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.
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….”
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.”
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
- 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. [↩]