Remnants of the crushed Army of Virginia, together with pieces of the Army of the Potomac, came reeling into the defenses of Washington following the stinging defeat they just received on the plains of Manassas on August 30. Fresh off another defeat, the morale of the soldiers sank low. Many of them left in Washington months ago with the expectation that the Confederate capital of Richmond would soon be in their hands. Now, it appeared that their own capital might fall to the enemy.
Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s army had been siphoned away from him in recent weeks but on September 2, Henry Halleck and Abraham Lincoln turned to him to make some semblance of order out of the chaos in the capital. For now, McClellan’s command only extended to “all the troops for the defense of the capital.” After receiving his orders, the general rode into Virginia to meet the troops placed again under his authority. Gen. Jacob Cox recalled years later the effect of McClellan’s return.
On Tuesday he came a little later in the day, and I noticed at once a change in his appearance. He wore his yellow sash with sword and belt buckled over it, and his face was animated as he greeted me with “Well, General, I am in command again!” I congratulated him with hearty earnestness, for I was personally rejoiced at it.
About four o’clock McClellan rode forward, and I accompanied him. We halted at the brow of the hill looking down the Fairfax road.
The head of the column was in sight, and rising dust showed its position far beyond. Pope and McDowell, with the staff, rode at the head. Their uniform and that of all the party was covered with dust, their beards were powdered with it; they looked worn and serious, but alert and self-possessed. When we met, after brief salutations, McClellan announced that he had been ordered to assume command within the fortifications, and named to General Pope the positions the several corps would occupy. This done, both parties bowed, and the cavalcade moved on. King’s division of McDowell’s corps was the leading one, General Hatch, the senior brigadier, being in command by reason of King’s illness. Hatch was present, near Pope, when McClellan assumed command, and instantly turning rode a few paces to the head of his column and shouted, “Boys, McClellan is in command again; three cheers!” The cheers were given with wild delight, and were taken up and passed toward the rear of the column. Warm friend of McClellan as I was, I felt my flesh cringe at the unnecessary affront to the unfortunate commander of that army. But no word was spoken. Pope lifted his hat in a parting salute to McClellan and rode quietly on with his escort. McClellan remained for a time, warmly greeted by the passing troops. He then left me, and rode off toward Vienna, northward.