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This Week in the Army of the Potomac

This, of course, is the 150th anniversary of a truly tumultous week in the history of the Army of the Potomac; one that generated the following documents:

GENERAL ORDERS, HDQRS. ARMY OF THE POTOMAC
January 23, 1863.

I. General Joseph Hooker, major-general of volunteers and brigadier-general U. S. Army, having been guilty of unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the actions of his superior officers, and of the authorities, and having, by the general tone of his conversation, endeavored to create distrust in the minds of officers who have associated with him, and having, by omissions and otherwise, made reports and statements which were calculated to create incorrect impressions, and for habitually speaking in disparaging terms of other officers, is hereby dismissed from the service of the United States as a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present, when so much patience, charity, confidence, consideration, and patriotism are due from every soldier, in the field. This order is issued subject to the approval of the President of the United States.

II. Brigadier General W. T. H. Brooks, commanding First Division, Sixth Army Corps, for complaining of the policy of the Government, and for using language tending to demoralize his command, is, subject to the approval of the President, dismissed from the military service of the United States.

III. Brigadier General John Newton, commanding Third Division, Sixth Army Corps, and Brigadier General John Cochrane, commanding First Brigade, Third Division, Sixth Army Corps, for going to the President of the United States with criticisms upon the plans of their commanding officer, are, subject to the approval of the President, dismissed from the military service of the United States.

IV. It being evident that the following named officers can be of no further service to this army, they are hereby relieved from duty, and will report, in person, without delay, to the Adjutant-General, U. S. Army: Major General W. B. Franklin, commanding left grand division; Major General W. F. Smith, commanding Sixth Corps; Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis, commanding Second Division, Ninth Corps; Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, commanding Second Brigade, Second Division, Ninth Army Corps; Brigadier General John Cochrane, commanding First Brigade, Third Division, Sixth Corps; Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Taylor, assistant adjutant-general, right grand division

By command of Major General A. E. Burnside:

LEWIS RICHMOND,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols. in 128 parts (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol. 21, part 1: 998-99.

Though William Franklin’s and Baldy Smith’s service in the Army of the Potomac would soon come to an end, President Abraham Lincoln did not approve these orders. Nor did he punish “Fighting Joe” for his efforts to undermine his senior officers–which had in fact begun during George McClellan’s tenure in command. Rather, Lincoln did just the opposite, giving Hooker command of the Army of the Potomac. That was followed by this famous letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, January 26, 1863.

Major General Hooker:

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of it’s ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.

And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly,
A. LINCOLN

Roy P. Basler, ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), vol. 6: 78-79.

In light of the circumstances, it is suprising that there is nowhere in the historical record anyone writing a letter to Lincoln at the time to this effect:

Dear Mr. President:

In light of your record of supporting officers who have worked to undermine their superiors over the past year and a half–from George McClellan in his dealings with Winfield Scott the previous fall to the circumstances under which the corps were created and their commanders appointed in the Army of the Potomac last March to the ongoing machinations of John McClernand, who the heck are you to bemoan the existence of and place responsibility elsewhere for the fact that such a “spirit” prevails in your army “of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him”?

Perhaps, in surveying the history of the Army of the Potomac and its notoriously bad command climate, there is far more cause to be “not quite satisfied with you”?

Your obedient servant . . .

Comments (3) to “This Week in the Army of the Potomac”

  1. You can go further back, to AL corresponding directly with Doubleday, bypassing Anderson at Ft. Sumter…

  2. Well, there is only so much space on the Web.

  3. Check out what this man is doing to honor his ancestors

    https://vimeo.com/58484387