Davis Very Reluctantly Appoints Johnston to Command

December 16, 1863 (Wednesday)

This was no easy decision. Confederate President Jefferson Davis respected and practically adored Braxton Bragg. Following the utter debacle at Chattanooga, however, he was not only forced to accept that his pet general was in over his head, but also to accept his resignation. Bragg had tried to resign before, more than likely as a show of humility. Davis, fully understanding that it was all part of the act, had always denied and declined. On December 2nd, David finally did the needful, and the Army of Tennessee was handed to William Hardee.

How about anybody but Johnston (and Beauregard)?
How about anybody but Johnston (and Beauregard)?

Hardee accepted – there was nobody else around who might take the reigns – but on the condition that it was incredibly temporary. Davis was to find another commander within a month. Davis immediately began to look at his options. He had been in direct and almost daily communication with Robert E. Lee, and though he would have loved to place him at the post, Lee sidestepped the offer and suggested P.G.T. Beauregard instead. Davis had no love at all for General Beauregard and wrote him off with hardly a thought.

This left two: Samuel Cooper, who was an older fellow and probably unfit for command in the field; and Joseph Johnston. Davis cared for Johnston about as much as he cherished Beauregard. Was there not somebody else? With nowhere else to turn, Davis returned to Lee, ordering him to Richmond on December 9th. For days, the president tried to convince his general that the Army of Northern Virginia would be fine under a subordinate commander. Lee was needed in the West.

By the 15th, Lee had convinced Davis that it would be a monumental mistake. Because Davis had completely written off Beauregard, he turned to Johnston, whom Davis had almost completely written off. Others, too, had the President’s ear. Congressmen like Louis Wigfall, a dear friend of Johnston’s, tirelessly lobbied for Johnston’s appointment. Wigfall, however, was one of the “anti-Davis men,” and due to his influence, other such congressmen in Richmond gathered quickly behind Johnston. Soon, his appointment became politicized. Support for Johnston was seen as a vote against Davis, even though it was Davis who would be doing the appointing.

This was the question put forth by Davis at a cabinet meeting. Secretary of War James Seddon cast his lot with Johnston, but he was more or less alone in that sentiment. Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State, saw Johnston’s proclivity to the defense as a bad thing. What the troops in the West needed now was to go on the offensive. Davis, of course, agreed with Benjamin and distrusted Johnston to be able to do little more than dig trenches and build forts.

Johnston in repose.
Johnston in repose.

But as the talking dragged on, other cabinet members slowly realized that even if they might not care for the man, Joe Johnston was the only one available, and thus the best man for the job. Davis finally agreed, but almost counted upon Johnston to fail.

And so on this date, Davis appointed Joseph Johnston commander of the Army of Tennessee, headquartered in Dalton, Georgia. To fill Johnston’s place in the Army of Mississippi, Leonidas Polk was selected. “A letter of instruction will be sent you in Dalton,” Davis concluded. The letter would be written two days later, when Johnston first learned of his new command.

As Davis and all of Richmond knew (and as Johnston was soon to discover), the state of the Army of Tennessee was abysmal. The following day, temporary commander General Hardee, would detail the sorry shape of things. The army was in an immovable state, and he found it “necessary to avoid a general action.” This would naturally allow the Federal troops under General Grant to concentrate. If the enemy advanced, “a retrograde movement becomes inevitable.” The matter, for Hardee, was simple – though almost impossible to overcome.

'We're gonna need a bigger boat.'
‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’

“The question of supplies, both for men and animals, presents a source of infinite trouble,” he concluded. “This will be still more complicated by a retrograde movement from this point. Our deficiency of supplies would become aggravated to an alarming extent.” Hardee’s suggestion – the only way he saw for the Army of Tennessee to even go on the defensive, was to increase the number of troops. “I am inclined to think that forces are disposed from Mississippi to North Carolina, along different localities, which, if concentrated, would swell the ranks of this command very largely.” Once gathered, they were to be prepared to take the offensive and storm into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Such was the state of Johnston’s new army – a rather small mass of broken units, wholly unfit for even defense. Only time would tell how Richmond might respond. 1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p835-836, 839-840; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn. []
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