Wherein we follow the little remembered Southern command crisis
Joe Johnston wrote with a barely contained rage:
Sir: A colonel of a Mississippi regiment has just informed me that you had referred him to me for information in relation to the recent act of Congress granting bounties and furloughs to non-commissioned officers and privates of the Provisional Army. I have received no order from the War Department directly on this subject.If the first winter of the war for the North was headlined by the struggle between McClellan and the Lincoln Administration, it was equally true that the winter for the South revolved around a similar power battle between Johnston and the Davis Administration. But the latter fight is remembered only as a side-note by even the more diligent historians while the former is the centerpiece of even the most casual histories of the war.
There are many reasons this may be. For one, Johnston was a far less colorful character, who bequeathed history no inflammatory personal letters. But the story also lacks a hero. Johnston was not a great general in his campaigning and won no great victories that he could claim sole credit for (forever having to share Manassas with Beauregard), while the gross mismanagement of the Davis Administration hardly provides a sympathetic character to the reader. And the later success of Lee commanding the same army helps write a simple narrative for the war: South is dominant up until Gettysburg, when either the little guy North wins through pluck and determination or the resource-rich North crushes the valiant South tragically, but inevitably (depending on your persuasion). Johnston, and his feud with Davis and his surrogates, sullies that narrative by forcing us to recognize two equally inept factions, struggling to create a physical embodiment of their ideological passions and impose it on the continent.
When General Joseph E. Johnston started writing Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin on January 18, the specific issue was bounties and furloughs, an ill advised solution to a manpower problem. In the early days of 1861, when it was still a secession crisis and not yet a war, the Provisional Confederate Congress had to solve the problem of how to protect their would-be nation from the U.S. Army. After all, it had been Maj. General Winfield Scott that had mobilized U.S. soldiers in South Carolina to help put an end to the Nullification Crisis a quarter of a century earlier, and it was Winfield Scott who was advising Lincoln on how to deal with the Secession Crisis in 1861.
The problem was, with no national laws on the book yet, there was no authority for the national government in Montgomery to coordinate a force made up of militia units from multiple states (at the time there were only seven states in the Confederacy, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas). In the North, the Lincoln administration made use of the Militia Acts of 1792, which allowed for Federal control of state militia for up to 90 days. On the last day of February, the Provisional Confederate Congress did Davis one better, passing a law to "receive into the service of this government such forces now in the service of said States as may be tendered, or who may volunteer, by consent of their State, in such numbers as he may require, for any time not less than twelve months, unless sooner discharged." Interestingly, the regular Confederate Army was not established for another week, and remained tiny despite being authorized at an end-strength of 10,000.
A great deal of the pressure for attacking Manassas in July 1861 and a significant blame for the rout of Union soldiers was the result of the impending expiration of the 90 days allowed under the Militia Acts. Many Northern militia, when confronted with a collapsing battle line, felt sure it made more sense to get home than to be killed for the honor of a unit that would cease to exist in a few days to a few weeks time. The Confederate units, who all had at the least eight months of service remaining, felt differently.
But in the early days of 1862 the roles were reversed. The day after Manassas, the U.S. Congress had passed a law allowing Lincoln to accept into Federal service volunteers for three years (technically, there were some three-years men before this too, but that's another post). So the Northern Army of the Potomac of over 150,000 men in front of Johnston in January 1862 was full of men who had at least two and a half years of service remaining, while his Southern Army of the Potomac had units preparing to return home in a month. And the overwhelming odds they faced and the dreadful Confederate supply system were encouraging more and more of them to head home even earlier than that.
The Confederate Congress, probably at Judah Benjamin's urging, had decided to address this problem by authorizing a bonus of fifty dollars and 60 days of furlough (leave) for any twelve-month man who volunteered to serve for an additional two years. What was more, the law allowed them to switch units or reorganize their companies and regiments when they reenlisted, and to re-elect their officers (it was time-honored American militia tradition that the men elected officers and sergeants, and it caused problems for both sides throughout the war).
It was this order that Johnston was protesting he hadn't received on January 18, but, he irritably wrote to Benjamin, his subordinate, General G.T. Beauregard, had received it. Johnston was not pleased (his tells are repeating himself and run-on sentences).
