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Some war history never published.

Famous conference at Centerville when question of invading North was settled.

Mr. Davis's Version of it.

His letters that have never before been put in Print.

Washington, May 10, 1906.
Editor Times-Dispatch;
Sir,—The papers which I send you, although lengthy, I think ought, in justice to President Davis, to be published; and I think they will be read with interest.

All of the parties named are now dead. President Davis left the letters in my hands to use at my discretion. I think the time has now come when it ought to be given to the public, with the paper, ‘ Council of War at Centreville.’

I submit them for publication at your discretion.

Very truly,

Council of war at Centreville.

October 1, 1861.1
On the 26th September, 1861, General Joseph E. Johnston addressed a letter to the Secretary of War in regard to the importance of putting this army in condition to assume the offensive, and suggested that his excellency the President, or the Secretary of War, or some one representing them, should at an early day come to the headquarters of the army, then at or near Fairfax Court-House, for the purpose of deciding whether the army could be re-inforced to the extent that the commanding general deemed necessary for an offensive campaign.

His excellency the President arrived at Fairfax Court-House [129] a few days thereafter, late in the afternoon, and proceeded to the quarters of General Beauregard. On the same evening General Johnston and I called to pay our respects. No official subjects of importance were alluded to in that interview. At 8 o'clock the next evening, by appointment of the President, a conference was had between himself, General Johnston, General Beauregard, and myself. Various matters of detail were introduced by the President, and talked over between himself and the two senior generals. Having but recently arrived, and not being well acquainted with the special subjects referred to, I took little or no part in this conversation. Finally, with perhaps some abruptness, I said: ‘Mr. President, is it not possible to put this army in condition to assume the active offensive?’ adding that this was a question of vital importance, upon which the success or failure of our cause might depend. This question brought on discussion. The precise conversation which followed I do not propose to give; it was not an argument. There seemed to be little difference of opinion between us in regard to general views and principles. It was clearly stated and agreed to that the military force of the Confederate States was at the highest point it could attain without arms from abroad; that the portion of this particular army present for duty was in the finest fighting condition: that if kept inactive it must retrogade immensely in every respect during the winter, the effect of which was foreseen and dreaded by us all. The enemy were daily increasing in number, arms, discipline, and efficiency. We looked forward to a sad state of things at the opening of a spring campaign.

These and other points being agreed upon without argument, it was again asked: ‘Mr. President, is it not possible to increase the effective strength of this army, and put us in condition to cross the Potomac and carry the war into the enemy's country? Can you not by stripping other points to the last they will bear, and, even risking defeat at all other places, put us in condition to move forward? Success here at this time saves everything; defeat here loses all.’ In explanation and as an illustration of this, the unqualified opinion was advanced that if for want of adequate strength on our part in Kentucky the Federal forces should take military possession of that whole State, and even [130] enter and occupy a portion of Tennessee, a victory gained by this army beyond the Potomac would, by threatening the heart of the Northern States, compel their armies to fall back, free Kentucky, and give us the line of the Ohio within ten days thereafter. On the other hand, should our forces in Tennessee and Southern Kentucky be strengthened, so as to enable us to take and to hold the Ohio river as a boundary, a disastrous defeat of this army would at once be followed by an overwhelming wave of Northern invaders, that would sweep over Kentucky and Tennessee, extending to the northern part of the cotton States, if not to New Orleans. Similar views were expressed in regard to ultimate results in Northwestern Virginia being dependent upon the success or failure of this army, and various other special illustrations were offered, showing, in short, that success here was success everywhere, defeat here defeat everywhere; and that this was the point upon which all the available forces of the Confederate States should be concentrated.

It seemed to be conceded by all that our force at that time here was not sufficient for assuming the offensive beyond the Potomac, and that even with a much larger force an attack upon their army under the guns of their fortifications on this side of the river was out of the question.

The President asked me what number of men were necessary, in my opinion, to warrant an offensive campaign, to cross the Potomac, cut off the communications of the enemy with their fortified capital, and carry the war into their country. I answered, ‘Fifty thousand effective, seasoned soldiers,’ explaining that by seasoned soldiers I meant such men as we had here present for duty, and added that they would have to be drawn from the Peninsula, about Yorktown, Norfolk, from Western Virginia, Pensacola, or wherever might be most expedient.

