‘You Have Failed’ – Davis Removes Johnston from Command

July 17, 1864 (Sunday)

Jefferson "Anybody But Johnston" Davis
Jefferson “Anybody But Johnston” Davis

General J. E. Johnston:

Lieut. Gen. J. B. Hood has been commissioned to the temporary rank of general under the late law of Congress, I am directed by the Secretary of War to inform you that as you have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, far in the interior of Georgia, and express no confidence that you can defeat or repel him, you are hereby relieved from the command of the Army and Department of Tennessee, which you will immediately turn over to General Hood.

S. COOPER, Adjutant and Inspector General.

The message arrived in Atlanta by telegraph from Richmond. It was by courier that it found its way to Joe Johnston’s headquarters, three miles north of Atlanta. President Davis had been considering this for months. In fact, he had never wanted Johnston to take command at all. In retrospect, it’s surprising that Davis, who would usually allow personal feeling to dictate his political and military decisions, took this long to act.

On July 13th, General Braxton Bragg had arrived in Atlanta to inspect Johnston’s army, acting as Davis’ eyes and ears. Two days later, he could tell that the army seemed ready to evacuate Atlanta.
“Nearly all available stores and machinery are removed,” wrote Bragg to Davis, “and the people have mostly evacuated the town.”

He also visited with Johnston, of which he also informed Davis. He had spent most of the 15th with him. Together, according to Bragg, “”ascertaining the position of his army, its condition and strength, and in obtaining from him such information as he could give in regard to the enemy.” Bragg’s messages were carefully worded, though obviously so. He too wanted a change of commander.

“I have made General Johnston two visits, and been received courteously and kindly,” he began to Davis. “He has not sought my advice, and it was not volunteered. I cannot learn that he has any more plan for the future than he has had in the past.”

Could it be that Bragg could not learn Johnston’s plan because he did not ask about it?

“It is expected that he will await the enemy on a line some three miles from here, and the impression prevails that he is now more inclined to fight. The enemy is very cautious, and intrenches immediately on taking a new position. His force, like our own, is greatly reduced by the hard campaign. His infantry now very little over 60,000. The morale of our army is still reported good.”

Joe "I'll tell you all about my plan later" Johnson
Joe “I’ll tell you all about my plan later” Johnson

According to Bragg, Johnston had no specific plan that he knew of, but the morale was good and the army was probably equal in some way or another to that of Sherman’s. And yet Johnston was still going to retreat.

Davis sent Bragg to Atlanta with the mission to gather whatever evidence he could find to justify the ousting of Johnston. But they could not agree upon a successor. While Davis wanted William Hardee, Johnston’s second in command, Braxton Bragg simply didn’t like the man, and so too allowed personal feelings to cloud his military judgment.

Bragg argued that it would “perpetuate the past and present policy which he [Johnston] has advised and now sustains.” If Hardee were put in command, he would just be another Johnston. To fortify his argument, Bragg held that an offensive strike was the only way in which to defeat the enemy, who was now crossing the Chattahoochee River to the north. But General Hardee did not think along these lines.

But General John Bell Hood, as well as General Richard Wheeler of the cavalry, both “agree in this opinion and look for success” in striking the Federals. “We should drive the enemy from this side of the river, follow him down by an attack in flank, and force him to battle, at the same time throwing our cavalry on his communications.”

Once more, Bragg insisted that the Federals before them had many fewer men than it was supposed. He placed the number around 60,000. The Confederate army, however, could muster 52,000, and while this wasn’t quite equal to the supposed 60,000, it was close enough for some heavy lifting. In truth, the Union Armies crossing the river carried with them nearly 100,000, while Johnston’s numbers hovered around 60,000 (though Bragg’s figures were fair enough).

“I do not believe the second in rank [Hardee] has the confidence of the army,” wrote Bragg to Davis. “If any change is made Lieutenant-General Hood would give unlimited satisfaction, and my estimate of him, always high, has been raised by his conduct in this campaign.”

The following day, the 16th, Davis wired Johnston: “I wish to hear from you as to present situation, and your plan of operations so specifically as will enable me to anticipate events.”

Johnston’s reply did himself no favors.

“As the enemy has double our number, we must be on the defensive. My plan of operations must, therefore, depend upon that of the enemy. It is mainly to watch for an opportunity to fight to advantage. We are trying to put Atlanta in condition to be held for a day or two by the Georgia militia, that army movements may be freer and wider.”

This could not have set well with Davis. Here was Johnston once again insisting that he was grossly outnumbered when Bragg had just himself insisted that it was a great exaggeration. It was clear that Johnston was going to remain on the defensive (or at least reactive), and the bit about gathering the militia to hold Atlanta while his own army moved “freer and wider,” was easily dismissed.

John Bell "Wait! What?" Hood.
John Bell “Wait! What?” Hood.

And so with that, Davis ordered Inspector General Cooper to put it in writing – Joe Johnston was no longer the commander of the Army of Tennessee. John Bell Hood, a former division commander under James Longstreet of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, was now at he helm.

“You are charged with a great trust,” wrote Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon to General Hood. “You will, I know, test to the utmost your capacities to discharge it. Be wary no less than bold. It may yet be practicable to cut the communication of the enemy or find or make an opportunity of equal encounter whether he moves east or west. God be with you.”

In the higher commands of the army, this change on the eve of battle was not taken well. Generals Hood and Hardee wrote to Davis explaining that the deemed “it dangerous to change commanders” as the enemy was at the gates. “A few days will probably decide the fate of Atlanta, when the campaign may be expected to close for a time, allowing a new commander opportunity to get his army in hand and make the necessary changes.” But now, immediately, it was not good.

Davis refused, arguing that Johnston had no plan. The fact that Hood didn’t have a plan either didn’t seem to bother him. At least he wasn’t Johnston. The change of command would make the coming days difficult to impossible. 1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 38, Part 5, p882-883, 885; Vol. 52, Part 2, p707, 708-709; The Day Dixie Died by Gary Ecelbarger; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds; Autumn of Glory by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock. []
Creative Commons License
‘You Have Failed’ – Davis Removes Johnston from Command by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by