Jeff Davis on Joe Johnston
- One cannot imagine AL writing such a letter!
Judy and Bob Huddleston
10643 Sperry Street
Northglenn, CO 80234-3612
"All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears. God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride." Aeschylus
RICHMOND, VA., March 1, 1865.
Col. JAMES PHELAN, Meridian, Miss.:
I received your friendly letter of the 17th of January only about a week ago, and do not see that I can answer it more appropriately than by sending you the annexed copy of a paper which I had prepared for transmission to Congress. As it would, however, have been necessary to accompany it, if sent, with a protest against any Congressional interference with the function, exclusively executive, of assigning officers to command, I determined to withhold it rather than, under existing circumstances, to send it to Congress with such a protest as I should have felt bound to make. The paper will fully explain my views and position in the matter. I may add that since the accompanying paper was written General Lee has asked that General Johnston should be ordered to report to him for duty, and that I have complied with his wish in the hope that General Johnston's soldierly qualities may be made serviceable to his country when acting under General Lee's orders, and that in his new position t
hose defects which I found manifested by him when serving as an independent commander will be remedied by the control of the general-in-chief.
Very truly and respectfully, yours, &c.,
Richmond, Va., February 18, 1865.
The joint resolution of Congress and other manifestations of a desire that General Joseph E. Johnston should be restored to the command of the Army of Tennessee have been anxiously considered by me, and it is with sincere regret that I find myself unable to gratify what I must believe to have become quite a general desire of my countrymen. The expression of this desire has come to me in forms so imposing and from sources so fully entitled to my respect and confidence that I feel it to be due to the people, to justice, and to myself to take the unusual step of discussing matters which would otherwise for public consideration have been passed over in silence, and of presenting the reasons which make it impossible for me to assign him again to an important and independent command.
At the commencement of the present war there were few persons in the Confederacy who entertained a more favorable opinion of General Johnston as a soldier than I did. I knew him to be brave and well informed in his profession. I believed that he possessed high capacity for becoming a successful commander in the field. Our relations under the former Government were of a friendly nature and so continued in the new sphere of duty opened to both by the change in the political condition of the country. At different times during the war I have given to General Johnston three very important commands, and in each case experience has revealed the fact that with the high qualities above referred to as possessed by him are united defects which unfit him for the conduct of a campaign. When he was relieved from command in July last it was believed that this action on my part would be accepted in its plain and only real significance, as an indication that his conduct of the campaign was disappro
ved, and that apprehension was entertained that the grave losses already sustained would be followed by still further disasters if he continued in command. Any criticism on this action, however harsh and unjust to me personally, I was prepared to bear in the same silence which the interest of my country has imposed on me, as a duty, in many other instances during the war. The disclosure of the ground of my conduct it would have been preferable to postpone to a future and more fitting occasion. But it has recently been apparent that there exists in some quarters a purpose, not simply to criticise the past, but to arraign me before the bar of public opinion, and to compel me to do what my judgment and conscience disapproved, or to destroy my power of usefulness by undermining the confidence of my fellow-citizens. It is better to lose that confidence than to retain it at the expense of truth and duty. Yet no man can conduct public affairs with success in a Government like ours unless
upheld by the trust and willing aid of the people. I have determined, therefore, now to make the disclosure of the causes which have forced on me the unpleasant duty of declining to gratify the desire of a large portion of the people, as well as the expressed wish of Congress.
