On January 27, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issues General War Order No. 1, ordering all land and sea forces to advance on February 22, 1862. This bold move sent a message to his commanders that the president was tired of excuses and delays in seizing the offensive against Confederate forces.
The unusual order was the product of a number of factors. Lincoln had a new secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who replaced the corrupt Simon Cameron. The president had also been brushing up on his readings about military strategy. Lincoln felt that if enough force were brought to bear on the Confederates simultaneously, they would break. This was a simple plan that ignored a host of other factors, but Lincoln felt that if the Confederates “…weakened one to strengthen another,” the Union could step in and “seize and hold the one weakened.” The primary reason for the order, however, was General George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac in the East. McClellan had a deep contempt for the president that had become increasingly apparent since Lincoln appointed him in July 1861. McClellan had shown great reluctance to reveal his plans to the president, and exhibited no signs of moving his army in the near future.
Lincoln wanted to convey a sense of urgency to all the military leaders, and it worked in the West. Union armies in Tennessee began to move, and General Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, respectively. McClellan, however, did not respond. Lincoln’s order called for strict accountability for each commander who did not follow the order, but the president had to handle McClellan carefully. Because the general had the backing of many Democrats and had whipped the Army of the Potomac into fine fighting shape over the winter, Lincoln had to give McClellan a chance to command in the field.