It wasn’t that Jefferson Davis thought Joe Johnston a mad man. The Confederate president didn’t have a sneaking suspicion that his highest western commander was all messed up on laudanum or even that he was trying to be a relentlessly obstinate little twit. Davis simply thought Johnston was wrong.
It wasn’t really even a thought, since, in retrospect, not much thought seemed to go into his thinking. It was merely a belief that for some reason or another Joe Johnston’s command stopped at the Mississippi River. It didn’t seem to matter to him that controlling both sides of the river was an even better idea than controlling just one.
But that’s how it stood. Johnston was tasked with defending Vicksburg with two armies, one of which was at Murfreesboro, Tennessee – a journey to the river town that consisted of roughly 700 miles, depending upon which railroads were currently being torn up by Federal cavalry. All the while, across the river in Arkansas there was another army, albeit smaller, that was 400 miles closer.
There was clearly no good way to defend Vicksburg. Both armies at Murfreesboro and in Arkansas were holding respective Union forces at bay. If either left their positions entirely, their blue-clad friends would certainly follow.
This was why Davis ordered Johnston to order a division from Murfreesboro to Vicksburg, leaving 30,000 behind with Braxton Bragg. And this was why Davis wrote on this date to Theophilus Holmes, who commanded the Confederate troops in Arkansas.
Davis had actually done some thinking and figured out that the Federals had two goals in this war. The first was to capture Richmond, the second was to control the Mississippi. With the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, Davis was fairly certain that any Union advances towards the capital were put on hold till the spring thaw. The same was not true for Vicksburg.
The letter meandered, as Davis’ letters often did, filling otherwise blank pages with words like “heretofore” and “exigent.” The crux of all this was that the Union could profit by controlling the Mississippi.
In previous letters, Davis suggested to Holmes that he capture the river town of Helena, Arkansas. It wasn’t an order, but he really hoped that Holmes would take him up on it. Holmes did not and now Davis could only conclude “that it has heretofore been impractical.”
Since this unobtainable dream of occupying Helena was found impractical by Holmes, Davis concluded that “to prevent the enemy getting control of the Mississippi and dismembering the Confederacy, we must mainly rely upon maintaining the points already occupied by defensive works, to wit, Vicksburg and Port Hudson.”
Davis then went for it. Almost. He wasn’t about to order Holmes what to do. He merely laid it out for him. Grant’s army was coming by land, another force (under McClernand and Sherman) were about to come south by river, and another force, this one under Nathaniel Banks (I’ve not really talked about this yet) is readying for a move north up the river.
There were not enough Confederate troops along the Mississippi to meet these attacks. And this is where he strongly suggested that Holmes do something he wanted in one very long sentence. “It seems to be, then, unquestionably best that you should re-enforce General Johnston, so as to enable you successfully to meet the enemy, and by his defeat to destroy his power for such future operations against you as would be irresistible by your isolated force, and by the same means to place the army here in such condition as would enable it in turn to re-enforce you when the season will make it practicable for you by active operations to expel the enemy from Arkansas, and having secured your rear, to advance to the deliverance of Missouri.”
Davis, after taking a deep breath, explained to Holmes that in this late season, no Union Army would even think about trying to invade through the northwestern part of Arkansas. This was a statement that would soon be proven ridiculous by the Union Army planning an invasion through the northwestern part of Arkansas.
Since the ridiculous knows few bounds, Davis then preached the Gospel According to Johnston, telling Holmes that they must find their “security of concentration and rapid movement of troops. Nothing will so certainly conduce to peace as the conclusive exhibition of our power to hold the Mississippi River, and nothing so diminish our capacity to defend the Trans-Mississippi States as the loss of communication between the States on the eastern and western sides of the river.”
Johnston, if he were privy to this letter, might have wondered why Davis didn’t just order all of this to be so. Otherwise, it seemed clear, after weeks of begging and pleading with Holmes to do something, that Holmes would again do nothing.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 52, Part 2, p397-399. [↩]