In case it be determined that these furloughs are to be granted during the first period of a volunteer's service [upon reenlisting for two years], I beg leave to submit for the consideration of the Department the impracticability of granting them within the time specified in such numbers as will induce any considerable re-enlistment among the twelve months regiments in this command, for the army here is composed in large part of such regiments, and inasmuch as the terms of service of nearly all of them expire at no distant day, it would be necessary to grant furloughs in very great numbers during the next few months, in order to obtain many re enlistments for the two years following. To grant them in such numbers I deem incompatible with the safety of this command.What McClellan was up to with his massive army, Johnston couldn't guess. Recently, his subordinate in the Valley District (Johnston's left flank), Maj. General "Stonewall" Jackson had marched on the little mountain town of Romney and encountered too few Union troops to resist. That suggested to Johnston that the men where elsewhere, but he had heard from Brig. General D.H. Hill that they were pulling back from opposite Leesburg, so they weren't there either (in fact, McClellan was doing almost nothing with his troops, they were just camped, waiting for orders).
"As long as the existing condition of affairs continues," Johnston complained, "it will be unsafe to allow any large number of men to leave here, and without sustaining such a loss, I do not see how the object of the law can be accomplished."
He closed with a written throwing up of the arms, abruptly concluding:
In order to remove those doubts and difficulties, by which we must otherwise be greatly embarrassed, I find myself under the necessity of referring to you for instructions as to the government of my conduct. The law requires me to be guided by the Secretary of War, not only as to the "time "of granting furloughs, but also as to the number of them to be granted.Johnston was beside himself with frustration, because so many things that January required fixing in the army, that his ornery gripes and Benjamin's haughty rebuttals were passing each other in transit back and forth from Richmond to Centreville.
On the 1st it had been Johnston begging Benjamin to rescind a December 27 order to relieve the impulsive Brig. General W.H.C. Whiting, who had dared to write directly to his fellow Mississippian Jefferson Davis, in order to inform him his plan to group all the units of a State together in one brigade was dumb.
I beg to be allowed to intercede in this case, partly because this officer's services as brigadier general are very important to this army, and partly because I also share the wrong. I am confident that he has in his heart neither insubordination nor disrespect. Had I returned the letter to him, pointing out the objectionable language in it, it would, I doubt not, have been promptly corrected. I regret very much that in my carelessness it was not done. No one is less disposed than I to be instrumental in putting before the President a paper offensive in its character.But barely was the letter in the mail before Johnston reversed his conciliatory attitude and lashed out on the 2nd at Benjamin for taking troops from the District of Aquia (his right flank):
The removal of the Arkansas regiment from Evansport [Quanitco] to replace one sent into the Northern Neck was, I understood from Major General [Theophilus] Holmes, made under the instructions of the War Department, and therefore beyond my control. I respectfully recommend that those regiments return to their former positions. The force near Evansport and Dumfries is now far too weak.In Richmond, Benjamin had received the letter of the 1st by January 5th, but not yet that of the 2nd. He wrote two missives of his own, one to Holmes strongly hinting that he should allow men from his Georgia regiment to skip picket duty because they were too sick as result of the change in climate, and one to Johnston declining to reinstate Whiting. He decided to add a gripe of his own back at Johnston, telling him not to send anymore individuals suspected of disloyalty to Richmond because the civilian courts were setting them all free, and to instead indefinitely detain them in Centreville.
It was the next day that the War Department issued the orders about furloughs that Johnston hadn't yet received on the 18th. And on the day after that, the 7th, Benjamin at last received and sat down to write a response to Johnston's complaint of the 2nd. Not only did Benjamin deny that it was his fault that the Arkansas regiment had been removed, but he added a lecture that the "reduction of the force... from the withdrawal of this regiment... renders it necessary, in the opinion of the President, to strengthen that important position by a detail from center [around Centreville], as there are no re-enforcements here that can be sent to Evansport."
Benjamin capped it off with his "embarrassment" at Johnston's failure to brigade regiments by state, and a request meant to insult for Johnston, asking him to send a report on the command structure of his army. A temporary cease fire of a week followed, while Johnston smoldered and Benjamin ordered Maj. General Earl Van Dorn, who had originally been sent to Centreville to command the dreamed of all-Mississippi division, to the western theater, depriving the Army of the Potomac of another senior leader.