General Johnston, on his entering into the Confederate service, was assigned to the command of the Army of the Valley of Virginia, which was then confronted by the enemy in position on the north side of the Potomac. At Harper's Ferry there was a large quantity of materials and machinery for the manufacture of small-arms of the greatest value to the Confederacy. Their removal to places of greater safety was commenced as soon as the necessary arrangements could be made. During the progress of the work General Johnston insisted upon the evacuation of the place, and finally retired from it, as I then thought, and still think, prematurely. The correctness of this opinion is sufficiently shown by the fact that after his withdrawal the working party remained without interruption by the enemy, and removed much valuable property, including the heaviest part of the machinery. When General Beauregard was threatened at Manassas by a large column of the enemy, his numerical inferiority and the
inactivity of the enemy in the Valley, under General Patterson, evinced the necessity, propriety, and practicability of a prompt march of our Valley army to his aid. General Johnston made serious objections to and expressed doubts as to the practicability of such a movement; and only after repeated and urgent instructions did he move to make the junction proposed. The delay thus occasioned retarded the arrival of the head of his column until after the first conflict had occurred, and prevented a part of his troops from getting into position until the victory had been won. Indeed, we were only saved from a fatal defeat at the battle of Manassas by the promptness of General E. Kirby Smith, who, acting without orders, and moving by a change of direction, succeeded in reaching the battle-field in time to avert disaster. After the battle the forces of General Johnston and General Beauregard remained united. General Johnston, who was in command of the combined forces, constantly declared
his inability to assume offensive operations unless furnished with re-enforcements, which, as he was several times informed, the Government was unable to supply, and in the fall of 1861 put his troops in intrenched lines covering Centerville.
During the winter he declared that his position was so insecure that it must be abandoned before the enemy could advance, but indicated no other line of defense as the proper one. He was therefore summoned to Richmond in February, 1862, for conference. On inquiry into the character of his position at Centerville he stated that his lines there were untenable, but when asked what new position he proposed to occupy, declared himself ignorant of the topography of the country in his rear. This confession was a great shock to my confidence in him. That a general should have been for many months in command of an army, should have selected a line which he himself considered untenable, and should not have ascertained the topography of the country in his rear, was inexplicable on any other theory than that he had neglected the primary duty of a commander. Engineers were sent by me from Richmond to examine the country and to supply him with the requisite information. General Johnston had anno
unced, however, that his position was favorable as a point from which to advance, if he could be re-enforced. It was, therefore, agreed that he should mobilize his army by sending to the rear all heavy guns and all supplies and luggage, so as to be able to advance or retreat, as occasion might require. The Government was soon afterward surprised by learning that General Johnston had commenced a hasty retreat without giving notice of an intention to do so, though he had just been apprised of the improved prospect of re-enforcing him, and of the hope entertained by me that he would thus be enabled to assume the offensive. The retreat was without molestation or even demonstration from the enemy, but was conducted with such precipitation as to involve a heavy loss of supplies. Some valuable artillery was abandoned, a large depot of provisions was burned, blankets, shoes, and saddles were committed to the flames, and this great sacrifice of property was so wanting in apparent justificat
ion as to produce a painful impression on the public mind, and to lead to an inquiry by a committee from Congress, which began an investigation into the subject, but did not report before Congress adjourned.
During his retreat General Johnston telegraphed to Richmond to ask at what point he should stop, and afterward admitted on conference the same want of topographical information previously confessed. When the enemy, instead of pursuing General Johnston in his rapid retreat, changed their base to Fortress Monroe, and made the York River and the Peninsula their line of approach, he was ordered to Yorktown with his army, where General Magruder had for many months been actively constructing defensive works to resist an advance up the Peninsula. General Johnston soon pronounced the position untenable, and made another hasty retreat, and with another heavy loss of munitions and armament. He gave notice of his movement, and of the necessity of evacuating Norfolk to the general in command there only after his own retreat had actually commenced. The Secretaries of War and of the Navy had started (the former to Yorktown, the latter to Norfolk) to prevent a hurried evacuation and the consequen
t loss of the material of war. Too late to restrain General Johnston, they arrived in Norfolk in time to delay General Huger's compliance with his notice until much valuable property was saved. But Norfolk could not long be held after the Peninsula was in the hands of the enemy, and with it were lost large supplies of all kinds, including machinery which could not be replaced in the Confederacy.
