Sunday, September 25, 2011

One Army

Wherein the org chart of the Army of the Potomac (CSA) looks like swiss cheese

While the Northern armies around Washington were organizing the massive manpower streaming into the capital, the considerably smaller Southern forces were doing the same. But while McClellan had close to a free hand in choosing his subordinates, Generals Joseph E. Johnston and G.T. Beauregard were under much closer control. The Confederacy's provisional president, Jefferson Davis who liked to be heavily involved in the decisions of generals in the field.

In what would become a bad habit, Davis had sacked his Secretary of War in mid-September and installed the divisive Judah P. Benjamin as acting secretary. Born British, Benjamin was now on his third country, and a close confidant of Davis. But Benjamin was not tactful, and with the bad feelings already brewing between the two generals in Fairfax Court-House and Richmond, he was not the right man to bring the Confederacy's war leadership back together.

Johnston's Army of the Potomac was a hierarchical nightmare. It was stretched from Staunton to Munson Hill [Seven Corners] to the mouth of Aquia Creek, with poor communication and transportation between all its outposts. And its command structure was bizarre. Johnston commanded about half the army's brigades directly, while the other half were grouped under Beauregard in the "First Corps". James Longstreet and Theophilus Holmes were both brigadier generals with their own brigades, yet they also gave orders to other brigades, Longstreet to the forces on the border of Alexandria County [now Arlington] and Holmes to forces on the Lower Potomac. And the cavalry didn't seem to be listening to anybody.

Davis, through Benjamin, had decided to fix this by providing Johnston with some formal divisions and some major generals to command them. The first was Maj. General Earl "Buck" Van Dorn (namesake of the Alexandria street). As a 1842 West Point grad who had been 52nd of 56 in his class (Longstreet was 54th the same year), Van Dorn had been in the infantry and earned a good deal of attention for his fearsomeness in the Mexican War. He continued with the army, becoming a noted Indian fighter as well as a noted favorite of women, but had been an early supporter of secession, resigning on January to join the Mississippi militia under Davis. When Davis resigned to become provisional president, Van Dorn succeeded him.

Van Dorn had been on hand in Richmond when Davis decided to create divisions in Johnston's army. He was made a major general and sent to Fairfax Court-House to command the new First Division. The Second Division was commanded by one of the newest Confederates, Gustavus W. Smith. Smith had graduated from West Point the same year as Van Dorn, but eighth in the class, earning a coveted engineer slot. He had worked with Robert E. Lee, McClellan, and Beauregard as part of Winfield Scott's crack engineer corps during the Mexico City campaign, but resigned to become a civil engineer in New York City after the war.

Smith had been the New York City Streets Commissioner for three years when the war broke out. Like another well known Kentuckian, Senator John C. Breckinridge, Smith was a Southern sympathizer who waited to see what his home state would do. It declared neutrality, and throughout the summer neither side would violate it. Finally, in early September, Confederate troops under Gideon Pillow occupied Columbus, followed by the occupation of Paducah by Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant. Smith left New York for a long, round-about trip to Richmond (shocking McClellan).

The only problem was that there were no troops in either division. In a telegram to Beauregard on September 24, Benjamin condescendingly asked the general to submit a plan for divisions.
I suggest to you that you converse with General Johnston, and determine between yourselves what divisions you would like to have favored, and which of the brigadier-generals you would both recommend for promotion as major-general.
Without, of course, considering your recommendations as conclusive, both the President and myself would consider them as entitled to great weight, and I doubt not we would be able to gratify the wishes of General Johnston and yourself.
At the same time Benjamin seemed to have additional designs. His telegram is addressed to "General G.T. Beauregard, Fairfax Court-House", not acknowledging any command the general had. His telegram also mentions "that General Van Dorn has been appointed a major-general, and will report to General Johnston. This will give to the army two major-generals and will somewhat relieve the labors of General Johnston and yourself." So while Van Dorn would be taking responsibilities away from Beauregard, Benjamin had been explicit that he (and Smith) were not to report to Beauregard.

And whether Beauregard knew it or not, this was not because Benjamin was respectful of his status as commander of the "First Corps". In another telegram of the 24th, this one to Brig. General Robert Toombs, the former Confederate Secretary of State who had resigned to join the army around Fairfax Court-House and did not yet have a command, Benjamin made clear his and the president's opinion of Beauregard's semi-independence.
My Dear Sir: The President says you are mistaken in considering the Army of the Potomac as two distinct corps d'armee. It is one army, under command of General Johnston, who commands in chief. He suggests, therefore, that you make your application on the subject to General Johnston.
 But Benjamin didn't save all his bureaucratic scorn for Beauregard on September 24. The day before G.W. Smith joined the army at Fairfax Court-House Benjamin sent an unapologetic apology to "General Joseph E. Johnston, Commanding Army of the Potomac, Manassas":
Sir: I have just received your letter of the 22d instant, in reply to mine of the 19th. I was gratified to ascertain before receiving your reply that there was no truth in the assertion that the delay was caused by detention of the cars at Manassas, and I am resolute to discover who was really to blame, the more especially for making to me an unfounded written statement in relation to the public service.

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