On the 14th, four days before his furlough letter, Johnston completed his report of the Army and fired back:
I regret to find from your last letter that the President is dissatisfied with the manner in which I have exercised the discretion with which he invested me as to the execution of Orders 15 and 18. I have assured him that there has been no time since those orders were given when I did not believe it to be utterly unsafe to attempt such reorganization, and no time when I was not, as now, anxious to carry out his wishes... Could the President see the condition of the country in this season, and that of our means of transportation, I am sure that he would regard these changes as physically impracticable now.Johnston decided to see Benjamin's complaint about organization, and raise him one about supply: "Since the supply in the neighborhood was exhausted, the Quartermaster's Department has been unable to furnish full forage. Hay and fodder are rarely to be had, consequently our horses are in wretched condition."
On January 16, most likely before the report of the 14th reached Richmond, Johnston became agitated enough to write again, this time about his lack of commanders. Of his 18 infantry brigades, three had no brigade commander, one had an extremely ill commander, and two more might as well have none, since their brigadiers were in Richmond serving in the Confederate Congress. With Van Dorn and Whiting gone, two of his seven divisional-level commanders were also missing.
I have twice asked by telegraph for an officer of ability to succeed General Whiting, but have received no reply. That command is an important one, and should be exercised by one of our best officers, but those at my disposal who are competent to it are indispensable in their present positions.Benjamin hadn't responded to the letter of the 14th and probably hadn't yet received the letter of the 16th, when Johnston launched into his screed of the 18th against the furlough policy. In fact, perhaps because of the crackling correspondence he was keeping up with Jackson about the Romney offensive (bypassing Johnston, who was Jackson's superior in the Department/District structure that Benjamin had imposed), the Secretary of War would not write Johnston again until the 24th, when he sent him only a terse demand:
The President directs that you send here as promptly as possible 6,000 stands of arms out of the number reported by General Cooper as not being now in use in your army. This is very urgent.Finally, on January 25, Benjamin replied to Johnston's letter of the 18th about furloughs, helpfully including a copy of the original order that Johnston claimed he hadn't received.
I could not undertake to determine when and in what numbers the furloughs could be safely granted. I am aware that your solicitude for the safety of your command must necessarily embarrass you in giving furloughs in large numbers at present, but at the same time, I beg you to observe that the eager desire for a furlough during the inclement season will form the strongest inducement for your men, and thus afford the best guarantee of your having under your orders a large force of veteran troops when active operations recommence.The crux of it was that the Secretary of War simply didn't believe McClellan would attack and therefore assumed there wasn't a need to be so concerned about catastrophically weakening the army's position.
It seems scarcely possible that in the present condition of the roads an attack can be made, and it is surely better to run a little risk now than to meet the certain danger of finding a large body of your men abandoning you at the expiration of their terms now nearly about to expire. There is danger on both sides, I admit, but the hazard is the inevitable result of our comparative weakness in available resources.In a surprisingly frank response given their history (and their future), Benjamin admitted that:
Your own letter presents in a striking manner the fact that we have but a choice of evils. I will do my best to aid you, but you can scarcely conceive the difficulties which encompass me in this task. The enormous masses of the enemy threatening us in the West; his naval expeditions hovering over the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas; his force below us on the Peninsula; the invasion of Western Virginia; all combine to assail me with hourly demands for re-enforcements, and prevents my withdrawing troops from any of the points named, and our citizens themselves, with natural weakness, refuse to volunteer for distant service while their homes are threatened.The detente wouldn't last. The next day, Benjamin dashed off two quick letters to Johnston that were to have immense consequences in the Southern armies.
The first was a request that would confuse Johnston when it arrived, concerning Jackson's command at Romney:
Sir: The accounts which have reached us of the condition of the army in the Valley District fill us with apprehension, especially when connected with the fact, reported by you, of the movement of large bodies of the enemy to Harper's Ferry. The President therefore requests that you will as promptly as possible examine for yourself into the true state of the case, take such measures as you think prudent under the circumstances, and report to the Department whether any measures are necessary on its part to restore the efficiency of that army, said to be seriously impaired.The second would change the face of his own command:
Sir: Inclosed you will find an order detaching General Beauregard from the army under your command, and assigning him to do duty at Columbus, Kentucky, which you are requested to forward to him at once. Regretting that the exigencies of the public service force us to deprive you of the aid of this valuable officer, I still entertain undiminished confidence in your capacity, with the aid of the able generals who still surround you, to maintain the position which you have thus far successfully defended.