General Johnston halted in his retreat near the Chickahominy, but after spending some days in selecting a position for defense against the advancing enemy, suddenly crossed that stream without notice to the Government and retreated upon Richmond. He remained inactive in front of Richmond, making no intrenchments to cover his position, which might enable him to assume the offensive with the greater part of the army. He again neglected the proper reconnaissances, and failed to have the roads laid down on topographical maps---a want of foresight sorely felt by our army, when afterward, under General Lee, endeavoring to cut off McClellan's retreat. He suffered the enemy to bring up their heavy guns, supplies, and troops, without molestation; to build bridges across the Chickahominy, and to cross a portion of their army and make intrenchments, not only without resistance, but without his knowledge of these important military operations. When, on a sudden freshet in the Chickahominy, a b
ody of the enemy's troops was found to be on this side of the stream, an attack was made under the impression that they were cut off by the flood from re-enforcements and entirely at our mercy. The battle was disastrous, because the enemy was rapidly reenforced across bridges the existence of which had not been ascertained by our commander, and because our troops attacked an enemy whom they did not know to be intrenched, and assailed the front of a position which might have been easily turned by cross roads which were in constant use by the people of the neighborhood, but which were unknown to our officers. The general fell severely wounded in this engagement, in which he was conspicuous for personal daring. But this gallantry could not redeem the want of that foresight which is requisite for a commander, and the battle was, as I have said, a failure. His wound rendered him unfit for further service in the field for some months, and terminated his first important command, which he
had administered in a manner to impair my confidence n his fitness to conduct a campaign for a Government possessed of only very limited material resources, and whose armies are numerically so inferior to those of the enemy as to demand from its generals the greatest vigilance and activity, the best discipline and organization, with careful provision and rigid economy. The loss of supplies during the time he was in command had been great, and our difficulties for the want of them so distressing as to cripple our military operations to a far greater extent than can be appreciated.
On General Johnston's fall General Lee assumed the command of the army. He at once made an intrenched line by which the city could be covered with part of his forces, and was thus enabled to cross the Chickahominy with the main body, and, with the aid of the troops from the Valley, under General Jackson, to attack the enemy in flank and rear, achieving the series of glorious victories in the summer of 1862, which made our history illustrious. As soon as General Johnston reported himself fit for duty he was again intrusted by me with an important command, for, though my confidence in him had been much shaken, it had not yet been destroyed. He had been tested in the immediate command of an army, and in that position had not justified the high opinion I had previously entertained of him. He was now assigned to a different class of duties--to the general supervision and control of several armies, each under an immediate commander, to whom was intrusted the direct duty of organizing, di
sciplining, and supplying his own troops. His department included the Districts of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, with power to command in person wherever he should consider his services most needed, and to transfer troops at discretion. He thus controlled the army under General Bragg in Tennessee, those of Generals Pemberton and Gardner at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and that of General Forney at Mobile and other points in Alabama. The new assignment was of higher grade, and to a more enlarged sphere than the former, embracing within its limits my own home and those of my nearest relatives and friends. It is, therefore, apparent that I felt no disposition to depreciate the merits of General Johnston, or to deprive him of an opportunity of rendering such conspicuous service as would secure military fame for himself. If private considerations were needed, in addition to a sense of public duty, in order to insure my earnest support of all his efforts for the good of the country,
the motive of personal interest was not absent. Few were exposed to a more total loss of property than myself, in the event of his disastrous failure in this new command.
