Ignoring the Facts, Jefferson Davis Writes a Glowing Report of His Western Army

December 23, 1863 (Wednesday)

You're still burning with zeal, right?
You’re still burning with zeal, right?

In the Confederate West, General Joe Johnston had recently been placed in command of Braxton Bragg’s old Army of Tennessee. They were now situated in Dalton, Georgia under the temporary supervision of William Hardee. Johnston was to arrive in several days to formally take over.

General Hardee had penned a sad letter, detailing the lack of supplies, low morale, and general unfitness of the army to even hold a defensive position. To Johnston, Secretary of War James Seddon understated Hardee’s warnings, writing only that “the army may have been by recent events somewhat disheartened and deprived of ordnance and material.”

If Seddon understated, Jefferson Davis simply lied or was completely deluded. Even though he had Hardee’s letter detailing the contrary, Davis ignored it. Instead, he focused on the word of a staff officer he had sent shortly after the battle of Missionary Ridge, in which Bragg’s army was driven from the field.

The report reaching Davis described the army as “still full of zeal and burning to redeem its lost character and prestige.” The Army of Tennessee had not been full of zeal in a long, long time.

“The intelligence recently received respecting the condition of that army is encouraging,” wrote Davis, obviously not referring to the report submitted by General Hardee, “and induces me to hope that you will soon be able to commence active operations against the enemy.” Hardee’s opinion, however, stood in stark contrast: “in our present condition it is necessary to avoid a general action.”

Davis somehow concluded that the defeat at Missionary Ridge was “not attributable to any general demoralization or reluctance to encounter the opposing army,” when actually it was attributable to both (along with a helping of wretched generalship).

The closest Davis would wander towards reality was when he wrote that his source “presented a not unfavorable view of the material of command.” He noted that even though many guns were lost, the artillery was still well equipped. The same went for the ambulance corps. He even went as far as to say that “the troops were tolerably provided with clothing.” Again, this was the opposite of what was reported by Hardee, who referred to the question of supplies as “a source of infinite trouble.”

Davis then wrote that with two brigades of infantry that had been ordered to Dalton, a brigade of cavalry sent by James Longstreet, and the stragglers and convalescents returning to the ranks, Johnston would have a force “perhaps exceeding in numbers than actually engaged in any battle on the Confederate side during the present war.” Or perhaps not. While the stragglers and convalescents were returning, Longstreet never sent the cavalry, and Davis himself would order the two infantry brigades to Mississippi in early January.

Feel free to ignore everything I tell you.
Feel free to ignore everything I tell you.

But the President couldn’t be blamed for ignoring everything Hardee had written. In fact, he quoted the temporary commander as saying that “the army is in good spirits, the artillery reorganized and equipped, and we are now ready to fight.” But this was written nearly a week before his laundry list of grievances, and was clearly out of date.

Still, Davis drew the conclusion that the condition of the Army of Tennessee was “a matter of much congratulation.” He also assured Johnston that “nothing shall be wanting on the part of the Government to aid you in your efforts to regain possession of the territory from which we have been driven.”

Immediate action was needed, wrote Davis, “not only from the importance of restoring the prestige of the army, and averting the dispiriting and injurious results that must attend a season of inactivity, but from the necessity of reoccupying the country, upon the supplies of which the proper subsistence of our armies materially depends.” Before signing, Davis urged Johnston to communicate openly and freely with him personally “that all the assistance and co-operation may be most advantageously afforded.”

It would take Johnston another two weeks to get settled in at Dalton and finally reply to Davis. From the moment of his arrival, Johnston could see for himself that his President was willingly living in a world far separated from reality.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p840, 856-857; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. []
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5 thoughts on “Ignoring the Facts, Jefferson Davis Writes a Glowing Report of His Western Army

  1. Do you suggest that Jefferson lied? I do not think he ever lied his entire life. He was completely honest in all matters at all times. I do not think he was capable of a falsehood.

    If you would like to see an ambrotype portrait of Jefferson Davis, age around or exactly 44, go to http://www.kaplancollection.com.

    Yours sincerely,

    Albert Kaplan

    1. I suggest that Davis was either incredibly out of touch with reality or blatantly lied. You can pick whichever you like, but it’s got to be one of them.

      To suggest that Davis (or anyone) had never told a lie in his entire life is simply ridiculous. At the very best, Davis was human. At the very worst he was… well, read any of his writing involving slavery.

      I have zero love or respect for the man – and that’s solely based upon his own writings. I’ve never read a biography of him.

        1. Being deeply sentimental about religion hardly saves one from the ability to lie. I have no idea (and I don’t care) if Davis ever told a lie. He was a politician, so I’m going to go out on a limb and just assume he had.

          As far as this post goes, he either chose to ignore the facts before him and lied to make soldiers and people feel better about their plight, or he was so easily duped that he somehow believed what he was saying. Either way, he was clearly in no position to lead a fledgling country in a time of war.

          This blog is no more pro-Confederate than it is pro-Union. I try my best to study all angles using as many primary sources as I can. In the end, I try to let the people speak for themselves. With Davis, that’s pretty easy to do. Take a look at his speech before the CS congress, or the post about the bread riot, or Davis’ follow up.

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