A Worried Lincoln Appoints McClellan Head of All Union Armies
One of the most distinguished and remarkable military careers in United States history ended on Nov. 1, 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln accepted the resignation of the Union Army’s Commander in Chief Winfield Scott. The 75-year-old Scott had served in the U.S. Army for 53 years, but advancing age, old battlefield wounds, and various ailments had rendered him infirm. He could no longer hoist his 300-pound body onto a horse, could barely walk, and though his mind was still sharp his broken-down body could no longer handle the rigors of active command. Lincoln appointed the army’s rising star, General George Brinton McClellan, to replace Scott as the head of all Union armies.
Scott was a U.S. general for 47 years, the longest-such tenure in American history. He commanded in the War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Black Hawk War, Second Seminole War, and the Civil War. Lincoln and Scott both wanted Colonel Robert E. Lee to command the Union armies at the start of the Civil War, but Lee resigned on April 20, 1861, after Virginia seceded, and Scott reluctantly assumed the position. A fellow Virginian, Scott chose the Union over his home state—a decision Lee could not make.
Scott devised the “Anaconda Plan” to blockade the South and slowly squeeze it into submission while Union armies seized control of the Mississippi Valley. This strategy was slow and methodical, however, and after the smashing Confederate victory in the first major land battle of the war, the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21, 1861, the Northern public hungered for a Union victory.
Meanwhile, the 34-year-old McClellan, dashing and handsome, had captured the press and public’s attention by winning a few small victories in western Virginia, and a clamor arose for the aging Scott to resign. McClellan’s political supporters in the nation’s capital brought their pressure to bear, and Scott finally tired of the criticism and his weakening health. Lincoln, too, was being criticized, and knew the army needed a change and the country demanded a victory.
On November 1 Lincoln accepted Scott’s resignation and appointed McClellan to become the new general-in-chief—“Young Napoleon” was now in charge of all Northern armies, as reported in this article, published by the Albany Journal (Albany, New York) on Nov. 2, 1861:
Important from Washington
Gen. Scott Retires from the Command of the Army
General McClellan Appointed His Successor
Gen. Scott’s Address to the Cabinet
President Lincoln’s Reply
Secretary Cameron’s Reply to General Scott
Washington, Nov. 1, 1861.
The following letter, from Gen. Scott, was received by the President on Thursday P.M.:
“Headquarters of the Army, Washington, Oct. 31, 1861.
“To Hon. S. Cameron, Secretary of War:
“Sir—For more than three years I have been unable, from a hurt, to mount a horse, or to walk more than a few paces at a time, and that with much pain. Other and new infirmities—dropsy and vertigo—admonish me that repose of mind and body, with the appliances of surgery and medicine, are necessary to add a little more to a life already prolonged much beyond the usual span of man. It is under such circumstances, made doubly painful by the unnatural and unjust rebellion now raging in the Southern States, of our so lately prosperous and happy Union, that I am compelled to request that my name be placed on the list of army officers retired from active service. As this request is founded on the absolute right, granted by a recent act of Congress, I am entirely at liberty to say, it is with deep regret that I withdraw myself in these momentous times, from the orders of a President who has treated me with much distinguished kindness and courtesy, and whom I know, in much personal intercourse, to be patriotic, without sectional partialities or prejudices, to be highly conscientious in the performance of every duty, and of unrivalled activity and perseverance. And to you, Mr. Secretary, whom I now officially address for the last time, I now beg to acknowledge my many obligations for the uniform high consideration I have received at your hands, and have the honor to remain, with high respect,
“Your obedient servant,
“(Signed) Winfield Scott”
A special Cabinet Council was convened on Friday morning, at nine o’clock, to take the subject into consideration. It was decided that Gen. Scott’s request, under the circumstances of his advanced age and infirmities, could not be declined.
General McClellan was thereupon, with the unanimous agreement of the Cabinet, notified that the command of the army would be devolved upon him. At 4 o’clock P.M. the Cabinet again waited upon the President, and attended him to the residence of General Scott. Being seated, the President read to the General the following order:
“On the first day of November, A.D. 1861, upon his own application to the President of the United States, Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott is ordered to be placed, and hereby is placed, upon the list of retired officers of the United States Army, without reduction in his current pay, subsistence or allowances.
“The American people will hear with sadness and deep emotion that General Scott has withdrawn from the active control of the army, while the President and unanimous Cabinet express their own and the Nation’s sympathy in his personal affliction, and their profound sense of the important public services rendered by him to his country during his long and brilliant career, among which will ever be gratefully distinguished his faithful devotion to the Constitution, the Union and the Flag when assailed by parricidal rebellion.
