Sherman Learns of the Rejection; Davis Wants a Body Guard

April 24, 1865 (Monday)

Though General Sherman was expected Major Henry Hitchcock to arrive on the train from Washington with news of Washington’s approval or disapproval of his terms of surrender for Joe Johnston, what he was not expecting was General Grant. Believing this too important to be left to Sherman alone, Grant decided to accompany the news and guide Sherman if needed.

The cracks now showing in Sherman's plan.
The cracks now showing in Sherman’s plan.

“Of course, I was both surprised and pleased to see the general,” wrote Sherman after the war. He “soon learned that my terms with Johnston had been disapproved.” Grant urged Sherman to attack Johnston following the forty-eight hour truce. War would continue unless Johnston agreed to the same terms given by Grant to Lee.

Just after the sun rose, Sherman sent a message from Greensboro to Johnston in Raleigh.

“I have replies from Washington to my communications of April 18th. I am instructed to limit my operations to your immediate command, and not to attempt civil negotiations. I therefore demand the surrender of your army on the same terms as were given to General Lee at Appomattox, April 9th instant, purely and simply.”

As the courier rode to find Johnston, Sherman began to ready his army for either attack or pursuit of a fleeing foe. Even Major Hitchcock, who carried the news with him, did not know that the terms had been rejected by Washington. Seeing the fuss now, however, it was what he assumed.

“The impression seems to prevail here universally that the conditional agreement made between Sherman and Johnston on the 18th was not approved,” he wrote the following day, “which is strengthened by the fact that the army supplies have been kept coming forward rapidly from below, and that today [meaning the 25th] is published in the city papers a General Order from Schofield directing the ‘Army of the Ohio’ to be prepared to march at 6 A.M. tomorrow [meaning the 26th]. Everybody anticipates, and I think everybody regrets another march; for this time, if the Army does advance, it is necessarily in pursuit not of a single object as heretofore, or to reach a a definite ‘objective point,’ but to pursue a flying enemy and meanwhile live on the country.”

When Johnston received the message from Sherman, he had not an hour before, finally received Davis’ approval to accept Sherman’s original terms. For that one brief span, Johnston believed the war to be truly over. But when Sherman’s news arrived, he understood that he would have to begin the process anew.

This was not what Davis had wanted. He had yielded to the pressures from his Cabinet members, who lobbied now for peace no matter the costs. “Your action is approved,” wrote Davis. Johnston was given the authority by the President to “complete the arrangement… on the basis adopted.” He concluded with an ever-nagging “Further instructions will be given as to the details of negotiation and the methods of executing the terms of agreement when notified by you of the readiness on the part of the general commanding U.S. forces to proceed with the arrangement.”

Joe Johnston is fading....
Joe Johnston is fading….

This was Davis – meanderingly verbose. With one hand, he had given Johnston the authority to treat with Sherman, and with the other, he limited the position to that of a mere messenger boy. This would have been more acceptable if Johnston had any idea how long Davis would remain in Charlotte. The general had not even been informed when Davis left the Raleigh area.

By evening, Johnston had received both Davis’ missive and Sherman’s communication. They were, of course, irreconcilable, and Johnston must have cringed as the prospect of trying to untangle this without Davis. Fortunately for him, because of Sherman’s restrictions to treat only upon military affairs, Johnston’s job was more simple. Still, he felt that he needed the government’s approval.

“I have just received dispatches from General Sherman,” wrote Johnston to Secretary of War John Breckinridge, “informing me that instructions from Washington direct him to limit his negotiations to my command, demanding its surrender on the terms granted to General Lee, and notifying me of the termination of the truce in forty-eight hours from today.”

“Have you instructions?” he asked, adding, “We had better disband this small force to prevent devastation to the country.”

When Breckinridge received this message, his mind ceased upon the last sentence. Just what did Johnston mean by “disband”? Whatever was meant by it, President Davis crafted his own definition.

Breckinridge had lobbied tirelessly to simply end the war, to surrender everything. But now Davis saw once more some hope. Though the message in reply was penned by Breckinridge, there’s little doubt that the words contain the sentiment of the President and not the Secretary of War.

“Does not your suggestion about disbanding refer to the infantry and most of the artillery?” it began. “If it is necessary to disband these they might still save their small-arms and find their way to some appointed rendezvous. Can you not bring off the cavalry and all of the men you can mount from transportation and other animals, with some light field pieces? Such a force could march away from Sherman and be strong enough to encounter anything between us and the Southwest. If this course be possible, carry it out and telegraph your intended route.”

This could not have come as anything but a shock to Johnston. Davis had flipped from begrudgingly accepting a full surrender to calling for Johnston not to capitulate, but to mount those he could and abandon the rest – all to serve as Jeff Davis’ body guard as he made his way across the Mississippi. This would do nothing to protect the people of the South or to end the war. This was desperate, dishonorable, and cowardly. This may have been Jefferson Davis, but it was not Joe Johnston.

Johnston would not receive Davis’ and Breckinridge’s message until the following morning, but when he did, he replied in no uncertain terms:

“We have to save the people, spare the blood of the army, and save the high civil functionaries. Your plan, I think, can only do the last. We ought to prevent invasion, make terms for our troops, and give an escort of cavalry to the President, who ought to move without loss of a moment. Commander believe the troops will not fight again. We think your plan impracticable.”

Sherman and Johnston agreed to meet once more on the 26th to talk surrender.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 3, p835; Narrative of Military Operations by Joseph Johnston; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard; The Long Surrender by Burke Davis. []


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