How the South's military defeat began with its first general's demotion
"No military event deserving notice occurred on our part of the frontier during the remainder of the summer," Joseph E. Johnston noted dryly in his post-war memoir about the time period following the Battle of Manassas (a markedly different assessment from his number two, G.T. Beauregard, who spent mid-September enthusing about the victory at Lewinsville and how it showed he should have more men and materiel, covered well over at All Not So Quiet Along the Potomac).
Johnston commanded the Army of the Potomac, inheriting the name and much of the organization structure from the army Beauregard had commanded up until Johnston arrived just in time for the battle on July 20. But Beauregard insisted on continuing to operate his old army as the "First Corps, Army of the Potomac", a semi-autonomous unit with its own staff. Johnston authorized Beauregard to deploy his longer-serving brigades in forward positions to make sure the enemy's identically-named Army of the Potomac wasn't moving to attack, and focused on trying to train and equip the new volunteers being funneled to Manassas Junction over the course of the summer, a tough task with the Confederacy's pathetic supply system. While Johnston never rose to the level of chain-of-command insurgent that Beauregard did, he nevertheless sent his fair share of terse notes to the War Department in Richmond.
But on September 10, the "good general" finally lost his patience with Richmond. The issue was rank, and it hinges on pride, bad feelings, power struggles, bureaucratic bumbling, and pettiness, but is more than just a salacious tale. The ensuing battle was one that shaped the Confederacy and changed the outcome of the entire war as much as any of George McClellan's conflicts with Abraham Lincoln. Johnston and Davis ensuing feud would have wide-ranging consequences, from the fall of Atlanta, to the rise of Robert E. Lee.
On the night of July 21, giddy with victory over the Northern militia, provisional President Jefferson Davis had sat at a table and written Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard an appointment to the grade of general in the Confederate States Army, the war's only confirmed "battlefield promotion." Johnston congratulated him as "general", but knew it wouldn't be official until the Confederate Provisional Congress confirmed him at the grade in its next session.
Beauregard was filling the fourth of five "general" slots that existed under the nascent Confederate law, which would have made him the lowest ranked. That's why Johnston was left in command of his Army of the Potomac and Beauregard had to make up a First Corps to keep himself relevant. But while the time ticked away waiting for the Confederate Congress to take up the nominations, problems along the chain of command began.
The other two generals were Davis' top military adviser, Robert E. Lee, and Samuel Cooper, running both the Adjutant and Inspector General offices in Richmond. Johnston had resigned his commission as Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army on April 22, and been made a major general in the Virginia militia the following day, commanding forces around Richmond. Three days later, Lee left the U.S. Army, and was made major general and commander-in-chief of the Virginia militia, despite the fact that he had left the army as a colonel, while Johnston's position had been equivalent to a brigadier general. But staff positions, like the one Johnston quit, were regarded as less important than line positions, like Lee's command of the 1st Cavalry Regiment (re-numbered mid-1861 as the 4th Cavalry). Lee was also something of a phenom in the U.S. Army, expected to replace Winfield Scott one day, and his wife's family had deep Virginia political ties.
The Confederacy had had a provisional army created since February 28, and it was this army that Beauregard had joined in Charleston Harbor. But on March 6, the provisional Congress had also created a regular army for the Confederacy as well, with four slots for brigadier generals. These regular army officers were intended to serve as the core organizing component for the militia flocking in from the states, who would operate under their own officers in the provisional army -- similar to the U.S. Volunteers system. As soon as Virginia joined the Confederacy officially, Lee and Johnston stepped up to be the first two officers in this army. They were quickly confirmed.
Forming an army takes time and a great deal of institution building, as we have recently seen demonstrated in Afghanistan, so the provisional Congress took a short-cut. They accepted wholesale the Rules and Regulations of the U.S. Army, simply substituting "Confederate States" for "United States." They also decided on March 14, that all officers of the new regular army would have their commissions dated the same day, and that their rank in the U.S. Army would then determine who was higher than who. Johnston would again rank Lee, as well as Cooper, who had been added as the third.
So when Johnston received orders issued by Lee from Richmond, addressed from the "Headquarters of the Forces" he got testy. Richmond's interest in micromanaging his strategy, but disinterest in providing supplies had already set him on edge. On July 27, he snapped a telegram back to Cooper about Lee's communications and the ignored protests at the violation of the Rules and Regs.
I had the trouble to write you on the 24th instant on the subject of my rank compared with other officers of the C.S. Army. Since then I have received daily orders purporting to come from the "Headquarters of the Forces," some of them in relation to the internal affairs of this army. Such orders I cannot regard, because they are illegal. Permit me to suggest that orders to me should come from your office.But if he had been annoyed in July, in September he lost his mind. On May 16, (a month after adding a fifth slot for brigadier general) the provisional Congress had decided to make all its regular army brigadier generals into full generals (in today's army, the change from one to four stars), so that if a state militia decided to appoint someone as a major general (two star), he wouldn't outrank the national officer that was supposed to coordinate his actions.
