Today in military history: Lincoln relieves General McClellan of command
On Nov. 5, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln removed General George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac.
General McClellan was given control of the Army of the Potomac in the early stages of the Civil War. He trained his men well and appointed a strong chain of command. When it came to battle, however, he had a tendency to hesitate.
This, along with his growing contempt for the president, would be his undoing.
In fact, McClellan’s failure to act may have prolonged the war by another two years.
In 1862, the Union Army was in striking distance of Richmond and the Union commander hoped to wrap up the entire war with just a few more engagements, but surprising aggression by the Army of Northern Virginia’s new commander would cause a Union defeat, leading to two more years of warfare.
McClellan decided to take time to wait for good weather and reinforcements before pressing his attack home.
It was a hallmark of McClellan’s actions during the war, and it gave Lee time to order a large network of trenches dug, allowing him to defend the city with a small force while preparing the larger portion of his army for a much more aggressive move. Lee didn’t want to just defend Richmond, he wanted to attack the Union force’s supply lines, forcing a retreat.
On June 28 and 29, the Confederate forces were able to launch successful attacks against the retreating Union forces, but they were unable to land a crippling blow. And so, McClellan was able to reach a great defensive position on July 1. From Malvern Hill, he could defend against any number of Confederate attacks — but he couldn’t take the city.
McClellan’s failure to capture Richmond in 1862 caused the Civil War to drag on for two more years.
But while Lee had failed at his goal of landing a significant blow against Union forces, but he had succeeded in his larger goal. McClellan had been mere miles from Richmond and on the offensive, but one week later he was driven south, begging for more troops and supplies before he would attack again. Instead, he let Lee rebuild his forces and move north, achieving another victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run and opening the door for Lee’s first invasion of the North.
After the standstill against Confederate General Robert E. Lee, McClellan refused Lincoln’s urges to pursue Lee’s retreating army. Finally, after weeks of puttering around, Lincoln had enough. On Nov. 5, he notified the general of his removal and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside a few days later.
The two would face off one last time in the presidential race of 1864, but as you probably already know, there are no movies about President McClellan…because there wasn’t one.