Monday, June 13, 2011

A Concerted Plan of Operation

On June 13, Lt. Col. Sam Jones was ushered into see Jefferson Davis, provisional president of the Confederate States of America. Jones was a West Point grad from Southside Virginia, who had been serving at the grade of captain on the staff of the Judge Advocate General when the Commonwealth seceded. Now he was a lieutenant colonel on the staff of the most famous Confederate general - Gustave T. Beauregard.

He had been sent by Beauregard to deliver an urgent letter to Davis from Manassas Junction. He was supposed to orally describe its contents using a diagram Beauregard had helpfully made, make sure the president read the letter itself, and then bring any reply back to the anxious Louisianan in northern Virginia.

Troop disposition in Virginia in June 1861 (the numbers
correspond to locations clockwise from the left)
"The enemy seem to be taking the offensive towards Harper's Ferry," Beauregard began boldly. Confederate forces in Virginia were spread between:
  1. The mountains of western Virginia where Union forces under George McClellan were moving steadily south
  2. Joe Johnston at Harper's Ferry at the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers with the B&O Railroad
  3. Beauregard at Manassas Junction, where the Manassas Gap Railroad and the Orange & Alexandria Railroad joined
  4. Aquia Creek, in Stafford County, a deep-water creek defended by a handful of Confederates so Northerners couldn't land and turn their lines at Manassas
  5. Richmond
  6. Two small commands in Newport News and Norfolk in opposition to troops at Fort Monroe under Benjamin Butler.
Beauregard thought the split was accomplishing little and believed uniting forces could lead to a victory. And he had clear opinions on how to unite them. Starting with the assumption that Johnston would be routed out of his position any day, he argued that "if he were ordered to abandon forthwith his present position and  concentrate suddenly his forces with mine, guarding his passes through which the enemy might follow him, we could, by a bold and rapid movement forward, retake Arlington Heights and Alexandria, if not too strongly fortified and garrisoned..."

Not to be deterred, he promoted an alternative whereby both he and Johnston would fall back on Richmond, where, "acting on interior lines, from Richmond as a centre... we could crush in rapid succession and in detail, the several columns of the enemy, which I have supposed would move on three to four different lines."

He concluded: "I beg and entreat that a concerted plan of operation be adopted at once by the government."

Davis was a war hero, widely regarded as an expert tactician because of his skilled handling of the Mississippi Rifles against overwhelming odds during the Mexican War. But he had also been Secretary of War, attended West Point and chaired the Senate Committee on the Military. He was regarded as an expert strategist and, in fact, part of the optimism of the South was that its leader had a lifetime of military experience, while the North's leader had nothing but a few months in the Black Hawk War, in which he never fought a battle.

Consequently, Davis had little appreciation for the advice of his heady Young Napoleon in Manassas. "My dear general," his reply on June 13 begins, followed by deference to Beauregard's superior knowledge of the enemy's movements in northern Virginia. But the former War Secretary began cutting holes in the plan quickly, starting with the presumption that Johnston was doomed at Harper's Ferry.

It would seem not unreasonable to expect that before he reaches Winchester... the people of the fertile and populace valley would rise in mass to aid him in repelling the invader. But suppose it should be otherwise, he could still, by retiring to the passes of the Manassas railroad, and adjacent mountains, probably check the progress of the enemy, and prevent him from either taking possession of the valley, or passing to the rear of your position.

Having established that Johnston was safe, Davis turns next to chiding Beauregard for his main objective:

Concurring fully with you in the effect which would be produced by the possession of Arlington Heights and Alexandria, if your rear is the same time sufficiently covered, it is quite clear that if the case shall be otherwise, your possession, if acquired, would be both brief and fruitless.
Davis then takes aim at the implied criticism in Beauregard's begging for a concerted plan: "To your request that a concerted plan of operations be adopted, I can only reply that the present position and unknown purposes of the enemy require that our plan have many alternatives."

By his final paragraph, Davis appears to have run out of patience for the game and more directly chides his general on the back-up plan to fall back with Johnston on Richmond, saying "it can hardly be necessary to remind you that we have not at this time the transportation which would enable us to move along the lines described." With a touch of what we might call snark today, Davis adds in explanation for his lack of direct knowledge of the enemy movements, "had I been less earnestly engaged in providing for yours and other commands, I should have had the pleasure of visiting you before this date."

He concludes, peevishly: "...the capacity with which you have recently exhibited, successfully to fight with undisciplined citizens, justifies the expectation that you will know how to use such force as we are able to furnish."

Had Beauregard been paying attention, he would have read the message behind the letter: Davis and Davis alone was in charge of strategy for the Confederate States of America. But either deliberately or unintentionally, the South's most famous general was determined to make his own strategy.

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