But after the Battle of Manassas in July, Davis decided to submit not just Beauregard's nomination to general to the Congress, but Lee, Johnston, and Cooper's too. The message that drove Johnston ballistic on September 10 was a friendly note from the War Department that his nomination to the rank of general in the regular army had been confirmed, and that he was number four, behind Cooper (ranking from May 16), the brand-new Confederate Albert Sidney Johnston (from May 28, well before he joined the Confederacy), and Lee (from June 14). Johnston would rank from July 4, and Beauregard from July 21. It wasn't lost on Johnston that both Cooper and the new Johnston were very close friends of Davis.
In his memoirs, Johnston recalled that he "wrote the President... a statement... and also expressed my sense of the wrong done to me." The letter he sat down to write September 10 reads: "I will not affect to disguise the surprise and mortification produced in my mind by the action taken in this matter by the President and by Congress."
I now and here declare my claim that, not withstanding the nominations made by the President, and their confirmation by Congress, I still rightfully hold the rank of first general in the armies of the Southern Confederacy. I will proceed briefly to state the grounds upon which I rest this claim.This was not only a matter of pride for him, it was a matter of law. He meticulously detailed the history of the law of the Confederacy to Davis, as described above. Specifically, how the May 16 Act, "raised the three officers already named to the rank and denomination of ' General ' in the army of the Confederate States [Johnston, Lee, and Cooper]" immediately, without need for further confirmation. The meddling and the lack of support from Richmond had broken Johnston's faith in Davis, and his letter contains a sharp rebuke to his honor when Johnston preemptively explains why he hadn't asked for confirmation of his promotion to general in May.
In hurrying to assume the command in the valley of Virginia, I did not wait for my commission to be sent to me. I did not doubt that it would be made out, for I was persuaded that it was my right, and had no idea that there was any purpose of withholding it.He then outlined the circumstances of his relationship with Beauregard as further evidence of his generalship, before the frustration won out and he turned to zingers.
I held, and claim to hold, my rank as general under the act of May 16, 1861. I was a General thenceforth or never. I had the full authority of the constitutional Government of the Confederate States to sustain me. Heretofore those who disputed my authority as General have done so because they denied the existence of the Government whose officer I claimed to be. Now that Government joins the hostile power in denying my authority.And:
The nomination seeks to annul the irrevocable part, and to make me such only from the 4th day of July. The present, and so far as human legislation may operate, the future, may be controlled by Congress. Human power cannot affect the past. Congress may vacate my commission arid reduce me to the ranks. It cannot make it true that I was not a General before July 4, 1861.And he vented about the insult to his honor:
The effect of the course pursued is this: It transfers me from the position first in rank to that of fourth. The relative rank of the others among themselves is unaltered. It is plain that this is a blow aimed at me only. It reduces my rank in the grade I hold. This has never been done heretofore in the regular service in America but by the sentence of a court-martial as a punishment and as a disgrace for some military offence.And his distinguished military career:
It seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and as a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service. I had but this the scars of many wounds, all honestly taken in my front and in the front of battle, and my father's revolutionary sword. It was delivered to from his venerable hand without a stain of dishonor. Its blade is still unblemished as when it passed from his hand to mine.And he pledged that he didn't seek command for vanity:
I shall be satisfied if my country stands among the powers of the world free, powerful, and victorious, and that I as a general, a lieutenant, or a volunteer soldier, have borne my part in the glorious strife, and contributed to the final blessed consummation.And, in the end, he began to see conspiracies of Davis behind every detail:
What has the aspect of a studied indignity is offered me. My noble associate with me in the battle has his preferment connected with the victory won by our common trials and dangers. His commission bears the date of July 21, 1861, but care seems to be taken to exclude the idea that I had any part in winning our triumph. My commission is made to bear such a date that my once inferiors in the service of the United States and of the Confederate States shall be above me. But it must not be dated as of July 21st, nor be suggestive of the victory of Manassas.His wrath expended, Johnston closes with half an apology: "These views and the freedom with which they are presented may be unusual, so likewise is the occasion which calls them forth."
He looked at the thing he had wrought and paused. "In order that sense of injury not betray me into the use of language improper from an officer to the President," he explained later in his memoirs, "I laid aside the letter for two days."
On September 12, Johnston picked up the letter and read it over again. The general took great pride in his professionalism and was a true believer in subordinates knowing their proper place. He asked himself if the letter he had written was factually correct, if it would convincingly advance his case, and if it was an appropriate thing to be sending to his commander-in-chief. He knew in his heart the right conclusion.
"The letter was, therefore, dispatched. It is said that it irritated him greatly, and that his irritation was freely expressed."
It was an understatement. On September 14, Johnston received a one-paragraph reply:
General J.E. Johnston:
Sir: I have just received and read your letter of the 12th instant. Its language is, as you say, unusual; its arguments and statements utterly one-sided, and its insinuations as unfounded as they are unbecoming.
I am, &c.Jefferson Davis
- Eicher and Eicher, Civil War High Commands