by Col. Thomas Higginson. This regiment of colored troops, still not complete and somewhat unofficial, was not to be mustered into Federal service until Jan. 1, 1863, but had been slowly growing out of earlier failed attempts to form regiments of former slaves on the southeastern coast. In Virginia, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s troops of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army arrived at Culpeper Courthouse, placing them between Gen. George McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac – now in the area of Warrenton – and Richmond. Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops remained in the Shenandoah Valley.

Election day in the North was on Tuesday, Nov. 4, and Democrats made sizeable gains in Northern state and congressional elections, especially New York, where Horatio Seymour was elected governor. The Republicans kept control of the House of Representatives, with victories in New England, the border states, California and Michigan. War weariness most likely accounted for many of the Democratic victories. In Tennessee, Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s troops occupied LaGrange and Grand Junction, two important rail and road bases for northern Mississippi as his plans progressed for an advance on Vicksburg.

Maj. Gen. McClellan
Maj. Gen. McClellan

“By direction of the President, it is ordered that Maj. Gen. McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac and that Maj. Gen. Burnside take command of that army.” On Nov. 5, after months of attempting to support Gen. McClellan, President Lincoln had reached the end of his patience with “Little Mac,” saying “sending reinforcements to McClellan is like shoveling flies across a barn.” The failure to take Richmond in July; failing to obtain a complete victory at Sharpsburg on Antietam Creek in September; and the extremely slow advance in the weeks following the battle all brought an end to the controversial career of Gen. McClellan. The repercussions that followed were widespread: Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter – a strong McClellan supporter and commander of the Union 5th Corps in the army – was also replaced, by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.

There were changes in the Army of Northern Virginia as well. On Nov. 6, Gen. Robert E. Lee promoted James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson from major general to lieutenant general, and placed them in command of the new First and Second Corps of the army, respectively. The next day, Nov. 7, at 11:50 a.m., an officer from Washington arrived at Gen. McClellan’s headquarters at Rectortown, north of Warrenton, with orders relieving him of command of the army and turning it over to Ambrose Burnside. Gen. McClellan was stunned and very hurt, and wrote to his wife, “I am sure that not the slightest expression of feeling was visible on my face.” Then he added, “Poor Burnside feels dreadfully, almost crazy – I am sorry for him.”

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.