When General Grant made his demonstration on Vicksburg General Johnston failed to perceive its significance, and did not repair to that vital point in his department until ordered from Richmond to do so. He arrived, as he reported, too late. He did not proceed to the headquarters of the forces in the field, but stopped at Jackson and undertook from there to direct the operations of the army, though, as was shown by subsequent events, he was not well informed of the situation. After the investment of Vicksburg General Johnston remained inactive near Canton and Jackson, stating his inability to attack Grant, notwithstanding very urgent requests to do so. He was thereupon pressed to attack the forces of Banks at Port Hudson and rescue the army of General Gardner, but declined on the ground that he feared Grant would seize the occasion to advance upon Jackson, which place he considered too important to be exposed. Grant was then investing Vicksburg. After both Vicksburg and Port Hudson
had been captured without one blow on his part to relieve either, a detachment was sent by General Grant from Vicksburg to capture Jackson. The enemy, it appears, was surprised to find the place held in force, and sent back to Vicksburg for re-enforcements. No attempt was made by General Johnston to improve the opportunity thus presented by attacking the isolated detachment of the enemy in his front. He remained within his lines and permitted Grant again to concentrate a large force against the third and last section of that army. Not once during the entire campaign did he act on the maxim of attacking the foe in detail, a rule peculiarly applicable when an army is contending against an enemy superior in numbers. The familiar historical example of the war conducted by Frederick the Great against three armies, the junction of any two of which would have caused the downfall of his State, illustrates the value of this maxim, and serves to show how much, under the most adverse conditi
ons, may be achieved by a general who, to professional skill, unites genius and energy.
No sooner had the enemy commenced investing Jackson than General Johnston pronounced it untenable. He had been there for many weeks, and to insure the successful defense of the place left Gardner's army at Port Hudson to its fate. Yet when the moment of trial came he decided that the lines of defense had been badly located, and that the works were so imperfect and insufficient as to render the position untenable. Weeks had been passed by the general commanding in the town with an army of between 20,000 and 30,000 men under his orders, and he had neither remedied defective location of lines nor given the works the requisite strength. Jackson was evacuated, and General Johnston withdrew his army to Eastern Mississippi. The evacuation of Jackson, as of Centerville, was marked by one of the most serious and irreparable sacrifices of property that has occurred during the war--a loss for which, in my judgment, no sufficient explanation has been given. The railroad bridge across the Pearl
River at Jackson had been broken. It was necessary to rebuild it sufficiently to remove cars across, and there was a very large accumulation of rolling-stock on the western side of the stream which, without the bridge, could not be saved if Jackson were evacuated. Under these circumstances General Johnston, with over 20,000 men, suffered this gap to remain without an effort to fill it, although the work could with little difficulty have been completed in a manner to answer the requirements of the occasion. In consequence of this neglect a very large number of locomotives, said to be about ninety, and several hundred cars, were lost. We have never recovered from the injury to the transportation service occasioned by this failure on his part.
General Johnston's second campaign thus closed with the loss of every important position which the enemy had attacked. Not only was Vicksburg forced to surrender, with its garrison, but Port Hudson, with its garrison had been captured when he was able to relieve it, but abstained from making the movement lest he should thereby hazard the safety of Jackson, which, in its turn, was lost with the sacrifice of most valuable property. My confidence in General Johnston's fitness for separate command was now destroyed. The proof was too complete to admit of longer doubt that he was deficient in enterprise, tardy in movement, defective in preparation, and singularly neglectful of the duty of preserving our means of supply and transportation, although experience should have taught him their value and the difficulty of procuring them. It should be added, that neither in this nor in his previous command had it been possible for me to obtain from General Johnston any communications of his plan
s or purposes beyond vague statements of an intention to counteract the enemy as their plans might be developed. No indication was ever presented to induce the belief that he considered it proper to form combinations for attack as well as defense, and nothing is more certain than the final success of an enemy who with superior forces can continue his operations without fear of being assailed, even when exposing weakness and affording opportunities of which a vigilant adversary would avail himself for attack. I came to the conclusion, therefore, that it would be imprudent to intrust General Johnston with another independent command for active operations in the field. Yet I yielded my convictions, and gave him a third trial, under the following circumstances:
