NO. 4

: Lincoln restored McClellan to command of the Army of the Potomac after Second Manassas (Bull Run II).


+"It was a bitter alternative for Lincoln, but he took it. McClellan was given the field command of the Army of the Potomac." Lincoln and His Generals, T. Harry Williams

+"He [Lincoln] had taken his political life in his hands by reinstating McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac ..." The Army of the Potomac:Mr. Lincoln's Army, Bruce Catton

+"On September 5 Lincoln relieved him [Pope] of command and, over vigorous opposition from his Cabinet, reappointed McClellan to command of the now reunited Army of the Potomac." The Blue and the Gray, Henry Steele Commager, H.S. Commager, ed.


This widespread view is wrong, and depends entirely on two separate conflicting, uncorroborated statements made by Pres. Lincoln and Gen.-in-Chief Henry Halleck. The date of September 5, often associated with this claim, is actually the date on which the Army of Virginia was officially merged into the Army of the Potomac. No commander of the combined army was named in those orders, however.

On the morning of September 2, 1862, as the defeated forces of Gen. John Pope approached Washington, Lincoln and Gen. Halleck visited McClellan in his quarters to discuss the situation. There were no witnesses and no minutes were taken.

(A) Immediately after the meeting, McClellan wrote two letters, saying that he had been given command of the Washington defences only. This version of events he maintained for the rest of his life. (1)

(B) Lincoln, immediately after the same meeting, encountered Treasury Sec. Salmon Chase and told him a version of events the same as McClellan's. Chase wrote this down in his private diary.(2)

(C) Lincoln then briefed his Cabinet in a meeting that Navy Sec. Gideon Welles recorded in his own private diary. Lincoln's explanations and the general discussion followed McClellan's version of events, i.e. appointment to command the Washington defences only. (3)

(D) The next day (Sep. 3), Lincoln ordered Halleck to organize a field army independent of the Washington defence forces. (4)

(E) On the 5th, the AOV and AOP were merged and Lincoln asked General A. Burnside to take command of the field army while McClellan defended D.C.. Burnside refused. (5)

(F) On Sep. 6th, Pope was ordered to the Northwest, removing him as a candidate for this field command. (6)

(G) Learning of Pope's reassignment and Burnside's refusal, McClellan named Gen. Nathaniel Banks commander of the Washington defences and personally took forces to the field on Sep. 7 without orders or authority. This was the start of the Antietam campaign. (7)

(H) Lincoln began telling people outside of the Cabinet a different version of events, saying that Halleck, to Lincoln's surprise and dismay, had argued for McClellan to be appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac and McClellan had been so appointed on Sep. 2. (8)

(I) Halleck, testifying to Congress long after Sep. 2 (and after he knew both McClellan's and Lincoln's positions), denied both accounts. He said that it was Lincoln himself, to Halleck's surprise and dismay, who appointed McClellan commander of the Army of the Potomac on Sep. 2. (9)

No order appointing McClellan commander of the Army of the Potomac on or after Sep. 2 was ever published. This would have been a unique oversight in the history of the Civil War after such a high appointment had been made by Lincoln or Halleck. However, the order appointing McClellan commander of the Washington defences was published immediately after the Sep. 2 meeting. (10)

Some technical issues associated with command are worth mentioning, especially the claim that McClellan could be restored to command of the AOP on Sep. 2 when he had never given it up.

As commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan was ordered to send his units to the aid of the Army of Virginia, and they came under Pope's operational control as they approached Pope's positions. They were not reassigned to Pope's command; no order named Pope their commander; nor did any order combined the two armies into one at that time. The principle of operational control (still exercised today) leaves the "lending" officer without the loaned units for whatever period higher authority decides. The sending of AoP units to the AoV did not liquidate the AoP -- only an order could do that. Nor did it remove McClellan from command of the AoP -- only a new assignment could do that. After a series of queries about his campaign status, McClellan was told in orders on August 30 that he was in "command" of those AoP units not sent to the front. This order seems to have befuddled many historians. It clearly refers to a temporary situation. It was impossible to "restore" McClellan to the command of the AoP after Second Manassas because he was still its commander when Lincoln and Halleck paid their visit.

Considering that military orders are pre-emptive, every new order is a "relief" from the current assignment, as every veteran knows. McClellan was actually "relieved" of command of the Army of the Potomac on September 2nd by that very order that returned some AoP units to his control, i.e. the orders appointing him to command the defences of Washington and all forces entering Washington. No one would be named AOP commander in orders until Burnside was so named in November.


McClellan's orders to command the Washington defences relieved him for the first time of command of the Army of the Potomac. To construe this order as a restoration actually reverses the meaning of events. McClellan's fait accompli of seizing command of the field army cannot be understood in light of the "restoration" fable; neither can his Antietam campaign be properly evaluated without a correct appreciation of his status.

(1) The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan , Sears
(2) Life of Chase, Warden
(3) Diary, Welles
(4) OR, XIX, Pt 2
(5) Burnside, Marvel
(6) OR XII, Pt. 3
(7) McClellan's Own Story, McClellan
(8) (9) Halleck, Ambrose
(10) The entire body of the order reads: "Major-General McClellan will have command of the fortifications of Washington and of all the troops for the defense of the capital." OR, 1 ser., XII, pt 3. McClellan said that on Sep. 3, Halleck told him that "no decision had yet been made as to the commander of the active [field] army." "From the Peninsula to Antietam," Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 3.

(c) 1997 Dimitri Rotov # v.1 11/97