Monday, October 10, 2011

Speaking Freely

What Davis told G.W. Smith behind Johnston's back

It was no secret that by October 10 the relationship between provisional President Jefferson Davis and acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin on the one hand, and Generals Joseph E. Johnston and G.T. Beauregard on the other. For months since the battle at Manassas, various combinations of the leadership in Richmond and the leadership of the marquee army in Northern Virginia had traded increasingly aggressive letters and telegrams. Davis had even come north to consult in person at Fairfax Court-House, but rather than easing the tension it made it worse.

On October 6, Maj. General Gustavus W. Smith, assigned by Johnston to command the unauthorized "Second Corps" of the Army of the Potomac, wrote to Jefferson Davis. The letter is recorded as "not found" in the official records, but its contents can be inferred from Davis' October 10 reply. Also not recorded, is whether or not Smith was prompted to send his letter by Johnston and Beauregard. He certainly had been at the Fairfax Court-House meeting, and, based on his own memorandum written up months later, suggests his sympathies lay with the generals. Whether the letter was a stab at diplomacy (either on Johnston's part or on Smith's own initiative) or not, Davis saw it as any modern politician would: an opportunity to pass on a leaked message to Johnston and Beauregard.

Davis wrote back October 10, starting off easy. Smith had evidently suggested that a unified command be established for the transportation of goods and personnel by rail. By Davis' reply it looks like he suggested Beauregard for the position, though he almost certainly did not recommend it at the loss of command of the First Corps. But that's how Davis decided to take it: "He could no doubt do more than anyone thought of in that connection; but how can he be spared from his present duty?" No, Davis concluded, the best idea was to maintain the quartermaster system based in Richmond.

But the president quickly got to his main point: the organization of the Army of the Potomac. Smith had evidently resubmitted the already rejected request for additional generals to fill out Johnston and Beauregard's ideal army structure.
In relation to the list of generals proposed, I will now request you to divide the effective strength of your army by the number of generals you would have if the addition was made. Would not the number more nearly correspond to colonels than to generals? For 37,000 men I still think four divisions enough, and am still at a loss to perceive how the change of title would increased the efficiency of a brigadier; but can conceive how a brigadier would lose something of his value by being brought into immediate command and minute supervision of a major-general of a small division, say about equal to an efficient brigade.
Smith had apparently tried to argue that having an army with more major generals might help increase enthusiasm and competence for the cause. Davis, typically, turned the argument around on the arguer.
Your remarks about the moral effect of repressing the hope of the volunteers for an advance are in accordance with the painful impression made on me, when in our council it was revealed to me that the Army of the Potomac had been reduced to about one-half the legalized strength, and that the arms to restore the number were not in depot.
And Davis couldn't help but add a dig that he must have hoped would push Smith to his side.
Let me insist that you revive something of your early respect for military grades, as your recommendations evince that you have have adopted the militia value for the commission of field officers. I have never regarded one entitled to expect from the Confederacy the same grade he may have held under a State.
The issue of commanders out of the way, Davis turned to the soldiers.
How have you progressed in the solution of the problem I left - the organization of the troops, with reference to the States and the terms of service? If the volunteers continue their complaints that they are commanded by strangers, and do not get justice, and that they are kept in camp to die when reported for hospital by the surgeon, we shall soon feel a reaction in the matter of volunteering. Already I have been much pressed on both subjects, and have answered by promising that the generals would give due attention and I hope make satisfactory changes.
The structure of the army had been decided on the arrival of regiments, more than anything else. But Davis was insistent for political and personal reasons that it be reorganized so each state was kept together. It was becoming something of an obsession of his.
Kentucky has a brigadier, but not a brigade. She has, however, a regiment. That regiment and a brigadier might be associated together. Louisiana has regiments enough to form a brigade, but no brigadier in either corps.
He was especially concerned about men from his own state.
Mississippi troops were scattered, as if the state were unknown. Brigadier-General Clark was sent to remove the growing dissatisfaction; but though the State had nine regiments there, he (C.) was put in command of a post and depot of supplies. These nine regiments should form two brigades. Brigadiers Clark and (as a native of Mississippi) Whiting should be placed in command of them, and the regiments for the war put in the army man's brigade. Both brigades should be put in the division commanded by General Van Dorn, of Mississippi.
Davis letter reads as if it were written in a single draft, from the run-on paragraphs about brigading regiments, to random sentences included in the middle of the letter. One of the latter stands out particularly, and seems like an effort to spin Smith in case he was planning to pass on the letter contents to Johnston and Beauregard: "I have been able in writing to you to speak freely, and you have no past associations to distrust the judgment to be passed upon the views presented."

He returned to the matters of the army, responding to a concern of Smith's about the defensive positions the army could create and revealing a now-hidden but then quite well-known truth about one reason the Confederacy was able to compete with the Union despite much smaller numbers: "I have made and am making inquiries as to the practicability of getting a corps of negroes for laborers, to aid in the construction of an intrenched line in rear of your present position."

His letter complete, Davis decided to pour on the charm, in hopes of continuing his back-channel diplomacy with Smith. We don't have a record of whether Smith, who did know and respect Davis, found it as insincere as it appears through the lens of history. "It will give me pleasure to hear from you frequently and fully. Very truly, your friend, Jefferson Davis."


  1. In regards to the issue Davis brings up about restructuring the troops by states: did the Union also insist on putting troops together by state? I know this is usually the case but was wondering if in the case of Davis it was because of the individuality of the states in the Confederacy.

  2. ATPatrick, the Confederate government at its very highest levels was obsessed with the idea of brigading together regiments from the same state and placing them under a native of that state (and even create a division, as in the case of Mississippian Earl Van Dorn’s two Mississippi brigades commanded by Mississippians, proposed above). As we shall see, it becomes an obsession of Davis’, but reading between the lines I believe that is less because he and other leaders in Richmond like the idea and more because Johnston more or less ignores him.

    On the Union side, there was no such pressure by the National leadership (despite some grumbling by Members of Congress). Scott and McClellan barely cared, and Secretary of War Cameron was taxed to the limit of his limited abilities just mustering in and supplying the new regiments as they came in. Consequently, Union regiments tended to be brigaded together as they arrived, with only a few switching because of problems with their pre-McClellan commanders (

    But that doesn’t mean that state brigades were not common in the Union armies. The Army of the Potomac in October 1861 contains some of the most famous examples: Dan Sickles’ Excelsior Brigade (New York), Phil Kearny’s New Jersey Brigade, Sam Starr’s New Jersey Brigade (which came to be known as the Second, with Kearny’s as the First), “Baldy” Smith’s Vermont Brigade, Innis Palmer’s brigade of New Yorkers, which somehow failed to make up a nickname for itself, Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade (not only New York City residents, but all first or second generation Irish), and Edward Baker’s California Brigade (all but two companies were from Philadelphia, pretending to be from California – it would win fame renamed as the Philadelphia Brigade). And, perhaps most famously, there was the three brigades of Pennsylvanians grouped together in McCall’s Division, known as the Pennsylvania Reserves (

    What the Union brigades have in common is that, with the exception of Baker’s “Californians” and Meagher’s Irish, the regiments in those brigades were recruited together and mustered in together, brigades from the beginning. What Davis wanted to do, was to tear apart the units that the Confederates had had for months and switch their positions around so that each would be together with a new brigade.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful reply SP, I think the distinctions between the South's strong desire to have states together and the Unions more nonchalant 'put them together as they show up' are very relevant.