Joe Johnston to “Proceed at Once to Mississippi”

May 9, 1863 (Saturday)

Confederate General Joseph Johnston had commanded the Department of the West for five months. It had been a very trying time for him. Field command, such as he had during the Peninsula Campaign, suited him well. What amounted to a desk job where he played a gigantic game of chess with real men as pawns from the comfort of his office in Tullahoma, Tennessee, did not. He wanted nothing more than to be given command of an army or even a division, but it was not to be.

Joe Johnston wants you to know that he's not feeling so well.
Joe Johnston wants you to know that he’s not feeling so well.

On top of simply not liking the job, he had some reasonable complaints about how the entire thing was set up. His biggest problem with it was that even though the Mississippi River was the focal point for two large Federal Armies, he commanded Confederate troops on only the eastern side. General Kirby Smith commanded the other. This created myriad logistical problems when trying to bring reinforcements to Vicksburg, as Smith was usually less than willing to help.

The system, set up by Jefferson Davis himself, required Johnston to pull troops from Braxton Bragg’s Army in middle Tennessee to reinforce General John Pemberton in western Mississippi. For example, it took one division an entire month to travel the 600 miles from Tennessee to Vicksburg.

Despite the proof that it was basically impossible for Bragg to reinforce Pemberton (or vise versa), Davis insisted that his idea was best and nothing changed. Until today.

On this date, Secretary of War James Seddon wired Johnston, giving him a little taste of what he wanted most. “Proceed at once to Mississippi and take chief command of the forces,” he began, “giving to those in the field, as far as practicable, the encouragement and benefit of your personal direction.” With him, he was to take 3,000 troops and to expect two brigades from P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army in South Carolina.

Did you know that my Approximate Maps are usually researched by using the OR? It's true!
Did you know that my Approximate Maps are usually researched by using the OR? It’s true!

Johnston replied that he would leave immediately, “although unfit for field service.” By “unfit,” he indicated that he was still suffering from the wounds he suffered during the Seven Days Battles. They had healed enough for him to get back to work, but because of frequent traveling, by April he was bedridden. It was only Seddon’s appeal to encourage the troops, something he was not only good at, but enjoyed, that roused him from his sickbed. Through judicious use of the rails, he would arrive in Jackson, Mississippi on the 13th.

The situation Johnston was riding into was precarious. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, 35,000-strong, had crossed the Mississippi and were headed towards Jackson, via Raymond. John Pemberton’s Confederate Army, roughly 23,000 men under William Loring, were in Vicksburg and near Edward’s station, twenty miles east.

More were on their way, however. From Louisiana, a brigade under General John Gregg had arrived on this date in Jackson. Soon, they would be ordered to stop Grant’s advance. Others, like Wirt Adams and his band of cavalry pecked at Grant’s columns, trying to figure out where the Federals were headed. Vicksburg seemed the most obvious objective, yet they were clearly headed to Jackson. Which roads they would take, however, was a bit of a mystery.

By this date, General Pemberton was getting a grasp of the situation, but he was still refusing to make any grand movement until more reinforcements arrived. This could take time. “My force is insufficient for offensive operations,” he wrote to Kirby Smith on this date while asking him to disrupt Grant’s supply chain on the Louisiana side. “I must stand on the defensive in all events until reinforcements reach me.”

Unfortunately for Pemberton (and soon Johnston), Grant’s Army was moving much too fast for any of that.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 23, Part 2, p825-826; Vol. 24, Part 2, p846; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. []
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Joe Johnston to “Proceed at Once to Mississippi” by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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