January 29, 1863 (Thursday)
Following the Battle of Stones River, Tennessee, nearly a month in the past, Confederate General Braxton Bragg retreated forty-five miles south to Tullahoma in defeat. Fortunately for him, Union commander William Rosecrans declined to follow.
The defeat and withdrawal did nothing to bolster Bragg’s standing in the opinion of his men or in Richmond. But it was the press that really seemed to get to him. After a Confederate-leaning Chattanooga paper lambasted him for the failure, Bragg offered to resign if his officers no longer had any confidence in him. In a flurry of letters responding to Bragg’s offer, it was pretty well the consensus that everyone in the army wanted Bragg to go. Everybody, that is, except Bragg.
Word of this fiasco somehow reached President Davis in Richmond. In turn, he wrote to General Joe Johnston, commanding the large department that encompassed both Bragg’s command and the bastions at Vicksburg and Port Hudson.
“Why General Bragg should have selected that tribunal, and have invited its judgment upon him, is to me unexplained,” wrote Davis in complete befuddlement, “it manifests, however, a condition of things which seems to me to require your presence.”
When Davis wrote this, Johnston was in Mobile, Alabama inspecting the defenses. He wouldn’t receive the message until this date (January 29th). Though Davis’s confidence in Bragg was somehow unshaken by the recent defeat, he allowed that if the army had lost their faith in him as a commander, a disaster may soon ensue.
He ended the letter with a vague (to Joe Johnston, anyway) missive. After asking for Johnston’s advice on the matter, he concluded: “As that army is a part of your command, no order will be necessary to give you authority there, as, whether present or absent, you have a right to direct its operations and do whatever else belongs to the general commanding.”
Johnston had absolutely no desire to command a department as unwieldy as his own. What he really wanted was to once again command an army in the field. And here was his chance. Since Davis was asking his advice, and since every officer in the army wanted Bragg to leave, all Johnston had to do was merely suggest it.
The problem, then, was not Bragg, but Johnston. He simply couldn’t do it. His sense of honor would not allow it. He would not get what he wanted by politicking and backstabbing. The letter’s ending even gave Johnston permission to take the army in person, but it did not give him authority to supersede Bragg.
Both Generals Hardee and Polk, who had served under Bragg in the recent battle, had petitioned Richmond to allow Johnston to take over as commander. Everybody concerned, including Johnston, but not Bragg (obviously), seemed to want this. And yet, it wasn’t simply Johnston’s moral code that kept it from happening.
From what he saw of Bragg, he genuinely respected his military abilities. He somehow thought that Bragg had “done wonders” at Stones River, and believed he should be rewarded for such wonders. Johnston blamed Richmond, and not Bragg, for the defeat.
Simply put, Johnston wanted to command the Army of the Tennessee. However, due to his honor and his real respect for General Bragg, he would not force his way into it. The only way he would get there was by an order from President Davis. But Davis shared Johnston’s respect for Bragg, so that probably wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
So for the foreseeable future, Johnston had to do his best to keep officers’ revolt under some semblance of control. Meanwhile, Johnston’s friends (like Louis Wigfall), fellow officers and even Secretary of War James Seddon, did their best to oust Bragg and insert Johnston.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, Part 2, p613-614; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The immortal Freddie Mercury. [↩]