On June 18, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant relieved John A. McClernand of command of the Thirteenth Corps outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, for violating army procedures. The incident in question involved McClernand decision to bypass headquarters to circulate in the press a congratulatory letter to his men for their actions during the Vicksburg campaign that appeared to cast aspersions at the other corps under Grant’s command.
You can read Grant’s letter here.
The relief of McClernand ended months of tension in the Army of the Tennessee. McClernand had emerged as a rival to Grant in 1862. He sought to use his direct access to President Abraham Lincoln to gain the president’s support for an independent offensive against Vicksburg. Working together, although not always deliberately or explicitly, General in Chief Henry W. Halleck, Grant, William T. Sherman, and David D. Porter labored to beat McClernand to the punch, but an effort to take Vicksburg in December 1862 failed. Over McClernand’s protests, Grant took direct charge of operations against Vicksburg in January 1863, in compliance with orders from Washington. Over the next several months, as Grant wrestled with what to do while waiting for spring, McClernand attempted to use his connections with Lincoln to gain Grant’s removal (and his own elevation as Grant’s replacement), to no avail.
In April and May 1863, McClernand’s corps played a major role in the Vicksburg campaign, although Grant was more satisfied with the performance of McClernand’s subordinates and soldiers than he was with McClernand himself. It was not until the Confederates were cooped up in Vicksburg itself, however, that Grant could do anything about his antagonist. An administrative mistake opened the door to dispose of the troublesome McClernand once and for all, and Grant seized the opportunity. McClernand complained to the president, who offered a shoulder to cry on and little else. After all, with Vicksburg in Grant’s grasp, Lincoln was not going to aggravate (let alone replace) his most successful general.
I’ve always felt a little sorry for McClernand, even if I agree that he brought on most of his troubles himself. Although his performance on the battlefield was uneven (and the general has his advocates), he was not a complete incompetent, and some people have been a little too rough in handling him. Moreover, it’s clear that the wording in the orders directing McClernand to raise regiments and undertake operations against Vicksburg contained sufficient loopholes as to be next to useless. For that one must not blame Grant but the folks back in Washington, including Lincoln, who knew how to construct a loophole with the best of them.
Here’s how James H. Wilson, a member of Grant’s staff at the time, recalled delivering the order to McClernand after a conversation with Grant’s chief of staff, John A. Rawlins:
I was absent from camp that day till midnight, but the order relieving him had been prepared, and on my return, Rawlins, who remained up to tell me about it, handed it to me, recounting its purport and directing me to deliver it in person the first thing in the morning. Recognizing its importance and fearing that some contingency might occur that night or in the early dawn, which would involve a sortie or a battle in which McClernand would doubtless display his usual gallantry, which in turn might cause Grant to delay, if not cancel the order, I said to Rawlins: “Why shouldn’t I deliver it to-night?” This brought the reply: “Because you are tired and to-morrow will do.” We then discussed the subject from every point of view, with the result that he yielded and I turned out the provost marshal with a sergeant and four men, and, after putting on full field uniform, mounted a fresh horse and set out on my mission. I reached McClernand’s headquarters between 1 and 2 a.m., and, after waiting till the orderly on duty could arouse the general, and when he had clad himself properly, I was shown in. With all his violence he was a punctilious man, and I found him in full uniform, his sword lying across the table with two lighted candles in front of him.
The provost marshal and his squad were within call, and, after saluting him, I said: “General, I have an important order for you which I am directed to deliver into your hands and to see that you read it in my presence, that you understand it, and that you signify your immediate obedience to it.” I handed him the sealed envelope, watched him adjust his glasses, and then open and read it. When he caught its purport, almost instantly he said : “Well, sir ! I am relieved !” And then, as if taking it all in, he added almost in the same breath: ”By God, sir, we are both relieved!” — meaning Grant as well as himself.
Yet it is also only fair to add what Wilson said about McClernand:
With all his violence of temper and his lack of military training and discipline, he was a patriot and a man of strong, virile character, who, with an ordinary degree of self-control, would have come out of the war as one of its real heroes. His support of the Administration at the outbreak of the rebellion and during the war rendered it a great and valuable political service, second only to that rendered by Douglas, and there can be but little doubt that both the President and Secretary of War were partial to him, and had encouraged him with the hope, if not the formal promise, of the command of the expedition to open the Mississippi River.
Lincoln would restore McClernand to command of the Thirteenth Corps early in 1864, prior to Grant’s assumption of overall command, but McClernand left the army after Lincoln’s reelection.
Grant’s handling of McClernand was one of the most important challenges of his military career, and in handling his rival as he did, Grant showed that he knew something of army politics and of the broader issue of civil-military relations.