Camp Herndon, Va.
November 14, 2000
All Civil War Buffs:
As I have done in the past, I would like to share one of my emails with you.
"Can you tell me please how much of an influence did Lincoln's changes in his war Generals had on the first three years of the war (ie. before Grant took overall charge of the army)?"
"I think I can best answer your question by explaining what happened and then telling you what my opinion is. By approaching it in this fashion, you will have a much clearer understanding and better able to evaluate my opinion and determine in your own mind what influence the changing of the generals had on the war.
At the first major land battle in the Civil War, Bull Run in July, 1863, General Irvin McDowell was in charge of the Union forces. After his loss of that battle General George B. McClellan was brought in to reorganize the throughly demoralized Union army. McClellan took his reorganized army to the Virginia Peninsula with Richmond as it goal. This began what was to become known as the "Peninsula Campaign", which lasted from May-July 1862 when McClellan was ordered to withdraw. This withdrawal was to support General John Pope and the newly formed Army of Virginia. As you can readily see, McClellan was no longer in charge. This irritated him no end so he was very slow in providing the support required. That, and a series of blunders by Pope caused the Union to suffer another great loss at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run in late August '62. Now the two armies, Pope's and McClellan's, were combined into the existing Army of the Potomac with McClellan again in charge.
After Lee's great victory at 2ndBull Run, he moved his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia North in Maryland and McClellan moved his Army of the Potomac out of Washington to face him. They met on the bloodiest single day of the Civil War September 17, 1862, the battle of Antietam. While the battle was a tactical draw, Lee quit the field on the evening of the 18th and thus gave the Union a percieved victory. When McClellan did not pursue Lee's army, he was again relieved of command.
With the departure of McClellan, General Ambrose Burnside was put in charge of the Army of the Potomac. Although Burnside did not particularly want the command, he took it. Burnside's Army of the Potomac met Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 and was throughly defeated. After spending Christmas in Washington, Burnside tried Fredericksburg again and got caught up in what was known as Burnside's Mud March. He was then relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac.
After Burnside's defeat at Fredericksburg and then his Mud March, Joseph Hooker was given command of the Army of the Potomac. He met Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on May 1-3, 1863 at the battle of Chancellorsville and he too was throughly defeated. However, even with this defeat he was not relieved of command. It was not until he got into an argument with Lincoln and Halleck about the disposition of some troops at Harpers Ferry that Lincoln decided to replace him.
On June 29, 1863 George G. Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac. Three days later on July 1, 1863, Meade's army met Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on the field at Gettysburg. After three days of the most horrific fighting to date in the war, the mighty Army of Northern Virginia was throughly beaten and forced to retreat back to Virginia. However, again, the Union forces did not pursue. Although Meade was not relieved of command of his army it was at the point that Lincoln decided to bring East his great Western general Ulysses S. Grant and put him in charge of all Union forces, East and West. While Meade still was commander of the Army of the Potomac, Grant made his headquarters with them and was calling the shots.
Now that we have the background, lets look at some questions. The first thing to remember is that all we have been discussing is the war in the East. There was a whole other war being fought in the West (Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc). Lincoln knew the war was to be won or lost in that theater because he who controlled the great rivers (the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Cumberland, etc.) would eventually win the war. He had a general there that knew how to fight and win. With the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 Lincoln, now having secured the rivers, could afford to bring Grant East.
Could Grant have fought in the East early in the war and won? Probably not. He did not have the experience nor the resources that he had when he finally took over. After all, he would have been facing the finest general on either side, Robert E. Lee and probably would not have fared any better than any of the other generals in that theater at that time. As far as your original question about Lincoln changing generals so much in first part of the war, influencing the war. In my personal opinion, it had little, if any. I hope this answers your question. Please keep in mind that this is my opinion only and may or may not have any basis in fact."
As you folks can plainly see, some of the answers I give require a little more time to submit more than others. I think that I would have done this student a disservice by just giving an opinion with no background. Just my opinion of course.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Dick (a.k.a. Shotgun)