March 17, 1864 (Thursday)
Wintering in Bull’s Gap, East Tennessee did little to please James Longstreet. His corps had taken up a fine defensive position, and waited through February for the Federals in Knoxville to attack him, but he could find no satisfaction. In the long hours spent doing little, Longstreet found the time to contemplate the overall strategic situation for General Lee’s army in Virginia and General Johnston’s army in Dalton, Georgia. There was little chance for either to launch separate offensive strikes.
President Davis in Richmond wasn’t blind to this predicament, and called upon Lee, Johnston and Longstreet to submit suggestions that might beat the Federals to the punch. Longstreet, realizing that neither Lee nor Johnston could reinforce the other began to study a third possibility. On March 16, he confusingly detailed his plan in a long and rambling letter to Davis. Fortunately, by the time he wrote his memoirs, he had boiled it down to simplicity.
By stripping South Carolina – a state that had started the conflict, but had seen relatively little fighting – of its garrisons, Longstreet believed an army of 20,000 men could be formed and secretly slid northwest across North Carolina and Virginia until it reached Tennessee. Meanwhile, Longstreet’s own command, perhaps mounted, would join with the Carolinians and gallop into Kentucky to disperse whatever Yankees might be milling about. This, suspected Longstreet, would force the Federals to weaken their lines near Chattanooga, allowing Johnston to break free and join with the other two columns.
Once combined, the new army could “march against the enemy’s only line of railway from Louisville, and force him to loose his hold against General Johnston’s front, and give the latter opportunity to advance his army and call all of his troops in Alabama and Mississippi to like advance, the grand junction of all of the columns to be made on or near the Ohio River.”
Longstreet figured that Davis wouldn’t give his idea much thought and asked General Lee if he might not help. He explained that Lee could even remain in Virginia until all the armies were in the Cumberland Mountains. “My great hope is in you,” wrote Longstreet to Lee, “and I know that this is the feeling of the army, and I believe it to be of the country.”
Lee agreed to an extent. “I think the enemy’s great effort will be in the west,” he said of the coming campaign, “and we must concentrate our strength there to meet them.” He liked the idea of Longstreet combining with Johnston for a move into Middle Tennessee, but gave no indication about his feelings towards stripping South Carolina.
As for Johnston, the idea of combining his and Longstreet’s forces sounded great, but he didn’t want to leave Atlanta open to assault. If they were to be one, they would have to do it at Dalton. He also wanted to drag Polk’s army out of Mississippi, combining it with his and Longstreet’s. Only then would he believe an offensive strike could be made.
This debate went on for days with Johnston and Secretary of War James Seddon trying to suss it out by letter, as Longstreet met with Lee and Davis. Finally, before it was fully resolved, on this date, Johnston reported that the enemy before him had been reinforced by Federal troops from Knoxville. This was a very fortunate turn of events, as it gave even more reason for Longstreet to come to Johnston’s aid.
Johnston’s refusal to move to Longstreet’s side was taken by Davis and Braxton Bragg, who had become Davis’ military advisor, to mean that Johnston once more refused to go on the offensive. Davis had seen this as a problem ever since the beginning of the war, and here was still more evidence that Johnston lacked the ambition needed to lead an army.
Still, Longstreet hoped that General Lee might be able to convince Davis that his plan was worthy of consideration. Agreeing, Lee accompanied Longstreet to Richmond to see what could be done.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 32, Part 3, p594-595, 618, 636-642; From Manassas to Appomattox by James Longstreet; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy by Ethan S. Rafuse. [↩]