December 23, 1863 (Wednesday)
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.
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
- 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. [↩]