“(Signed) Abraham Lincoln”
General Scott thereupon rose and addressed the President and Cabinet, who had also risen, as follows:
“President—This honor overwhelms me! It overpays all the services I have attempted to render my country. If I had any claims before, they are all obliterated by this expression of approval by the President, with the remaining support of his Cabinet. I know the President and the Cabinet well. I know that the country has placed its interests in this trying crisis in safe keeping. Their counsels are wise, their labors are as untiring as they are loyal, and their course is the right one.
“President, you must excuse me—I am unable to stand longer to give utterance to the feelings of gratitude which oppress me. In my retirement, I shall offer up my prayers to God for this Administration and for my country. I shall pray for it with confidence in its success over all enemies, and that speedily.”
The President then took leave of General Scott, giving him his hand and saying, he “hoped soon to write him a private letter, expressive of his gratitude and affection.” The President added: “General, you will naturally feel solicitous about the gentlemen of your staff, who have rendered you and their country such faithful service. I have taken that subject into consideration. I understand that they go with you to New York. I shall desire them, at their earliest convenience after their return, to make their wishes known to me. I desire you now, however, to be satisfied that, except the unavoidable privation of your counsel and assistance, which they have so long enjoyed, the provisions which will be made for them, will be such as to render their situation as agreeable hereafter as it has been heretofore.”
Each member of the Administration then gave his hand to the veteran, and retired in profound silence.
The Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of War accompany General Scott to New York tomorrow, by the early train.
The following is the response of the Secretary of War to the letter of General Scott:
“War Department, Washington, Nov. 1, 1861.
“General—It is my duty to lay before the President your letter of yesterday, asking to be relieved under the recent act of Congress. In separating from you I cannot refrain from expressing my deep regret that your health, shattered by long service and repeated wounds received in your country’s defence, render it necessary for you to retire from your high position at this momentous period of our history.
“Although you are not to remain in active service, I yet hope that while I continue in charge of the department over which I now preside, I shall at times be permitted to avail myself of the benefits of your wise counsels and sage experience.
“It has been my good fortune to enjoy a personal acquaintance with you for over thirty years, and the pleasant relations of that long time have been greatly strengthened by your cordial and entire cooperation in all the great questions which have occupied the Department and convulsed the country for the last six months. In parting from you, I can only express the hope that a merciful Providence, that has protected you amid so many trials, will improve your health, and continue your life long after the people of the country shall have been restored to their former happiness and prosperity.
“I am, General, very sincerely,
“Your friend and servant,
“(Signed) Simon Cameron, Secretary of War”
Major-General McClellan tonight issued the following order:
“Headquarters of the Army, Washington, Nov. 1st, 1861.
“General Order No. 19.
“In accordance with General Order No. 94 from the War Department, I hereby assume command of the armies of the United States. In the midst of the difficulties which encompass and divide the nation, hesitation and self-distrust may well accompany the assumption of so vast a responsibility, but confiding as I do in the loyalty, discipline and courage of our troops, and believing, as I do, that Providence will favor ours as the just cause, I cannot doubt that success will crown our efforts and sacrifices.
“The army will unite with me in the feeling of regret that the weight of many years and the effect of increasing infirmities, contracted and intensified in his country’s services, should just now remove from our head the great soldier of our nation, the hero who in his youth raised high the reputation of his country on the fields of Canada, which he sanctified with his blood; who in mature years, proved to the world that American skill and valor could repeat, if not eclipse, the exploits of Cortez in the land of the Montezumas; whose whole life has been devoted to the service of his country; whose whole efforts have been directed to uphold our honor at the smallest sacrifice of life; a warrior who scorned the selfish glories of the battlefield, when his great qualities as a statesman could be employed more profitably for his country; a citizen, who, in his declining years, has given to the world the most shining instance of loyalty in disregarding all ties of birth, and clinging still to the cause of truth and honor. Such has been the career and character of Winfield Scott, whom it has long been the delight of the nation to honor, both as a man and a soldier. While we regret his loss, there is one thing we cannot forget: the bright example he has left for our emulation. Let us all hope and pray that his declining years may be passed in peace and happiness, and that they may be cheered by the success of our country, and the cause he has fought for and loved so well. Beyond all that, let us do nothing that will cause him to blush for us. Let no defeat of the army he has so long commanded embitter his last years; but let our victories illuminate the close of a life so grand.
“(Signed) George B. McClellan, Major General, Commanding U.S.A.”
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