One hundred and fifty years later, when you tour the battlefield, you can take a short footpath to the top of a little knob where the Confederate commander watched as the battle played out in a kind of natural amphitheater, with the enemy’s regiments advancing on his lines, their flags flying, and the shells of his own artillery blowing holes in their ranks.
“It is well that war is so terrible,” Robert E. Lee said as he watched. “We should grow too fond of it.”
The governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin, also witnessed the battle and he reported to Abraham Lincoln what he had seen. The president, according to Curtin, was in anguish over the bloody defeat of his army. Curtin later recalled Lincoln piteously saying, “What has God put me in this place for?”
It may have been the lowest point yet for Lincoln and for his country’s fortunes in a war that had become more terrible than anyone could have foreseen. Almost three months earlier, the Union Army had turned back Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North at the battle of Antietam. Lee’s army held its ground in the bloodiest single day of the war, then slipped across the Potomac River, unopposed, back into Virginia, to Lincoln’s great disappointment. He urged his general, George McClellan, to pursue Lee and annihilate his army. McClellan, however, was sublimely content with what he considered a great victory. “Those in whose judgment I rely,” he wrote to his wife, “tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art.”
So he spent days, and then weeks, resting and resupplying his army. And he did consider it his army. “The Army of the Potomac,” he said to a member of his staff, “is my army as much as any army ever belonged to the man that created it.” The army was, indeed, loyal to him, and Lincoln knew it. McClellan was a political force, more threatening in some ways to Lincoln than he was to Lee. The battle of Antietam was fought in late September 1862. Election Day was coming in early November, and if Lincoln were to relieve McClellan of command before then, it would hurt his party’s already weak prospects at the polls. McClellan was a favorite of the Democrats, who wanted an early—and possibly negotiated—end to the war. McClellan might be (and eventually was) the Democrats’ candidate in 1864.
Since Lincoln could not afford to martyr the general, he prodded him and urged him to move. “If we cannot beat the enemy where he now is, we never can,” he wrote to McClellan. “It is . . . easy if our troops march as well as the enemy, and it is unmanly to say they cannot do it.”
He also resorted to sarcasm, responding to a McClellan request for fresh horses to replace his tired mounts with, “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”
McClellan did move, finally and in desultory fashion. And the elections went against the Republicans. Lincoln decided, at last, to move himself, and a courier was sent to McClellan’s headquarters on a snowy night with an order relieving him of command. His replacement was Ambrose Burnside.
Where McClellan suffered from an excess of confidence, Burnside lacked sufficient belief in himself. And, as events proved, with good reason. But Lincoln liked him and had offered him command on two previous occasions. Both times, Burnside had declined saying he was not up to the job. He gave in on the third occasion only because he knew that if he did not accept, Joe Hooker would. He considered himself the lesser of two evils.
The Army took McClellan’s dismissal hard. Some of the men that he had made into soldiers and molded into an army wept and vowed that if he would lead them, they would march on Washington. McClellan calmed them and took the whole thing with a measure of public grace. One could almost infer that he’d decided he would rather run against Lincoln than fight against Lee.
So that left Burnside in command, on November 11, with the weather becoming an important consideration if he was to move on Lee and give battle. Since there was no ambiguity about Lincoln’s expectations, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac came up with a plan for moving his army quickly, from its position near the old Manassas battlefields to a place almost equidistant between Washington and Richmond, on the Rappahannock River, which he proposed to cross on pontoon bridges. The aim was to force Lee to react; for the Union Army to seize the initiative. Unlike McClellan, who routinely estimated his enemy’s strength as being two or three times the actual numbers, Burnside recognized that he enjoyed numerical superiority. Roughly 120,000 men in ranks against some 80,000 in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. If Burnside could outmaneuver Lee, get between him and Richmond and force him into battle on ground of his choosing . . .