General Johnston and General Beauregard both said that a force of sixty thousand such men would be necessary, and that this force would require large additional transportation and munitions of war, the supplies here being entirely inadequate for an active campaign in the enemy's country even with our present force. In this connection there was some discussion of the difficulties to be overcome and the probabilities of success, but no one questioned the disastrous results of remaining inactive [131] throughout the winter. Notwithstanding the belief that many in the Northern army were opposed on principle to invading the Southern States, and that they would fight better in defending their own homes than in attacking ours, it was believed that the best, if not the only, plan to insure success was to concentrate our forces and attack the enemy in their own country. The President, I think, gave no definite opinion in regard to the number of men necessary for that purpose, and I am sure that no one present considered this a question to be finally decided by any other person than the commanding general of this army.

Returning to the question that had been twice asked, the President expressed surprise and regret that the number of surplus arms here was so small, and I thought, spoke bitterly of this disappointment. He then stated that at that time no reinforcements could be furnished to this army of the character asked for, and that the most that could be done would be to furnish recruits to take the surplus arms in store here (say 2,500 stand); that the whole country was demanding protection at his hands and praying for arms and troops for defense. He had long been expecting arms from abroad, but had been disappointed; he still hoped to get them, but had no positive assurance that they would be received at all. The manufacture of arms in the Confederate States was as yet undeveloped to any considerable extent. Want of arms was the great difficulty; he could not take any troops from the points named, and without arms from abroad could not re-inforce this army. He expressed regret, and seemed to feel deeply, as did every one present.

When the President had thus clearly and positively stated his inability to put this army in the condition deemed by the generals necessary before entering upon an active offensive compaign, it was felt that it might be better to run the risk of almost certain destruction fighting upon the other side of the Potomac rather than see the gradual dying out and deterioration of this army during a winter, at the end of which the term of enlistment of half the force would expire. The prospect of a spring campaign to be commenced under such discouraging circumstances was rendered all the more gloomy by the daily increasing strength of an enemy already much superior in numbers.

On the other hand was the hope and expectation that before [132] the end of winter arms would be introduced into the country, and all were confident that we could then not only protect our own country, but successfully invade that of the enemy.

General Johnston said that he did not feel at liberty to express an opinion as to the practicability of reducing the strength of our forces at points not within the limits of his command, and with but few further remarks from any one, the answer of the President was accepted as final, and it was felt that there was no other course left but to take a defensive position and await the enemy. If they did not advance, we had but to await the winter and its results.

After the main question was dropped, the President proposed that, instead of an active offensive campaign, we should attempt certain partial operations—a sudden blow against Sickles or Banks, or to break the bridge over the Monocacy. This he thought, besides injuring the enemy, would exert a good influence over our troops and encourage the people of the Confederate States generally. In regard to attacking Sickles, it was stated in reply that, as the enemy controlled the river with their ships of war, it would be necessary for us to occupy two points on the river, one above and another below the point of crossing, that we might by our batteries prevent their armed vessels front interfering with the passage of the troops. In any case, the difficulty of crossing large bodies over wide rivers in the vicinity of an enemy, and then recrossing, made such expeditions hazardous. It was agreed, however, that if any opportunity should occur offering reasonable chances of success, the attempt would be made.

During this conference or council, which lasted perhaps two hours, all was earnest, serious, deliberate. The impression made upon me was deep and lasting; and I am convinced that the foregoing statement is not only correct as far as it goes, but, in my opinion, it gives a fair idea of all that occurred at that time in regard to the question of our crossing the Potomac.

G. W. Smith, Major-General, C. S. Army.


Our recollections of that conference agree fully with this statement of General G. W. Smith.

C. T. Beauregard, General, C. S. Army. J. E. Johnston, General, C. S. Army.
Signed in triplicate. Centreville, January 31, 1862.

My Dear Sir,—Col. Scott kindly offered to send me the published volumes of the official records, and I replied by accepting the offer for the 5th volume, the four first having been sent to me by one of our members of Congress. The fifth volume has arrived, and promptly looking for the secret paper of Johnston, Beauregard and Smith, I was surprised to find at the head of the paper a date, not existing on the copy you sent me, and which was verified as a true copy by General G. T. Beauregard, his sign manual, I think, but that was not the only difference between the printed paper and the Mss. you sent me. In the latter the paper closes thus:
Centreville, Va., January 31, 1862.
Signed in triplicate. Signed.
G. W. Smith, Maj.Gen., C. S. A.

Our recollections of this conference agree fully with this statement of General G. W. Smith.

Centreville, Va., January 31, 1862.
Signed, G. T. Beauregard, General, C. S. A.
Signed in triplicate.
J. E. Johnston, General, C. S. A.

Then follows the verification, which from the word “late” has evidently been made since the war.

A true copy, G T Beauregard, late General, C. S. A.


Will you have the goodness to inform me how the derivation from the certified copy occurred?