General Bragg, at his own request, was relieved from the command of the Army of Tennessee after the battle of Missionary Ridge, and was succeeded by Hardee, his senior lieutenant-general. This officer, distrusting his own ability, earnestly requested the selection of another commander for the army, and a most urgent and general solicitation was made that General Johnston should be assigned to that duty. After relieving General Bragg, of our five generals Lee and Beauregard were the only officers of that grade in the field except General Johnston. Neither of the first two could properly be withdrawn from the position occupied by them, and General Johnston thus remained the only officer of rank superior to that of lieutenant-general who was available. The tact of Congress] authorizing the appointment of general officers with temporary rank had not then been passed. There seemed to be scarcely a choice left, but my reluctance to risk the disasters which I feared would result from Gene
ral Johnston's assignment to this command could with difficulty be surmounted. Very pressing requests were made to me by members of Congress. The assignment of this commander was said to be demanded by the common voice of the army, the press, and the people; and, finally, some of my advisers in the Cabinet represented that it might well be the case that his assignment with the disasters apprehended from it would be less calamitous than the injury arising from an apparent indifference to the wishes and opinions of the officers of the State governments, of many members of Congress, and of other prominent citizens. I committed the error of yielding to these suggestions against my own deliberate convictions, and General Johnston entered upon his third important command--that of the army designed to recover the State of Tennessee from the enemy. In February, 1864, he was informed of the policy of the Government for his army. It was proposed to re-enforce him largely, and that he should
at once advance and assume the offensive for the recovery of at least a part of the State of Tennessee. For this purpose he was advised to accumulate as rapidly as possible sufficient supplies for an advance, and assured that the re-enforcing troops should be sent to him as soon as he was prepared for the movement. Until such time it was deemed imprudent to open the country to incursions of the enemy by withdrawing from other positions, or to delay accumulation of supplies by increasing the number of consumers at the front. The winter was dry and mild. The enemy, as it was reported, not expecting any active movement on our part, had sent most of his horses back to Kentucky to be recruited for the spring campaign.
General Hardee had, just before relinquishing the command, reported our army as fully rested and recovered from the effect of its retreat from Missionary Ridge. He represented that there was effectiveness and sufficient supply in the ordnance, quartermaster's, and commissary departments; that the artillery was in good condition, the spirits of the troops excellent, and the army ready to fight. General Bragg sent to General Johnston all the information deemed valuable which had been acquired during his continuance in command. The Government spared nothing of men and materials at its disposal. Batteries made for General Lee's army were diverted and sent to General Johnston, and he was informed that troops would be sent to re-enforce him as soon as he had collected supplies in depot for a forward movement. Absentees were rapidly returning to the army when he assumed command. Several thousand men had joined their regiments within the twenty days immediately preceding his arrival at Dal
ton. Troops were withdrawn from Charleston, Savannah, and Mobile to aid him. The main army of Alabama and Mississippi, under General Polk, was placed at his disposal. Cavalry was returned from East Tennessee to assist him.
General Johnston made no attempt to advance. As soon as he assumed command he suggested deficiencies and difficulties to be encountered in an offensive movement, which he declared himself unable to overcome. The enemy commenced advancing in May, and General Johnstown began retreating. His retreat was not marked by any general engagement, nor does he appear to have attempted to cut off any portion or detachment of the enemy while they were marching around his flanks. Little fighting was done by his army, except when attacked in intrenchments. His course in abandoning a large extent of country abounding in supplies, and offering from its mountainous character admirable facilities for defense, so disheartened and demoralized the army that he himself announced by telegram large losses from straggling and desertion. At Allatoona, his position being almost impregnable, the enemy were compelled to make extensive flank move-meats which exposed them to attack; but they were allowed by Gener
al Johnston, who had marched out of his intrenchments, to interpose themselves between him and the ridge without receiving any assault upon their lengthened and exposed flank. He was thus maneuvered out of a most formidable position with slight loss to the enemy. By a repetition of a similar course he was driven, without any apparent capacity to help himself through an entire district of mountain passes and defiles, and across rivers until he was finally brought to the suburbs of Atlanta.
