Johnston Receives Instructions and a Load of Bad News

December 18, 1863 (Friday)

It was a fine line to walk, and the Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon, walked it well. Two days prior, General Joseph Johnston had been reluctantly appointed commander of the Army of Tennessee, now based out of Dalton, Georgia. Following the defeat at Chattanooga, the disheartened and demoralized troops languished in relative safety south of Ringgold Gap. Their temporary commander, William Hardee, had the day previous, written Richmond of the terrible plight of the army. With this almost in mind, Secretary Seddon gave Joe Johnston his instructions.

Seddon and his awesome hat are going to give it to you straight.
Seddon and his awesome hat are going to give it to you straight.

The fine line was the division between acknowledging the sorry reality and providing some sort of inspiration to the new commander. If Seddon was completely forward, telling Johnston that it was all but hopeless, the General would come into the new command and immediately take the defensive. On the other hand, if Seddon simply ignored all of Hardee’s grievances, Johnston might as well, until their ultimate discovery which could very well leave Johnston with the suspicion that Richmond cared little about the west.

“It is apprehended the army may have been by recent events somewhat disheartened and deprived of ordnance and material,” began the Secretary. This was an incredible understatement, but it was a good way to start. The army was actually in near shambles and was in need of not only ordnance, but every other supply imaginable.

“Your presence, it is hoped, will do much to inspire hope and re-establish confidence, and through such influence, as well as by the active exertions you are recommended to make, men who have straggled may be recalled to their standards, and others, roused by the danger to which further successes of the enemy must expose the more southern States, may be encouraged to recruit the ranks of your army.”

This long, flowing, yet still cumbersome sentence covered much ground. Richmond counted upon the idea that Johnston could inspire hope, and was thus doing its best to inspire him. Since much of the army was no longer technically in camp, having, as Seddon called it, “straggled” – though after a month, it was probably closer to “deserted” – Johnston was to inspire men outside his reach to rejoin their former comrades in arms. He was also to inspire the southern States, who gave many of their best men to the Southern Cause, to give a little more. He would touch on this once again.

Additionally, Johnston, through “vigorous efforts,” was to not only restore “the discipline, confidence, and prestige of the army,” he was to restore and supply “its deficiencies in ordnance, numbers and transportation.” From the first part of the letter, Johnston knew that the discipline and confidence was low, just as he knew ordnance and numbers were down. Seddon’s mention of “transportation,” meaning wagons, etc., simply added more to Johnston’s plate, though he was probably not surprised.

But Seddon wasn’t through. He allowed that the General might “find deficiencies and have serious difficulties in providing the supplies required for the subsistence of the army.” This was due, according to Seddon, “to the deficiencies of supplies in the country and the impediments which, unfortunately, the discontents of producers and the opposition of State authorities to the system of impressments established by the law of Congress have caused.”

Johnston nods politely.
Johnston nods politely.

This clumsy wording suggested that the supplies near Dalton, Georgia had been picked clean. It also hinted that perhaps not everybody in the Southern States was all in for the Southern Cause. The farmers (“producers”) were discontented with Richmond absconding with their crops, while the state politicians, including governors, apparently took the idea of “states rights” seriously and cared little for the idea that a central (and dare it be said, federal) government telling them what to do with their own people.

Johnston was tasked with using “all means” in his power “to obtain supplies from the productive States,” and was reminded that Richmond expected him “to rouse among the people and authorities a more willing spirit to part with the means of subsistence for the army that defends them.”

All of this was to happen even before a single troop marched forward. But they would march, and when they did, Johnston was to be ready. At the present moment, Federal troops under General Grant appeared to be doing nothing more than occupying portions of Tennessee. “It is not desirable they should be allowed to do so with impunity,” wrote Seddon, “and as soon as the condition of your forces will allow it is hoped you will be able to assume the offensive.”

Wigfall and his even more awesome hat is going to tell it to you straighter.
Wigfall and his even more awesome hat is going to tell it to you straighter.

There had been worry among Jefferson Davis’ Cabinet that Johnston would simply fall back on the defensive. Here, Seddon was explicitly telling him that he would do no such thing. “Inactivity, it is feared, may cause the spirit of despondence to recur and the practice of straggling and desertion to increase.”

In the end, Seddon acquiesced, allowing Johnston to rely upon his own “experience and judgment… to form and act on your own plans of military operations.” Promising that there would be “the fullest disposition on the part of the Department to sustain and co-operate with them.”

Johnston had little choice but to accept the position. He fully understood that President Davis did not like him and had not wanted him for the post. He knew that it had taken General Lee several days to convince Davis that he (Johnston) was the man. Helping little was Johnston’s friend, Louis Wigfall, a congressman. Wigfall wrote Johnston on this date, urging him to accept the position, while simultaneously warning him that Richmond would deliberately conspire to see him fail. It was a ridiculous notion – Richmond hardly had to conspire to see that happen.

This placed Johnston squarely – if not willingly – in the anti-Davis faction. From this point on, the Army of Tennessee would join nearly every other army on Earth, and base itself more around politics than military strategies. Joseph Johnston was now officially welcomed unto the fold.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 31, Part 3, p842-843; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn. []
Creative Commons License
Johnston Receives Instructions and a Load of Bad News by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by

2 thoughts on “Johnston Receives Instructions and a Load of Bad News

Comments are closed.