My recollection is that the army was not at Centreville on October I, 1861. If General Smith, as early as the 1st October, was engaged in a combination to undermine, his subsequent correspondence and intercourse intensify by the hypocrisy the baseness of the act. I, however, think it more probable that he was inspired and wrote the paper about the date of his signature, as set forth in the Mss., viz.: 31st January, 1862.

One purpose would be served by the early date, i. e., to make it appear to have been written very soon after the conference. Believing a fraud has been practiced, I desire to learn the facts of the case. I did not feel willing to write to Colonel Scott about this matter, and, therefore, trouble you, as one of the family of C. S. A.

Ever truly your friend,

Note from Colonel Scott on receipt of Mr. Davis' letter:

The date, October I, 1861, is that of the meeting, and does not appear on the document. See note at foot of page 884. The (late of the paper from the completion of it by signature is shown on page 887 to have been January 31, 1862.

The record is printed from triplicate copy turned in by General Joseph E. Johnston. Copy sent to Mr. Davis must have been from Beauregard's copy.

R. N. S.

On receiving this endorsement from Colonel Scott, Mr. Davis wrote me as follows:

Beauvoir, December 20, 1882.
General M. J. Wright;
My Dear Sir,—Please accept my thanks for your attention to my inquiry about the printed letter of S. G. and B., found in Vol. 5.

The explanation, you must permit me to say, does not quite cover the case. The date at the top is added to the certified copy of the original and the date of Smith's signature near the close of the paper is omitted, and substituted by the date for the joint signature of the three, that being after the endorsement [135] by G. and B., whereas in the original the date of Smith's signature was before it, though you inform me that the letter as printed was taken from the copy turned over by General J. E. Johnston, you do not say whether the additional omission was made by him or the printer.

Very truly yours,

This letter being submitted to Colonel Scott, he made the following endorsement:

The date Oct. I, 1861, does not appear in General Johnston's copy or Smith's man.; that date is that of the meeting. The date January 31, 1862, appears in the Johnston copy as date of signatures of Smith and Beauregard.

In 2nd edition I'll have that Oct. I, 1861, so displayed as to prevent misunderstanding. It should have been in fine “italic caption.”

My Dear Sir,—Various circumstances have delayed the preparation and copying of the accompanying paper, reviewing the secret plot, as I must consider its make — up a record for themselves, by officers to whom I hoped to co-operate for our country in the unequal contest forced upon it. You need not be told how entirely the mass of our people sunk all private considerations in their zeal for our cause.

That those to whom the lives and liberties of their countrymen were speedily entrusted should have been exceptions to the general spirit of the Confederates must equally be the cause of surprise and regret.

I trust if the poison is circulated by publication among the records, that you will be able to have the antidote out with it. If the other is not published, please add another to your many kind attentions by returning my own.

Very truly your friend,


Dear Sir,—Please accept my sincere thanks for your kind letter of the 5th instant, and for your consideration in enclosing to me the copy of a ‘paper’ the existence of which was unknown to me, and which because of its special reference to myself I am glad to possess.

The ‘paper’ purports to be a statement of a conversation of two hours duration, and to have been prepared from memory, four months after the conversation occurred. The occasion is represented to have been an official conference or council between myself, as the President of the Confederate States, and the three senior generals of the Confederate army in Northern Virginia.

It is a condemnatory fact, not stated in the paper, that no notice was given to me of a purpose to make a record of the conversation, and no opportunity allowed me to make any correction of expressions attributed to me in the paper, thus secretly prepared, and so preserved until, in the nineteenth year after its date, it was revealed to me by being offered to the United States for publication among the documents relating to the war. It may naturally he asked why was it secretly prepared, and why now offered for publication?

Without assigning a motive, or directly answering the questions, I think, however, it can scarcely be claimed that the object was thereby to increase the military power and to promote the ultimate sucess of the Confederate cause.

Now, having introduced this contribution to the history of the war, in the questionable shape under which it appears, I will summarily notice its prominent features.

The paper bearing date 31st January, 1862, appears to have been written by Gen. G. W. Smith, and to have been approved by Generals Beauregard and J. E. Johnston. It does not in some important respects agree with my recollection of what occurred, and is wanting in consistency, that infallible test of truth.

The document opens with a paraphrase of a letter said to have been written to the Secretary of War by Gen. J. E. Johnston, asking for a conference to be held at his headquarters to decide whether the army could be reinforced to the extent that the commanding general deemed necessary for an offensive campaign. [137] The manner in which General Johnston on other occasions requested me to visit the army under his command was so different from that represented in this paraphrase that I wish a copy of the letter had been given, which was probably not longer than the statement made of its contents.

