General War Order No. 1 — Move the Army!
January 27, 1862. On January 27, President Lincoln, long exasperated by the continuing inaction of the general-in-chief of all the Union armies, George B. McClellan, issued General War Order Number One, which required “the Land and Naval forces of the United States” to begin offensive action against “the insurgent forces” no later than February 22.
Four days later, on January 31, in order to successfully implement his General War Order, Lincoln issued Special War Order Number One, which specifically ordered McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to move, on or before February 22, with the objective of “seizing and occupying a point upon the railroad southwestward of what is known as Manassas Junction.”
While impractical in fact because the orders took no account for weather or other exigencies, they did prod McClellan to take some action. (See also “Tardy George,” a satirical poem about McClellan published in January 1862. “What are you waiting for, George, I pray? . . .” and featured in the Civil War Book of Days installment January 6, 2012.)
Lincoln’s naming February 22 as the deadline for action was no accident. February 22, as all Americans then knew, was George Washington’s birthday, a date that, even in the mid-nineteenth century, resonated with significance, perhaps in the way that 9/11 or December 7 would for us today. To invoke in this context the birthday of America’s first President and the general that won the Revolution was implicitly to cast the cause and the stakes in foundational and heroic terms.
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council