McClellan Relieved of Command; Union Army Marches to Fredericksburg, Virginia: November 1862

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

After a great deal of fighting throughout most of 1862, the two sides paused to regroup as the second November of the Civil War began. More than a month after his victory at Antietam in September, Army of the Potomac commander Major General George McClellan had slowly moved his army at a snail’s pace from Maryland into northern Virginia at the end of October after much prodding from the Lincoln Administration. But after failing to follow up the victory with a pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s army, it was too little, too late. Lincoln had had enough of McClellan’s inaction, excuses, delays, and constant demands for more of everything and decided to make a change. 

On November 5th, the President issued an order relieving McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. He was to be replaced by Major General Ambrose Burnside, who was in charge of the Union Army’s Ninth Corps. Believing himself to be unqualified, the 38 year old Burnside had tried to turn down the position before reluctantly accepting it. The order was delivered to a shocked and surprised McClellan on November 7th.  Three days later, the general, who had remained very popular with army, gave an emotional farewell speech and departed, essentially ending his military career.

There were other command changes during the month on both sides. Major General Nathaniel Banks replaced Major General Benjamin Butler in New Orleans as commander of the Union Army’s Department of the Gulf.  On the Confederate side, Major General James Longstreet was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of the Army of Northern Virginia’s 1st Corps. Thomas “Stonewall”  Jackson was also promoted to Lieutenant General; he assumed command of the 2nd Corps.  General Joseph E. Johnston was assigned to command the Department of the West,  which covered all or part of six states from North Carolina to Louisiana. Major General John B. Magruder was sent west from Virginia to Texas, where he assumed command of the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Finally, President Jefferson Davis accepted the resignation of his Secretary of War, George Randolph, and appointed James A. Seddon to succeed him.

Back at Burnside’s Warrenton, Virginia headquarters, the new Army of the Potomac commander wasted no time in preparing a plan of action. He reorganized the army into “Grand Divisions” comprised of two corps each, plus artillery and cavalry. Burnside proposed to march his army to Fredericksburg, cross the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges, and advance on Richmond.  His plan depended on his army reaching Fredericksburg and crossing the river before  Lees’ army could get there and stop them. Lincoln had some reservations about the plan but approved it anyway.  Burnside put the army in motion on November 15th and some elements reached Fredericksburg just two days later.

Burnside’s troops arrived, but the pontoon bridges didn’t get there until November 25th. By that time, Confederate forces had arrived and were in defensive positions in and around Fredericksburg.  Nonetheless, Burnside planned to cross the Rappahannock on December 11th.

While there was no major fighting in November, smaller actions  and skirmishes continued throughout the south as usual, as did the Union blockade of the coast. Union troops captured Holly Springs, Mississippi on November 13th. This railroad center would be used as a base in future operations against Vicksburg. On the 23rd, 20 year old Lieutenant William Cushing of the U.S. Navy steamed up the New River aboard the U.S.S. Ellis and led a daring raid on Jacksonville, North Carolina. Cushing captured two schooners and some small arms but the Ellis was destroyed during the escape. All of the raiders made it back to Union ships unscathed.  This was one of several such adventures that Cushing undertook during the course of the war.  In northwest Arkansas, 5000 Union soldiers under General James Blunt surprised 2000 Confederate cavalrymen under General John Marmaduke at Cane Hill.  The Confederates fought a day long delaying action before escaping into the Boston Mountains. Although the fighting lasted nine hours, each side suffered fewer than 50 casualties.

While comparatively little fighting occurred in November, there would be a great deal of significant action in December in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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