Thursday, July 14, 2011

New Plan!

On July 14, Colonel James Chestnut (husband of the unparalleled diarist of the South, Mary Chestnut), arrived in Richmond at about 3:00 pm. He was serving as an aide-de-camp (an extra staffer) for Brigadier General G.T. Beauregard and on a mission to convince Jefferson Davis to support yet another new course of action proposed by the Cajun general in response to the imminent Union attack on Manassas Junction. Chestnut also happened to be a Confederate Congressman, had been a delegate to the South Carolina secession convention, had helped draft the Confederate Constitution, and had served in the U.S. Senate starting in 1858, where he and Mary became close friends with Jefferson and Varina Davis. He was a good choice to convey Beauregard's latest plans and laments.

With all of Beauregard's histrionics it's easy to overlook the very difficult position he was in at Manassas Junction. Militarily, he was responsible for holding onto a lynch-pin position, the loss of which would cede vast territory to the Northern forces. To avoid that, he would have to hold off an army that outnumbered his almost two-to-one.

That ratio appeared unlikely to change, too, since Davis was trying to deal with the aggressive campaign of the Union's Major General George McClellan in the mountains of Virginia. On July 11, McClellan had defeated the Confederate army under Brigadier General Robert Garnett at Rich Mountain. The Union had pursued them for two days and on July 13, while personally commanding the rearguard of his retreating army, Garnett was killed and his army scattered. McClellan now had nearly a free hand in western Virginia and stopping him would be the priority mission for any reinforcements.

Beauregard also had little to no logistical system. While the Northern armies were certainly poorly supplied at the beginning of the war, they at least could fall back on an overtaxed U.S. Army logistical system (now under command of the indefatigable Montgomery Meigs, since Joe Johnston had resigned). The South had to make its system from scratch. Most soldiers under Beauregard's command carried weapons from state or Federal arsenals, rarely up to date (in fact, frequently they were of Mexican War vintage, sometimes even War of 1812).

And politically, Beauregard wasn't in much better of a situation. On July 13, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell had ordered a reconnaissance of Fairfax Court House, a prelude to an attack. If McDowell was coming, there were really only two places for Beauregard to get additional troops fast. The first was from the roughly 3,000 men under Brigadier General Theophilus Holmes in his Department of Fredericksburg. Holmes was based on Aquia Creek, a deep tributary to the Potomac that allowed for the landing of men and material within a day's walk of Fredericksburg, which meant his men were preventing a Union attack on Beauregard from the south.
Union ships bombard Holmes' position at Aquia Creek

But though their job was to protect him, the Louisianan didn't have authority over them, because of the niceties of the old army. Beauregard had resigned from the U.S. Army as a captain and a brevet major, while Holmes had been a major, but Beauregard had been made a brigadier general first in the Confederate Army because of his victory at Fort Sumter. To avoid bad feelings on both sides, Davis had simply made Holmes his own little army.

To the west of Beauregard was Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston and his Army of Shenandoah, faced off against an identically named Union army under Major General Robert Patterson. While both Johnston and Beauregard were brigadier generals, and while Beauregard had been made a brigadier general before Johnston's Virginia had even seceded, Johnston outranked Beauregard because he was made a brigadier in the Army of the Confederate States of America, while Beauregard was only a brigadier in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States (equivalent to holding only a volunteers commission in the Northern army instead of a regular army commission). And Johnston had outranked Beauregard in the U.S. Army too, making him clearly (though not really so clearly) Beauregard's superior officer.

When Johnston had been assigned to his job, Virginia militia had still held Arlington Heights and everything south of the Potomac River and there was barely a militia defending Washington. Davis and everyone else assumed any battles would take place in western Virginia and Maryland and so sent Johnston to the most important place. Johnston was supposed to be asking Beauregard to send support, but the North had uncooperatively planned its main thrust against Beauregard, who had no authority to ask Johnston for support.

The combination of nonsensical red tape and military storm clouds would have been overwhelming to many generals less prone to melodrama than Beauregard. Just a few days earlier he had glumly written Davis about holding out as long as possible at Manassas Junction to give McDowell a Pyrrhic victory. But shortly after sending the letter he had changed his mind and dispatched a Colonel Preston to bring a new plan to Davis. Within a few hours of sending off Preston, however, he had further changed his mind and sent Colonel Chestnut to Richmond on Preston's heels with an even better idea. After speaking with a bed-ridden Davis on June 14, Chestnut arranged a conference for that evening with the President, his top military adviser, Brigadier General Robert E. Lee, and the Adjutant General, Samuel Cooper, and Colonel Preston.

