The Reemergence of General Joe Johnston

November 12, 1862 (Wednesday)

When Confederate General Joe Johnston was taken to the rear during the battle of Seven Pines, it seemed almost certain that he was soon to die. Even President Jefferson Davis, never Johnston’s biggest fan, set aside his outward feelings to express true, heartfelt regret that the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was so seriously injured.

Johnston: I’m getting better…

A musket ball had entered his shoulder, while an artillery shell burst before him, sending shards of iron into his chest and legs. As he lay there, as Davis took his hand, he was nearly certain that the fragments had severed his spine. At best, he would never walk again and would probably lose an arm.

As the surgeons plied their trade, it was discovered that the musket ball had missed the bone. The shrapnel was another story. The force with which it hit had broken several ribs and he was in a great deal of pain. The doctors feared that his lungs would become infected, and so prescribed the typical blood lettings and blisterings that were a part of their arsenal of hopeful cures.

The days of lying there, stricken with pain, slid slowly by, but as they did, it was clear that he was making progress. As the general mended, Robert E. Lee had taken command of his army. Joe Johnston was recovering, while Bobby Lee was becoming a legend.

While Johnston recuperated in Richmond, he had the opportunity to stay abreast of what was going on at the front. He received myriad visitors, ranging from politicians to fellow officers. In a short time, he became close to Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas, an outspoken critic of Jefferson Davis. This was bad news for Johnston. Davis saw Wigfall as something only slightly better than a traitor. Johnston, already on Davis’ bad side, could easily fall into that same category.

Randolph: Ah Joe! That’s quite the idea you’ve got there! But whatever might Jeff think?

When Johnston and his wife moved in with the Wigfalls, things got worse. And when Johnston recovered enough to attend parties held and attended by those opposed to Jefferson Davis, his fate seemed to be all but sealed. This opposition party took Johnston as one of their own, believing it was him (and probably not Lee) who could save the Confederacy.

By early November, Johnston was almost fully recovered. It had been a long time coming, but he was now able to mount a horse and could be seen riding about the streets of Richmond. Before long, he was talking about again commanding troops in the field.

And on this date he officially reported to Secretary of War George Randolph for duty. Johnston entertained no notion that he would pick up where he left off, at the head of the Army of Northern Virginia. He did, however, understand the problems with the four separate western armies and wanted to somehow help.

Randolph immediately decided to give Johnston command of everything between the Appalachian Mountains the the Mississippi River. This would include the armies under Generals Braxton Bragg, John Pemberton, and Kirby Smith. It would not, however, give him command over Theophilus Holmes, whose army operated in Arkansas (and hopefully someday Missouri).

Like the Union command structure in the west, where two separate generals commanded the two sides of the Mississippi, causing General Grant much worry, the Confederate command was much the same. Operations along the great river required coordination between troops on both its banks, having each bank contained in a separate department and under a different commander was, as Grant was discovering, a recipe for disaster.

Johnston, like Grant, saw the problem right away are argued that it was an incredibly bad idea.

Davis: I think it stinks. Just stick to my plan, Joe, and be happy you have a job.

That night, he returned home and gave it further thought. The West, he believed, should be encompassed in two departments. The more eastern, where Bragg and Smith operated, should be one, and the other, now under Pemberton and Holmes, should be on both sides of the Mississippi.

The arrangement that Randolph described made no sense at all to Johnston. While Bragg and Smith could cooperate (if they cared enough to), there was no way to quickly move Pemberton’s army along the eastern bank of the Mississippi hundreds of miles into Tennessee, or vice versa as needed. Pemberton could, however, aid or be aided by Holmes, who was much closer to him.

With that bit of logic tucked under him arm, he strode into Randolph’s office the next day (the 13th – I’m getting ahead of myself, but bear with me), and started to explain this very basic idea.

Before he got too far, Randolph cut him off, and asked to be allowed to read him a few words on this very subject. He then proceeded to read an order that he personally wrote, encouraging General Holmes to cross the Mississippi River to help out General Pemberton. Johnston must have been elated. He and Randolph were clearly of the same mind. This sure would save everybody a lot of time and worry.

But then he read another letter. This one was from President Davis. In it, he ordered Randolph to countermand the order to Holmes. Davis had established the Western command structure and was of no mind to change it. It was clear to Johnston that it was Davis, and not Randolph, who was to blame. Nevertheless, he would accept the position and do what he could. He would spend the next two weeks readying himself and his staff for their new assignment.1

  1. Sources: Narrative of Military Operations by Joseph Johnston; Joseph E. Johnston, A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds. []
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The Reemergence of General Joe Johnston by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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