Lee Wants Johnston ‘To Avoid a General Engagement’

March 14, 1865 (Tuesday)


A few days past, President Jefferson Davis ordered Joe Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces in the Carolinas, to remove supplies from Raleigh, North Carolina, as it appeared that Sherman’s forces were en route to that very place. General Lee added a message of his own to Johnston, demanding that the railroad running north from Richmond not be interrupted by this, and that his Army of Northern Virginia took precidence over Johnston’s own.

To this, Johnston, with a pen full of sass, replied: “Is it so important to prevent the interruption of the road by Raleigh by which you are supplied, as to make it property to fight with the chance of winning against us?”

Lee explained to Johnston that if the supply line was interrupted, he could not hold his position before Petersburg and Richmond. Further, Lee warned Johnston that if he should be “forced back in this direction both armies would certainly starve.” He also left just how Johnston was to fight Sherman up to Johnston, though urging that “a bold and unexpected attack might relieve us.”

On this day, Lee wrote to Davis, informing him of all of this, as well as bringing him up to speed on the Carolinas. “The army under Genl Johnston is about being united at Raleigh,” Lee began. “It is inferior in number to the enemy, and I fear its tone is not yet restored.”

Johnston could barely field 24,000 men. Sherman, on the other hand, had 60,000, though Johnston believed it nearly half that. As for its tone, Johnston believed the army in dire need of reorganization. The men were from units scattered all over the south. Many were garrison troops from Charleston, and many more were from the gutted Army of Tennessee. The officer corps had been all but annihilated, and there wasn’t exactly a surplus of qualified men waiting in the wings. The only thing Johnston really had going for him was the cavalry, which outnumbered their Federal counterparts. But with a force like Sherman’s, cavalry was of little avail.

No general engagement? I'll give it a shot.
No general engagement? I’ll give it a shot.

“It is in great part,” Lee continued, “without field transportation and labours under other disadvantages, I think it would be better at this time if practicable to avoid a general engagement and endeavour to strike the enemy in detail. This is Genl Johnston’s plan, in which I hope he may success, and he may then recover all the ground he may be obliged to relinquish in accomplishing it.

“The greatest calamity that can befall us is the destruction of our armies. If they can be maintained we may recover from our reverses, but if lost we have no resource. I will endeavour to keep your Excellency advised of Genl Johnston’s intentions, but from his dispatches and reports of the condition of his army, I fear it may be necessary to relinquish Raleigh.”

General Sherman and his army were just now crossing the Cape Fear River. This had taken two days,and while it gave the Confederates time to concentrate, it did not give them the clairvoyance needed to determine Sherman’s next move.

Toward either Raleigh or Goldsboro he would move, and to counter either, Johnston selected Smithfield, a town located between the two, to collect his varying units. He ordered Braxton Bragg’s troops and the Army of Tennessee, to cover Goldsboro, leaving those under William Hardee to watch Sherman’s route to Raleigh, and delay his advance if needed.

If Sherman made for Raleigh, the Bragg and the Army of Tennessee would march to join Hardee. But if Sherman struck for Goldsboro, Hardee would bring his troops to Bragg.1

  1. Sources: Lee to Davis, March 14, 1865, as printed in The Papers of Jefferson Davis; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []


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