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Davis and Johnston. Light thrown on a quarrel among Confederate leaders. A question of rank.

How Lee came to be put over Johnston—Davis accused of Favoritism— what recent researches made by a member of the board of war publications Regarding the controversy show.


[From the Evening Star, Washington, D. C., July 16, 1892.]

The last two volumes of the Rebellion Records relating to the Atlanta campaign, five in number, are being issued by the board of publication, and in them we have the full text of many important reports and orders never before printed, as well as a good deal of correspondence more or less valuable and interesting. [96]

Not the least instructive part of these popular volumes of war records is that which relates to General Joseph E. Johnston, who was removed from the command of the Confederate army just before that great campaign closed, after he had fought with varying success, and, at all events, successfully retreated before Sherman from Dalton to Atlanta, covering a distance of one hundred miles and a period of seventy days. This event was the culmination of a quarrel of long standing between Jefferson Davis and General Johnston.

Although maintained with a sort of stilted dignity calculated and doubtless intended to deceive the outside world, beneath all it was the deepest, bitterest personal feud of the war, and, like most antagonisms in high place, was apparently without adequate cause. There never was any real concord between the two men from the day Johnston assumed command at Harper's Ferry, May 23, 1861, until the war closed with Davis' flight and Johnston's surrender at Durham's station, April 26, 1865.

Many of the misfortunes of the Confederacy can be directly traced to the hostility between Davis and Johnston, and no doubt their dissentions were of direct and material benefit to the North. It must be true that many things were done and many other things left undone by both which would have been otherwise but for their eternal controversies. Their estrangement had its beginning in a question of rank raised by Johnston, which grew until it poisoned the whole South and finally intrenched itself in the Confederate Congress.

Every enemy Davis had, from whatever cause, naturally and at once became the friend and active partisan of Johnston, lauding his military genius to the skies, and, as a matter of course, belittling the President's statemanship. It is along these lines the quarrel was maintained, not only by the two principals—now dead—but by their respective admirers and supporters.

So far as the official records are concerned, the case is practically closed with these Atlanta volumes, which carry affairs down to when Davis, officially alleging Johnston's failure to arrest Sherman's advance, superseded him in front of Atlanta with General John B. Hood, July 17, 1864, though it is true when the Confederacy was on its last legs, at Lee's wish and suggestion, that Davis again called Johnston to command the forlorn hope in North Carolina. But after this event neither of the belligerents had much time to devote to personal quarrels, although Johnston in his ‘Narrative’ does not fail to point out the absurdity of some of the President's last ditch [97] plans and suggestions in the conferences of the Confederate civil and military leaders on the eve of the final surrender in North Carolina.

In 1874 General Johnston published his ‘Narrative of Military Operations.’ In 1880 appeared General Hood's ‘Advance and Retreat.’ And in 1881 the ex-President entered the arena with his ‘Rise and Fall’ of the Confederacy, followed in 1884 by ‘General Beauregard's Military Operations.’ Mrs. Davis' singular book, ‘Jefferson Davis, ex-President of the Confederate States,’ was issued in 1890, after her husband's death.

Johnston's book was almost wholly devoted to an explanation of his relations with the Confederate executive; a large proportion of Mr. Davis' to a statement of his side of the controversy, and Mrs. Davis gives many pages to a re-statement of the ex-President's case and to a bitter attack on Johnston. Her book is of little historical value, both in respect of matter and method. Beauregard had a quarrel of his own with the President, though not so deep and irreconcilable as the other, and consequently the ‘Military Operations’ are mostly in vindication of himself, but with a good deal of incidental matter relating to the other two, generally favorable to Johnston. Hood naturally took sides with President Davis, and attempts to justify his own magnificent failure by violently attacking Johnston's previous operations in the Atlanta campaign.


The question of rank.

Let us consider the question of rank, which was the primary cause of this quarrel. Joseph E. Johnston was brigadier-general and quarter-master general of the United States army, which position he resigned April 22, 1861, to ‘go with his State,’ which had seceded on the 17th. He says he considered the separation permanent. Robert E. Lee resigned the colonelcy of the First Cavalry, United States army, April 25, 1861. These two men—both Virginians—had been class-mates at West Point, Lee graduating No. 2, and Johnston No. 13, in the class of '29. Samuel Cooper was colonel and adjutant-general of the United States army, and he resigned March 7, 1861, to join the Confederacy. He was born in New York, from which State he was appointed to West Point, where he graduated in 1815. Albert Sidney Johnston (killed at Shiloh), a Kentuckian by birth, but for many years a prominent citizen of Texas, graduated from West Point No. 8 of the class of '26. He resigned [98] May 3, 1861, as colonel of the Second Cavalry and Brevet Brigadier-General United States army, and cast his fortunes with the South.

March 6, 1861, a Confederate act of Congress provided for the appointment of four brigadier-generals, that being the highest grade at first created. March 14th a fifth brigadier was added, and it was further provided that in appointments to ‘original vacancies’ in the Confederate army ‘the commissions issued shall bear one and the same date, so that the relative rank of the officers of each grade shall be determined by their former commissions in the United States army, held anterior to the secession of these Confederate States.’ May 16 a supplementary act provided that the five brigadiers should ‘have the rank and denomination of generals, instead of brigadier-general.’

Under the act of March 6 Cooper, Lee and J. E. Johnston had been appointed brigadiers in the Confederate States army. The act of May 16, without further action, made them generals, and it was so understood, as it appears that on July 20 Davis notified Johnston, in answer to an inquiry made while he was marching to reinforce Beauregard at Bull Run, in July, that he ranked as general. This was before any nominations were made. Yet on the 31st of August President Davis nominated five generals, to rank as follows:

1. Samuel Cooper, May 16.

2. Albert Sidney Johnston, May 28.

3. Robert E. Lee, June 14.

4. Joseph E. Johnston, July 4.

5. Gustave T. Beauregard, July 21.

This action of the President greatly incensed Johnston. Under the law he claimed that he was the ranking general, and on September 12 protested to the President in very strong language against his illegal action in the arrangement of the commissions. Johnston felt that he had been wronged. But he says in the ‘Narrative’ that there was no language in his letter which could be construed as improper from a soldier to the President. Johnston had previously (July 24) written to Adjutant-General Cooper protesting against General Lee's acting as commander of ‘the forces.’ On the 29th he again protested that he should disregard all orders coming from ‘headquarters of the forces’ as illegal. These letters all show the raspy state of mind he was in on the subject of rank.

According to Mrs. Davis, on both the letters to Cooper the President simply indorsed the word ‘insubordinate.’ His answer to the letter to himself shows great irritation: [99]

Richmond, Va., September 14, 1861.
General J. E. Johnston:
Sir—I have just received and read your letter of the 12th instant. Its language is, as you say, unusual; its arguments and statements utterly one-sided, and its insinuations as unfounded as they are unbecoming.

I am, &c.,


It may be noted that up to this date his official telegrams and letters to the General were couched in the most friendly tone. In an indirect way he had previously justified his appointments on the ground that the laws were ‘new and unsettled by decisions’ and that ‘their provisions were special.’ Afterward the President studiously avoided the question.


Davis' position.

After the war, in his ‘Rise and Fall,’ Davis gives his views of this question at the time. He held that Johnston's position of brigadier in the old army was simply staff, and did not entitle him to command troops without special assignment, and evidently intends to leave the inference that by reason of this Cooper, Sidney Johnston and Lee all ranked him.

His reasoning is of doubtful cogency, and greatly weakened by the fact that if Johnston's previous rank of brigadier-general was merely staff, so also was that of Samuel Cooper, who had been adjutant-general of the old army, with only the rank of colonel. Yet, for reasons of his own, the President coolly ignored the staff argument as well as that of rank, and made Cooper the senior general of the Confederate army. This point seems to have entirely escaped the keen observation of Johnston as well as all other commentators. And notwithstanding Mrs. Davis' claim that the President was scrupulous in his strict construction of the law, it is a strange fact that in promoting Cooper he clearly and probably intentionally violated a plain statute of the Confederate Congress.

Mr. Davis is mistaken, as I think, in asserting that Robert E. Lee had held the higher rank in the United States army. Johnston and Lee were made lieutenant-colonels respectively of the first and second [100] cavalry on the same day, viz., March 3, 1855. Johnston was promoted to be brigadier and quartermaster-general, June 28, 1860. Lee was still really only lieutenant-colonel when he resigned, though it is true he had been nominated as colonel about a month previously, but the Senate had not yet confirmed him. During the Mexican war, in which both were distinguished, Johnston was a lieutenant-colonel of volunteers, two grades above Lee, who was then but a captain of engineers.

There was more tenable ground for assuming that A. S. Johnston ranked J. E. Johnston. He was acting brigadier-general by brevet, dated November 18, 1857, in command of a department, and had been made a full colonel March 3, 1855, the same day the other two were commissioned lieutenant-colonels. But the Confederate statute did not draw any line between the staff and other officers of the old army who might resign and seek service with them. It was purely arbitrary on Davis' part to so construe the law and then act upon the assumption that Cooper, A. S. Johnston and Lee ranked J. E. Johnston.

The candid inquirer of to-day will observe that the Confederate President was disingenuous in this matter. If merit based on services had been considered in the appointments J. E. Johnston must inevitably have headed the list, for his ability and energy had largely contributed to win the first battle at a date when Lee was hardly known outside of Richmond and before the other Johnston had entered upon active service. There are grounds for the supposition that Davis withheld action purposely until the arrival of A. S. Johnston from California, whom he intended to be a beneficiary. Cooper was an old-time Washington favorite and crony, and it is well known the president was infatuated with Sidney Johnston. Undoubtedly both these appointments, however excellent, were dictated by an obstinate personal favoritism.

Lee's subsequent career in a sense certainly vindicated the President's action in selecting him to rank Johnston, but this cannot be said of Albert Sidney Johnston. As commander in the West he signally failed to comprehend the natural lines of Federal advance into the interior and his dispositions to meet the central attack were painfully feeble. Grant, with a small force, was permitted to leisurely advance and capture the isolated post of Donelson and thereby, without further effort, drive him out of Kentucky three hundred miles south into Mississippi. A bold, energetic concentration at the [101] threatened point might have stopped Grant and probably held the line of Kentucky many months longer—such as characterized the movement of Joe Johnston in the previous July to the battle-field of Bull Run, which stopped the Federals in Virginia. But after idly observing the battle from afar, with troops enough to turn the scale, when all was over he calmly marched away to the southward, seeking a new line of defense.


Exaggerating his Grievance.

But whatever Davis' motive for overslaughing Johnston with his juniors, the exaggerated importance the latter attached to what seems at this distance a secondary matter is surprising and gives one a bad impression of this otherwise admirable character. He morbidly dwelt upon the President's injustice with the feverish pertinacity of a crank, wholly unobservant of the fact that notwithstanding his technical loss of rank he was actually in command of the chief army of the Confederacy—at the post of honor and danger, the cynosure of all eyes.

But Johnston regarded his own present interest and dignity as paramount, unlike Lee forgetting that time and success would rectify everything. When they were touched he became sour, even sullen, and watchful and suspicious of those he deemed his enemies. His mental vision was conspicuously practical and far-reaching in all other matters except those which concerned himself. His nature was positive; he was an unbending, unyielding personality. This was the rock upon which he split.

The foregoing statement of the original casus belli incidentally affords the reader a view of the characters of the two men involved in the quarrel. After the acrimonious correspondence concerning the question of rank the belligerents settled down into a stately attitude of jealous and guarded hostility, suspected but not fully known to the public.

About this time there was also some friction concerning the organization of the army into brigades by States, which Davis favored. Johnson's delay in this matter irritated the President, and the General in turn was incensed by the irregular interference of Secretary Benjamin with army movements, who sent orders direct to subordinates, ignoring the commanding general. Notwithstanding Johnston's protests, the Secretary continued this indefensible course.


[102]

After the Bull Run battle.

The growing Southern dissatisfaction because the loudly heralded victory of Bull Run did not at once end the war was vigorously used in the fall of 1861 to foment opposition to the administration. It was generally believed that the President had prevented the pursuit of the Federals on that ill-fated day, and in consequence the victory was barren of results. Both Johnston and Beauregard encouraged this view. The rumors of his responsibility caused Davis in a letter, dated November 21, 1861, to ask Johnston to squarely state if he (Davis) obstructed pursuit, and it is noteworthy that Johnston answered in the negative.

Davis, who was present on the field, asserts that at a conference on the night of the 21st he favored energetic pursuit, and dictated an order for such to General Thomas Jordan, Beauregard's chief of staff, which was not obeyed. Jordan substantially corroborates this, but Johnston in his ‘Narrative’ and Beauregard in the ‘Military Operations’ both emphatically contradict the President's version.

On the 22d, twenty-four hours after the battle, there was a second conference at Manassas between the President and his two generals, and all were satisfied with the result of the day's operations. So, if it was a mistake not to press on to Washington, it plainly appears neither of the three realized it at the time. But public opinion viewed it differently, and explanations were soon necessary on the part of those in authority.

In his ‘NarrativeJohnston says he was condemned by the President and public opinion for not capturing the Federal Capital, but in extenuation of his failure urges the lack of present force and previous preparation for such movement. Both the generals place the responsibility for failure on the President's shoulders because he did not put the army in condition to advance effectively. Davis says he returned to Richmond and began to reinforce the army as rapidly as possible. In his ‘Rise and Fall’ he holds the two generals wholly accountable for the failure to achieve valuable results after Bull Run. In this opinion (of Johnston, at least) he is seconded by General Early, who took part in the battle.

These are the substance of their various statements on this subject, at the time and since the war. A curious commentary on all this is that while the victorious generals claimed large captures of [103] wagons, stores, arms and cannon at Bull Run they urged their inability to advance on Washington at the heels of a routed army for want of these very things. The rebel army itself had been pretty well shaken up, and a large portion of it was little better than a mob; the commanders lacked information of the extent of the Yankee stampede; they also lacked experience, and hence lacked nerve to act with vigor. In fact, neither the President nor Johnston was responsible for the failure to capture the entire Federal army and the capital.

Another cause of irritation to Davis was Johnston's official report of this battle, which advanced the theory that his march from the Shenandoah to join Beauregard was discretionary. But it is clearly shown that his movement was directed by positive orders from Richmond.


Conflicting statements.

In the effort to justify themselves each, in the heat of the quarrel, makes conflicting statements. Johnston, in summing up, argues that the Confederates were too weak for offensive operations, yet at the Fairfax conference, September 30, we find him perfectly willing, apparently, to invade Maryland with an army of sixty thousand men. And he makes cause against the president for professing to be unable to reinforce the army to that extent. This point he cites to show that the president was never willing to give him force enough and that when properly equipped he favored aggression. It is not probable, however, that Johnston was really anxious to invade Maryland. Four weeks later his effective force was forty-seven thousand two hundred, and on December 31, 1861, fifty-seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven, yet he made no offensive movement. But relative conditions may have changed. The Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns in the East and the Bragg and Hood invasions in the West undeniably demonstrate the correctness of Johnston's judgment that the South was too weak for offensive warfare.

Johnston's sudden retreat in the spring of 1862 from Fairfax back to the Rappahannock before McClellan's slow advance, with the unnecessary destruction of large quantities of greatly needed stores, is the subject of much animadversion by Davis. But notwithstanding, when McClellan advanced from the peninsula, the President no doubt reluctantly, placed Johnston in command of the army assembled on the new front to defend Richmond. [104]

Many new causes of dissatisfaction on both sides occurred in this short campaign. The hostility of the two men is said to have been aggravated by a personal quarrel maintained between their wives, growing out of social grievances about this time, though there is no record of such. There was, of course, a lack of mutual confidence, fatal to success. Davis complained that the general was silent and reserved as to his plans, overruled Johnston's wish to abandon the lower peninsula at once, and pretends to doubt if he even intended or hoped to hold Richmond. This, however, is evidently an afterthought. On his part, Johnston tells us that he constantly urged upon the military authorities the absolute necessity of concentrating to overwhelm McClellan and no notice was taken of his views. As soon as he was compelled to leave the command he states that Davis at once hastened to adopt his suggestions and collect a large army. This looks like truth.

Their dispute gives an inside view of Confederate affairs which will be invaluable to the future historian. Davis, for obvious reasons, clearly understates the Confederate forces engaged in the seven days campaign. Johnston is emphatic in the assertion that the army was reinforced by fully 53,000 men, naming the detachments that were brought forward before Lee ventured to attack McClellan. This would give an aggregate of 109,000. In her book Mrs. Davis states Lee's effective force at 80,762. The Confederate official records on this head are incomplete and unsatisfactory, but there is ample warrant for stating Lee's army at not less than 95,000 men, including Magruder's forces, left to defend Richmond.


Succeeded by Lee.

Johnston soon ceased to annoy the executive as general — in chief of the Virginia army. At the battle of Fair Oaks he was unfortunately wounded, and Lee succeeded to and ever after retained the command of that army. It is said that Johnston viewed his successor with jealous suspicion, perhaps even dislike, but Lee's reputation was so overshadowingly great and well established that he did not venture to attack it openly. He notes a singular fact, that two telegrams from Davis at Montgomery in the spring of 1861, directed to him through General Lee, offering him a brigadier-generalcy, were never delivered. His friends say Johnston always felt that he should have been reinstated in the Virginia command after his recovery. [105]

But public opinion warranted and even compelled Davis to assign Johnston to the chief western command in the following November. It included the departments of Bragg, Pemberton, Holmes and others. He at once began urging the policy of concentration, but says he soon found his command was really only nominal. In a letter as early as November 24, 1862, Johnston warned the military authorities that ‘as our troops are now distributed Vicksburg is in danger.’ Later, when Grant was closing his toils around Pemberton, he peremptorially told the government that it must choose between Mississippi and Tennessee; but both would probably be lost, but that the one might be saved by concentrating all their available forces in its defence. These suggestions were not followed. Under Davis' obstinate adherence to the system of diffusion instead of concentration both were eventually lost.

Pemberton's disastrous Vicksburg campaign followed. Davis, to shift responsibility, was not slow in ascribing the misfortune mainly to Johnston's feeble policy. He endeavors to leave the impression that Johnston's general command gave him authority to transfer troops from one department to another, but, in fact, it appears that Johnston was prevented by the administration from giving any personal attention to Vicksburg until it was too late. And the President's telegram to Governor Pettus is proof of his knowledge that the force of Johnston was inadequate to relieve Pemberton.

It was to be expected that Pemberton would attempt to make a scapegoat of Johnston, but the latter correctly says that Pemberton either misunderstood or disobeyed all his orders and wholly misapprehended Grant's warfare. The truth is that Grant outgeneraled them all. Davis' favorite was a mere child in this Union general's hands.


Confederate commanders in the West.

Davis was unfortunate in his western commanders. Pemberton went the way of A. S. Johnston, Beauregard and Van Dorn, losing the Mississippi as his predecessors had lost Kentucky and Tennessee. Then he spasmodically concentrated under Bragg in an abortive attempt to retrieve affairs at Chickamauga, but immediately afterward the old system of diffusion was resumed by sending Longstreet to Knoxville, affording Grant ample time on exterior lines to swoop down and clean out the last of the President's favorites. After this blow Davis was ready to give Johnston actual command of the active western army. [106]

The Richmond authorities desired Johnston to take the offensive. He insisted on being largely reinforced for that purpose, and there was an immediate disagreement as to lines and details. Meanwhile Sherman had completed his concentration, and the campaign of 1864 began with his advance southward. Johnston impeded Sherman's march, declined to fight except on his own terms, and was gradually pushed back to Atlanta, in what is generally admitted to have been a masterly retreat. But Davis was dissatisfied, believing that Johnston had missed several opportunities to fight a successful general battle. On July 17 Johnston was superseded in the command by Hood, who immediately fought some disastrous battles under spur from Richmond, followed by the loss of Atlanta. With depleted forces he finally took the general offensive, and was defeated and practically destroyed at Franklin and before Nashville, closing the war in the West, and making possible and easy the march through Georgia and the Carolinas.


Never ready for action.

In brief, the cause of his removal and the ground of complaint against Johnston was that under no circumstances would he fight, and that he did not intend to defend Atlanta. This is the essential point made in all Davis' recitations concerning him in the Bull Run, Peninsular, Vicksburg and Atlanta campaigns. And, it must be confessed, the official records go far toward corroborating the President's estimate of his general's character. His argument is that Johnston, like McClellan, was never exactly ready for action, was always largely outnumbered, always wanted re-inforcements, always exaggerated obstacles, and always opposed every plan proposed by his government.

It has often occurred to me that had McClellan and Johnston been continued in their respective commands the war would have lasted indefinitely. They were much alike. Both doubted the capacity and courage of their soldiers to overcome given obstacles. Neither believed in the efficacy of fighting. Both were largely endowed with the art of expeditiously moving an army in retreat from the presence of the enemy. Neither had any good will toward or confidence in his government, and both were ‘hampered’ thereby. It is doubtful if either had complete confidence in his cause.

Johnston, in vindication of his Atlanta campaign, says that Sherman was relatively stronger than Grant over Lee, that his own effective force was less than fifty thousand men and his total losses less [107] than ten thousand. Johnston, Hardee and A. P. Stewart all claim that the fighting spirit of the army was not impaired by the retreat, and cite the stubborn fights before Atlanta and at Franklin as proof of it. His ultimate plan was to fight and crush Sherman, far from his base in the interior, on the first favorable opportunity. He pertinently observes, that like himself, Lee was falling back before Grant in Virginia, yet constantly gaining in military renown, and further, that Lee, Bragg and Pemberton were forgiven faults for which he was condemned.

He points with telling force to the fact that a trial of the cyclone policy of offence against the Federals was immediately fatal to the objects of the campaign and of the war, and expresses the opinion that if either Hardee or Stewart had been placed in command, instead of Hood, Atlanta would have been saved. Finally, in general, he holds that it was a lack of statesmanship, and not military resources or leadership to which the failure of the South is to be ascribed. It was not the greater population and resources of the North that conquered. Johnston expresses the opinion that at first the Southern was a more effective soldier than the man of the North by reason of his experience from youth with firearms and natural aptitude for the military life. Yet in the very earliest battles these ‘inexperienced’ Northern soldiers inflicted the greatest loss on their enemy that occurred during the war on either side.


Confirmed by Davis' own logic.

It is a singular fact that Davis himself indirectly argues in the same direction, and so does Mrs. Davis, without being aware of it. Military success is nearly always a requisite of successful revolution, and the South uniformly had that if we may believe Davis, who does not even admit that Gettysburg was a defeat. The conclusion, then, is inevitable that it was alone to false statesmanship, as Johnston asserts, that the Confederacy owed its downfall. This is a point worth the attention of our race of modern philosophers.

Hood's book, as well as his final official report, is a scathing criticism of Johnston. The report was probably written under the eye of the President. He says Johnston employed in the campaign over seventy thousand men; that he lost fully twenty-two thousand and left the army disheartened and demoralized. He states that the two opposing armies were not greatly unequal. The army ‘travelled by [108] day and labored at night,’ retreated for seventy days without fighting a general battle, and yet lost about one third its original number. Davis makes pretty much the same statements. It is susceptible of proof that at New Hope Church Johnston must have had fully seventy-five thousand men in line or at hand. When Johnston read Hood's report he notified the adjutant-general that he would prefer charges against the officer, but the war ended ere he could execute his threat.

Davis indorsed upon Johnston's official report of his Atlanta operations:

November 12, 1864.
The case as presented is very different from the impression created by other communications contemporaneous with the events referred to. The absence of the reports of subordinates suggests a reason for the want of fullness on many important points.

Jeff'n Davis.

General Johnston was permitted to see this indorsement and communicated a reply to the adjutant-general, closing as follows:

Richmond, December 21, 1864.
General S. Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General.
General—* * * I regret the want of fullness in the report, but am gratified that the President understands the cause of it. Most respectfully your obedient servant,

J. E. Johnston, General.

These two indorsements furnish a fair indication of the characters of these two great players on the world's stage and of their attitude toward each other. Always polite and dignified, but always bitter.1


1 This review, whilst it explains in some degree an unfortunate variance, is too ultra to be pleasing to any Southerner. The author is a member of the Publication Board of the War Record Office.—Ed.

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