No information was sent to me which tended to dispel the apprehension then generally expressed that Atlanta also was to be abandoned when seriously threatened. Some of those who had most earnestly urged General Johnston's assignment to the command of the army when it was at Dalton now with equal earnestness pressed his prompt removal. The consequences of changing a commander in the midst of a campaign were regarded to be so embarrassing that, even when it was considered by others too plainly necessary for doubt or delay, I preferred, by direct inquiry of General Johnston, to obtain that which had been too long withheld--his plan for future operations. A telegram was sent to him insisting on a statement of his purpose, so as to enable me to anticipate events. His reply showed that he intended leaving the intrenchments of Atlanta under the guard of the Georgia militia, and moving out with his army into the field. This was regarded as conclusive that Atlanta was also to be given up wi
thout a battle, and I could perceive no ground for hoping that General Johnston, who had failed to check the enemy's march from Dalton to Atlanta, through a country abounding in strong positions for defense, would be able to prevent the further advance through a level country to Macon, and the consequent severance of the Confederacy by a line passing through the middle of Georgia. He was therefore relieved. If I had been slow to consent to his assignment to that command, I was at least equally slow to agree to his removal.
I could not discover between the forces of General Johnston and General Sherman any such disparity as was alleged, nor do I believe that our army in any military department since the beginning of the war has been so nearly equal in numbers with the enemy as in this last campaign of General Johnston. His report, dated October 20, 1864, states that he had lost in killed and wounded in infantry and artillery during this campaign, 10,000 men, and from all other causes, principally slight sickness, 4,700. Of his cavalry the losses are not stated. His report, however, omits to state what his returns to the Adjutant-General's Office exhibit--a loss of over 7,000 captured by the enemy. His losses, therefore, in infantry and artillery were about 22,000, without including cavalry. Yet, notwithstanding these heavy losses, General Johnston's returns of July 10, a few days before his removal from command, show an aggregate present of 73,849 men, of whom 50,932 are reported to be effective. But
his return of the previous month shows that among those not reported as effective were quite 11,000 men performing active service on extra duty, and as non-com-missioned staff officers and musicians. The available force present must therefore have been about 62,000 men. The aggregate present of the 10th of March previous (after the arrival of the part of Hardee's corps that had been detached, although too late to aid General Polk in opposing Sherman's raid through Mississippi) was 54,806, and the effective present 42,408. It thus appears that so largely was General Johnston re-enforced that after all the losses of his campaign his army had increased about 19,000 men present, and about the same number of men available for active duty.
As the loss in killed and wounded, sick and prisoners, in infantry and artillery alone was 22,000 men, and would probably be swollen to 25,000 by adding the loss in cavalry, and as the force available on the 10th of July was about 62,000, it is deduced that General Johnston had been in command of an army of about 85,000 men fit for active duty to oppose Sherman, whose effective force was not believed to have been much in excess of that number. The entire force of the enemy was considerably greater than the numbers I have mentioned, and so was General Johnston's; but in considering the merits of the campaign it is not necessary to do more than compare the actual strength of the armies which might have joined the issue of battle. When it is considered that with forces thus matched General Johnston was endeavoring to hold a mountainous district of our own country with numerous fortified positions, while the enemy was in the midst of a hostile population and with a long line of communi
cations to guard, it is evident that it was not the want of men or means which caused the disastrous failure of his campaign. My opinion of General Johnston's unfitness for command has ripened slowly and against my inclinations into a conviction so settled that it would be impossible for me again to feel confidence in him as the commander of an army in the field. The power to assign generals to appropriate duties is a function of trust confided to me by my countrymen. That trust I have ever been ready to resign at my country's call, but while I hold it, nothing shall induce me to shrink from its responsibilities or to violate the obligations it imposes.
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