Johnston Back in Command – Feeling Hopeless

February 25, 1865 (Saturday)

Joe Johnston was not meant to be a savior. He had served better than most through the war, but had lost command of both the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 and the Army of Tennessee in 1864. Now, with P.G.T. Beauregard about to collapse from exhaustion, he was placed in command of the troops scattered throughout the Carolinas.

Joe Johnston!

Joe Johnston!

On the 22nd, Johnston was ordered south, and told by General Lee to “concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” Replying from North Carolina on the same day, Johnston plainly stated: “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of drivign back Sherman.” Still, he followed ordered and found himself in Charlotte, North Carolina on this date.

When he arrived, he took a tally of his forces available for this potential concentration. Under General William Hardee was 8,000 at Cheraw, South Carolina, seventy-five miles southeast of Charlotte. Braxton Bragg had, perhaps, 5,000 which had been holding Fort Anderson and Wilmington. Once those fell, they retreated 100 miles north to Goldsboro. Lastly, what little was left of the Army of Tennessee – several thousand men – had been making its slow way north from Augusta, Georgia, and were near Newberry, South Carolina, 100 miles south of Charlotte, as well as near Charlotte itself. Concentration of the estimated 12,000 men would likely take weeks.

Their positions formed sort of lopsided triangle inside which was General Sherman’s army, though by Johnston to be around 40,000-strong. If the numbers were turned, of course, all the Confederates would have to do would be to descend upon the surrounded Yankees. However, as things stood in reality, Sherman, though surrounded, could, by Johnston’s word, “prevent their concentration or compel them to unite in its rear by keeping on its way without loss of time.”

Today's approximate map.

Today’s approximate map.

“In my opinion,” Johnston concluded, “these troops form an army too weak to cope with Sherman.” If he could somehow unite all of this troops in front of Sherman, something might be accomplished, but, he conceded, that would probably allow Sherman to link up with General John Schofield, who recently captured Wilmington.

If any chance of uniting was to be had, Sherman had to make a strike for Fayetteville, North Carolina. The prevailing thought was the Sherman was pushing north to Charolette rather than northeast toward Fayetteville. Regardless, if Sherman obliged, Bragg, in Goldsboro, could fall upon the Federals from the northeast, while Johnston would hit his from the west. Hardee would be backed into the town. But Sherman first had to cooperate.

Following the burning of Columbia, Sherman moved northwest toward Winnsborough, where he turned east. He sent his cavalry north, toward Lancaster, to feign as if he were stabbing toward Carlotte. This ruse worked well for him, and it would be several days before the Confederates were wise to his true movements.

Sherman would continue moving west and north, stymied some by the incessant rains and subsequent rising waters. In the meanwhile, the Confederates before him would continue falling back.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 2, p1247, 1271; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. []