Guest Columns

TEEGARDEN: PRESIDENT'S GENERAL WAR ORDER NO. 1

Abraham Lincoln takes charge and orders his generals to fight!

Contributing Columnist

It was 150 years ago, on January 27, 1862, that President Abraham Lincoln issued a somewhat extraordinary directive, titled “President’s General War Order No. 1.” Lincoln’s Order stemmed from both his boiling frustration with the inaction of his top generals and from his own recognition of the strategic opportunity for coordinated and simultaneous action among the Union’s various military forces.


One can only begin to imagine Lincoln’s frustration, and to wonder at his own self control, blocked at every step by a cadre of senior commanders seemingly frozen in place and more interested in delivering condescending lectures and excuses for not prosecuting the war. Of course, the inaction of his General-in-Chief, George McClellan, is legendary. By this time, McClellan had been in direct command of the Army of the Potomac for six months, having taken over from General Irwin McDowell after the debacle of First Manassas in July 1861. While McClellan is credited with having provided much needed training, organization and discipline to the Army of the Potomac, he had also refused to put the Army to its intended use: fighting and winning a war. In fact, Lincoln’s recently appointed Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, famously and acidly remarked of McClellan’s lethargy, “This army has got to fight or run away; ... the champagne and oysters on the Potomac must be stopped.”

Yet, while McClellan was certainly the most notorious and obvious of Lincoln’s inactive (bordering on insubordinate) brood of Napoleon wannabes, he was hardly alone. In addition, Lincoln had failed in nearly every effort at encouraging, prodding, cajoling, and even pleading with Generals Henry Halleck, Juan Carlos Buell, and David Hunter to take the war to the enemy in their respective areas of command (Halleck-Army of the Tennessee; Buell-Army of the Cumberland; and Hunter-Leavenworth, Kansas). As discussed in past and future columns, the one notable exception to this inaction was a lower level commander in Cairo, IL who, to the repeated chagrin of his commander, Halleck, refused to sit still — Ulysses S. Grant.

The typically precise wording of Lincoln’s General War Order No. 1 makes clear that, while frustration certainly gave rise to his unilateral decision to command his generals to fight, its more important characteristic is its demonstration of the President’s rapidly evolving mastery of critical military strategy, including coordinated action and concentration of force at identified points of enemy weakness:

President’s General War Order No. 1
Executive Mansion
Washington, January 27, 1862

Ordered that the 22nd day of February 1862, be the day for a general movement of the Land and Naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces.

That especially —
The Army at & about, Fortress Monroe.
The Army of the Potomac.
The Army of Western Virginia.
The Army near Munfordsville, Ky.
The Army and Flotilla at Cairo.
And a Naval force in the Gulf of Mexico, be ready for a movement on that day.

That all other forces, both Land and Naval, with their respective commanders, obey existing orders, for the time, and be ready to obey additional orders when duly given.

That the Heads of the Departments, and especially the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, with all their subordinates; and the General-in-Chief, with all other commanders and subordinates, of Land and Naval forces, will severally be held to their strict and full responsibilities, for the prompt execution of this order.

In other words: “Enough lounging around! Get off your butts and take this war to the enemy!”

According to one of Lincoln’s closest confidants, personal secretary John Hay, General War Order No. 1, was entirely the President’s own doing, without outside counsel. Hay also observed that the Order marked the turning point after which Lincoln was noticeably less deferential to his generals and increasingly committed to personally managing the war effort.

1862 was about to become both the bloodiest and most brutal year in American history up to that point, but a mere warm up for the horrific fratricide of 1863 through April 1865. From Forts Henry and Donelson, to Shiloh, to the Seven Days Battle outside Richmond, to the Shenandoah Valley, to Second Manassas, to Antietam, to Fredericksburg, the festive onlookers of First Manassas were replaced in 1862 by nurses, doctors, burial details and other often overwhelmed civilian attempts at humanitarian relief.

1862 began with a sharpened focus by Abraham Lincoln to win the war and preserve the Union, and it would soon become the year in which he resolved to abolish slavery. Presidential Order No. 1 was a first step.

Sources: Abraham Lincoln: A Life, (Volume 2), by Michael Burlingame (2008, Johns Hopkins Press); Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (1989, Library of America); Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln As Commander In Chief, by James M. McPherson (2008, Penguin Press).

Patrick Teegarden, director of Policy and Legislation at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, has been writing about the Civil War during its 150th anniversary. He can be reached at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.