Johnston Finds His Army Lacking

December 28, 1863 (Monday)

Johnston was pretty sure that Seddon had no idea what he was talking about.
Johnston was pretty sure that Seddon had no idea what he was talking about.

Both President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War James Seddon had been led to believe (and hoped) that the Army of Tennessee was in much better shape than it actually was. Apart from wishful thinking and an apparent lack of deductive reasoning, this was due to two people. First, the army had been under the temporary command of William Hardee for a month. In that time, he said things like the army was “ready to fight” and that it boasted a greater number of men than it had before the battle of Missionary Ridge. Both were gross exaggerations. Hardee, however, also oddly cautioned that it was “necessary to avoid a general action” and that supplies were desperately needed. Davis and Seddon both chose to ignore that last part.

Second was the wonderfully-named Col. Joseph Christmas Ives, an aide-de-camp sent by Davis to see for himself the state of affairs following the retreat from Chattanooga. Ives’ own assessment – that the losses from Missionary Ridge were not really all that bad, and that wayward soldiers were returning to the ranks – colored Davis’ vision. Further, when Ives returned to Richmond he, according to Davis, offered “not an unfavorable view of the material of command.”

It was in this spirit that both Seddon and Davis wrote the newly-appointed Joe Johnston of their wildly unrealistic hopes and dreams for the Army of Tennessee.

Johnston had, the previous day, arrived at Dalton, Georgia, where his new command was stationed. After looking over the camps and the condition of his men, he replied to Secretary Seddon, probably figuring that Davis would read it as well.

Though he had only been with the army for two days, its state was plain. “This army is now far from being in condition to resume the offensive,” Johnston put forward. “It is deficient in numbers, arms, subsistence stores, and field transportation.”

Seddon hat must have gotten stuck in the sand.
Seddon’s hat must have gotten stuck in the sand.

Secretary Seddon told Johnston to use all means in his power “to obtain supplies from the productive States” nearby. This was, according to Johnston, impossible. “Let me remind you,” he began, “that I have little if any power to procure supplies for the army. The system established last summer deprives generals of any control over the officers of the quartermaster’s subsistence departments detailed to make purchases in different States.”

This came down to a question of states rights. The supplies of the surrounding states that might contribute to the army were overseen by two Majors, “neither of whom owes me obedience,” Johnston complained. To overcome this, there was a simple solution: take the individual power from the states and centralize the feeding of the army.

Johnston begged Seddon “to consider if the responsibility of keeping this army in condition to move and fight ought not to rest on the general, instead of being divided among a number of officers who have not been thought by the Government competent to high military grades.” In other words, the states were failing to keep the central government’s army alive, therefore, it was the central government (the army) that should be in charge of such details.

Even if the army was fully supplied, however, Johnston saw little that could now be accomplished. “I find the country unfit for military operations from the effect of heavy rains,” he wrote. “Its condition prevents military exercises – most important means of discipline.”

Additionally, Johnston believed the opposing Union Army of the Cumberland numbered over 80,000 men. There was little hope for his 36,000 or so to attack such a force. Besides, he had little cavalry with which to scout, and soon James Longstreet, trying to figure out what to do northeast of Knoxville, would request the remainder.

Johnston would wait another five days to reply to President Davis.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p856; Vol. 52, Part 2, p574; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly. []
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