Johnston Tries to Think of Something

March 6, 1865 (Monday)

Joseph Johnston, now in command of all the Confederate forces in the Carolinas, was concentrating at Fayetteville, North Carolina, in hopes of blocking the path of Sherman’s forces.

Joe Johnston will just have to make do with what he's got.
Joe Johnston will just have to make do with what he’s got.

Johnston’s original proposition was a risky one. He suggested to General Robert E. Lee that half of the Army of Northern Virginia be sent south to Johnston so that he could, in his words, “crush Sherman” near Roanoke. After such crushing, they could then both turn upon Grant. Lee was incredibly cold on this idea, and made it clear that it was not happening.

On the 5th, he wrote several times to Johnston, reinforcing that fact. “Endeavor to supply your army by collecting subsistence through the country,” wrote Lee. “That at depots is necessary for Army of Northern Virginia.” Additionally, Johnston had to move troops via the railroads to ensure a hasty concentration. To Lee, supplies moving to his army was more important: “In moving troops on North Carolina Railroad please do not interrupt transportation of supplies to this army.”

This wasn’t exactly cleared up by Secretary of War John Breckinridge on this date. “Of course your army must be fed,” Breckinridge admitted, “but it is desirable to have its supplies collected, if possible, from the country by officers serving in the field.” As if Johnston’s gathering forces were worth little, he concluded by explaining “General Lee’s army is in a great straight for provisions.”

Even when Johnston asked advice on where to unite with Braxton Bragg’s forces, Lee replied that such things “must be determined by you. I wish you to act as you think best.”

Johnston, now in Fayetteville, had realized that Sherman was moving much faster than anticipated. The concentration, therefore, had to be shuffled back to Raleigh. The rails, untouched by Sherman’s men, were open from Charlotte, and this, thought Johnston, might actually be possible.

“It is too late to turn to Fayetteville,” wrote Johnston to William Hardee, commanding his retreating force near Fayetteville. “That the best route to Raleigh. It may be through Egypt, crossing both Deep and Haw Rivers, near their junction.”

The one thing that Johnston wished to avoid was an open battle with Sherman’s entire army. He knew that the Federals were marching in two wings, and that they were often miles apart from each other. If he might fall upon one before the other could come to its rescue, he might be able to destroy the enemy’s army in detail.

Another issue was John Schofield’s forces, consisting mostly of the Twenty-third Corps. Following the fall of Wilmington, Schofield and his main body moved north, while Jacob Cox, commanding a division, boarded transports and landed at New Bern. There, his number was augmented by two additional divisions, creating a “Provisional Corps,” which was moving swiftly toward Goldsboro and General Bragg.

Today's map, while still very approximate, is much less so than yesterday's.
Today’s map, while still very approximate, is much less so than yesterday’s.

Bragg, however, felt that since Johnston had taken over command of the North Carolina troops, his own position was made redundant. On the 5th wrote to President Davis, asking if he could be relieved from duty. “I seek no command or position,” he assured him, “and only desire to be ordered to await assignment to duty at some point in Georgia or Alabama.” Davis would address this later, but much would happen before.

For now, Bragg had his eye upon Cox. “The enemy’s advance was this morning nine miles from Kinston,” he wrote to Johnston on this date. “They are in heavy force and moving in confidence. A few hours would suffice to unite the forces at Smithfield with mine and insure a victory.”

The troops at Smithfield, under D.H. Hill, were growing, and would soon include Cheatham’s Corps and much of Stewart’s. If they could join with Bragg at Goldsboro, just to the southeast, then a chance might stand to whip Cox before he could unite with Schofield, and before either could unite with Sherman. It was a confusing mess, which was made worse by Hill being ordered to help, but to send his troops back to Smithville the moment the battle of over, so that they could join Hardee, falling back to Fayetteville.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p1045; Part 2, p1397-1398, 1320, 1330, 1333, 1334; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. []


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