Nov 1862–America’s Little Napoleon Meets His Waterloo

By Gary Farrow, Danville Historical Society

November 15, 1862 North Star–Removal of Gen. McClellan

General George B McClellan, America's little Napoleon

General George B McClellan, America’s little Napoleon

The latest military change is the removal of Gen. McClellan from the army of the Potomac, and the appointment of Gen. Burnside in his stead. The order was delivered last week Friday night; and it took the army by surprise. He was relieved of his command and ordered to report himself at Trenton N.J., where his family now is. His last official act was the issuing of an address to his soldiers informing them in a few words that the command had devolved on Gen. Burnside and took affectionate leave of them. He immediately departed for Trenton.

This change will perhaps take many of our readers by surprise. It is claimed to have been a military necessity, which means we suppose that the best good of the army and its future success, required the change. If this is true, and the only motive for removal, no one should complain, for it is no worse for Gen. McClellan to be superseded for these important reasons, than for many other military officers, who have shared the same fate.

Everything should yield to military success and fitness for the place, so far as army appointments are concerned, not withstanding many of these offices have been and still are, conferred as a matter of favoritism, rather than merit. Gen McClellan, we have believed, to be an able General – a man of sterling personal probity, and unwavering loyalty. And while he has, as we believe tried to do his work conscientiously and surely, in meeting the enemy in front, almost from first to last, he has had enemies in his rear, who have tried to thwart his plans and secure his downfall. There have been political, if not personal, plots and counterplots against him and although President Lincoln has not been engaged in them, but has always defended and sustained McClellan, yet his opponents have at last triumphed in his removal, and they are now glorifying the change.

General Burnside replaced McClellan

General Burnside replaced McClellan

We sincerely trust, that as a military measure, the removal may prove highly beneficial to the Federal cause and that the gallant General Burnside will secure speedy and brilliant success, and that the noble McClellan, whether he entirely retires from military life or accepts some other command, will live long enough to overcome those political and envious conspirators who have been instrumental in his removal.


“Plots and counterplots” weren’t the half of it. As evidenced by the Civil War itself, the Republic was fragile, only some 85 years removed from the American Revolution. Today the notion that our military exists to serve civil authority is a bedrock assumption; one hundred and fifty years ago with the nation coming apart at the seams, the boundaries between civilian government and the military weren’t so clear.

At the outbreak of the war, the standing army was so small that Lincoln had to call upon the states for volunteers. In many instances, the men in command were political appointees. A general might be a Radical (abolitionist), Republican, or a Democrat. In order to mollify different constituencies, Lincoln had to figure party affiliation into his political calculus when making his military appointments

Advocated by some, the prospect of a military coup was not that far fetched, certainly not in General McClellan’s imagination. After some early success in West Virginia, the nation’s leading Democratic General was appointed by Lincoln in July 1861 to be the Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Soon after he wrote the following to his wife:

“I find myself in a new and strange position here—Presdt, Cabinet, Genl Scott & all deferring to me—by some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land. … I almost think that were I to win some small success now I could become Dictator or anything else that might please me—but nothing of that kind would please me—therefore I won’t be Dictator.”

Lincoln often visited the war front. In this photo, he is with General McClellan in the field.

Lincoln often visited the war front. In this photo, he is with General McClellan in the field.

Beloved by his troops, who called him Little Mac” and “Young Napoleon,” McClellan was a genius at organizing and training an army – on the field of battle, not so much. He was preoccupied with the fear that his troops were outnumbered, which made him timid. After his failed Peninsular campaign to take Richmond, Lincoln ordered the troops back the capitol and called a meeting with his general. If he expected McClellan to be contrite, he couldn’t have been more wrong. Instead he handed Lincoln a letter which called on him to provide the country with an authoritative statement of “civil and military policy, covering the whole ground of our national trouble.”


McClellan told Lincoln that:

The U.S. government couldn’t legally make war to subjugate the people of any state and that conciliation, including abandoning all attempts to abolish slavery, was the only way to end the conflict. As a matter of principle, Lincoln had refused to recognize the Confederacy. Southerners were entitled to their political rights which allowed them to elect whom they pleased. Gen McClellan well knew that the restoration of an unreconstructed South would restore the Democratic Party’s national majority.Lincoln should repudiate the anti-slavery element of his own Republican Party by protecting slavery. McClellan warned that “a declaration of radical views, upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.”

Lincoln read the letter and said nothing.

Richard Slotkin’s book, The Long Road to Antietam, describes the political facts confronting the President. “Thus despite his defeat in the [Peninsular Campaign], McClellan still enjoyed very broad support, not only in the army but with the public and in the press. He and his political allies had been extraordinarily effective in persuading much of the public and the press that Stanton and the War Department were to blame for McClellan’s defeat – and that McClellan was the man best suited to prosecute the more vigorous war the public now demanded.”

War Secretary Stanton wanted McClellan shot for treason. Lincoln explored replacing the General; however, the Republic was in a precarious position politically and militarily. He had to sit tight.

Ironically, the President’s opportunity to relieve McClellan came when the general “defeated” Lee at Antietam. The rebels were repelled from Union soil back to Virginia. However, public support for McClellan ebbed when he did not attempt to pursue Lee’s army and destroy it. After the midterm fall elections, where Democrats made substantial gains but the Republicans remained in control of congress and key governorships, Lincoln relieved McClellan of command and committed himself to waging total war on the South.

October 15, 1862 North Star–Gen McClellan and the Army

Farewell Visit to Several Corps – Enthusiasm of the Soldiers, etc.

…Gen. McClellan and staff, accompanied by Gen. Burnside, today bid farewell to this army, visiting in succession the several army corps. As the General rode through the ranks, the 33 battered banners of the veteran regiments were dipped to greet him, while the thousands of soldiers gave vent to their feelings in continuous rounds of cheers and applause.

… The following farewell order was read to the troops composing the Army of Potomac on dress parade.

Officers and Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac – An order of the President devolves upon Major Gen. Burnside the command of this Army. In parting with you, I cannot express the love and gratitude I bear to you. As an Army, you have grown under my care. In you I have never found doubt or coldness. 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. We shall ever be comrades in supporting the Constitution and the Nationality of its People.

Geo. B. McClellan, Major Gen. U.S. Army



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