If the purpose was to discuss the reinforcement of his army by the transfer of troops from other commands, as the recital of the paper indicates, General Johnston would have known that in Richmond, where all the returns were to be found, that question could be best considered and decided. As his army was not engaged in active operations, it would seem to have been probable and proper that he should have gone to the War Office, rather than have asked that ‘the President, or the Secretary of the War, or some one representing them,’ should go to his headquarters to solve so grave a problem, not by the best attainable data, but on such speculative views as the paper exhibits.

Very little experience, or a fair amount of modesty without any experience, would prevent one from announcing his conclusion that troops should be withdrawn from a place, or places, without knowing how many were there, what were the terms or conditions of their enlistment, and what was the necessity for their continuance in that service.

I went to the headquarters of the army, in compliance with the request of General Johnston; on the day after my arrival reviewed the troops on the plain above Fairfax Courthouse; after which I proposed to General Johnston that we should have the desired conference, and readily assented to his wish that the two generals next in rank to himself, Generals Beauregard and G. W. Smith, should be present. I was there by invitation, and the confidence I felt in those officers, and in the purpose for which the consultation was desired, is shown by the fact that I met them unattended, and did not require minutes to be kept of the proceedings, conditions which would not have existed if the use to which the meeting has been put had been anticipated.

In view of previous correspondence, the question for consideration, so far as I knew, was what course should be adopted for the Army of the Potomac in the immediate future. Therefore, I made the preliminary inquiry as to the number of troops there present for duty. [138]

To my surprise and disappointment, the effective strength was stated to be but little greater than when it fought the battle of the 21st of the preceding July. The frequent reinforcements which had been sent to that army in nowise prepared me for such an announcement. To my inquiry as to what force would be required for the contemplated advance into Maryland, the lowest estimate made by any of them was about twice the number there present for duty. How little I was prepared for such a condition of things will be realized from the fact that previous suggestions by the generals in regard to a purpose to advance into Maryland had induced me, when I went to that conference, to take with me some drawings made by the veteran soldier and engineer, Colonel Crozet, of the falls of the Potomac, to show the feasibility of crossing the river at that point. Very little knowledge of the condition and military resources of the country must have sufficed to show that I had no power to make the demanded addition to that army without a total disregard of the safety of other threatened positions. It only remained for me to answer that I had not power to furnish such a number of troops; and unless the militia bearing their private arms should be relied on, we could not possibly fulfil such a requisition until after the receipt of the small arms, which we had early and constantly striven to procure from abroad, and had for some time expected.

Whatever other object there may have been for intensifying the dangers of inaction, it surely could not by these conferees have been thought necessary to impress that danger specially on me, and to put their thoughts on record for after times in such connection as to give them that special application.

My correspondence of anterior dates might have shown that I was fully aware of it, and my suggestions in the interval, certainly did not look as if it was necessary to impress m e with the advantage of the action.

In one part of the paper it stated that the reinforcements asked for were to be ‘seasoned soldiers,’ such as were there present, and who were said to be in the ‘finest fighting condition.’ This, if such a proposition had been made, would have exposed its absurdity, as well as the loop-hole it opened for escape, by subsequently asserting that the troops furnished were [139] not up to the proposed standard. It must be remembered that this was during the first year of the war, into which the Confederacy entered without an army.

In another part of the paper it is stated that there was hope and expectation that, before the end of the winter, arms would be introduced into the country, and that then we could successfully invade that of the enemy; but this supply of arms, however abundant, could not furnish ‘seasoned soldiers,’ and the two propositions are, therefore, inconsistent. In one place it is written that ‘it was felt it might be better to run the risk of almost certain destruction fighting upon the other side of the Potomac, rather than see the gradual dying out and deterioration of this army during a winter,’ etc.; but when it was proposed to cross into Eastern Maryland on a steamer in our possession for a partial campaign, difficulties arose like the lion in the path of the sluggard, so that the proposition was postponed and never executed. In like manner the expedition into Westtern Virginia was projected and achieved by Gen. T. J. Jackson, who was not of this council.

We are not informed who it was that ‘ felt’ that stern desire and purpose dread to go forth at ‘the risk of almost certain destruction,’ but from the foregoing and other indications, including the decision of the conferees that twice the force available was necessary for the contemplated movement across the Potomac, it is to be inferred that elsewhere than among the three generals the described feeling must have existed. It is true that to some extent, quite short of the dire extremity of ‘destruction,’ a desire to cross the Potomac in 1861 was expressed by other officers, who thought the risk should be taken with the means then possessed. For instance, there were those who thought it feasible, by using the steamboat, then at the mouth of Aquia creek, to cross into Eastern Maryland, and, by a rapid movement, to perform a valuable service in that region; another example of daring and desire to use the power then available was the request, sent through Gen. W. N. Pendleton, of the artillery, by Brigadier-General T. J. Jackson, that his brigade should be detached and permitted to cross the Potomac and attack the enemy at his capital.

