Saturday, October 1, 2011

Little Difference of Opinion

Wherein the future of the CSA is decided

Beauregard's Headquarters on Main St and Oak St in Fairfax today (LOC)
On the morning of October 1, provisional President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis bid farewell to his would-be nation's Army of the Potomac and rode by horse for Manassas Junction, where he would take the train to Richmond. He had spent a grim evening the night before with Generals Joseph E. Johnston and G.T. Beauregard, as well as Maj. General Gustavus W. Smith, concluding that the Confederacy was in serious trouble. Like so many choices made by Davis, Johnston, and Beauregard in the first six months of the war, the results of this conference would have a lasting impact on the rest of the war, the fate of the Confederacy, and the war about the war into the 20th Century.

Five days earlier, Johnston had written the acting Secretary of War, Judah P. Benjamin, requesting a strategic conference about the future of his army. In a missive once again berating the War Department for failing to give him enough troops and supplies he wrote, "I think it important that either his excellency the President of the Confederate States, yourself, or some one representing you, should here upon the ground confer with me in regard to this all-important question."

So the President had come. Johnston was out inspecting positions when Davis arrived in the small community of Fairfax Court-House, which had been almost wholly subsumed by the army's headquarters. So he proceeded to Beauregard's headquarters, in a fine two-story brick house that stood near the modern-day intersection of Main Street [VA 236] and Oak Street in the City of Fairfax. He and Beauregard visited until the evening, when Johnston arrived, with Smith in tow for good measure.

Joe Johnston
Smith was one of two major generals that had been appointed to serve as a division commander for the army (the other was Earl Van Dorn). The experience of commanding all the brigades directly at Manassas had underscored the conventional wisdom that a commanding general should set objectives and have subordinates who would see to the details of maneuvers. As it happened, dividing the army became the first topic of conversation with the president.

Beauregard wanted to finally receive official sanction for his self-declared "First Corps" and wanted another general (probably Smith) to lead a "Second Corps", established out of what had been Johnston's Army of the Shenandoah and new additions to the army. Davis was flatly opposed to it, but also hinted that he wasn't fond of the idea of divisions either. He may have been underbidding his two generals just to block their plan to form corps, which Davis and many older military leaders (including Winfield Scott) thought was unnecessary. If so, it worked. Johnston (who may have only supported the idea on Beauregard's behalf anyway) agreed to four divisions, led by Davis picks Smith and Van Dorn, and Johnston picks James Longstreet and Thomas Jackson.

If that conversation had been difficult, what followed was a nightmare. "We had been hoping, since the battle of Manassas," Johnston wrote in his war memoirs, "that the effective strength of the army would be so increased as to justify us in assuming the offensive." Beauregard's aide and biographer, Alfred Roman, gives him credit for the idea of an offensive: "Anxious not to lose the present opportunities, General Beauregard now proposed... a plan involving a decisive battle." According to Roman, it was a plan that Beauregard had talked Johnston into letting him present to the President, that would involve an offensive over the Potomac at Leesburg.

Davis' account of the meeting, written while imprisoned at Fort Monroe after the war, can best be summarized with his introduction to the section:
I will now proceed to notice the allegation that I was responsible for the inaction of the Army of the Potomac, in the later part of 1861 and in the early part of 1862. After the explosion of the fallacy that I had prevented the pursuit of the enemy at Manassas in July 1861, my assailants have sought to cover their exposure by a change of time and place, locating their story at Fairfax Court-House, and dating it in the autumn of 1861.
G.T. Beauregard
That after the war, the choices made at Fairfax Court-House at the end of September 1861 would become so controversial and a source of criticism for the first scapegoat of the South, Jefferson Davis, is not surprising (in one of those forgotten bits of history, it would take years and an aggressive PR campaign before anyone in the North became quite as vilified as Davis among former Confederates after the war). Roman snidely remarks in his Beauregard biography that "Mr. Davis devotes five pages of his book to the 'Fairfax Conference' as it was called..." (he does him better, devoting eleven and a half pages to rebutting Davis).

What is surprising is that as soon as the end of January 1862 Johnston and Beauregard recognized that the conference was controversial and asked the fourth member of the group, Smith, to write down his recollections and give them a copy, which they then endorsed with their signatures and a note: "Our recollections of that conference agree fully with this statement of General G.W. Smith." Davis  claims in The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government that he was not aware of Smith's memo until 1880, when it was shown to him by a friend. "I submit to honorable men the concealment from me in which it was prepared," he wrote acidly.

After some discussions in which he kept silent, feeling he was too new to command, Smith recalled:
Finally, with perhaps some abruptness, I said: "Mr. President, is it not possible to put this army in condition to assume the active offensive?" adding that this was a question of vital importance, upon which the success or failure of our cause might depend. This question brought on discussion.
It was the central question, upon which further options for the army's course of action depended. Smith continued:
There seemed to be little difference of opinion between us in regard to general views and principles. It was clearly stated and agreed to that the military force of the Confederate States was at the highest point it could attain without arms from abroad; that the portion of this particular army present for duty was in the finest fighting condition; that if kept inactive it must retrograde immensely in every respect during the winter, the effect of which was forseen and dreaded by us all. The enemy were daily increasing in number, arms, discipline, and efficiency. We looked forward to a sad state of things at the opening of the spring campaign.
Here is where Beauregard's plan came in. Smith and Johnston don't attribute the plan to Beauregard specifically, but it certainly is consistent with the grandiose schemes he hatched in the weeks before Manassas. As explained to Roman after the war, it involved reinforcing the army by drawing experienced troops from the rest of the Confederacy, who would be replaced in their garrisons by militia from the interior states. Then they would cross the Potomac at Edward's Ferry (Beauregard was helpfully already having the area thoroughly scouted) and march on Washington. The untrained Union soldiers would flee or collapse like at Manassas, Washington would be seized with its vast supply depots, and the army would be set to "liberate" Baltimore and march on Philadelphia.

Kentucky and Missouri would certainly be on the defensive for awhile, but as Smith (who Roman reported was an enthusiastic supporter of the plan, while Johnston agreed because there was no other option) put it "success here was success everywhere, defeat here defeat everywhere." In all accounts, Davis responded coldly. In his own account it is because to his "surprise and disappointment, the effective strength [of the army] was stated to be but little greater than when it fought the battle of the 21st the preceding July," that is, 40,000 men of all arms.

G.W. Smith
Davis asked how many men would be needed for the plan. Johnston and Beauregard asked for 60,000, Smith said he thought they could be done with 50,000, but they would all have to be seasoned soldiers, not newly recruited units. Davis "expressed regret," according to Smith, "and seemed to feel deeply, as did every one present." The seasoned soldiers were needed to protect other areas of the Confederacy, who were important constituencies and wouldn't tolerate their homes being insufficiently defended. He did promise an additional 2,500 new recruits, but that was because Johnston had that number of weapons on hand for them to use. Otherwise, he had no weapons for any new recruits, since firearms from Europe had not been as forthcoming as expected.

In Davis' account, he is angry because Johnston has mismanaged the resources he was sent. He should have had more men and weapons in his army, but had failed to carefully retained what he was given. In Roman's account, Davis is deceptive, claiming to not have enough weapons when he did, and refusing to transfer seasoned soldiers out of dislike or jealousy for Beauregard, rather than any sound strategy. Johnston merely observes, "this, of course, decided the question of active operations then."

But Davis insisted that while a campaign on the north side of the river was impossible, that didn't mean that the justification for operations there did not still exist. As Smith explained:

When the President had thus clearly and positively stated his inability to put this army in the condition deemed by the generals necessary before entering upon an active offensive campaign, it was felt that it might be better to run the risk of almost certain destruction fighting upon the other side of the Potomac rather than see the gradual dying out and deterioration of this army during a winter, at the end of which the term of enlistment of half the force would expire.
Davis was recommending a sort of partisan warfare north of Leesburg and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The idea went over very poorly with the generals (Roman goes to great length to ridicule it in his accounts of Beauregard's genius). Smith recorded the concluding remarks by his commanding officer to his commander-in-chief:

General Johnston said that he did not feel at liberty to express an opinion as to the practicability of reducing the strength of our forces at points not within the limits of his command, and with but few further remarks from any one the answer of the President was accepted as final, and it was felt that there was no other course left but to take a defensive position and await the enemy. If they did not advance, we had but to await the winter and its results.
And so, Davis returned to Richmond, nothing and everything having been decided.


Make sure to check out part two of All Not So Quiet on the Potomac's story about the evacuation of Munson and Mason's Hills happening concurrently with the Fairfax Conference.

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