According to his letter of July 16 reporting back to Beauregard, Chestnut started off the conference by pointing out that "it was desirable, by uniting a portion of our forces, to outnumber the enemy at some important point," and that "the point now occupied by [Beauregard] was, at present, in reference to the armies, considered the most important." With McDowell's forward most regiments already at Falls Church and Springfield "it was most probable the enemy would threaten our camps at Manassas with about ten thousand men, while the main body, twenty thousand or more, would advance towards Vienna, Frying-pans [sic], and Pleasant Valley to Hay Market... with a view to cut off our communications with General Johnston."

Beauregard had successfully convinced himself that McDowell's real purpose was not to attack him, but to go around him, cut him off from support, and swallow his army whole, a scenario that had been a paranoid afterthought a few days earlier. To escape this dilemma, Beauregard wanted Johnston to transfer 20,000 men to him at Manassas leaving only a few thousand to keep Patterson from passing east through the mountains. The combined army under Beauregard would then strike at Vienna between McDowell's now split army and "exterminate them or drive them into the Potomac." Then, Johnston would take command of his army and 10,000 of Beauregard's army and return to the Shenandoah Valley with "say, thirty-five thousand, to attack and destroy Patterson at Winchester, or wherever he may be."

Chestnut reported to the council of war, as instructed, that: "one week from the time leaving Winchester [by Johnston] would be sufficient to accomplish all this." Beauregard would then either seize Fort Corcoran and Fort Runyon and re-establish the Alexandria Line or fall back on his current position on Bull Run, depending on McDowell's choices. At that point, Johnston would then send a portion of his army to Robert Garnett (Beauregard did not yet know he was dead, though Davis did), which would "make him superior to McClellan. Having defeated McClellan, General Garnett could unite with General Johnston, and the two cross the Potomac, at the nearest point, for Maryland, and arousing the people as they proceeded, march to the rear of Washington, while [Beauregard] attacked the front."

One can easily imagine a silence greeting Chestnut's presentation on behalf of his chief. Beauregard had submitted a proposal not only to defend Manassas Junction, but to win the entire war. In the process he had taken his boldest step yet into the realm of Grand Strategy, a realm that Jefferson Davis regarded as very much his own. So jealously did Davis guard his war planning powers that for the rest of his life Davis would end up denying that the meeting with Chestnut contained any detailed plan whatsoever.

In a pattern that was already becoming familiar, it was Lee who helped Davis put his objections into words that denied without discouraging. "The scheme was considered brilliant and comprehensive," Chestnut would report in his letter of the 16th, "but, to its adoption at this time, two leading objections were urged by the President and General Lee." The first "was that General Johnston's force was not now sufficiently strong to allow of the withdrawal of numbers sufficient to effect your object." In fact, Johnston had only a little above 12,000 men, significantly fewer than even the amount Beauregard wanted transferred to Manassas, much less enough to also block Patterson. The second was that McDowell's men would simply "immediately fall back on their intrenchments, or being so close to their large reserves, would quickly be reinforced in numbers sufficient to regain the superiority of numbers, and thus defeat your purpose."

The proper course of action, Lee persuaded Chestnut, in the event that Beauregard's predicted contingency came true, was to prepare defenses on the Rapidan River and withdraw both Holmes and Beauregard there, where they could re-establish the circle of interior lines with Johnston at Strasburg in the upper Valley, and better supply the army through Fredericksburg anyway. (Mary recorded in her diary that her husband had come away from the meeting "telling me how sensible and soldierly this handsome General Lee is. General Lee's military sagacity was his theme. Of course, the president dominated the party--as well as by his weight of brain as his position.")

But while Beauregard's plan was politely being dismembered by Lee in Richmond, Beauregard had already decided to make it a reality. The evening before he had written to Joe Johnston himself describing the same plan. "My dear General, I write in haste. What a pity we cannot carry into effect the following plan of operations..."

After sketching out the details he concluded:
I think the whole campaign could be conducted brilliantly in from fifteen to twenty-five days. Oh but that we had but one good head to conduct all our operations! We are laboring, unfortunately, under the disadvantage of having about seven armies in the field, under as many independent commanders, which is contrary to the first principles of the art of war. Wishing you, however, ample success in your operations, I remain, yours very truly, G.T. Beauregard.

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