December 4, 1862 (Thursday)
Confederate General Joe Johnston had finally arrived in Chattanooga to start his new job as commander of the Department of the West. Spread out before him was a vast expanse of land that stretched from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Within it, he now commanded two large Confederate armies.
Closest was Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee which was hovering around Murfreesboro, Tennessee, hoping to draw the Union Army of the Cumberland, under William Rosecrans from the defenses of Nashville. The one in the most peril, however, was John Pemberton’s Army of the West (also known as the Army of Western Tennessee, but soon to be known as the Army of Mississippi), slowly backing towards Vicksburg, away from the Federal Army of the Tennessee, under Ulysses S. Grant.
Johnston had acquainted himself with the happenings of the two armies (and of the smaller force under Kirby Smith along the Kentucky border), but the morning of his first full day in Chattanooga, Richmond wired with some fairly urgent news.
General Pemberton was falling back and needed reinforcements. Richmond had already tried to get some troops from Theophilus Holmes, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department to the west, but his army, under the field command of Thomas Hindman, was moving to attack Federals in northern Arkansas. Holmes could send nothing. What Richmond really wanted to know was whether or not Bragg could send anything to Pemberton.
Johnston’s Department of the West was simultaneously too large and too small for one commander. Mostly, however, it was just poorly laid out. He had no command whatsoever over anything west of the Mississippi River. Otherwise, he would simply have ordered Holmes to forget about the Yankees in northern Arkansas and come to Pemberton’s assistance.
And because he could not order it, he suggested that Richmond must. Johnston argued that the Federals under General Grant were between Bragg and Pemberton, so any troops sent from Tennessee would have to take a pointlessly long round about trip taking several weeks. “It seems to me consequently that the aid of General Holmes can better be relied on than that of General Bragg,” replied Johnston.
But he was far from finished. He pounded out a terse message to Pemberton to “urge General Holmes to quick movement.” When Pemberton replied only that Grant’s advance was but three miles away (though the main body was much farther behind), Pemberton wired Bragg to see if he could send any cavalry from Tennessee to play upon Grant’s supply lines and perhaps slow him down.
And that was all he could do. The armies under his command were too far separated to give any support and the army that was close enough to give support wasn’t under his command.
The next day, Johnston would take a train to Murfreesboro to see Bragg’s army for himself. When he returned to Chattanooga, he would find President Jefferson Davis waiting for him. In the meantime, Grant would continue to move south while Holmes prepared to attack the Federals in northern Arkansas.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 2, p780-782; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glorly by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. [↩]