George B. McClellan commanded the Union’s Army of the Potomac. His victory at the Battle of Antietam made Lincoln’s issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation possible. McClellan was a Democrat who fought his war against Confederate armies, but he refused to fight a “hard war” against Southern civilians and he opposed using the army to end slavery. His constant fights with the Lincoln administration, his slowness in following-up his Antietam victory, and his conservative politics led to his dismissal after the 1862 Congressional elections. McClellan’s battlefield victory helped create the conditions necessary for his own removal.1
McClellan would be missed by many soldiers, but his departure was particularly traumatic for the men of the Irish Brigade. According to one immigrant veteran, McClellan “was a great favorite” of the Brigade. McClellan was, recalled one Irish soldier, “mild and pleasing in manner, and could easily be approached by any of his men.” His successor, Ambrose Burnside, by contrast “had a dark frowning, face,” the same man said, adding that “the common soldier was afraid to approach him.” The news that Burnside was in and McClellan was out “was indeed a sad and heavy blow,” he reported.2
George McClellan (left) and Abraham Lincoln sqaure off after Antietam.
Irish soldiers were likely to see McClellan as a fellow Democrat deposed by jealous Republicans. McClellan’s caution in battle seemed like a virtue to common soldiers who felt that it indicated that he wanted to preserve their lives as much as he wanted to preserve the Union. They also saw him as an advocate for their interests, insisting that his men be well-fed and well-supplied. His limited war aims were applauded by some of them as more likely to lead to an early reconciliation with the South and an end to the war. A soldier recalled after the war that when McClellan’s farewell address was read to the Irish Brigade “It created…universal feelings of the most profound sorrow, sadness, and gloom.”3
On Nov. 11 the Army of the Potomac was drawn up to say farewell to McClellan. “Cheer upon cheer rent the air as he bid us goodbye with…cap in hand” wrote Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade. After McClellan passed by and the Irish Brigade was ordered back to camp “The return march bore more resemblance to…a soldier’s funeral…. All appeared dejected, lonely, and lost,” McCarter recalled. He wrote that “In losing General McClellan, the Army of the Potomac lost its best commander [and] the common soldier lost his best and most faithful army friend.”4
Feelings in the Irish Brigade ran so high that several officers resigned. The Brigade’s commander Thomas Francis Meagher refused to accept the resignations, saying the Irish had enlisted in support of a cause, not in loyalty to a single man. This did not mean that General Meagher agreed with the firing. A letter from him that was published in the New York papers branded the removal as criminal and said it would not be forgiven by the army.5
The army’s new commander Ambrose Burnside soon began moving the Irish Brigade towards its greatest disaster at Fredericksburg.
Video: Michael Burlingame on Abraham Lincoln
1. The Civil War Papers Of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 Edited by Stephen W. Sears published by De Capo Press (1996); George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears published by Ticknor (1988); McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union by Ethan S. Rafuse published by University of Indiana Press; Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson published by Penguin Press (2009)
2. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David Power Conygham published by Fordham University Press (1994) p. 323; My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Willam McCarter Edited by Kevin O’Brien De Capo Press (1996) Kindle Locations 943, 1007.
3. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Willam McCarter Edited by Kevin O’Brien De Capo Press (1996) Kindle Locations 994.
4. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private Willam McCarter Edited by Kevin O’Brien De Capo Press (1996) Kindle Locations 954-1000.
5. The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns by David Power Conygham published by Fordham University Press (1994) p. 324; George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears published by Ticknor (1988) pp. 342-343; Thomas Francis Meagher: An Irish Revolutionary in America by Robert G. Athearn published by Arno Press (1976) pp. 118-119.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites