Davis Grows Tired of Joe Johnston’s Personal Honor

February 19, 1863 (Thursday)

When last we left Confederate General Joe Johnston, headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he wanted to take command of an army, any army. As it stood, he was the commander of the huge and unwieldy Department of the West. This behemoth encompassed Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, including their coastal defenses.

Davis: You take it on the run, baby!

Two large armies facing off against two larger enemy armies were at Vicksburg and Tullahoma, well south of Nashville. It was incredibly difficult to reinforce one army with the other as they were hundreds of miles apart.

The Army of Tennessee, at Tullahoma, 42,000-strong, was commanded by Braxton Bragg. After fighting and losing the Battle of Stones River, BRagg also lost any of the remaining respect his men and officers still held for him.

This growing anti-Bragg faction wanted to place Johnston in direct command of the Army of the Tennessee. As Department commander, Johnston would have been well within his rights to do just that. His honor, even his embarrassment, would not allow him.

But rather than simply leave it at that, he supported Bragg. For a time, Johnston was in good, though sparse, company. President Jefferson Davis thought Bragg fit for the job and, at first, was bolstered by Johnston’s support of Bragg. Three weeks later, however, he wasn’t so enamored by it.

This had much to do with the fact that though Davis supported Bragg, he knew he had to leave. It would have been much better for everyone if Johnston would have just stepped in – personal honor be damned.

And on this date, Davis clearly explained that. He expressed great doubts that Bragg held the confidence of anybody in the Army of Tennessee. The views of the disgruntled officers, no doubt, trickled down to the men, like little bits of table scraps for the poor.

“It is not given to all men of ability to excite enthusiasm and to win affection of their troops,” Davis continued, “and it is only the few who are thus endowed who can overcome the distrust and alienation of their principal officers.” The President seemed to believe that if Bragg saw that he was not wanted and could do no good, he “would surrender a desirable position to promote the public interest….”

Johnston: If that’s the way you want it baby, then I don’t want you around…

After reiterating his “confidence… and zeal” in Bragg’s abilities, Davis turned blame upon Joe Johnston. “You limit the selection to a new man,” wrote Davis, “and, in terms very embarrassing to me, object to being yourself the immediate commander.”

Johnston’s roll as Department commander had never been very clear to him [Johnston]. Was he to take field command? Just act as a referee? Be a mysterious inspector general? He had no idea.

Now, Davis tried to clear that up in the most simple terms imaginable: “I had felt the importance of keeping you free to pass from army to army in your department, so as to be present wherever most needed, and to command in person wherever present.”

And so Davis wanted Johnston to take the same position that Union General Grant was taking. Grant was the Federal Department commander, and yet was personally in the field commanding the Army of the Tennessee.

“When you went to Tullahoma,” Davis continued, recalling Johnston’s short time visiting Bragg’s Army, “I considered your arrival placed you for as long a period as you should remain there in the immediate command of that army, and that your judgment would determine the duration of your stay.”

But then, that is where Johnston’s personal honor came into things. It was embarrassing to hover over Bragg, an officer Johnston believed could take care of himself. But Davis no longer cared.

“I do not think that your personal honor is involved,” he wrote, “as you could have nothing to gain by the removal of General Bragg. You shall not be urged by me to any course which would wound your sensibility or views of professional propriety, though you will perceive how small is the field of selection if a new man is to be sought whose rank is superior to that of the lieutenant-generals now in Tennessee.”

Beauregard: I don’t believe it. Not for a minute.

Davis was, of course, right. There simply was nobody else in the theater with the rank that could take over for Bragg. The only other officer in the army who could was P.G.T. Beauregard, but his hands were more or less full with suspected Yankee attacks upon Charleston and Savannah.

Johnston, who had once commanded the Army of Northern Virginia, wanted his old job back. He realized, of course, that there was no way that could happen – Lee was more than holding his own. But Johnston wanted a field command. He could take over Bragg’s Army, but didn’t feel it was right to do so. If Davis ordered him to do it, however, that might be another thing altogether.

All he really knew was that his job was dreadfully dull and there was little he could (or would) do to change that.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, Part 2, p640-641; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 1 by Grady McWhiney. []
Creative Commons License
Davis Grows Tired of Joe Johnston’s Personal Honor by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by

4 thoughts on “Davis Grows Tired of Joe Johnston’s Personal Honor

  1. Excellent post this morning. Clear concise explanation of how this honor/rank works itself out in the military. I’m no expert and found it to be very educational.


    1. Thanks so much! I wasn’t really sure how it all came out. As I was proofreading it last night, it just seemed dry and boring (aside from the REO Speedwagon appearance, of course). I’m really glad you liked it! Thank you!

  2. Davis had a way of rejecting anyone who did not flatter him — which is why he cherished Lee, who was very very careful to flatter Davis shamelessly. In the end, Davis got rid of Johnston and Beauregard, because they told him things he did not want to hear. And he turned to Lee, who was cunningly submissive and flattering to Davis.

    This became a huge problem in the last months of the war, when everyone but Davis knew most of the soldiers had already deserted – 2/3 had deserted by September of 64, according to Davis himself. But desertions grew worse, much worse, not better. By the last weeks, no one could be sure if there were soldiers to obey the orders or not.

    Davis created a separate reality — not unusual for a leader in wartime, whose ego and status depended on the war. If you understand Davis last day as Confederate President, you will see how his sense of reality had diminished to the point of absurdity. See his wife’s letter about the dress he wore (yes, he wore a dress) and more, his actions in fact of the enemy.

    1. Prior to starting this CWDG project, I had no real opinion of Davis. I really had no knowledge of him as a person. Through reading his own post-war writings and his war-time letters, however, I’ve come to see the man as a very out of touch aristocrat who needed to have things his way and, like you said, rejected anyone and anything he didn’t agree with.

      I think I really came to this conclusion when writing about the Richmond bread riots. I was appalled by the man thanks to his own writings on the subject. Many, including his equally aloof wife, came to his defense, but in the end, I just couldn’t like him.

Comments are closed.