January 29, 1862 (Wednesday)
With petition in hand, Confederate General William B. Taliaferro rode into Richmond, hoping to stir up some changes on the Stonewall Jackson front. Taliaferro had been in the thick of the plot to move General Loring’s Army of the Northwest from the hole that was Romney, Virginia [now West Virginia] to the relative comfort of Winchester. Twelve officers, including Loring himself, had signed a statement listing all the ways that Stonewall had blundered and mistreated his men during the Romney Expedition. The chief complaint was that they had been abandoned.
Taliaferro, once, in what seemed another lifetime, an attorney who attended Harvard, was probably selected by Loring for his connections in the capital and for his persuasive, lawyerly ways. He first paid a visit to the Confederate Congress, who seemed little concerned over the matter. He then procured the ear of President Jefferson Davis, who had already been briefed by a disgruntled Col. Albert Rust.
Rust, a former US Congressman and veteran of the Battle of Cheat Mountain, had told Davis all about Jackson’s crazy antics a few days before. With Davis caught up on the details, Taliaferro had an easy go at convincing Davis that something had to be done.
The petition was presented to the President who, at least at first, accepted it. This was a breach of military etiquette, which Davis, being a former Secretary of War, understood completely. Davis also understood that something had to be done. Immediately after the meeting with Taliaferro, President Jefferson Davis ordered Loring’s force to be reunited with Jackson’s force, abandoning Romney to the Union.1
However, Davis would not directly order Jackson to recall Loring’s men. Instead, he ordered Secretary of War Judah Benjamin to order Jackson:
It will be necessary to act promptly. Have you been notified of the return of General Jackson to Winchester and the withdrawal of the brigade with which he undertook the service from which he is reported to have retired, leaving only those who were sent to re-enforce him? Will confer with you at your pleasure.2
What this strangely-worded message was asking was whether Benjamin had heard the news that Jackson and the Stonewall Brigade had moved from Romney to Winchester, while leaving General Loring and all the men who had come to reinforce Jackson at Romney. They would meet, apparently at Benjamin’s pleasure, the next day.
Meanwhile, General Joe Johnston, Jackson’s immediate commander, received Secretary Benjamin’s letter, written on the 26th, vaguely describing some of the problems with Jackson’s command. This was the first time Johnston had any inkling that something in the house of Jackson was amiss.
“Without being entirely certain that I understand the precise object of apprehension in the Valley District,” wrote a baffled Johnston to Benjamin, “I have dispatched the acting inspector general of the department to see and report without delay the condition of Major-General Jackson’s troops.”3
Earl Van Dorn Arrives in Little Rock, Arkansas
Like any President of a fledgling nation, waging a war for its independence, Jefferson Davis had a lot on his plate. Generals Loring and Jackson were not the only high-ranking officers unable to get along. Along the Missouri-Arkansas border, General Sterling Price, commander of the pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard, and General Ben McCulloch, Confederate commander in Arkansas, had been cordial enough to win the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, but before and since then, it was crystal clear that they despised one another.
Missouri’s Confederate governor, Clebourne Jackson, had petitioned Davis numerous times to place General Price in command of the “Trans-Mississippi.” While Davis promised to make Price a full Confederate General, he stopped short of promising him command of anything larger than a division.
Davis was partial to officers with an education from West Point. Since the change in Union commander of Missouri from the explorer and politician, John C. Fremont, to the West Point alum, Henry Halleck, Davis knew that neither Price nor McCulloch, both of whom had not a day of formal military education between them, were fit to command such a large force.
Davis’ first choice was Col. Henry Heth, West Point Class of 1847 (though at the bottom). Heth, a Virginian, refused after the Missouri and Arkansas boys found they could agree upon at least one thing: a Virginian had no place commanding western troops.
The second choice was General Braxton Bragg, already a department commander in Florida. Bragg, a Texan (like McCulloch) who gradated near the top of the Class of 1837, politely declined the offer.
Davis then turned to his old neighbor, General Earl Van Dorn, a plantation owner just up the river from Davis’ own estate. Graduating near the bottom of the Class of 1842, Van Dorn commanded a division in General Joe Johnston’s Army of the Potomac. He was a charming man, a romantic and the epitome of the Southern aristocracy. While his education was from West Point, his military experience was gained in the wild west, battling Plains Indians.
On January 10th, the Department of the Trans-Mississippi was cleaved from General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Department of the West and General Earl Van Dorn was placed in command. He left Joe Johnston’s army at Centreville, Virginia immediately.
The task before him was huge. First, he had to solve the Price-McCulloch problem. Like Davis, he realized that neither could be trusted with command, and so combined the two forces as the Army of the West, which would be led by Van Dorn himself.
By the time his train chuffed into Little Rock, Arkansas, on this date, Van Dorn already had a plan. He knew that the Union forces in Missouri were scattered. The only organized force was General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Southwest, near Rolla. He was certain that his Army of the West could zip past the lethargic Yankees and capture St. Louis. To accomplish this, he would soon make his headquarters at Pocahontas, Arkansas and wait until spring to begin his campaign.
However, unknown to Van Dorn, his adversary, Union General Henry Halleck, had already dispatched Curtis’ Army of the Southwest.4