To return to the paper now under review: In one place it is [140] written that the President stated ‘at that time no reinforcements could be furnished to the army of the character asked for.’ In another place he is made to say he could not take any troops from the points named, and, ‘without arms from abroad, could not reinforce that army.’ Here, again, it is clear from the answer, that the proposition had been for such reinforcements as additional arms would enable him to give, not for ‘ seasoned soldiers,’ but for such men as would be brought into service when we could supply them with arms. Those arms he expected to receive, barring the dangers of the sea, and of the enemy, which obstacles alone prevented the ‘positive assurance that they would be received at all.’

It was, as stated, with deep regret and bitter disappointment that I found, notwithstanding our diligent efforts to reinforce this army, before and after the Battle of Manassas, that its strength had but little increased; and that the arms of absentees and discharged men were represented by only twenty-five hundred on hand. Again, it is seen that the question was how many arms could be had for new levies, the requisition for reinforcements being always treated as a thing dependent upon the supply of arms. The forces of the Confederacy consisting of its citizens who had been mustered into service as and when arms could be obtained, during the brief period since the Provisional Government was instituted, then about seven months, what could have been more idle than to have asked for seasoned soldiers equal in number to the largest and oldest array we had, unless it would have been the ‘large additional transportation and munitions of war,’ which, it is stated, was required, if reinforcements proposed should be furnished. To a long established government with a ‘standing army’ and arsenals supplied with the munitions of war, such a requisition might have been properly offered, but under the well-known condition of the Confederacy it could not have been seriously made or respectfully received.

Having noticed the improbabilities and inconsistencies of the paper, and referred to the circumstances under which it was prepared, I submit to honorable men the fact of the concealment from me in which it was kept, and leave them to judge of the motive for that ex parte statement, and the chances for such cointelligence as needs must exist between the executive of a government [141] and the commanders of its armies to insure attainable success.

The position at Fairfax Courthouse, though it would answer very well as a point from which to advance, was quite unfavorable for defense, and when I so remarked, the opinion seemed to be that to which the generals had previously arrived. It therefore, only remained to consider what change of position should be made in the event of the enemy threatening soon to advance. But in the meantime I hoped that something could be done by detachments from the army to effect objects less difficult than an advance against his main force, and particularly indicated the lower part of Maryland, where a small force was said to be ravaging the country and oppressing our friends. This, I thought, might be feasible by the establishment of a battery near Aquia creek, where the channel of the Potomas was said to be so narrow that our guns could prevent the use of the river by the enemy's boats; and, by employing a steamboat lying there, troops enough could be sent over some night to defeat that force, and return before any large body could be concentrated against them. The effect of the battery and of the expedition, it was hoped, would be important in relieving our friends and securing recruits from those who wished to join us.

Previously General Johnston's attention had been called to possibilities in the Valley of the Shenandoah, and that these and other like things were not done, was surely due to other causes than ‘the policy of the administration,’ as will appear by the letters hereto annexed:

* * * General Lee has gone to Western Virginia, and I hope may be able to strike a decisive blow in that quarter, or failing in that, will be able to organize and post our troops so as to check the enemy, after which he will return to this place.

The movement of Banks will require your attention. It may be a ruse, but if a real movement, where your army has the requisite strength and mobility, you will probably find an opportunity, by a rapid movement through the passes, to strike him in rear or flank, and thus add another to your many claims to your country's gratitude. * * * We must be prompt to avail [142] ourselves of the weakness resulting from the exchange of new and less reliable forces of the enemy for those heretofore in service, as well as of the moral effect produced by the late defeat.

I am, as ever, your friend,

From the correspondence which occurred after the conference at Fairfax Courthouse, I select a reply made to General Smith, who had written to me in advocacy of the views he had then expressed about large reinforcements to the Army of the Potomac, for an advance into Maryland. Nothing is more common than that a general, realizing the wants of the army with which he is serving, and the ends that might be achieved if those wants were supplied, should overlook the necessities of others, or accept rumors of large forces which do not exist, and assume the absence of danger elsewhere than in his own front.

Richmond, Va., October 10, 1861.
Major-General G. W. Smith, Army of the Potomac:
* * * Your remarks about the moral effect of repressing the hope of the volunteers for an advance are in accordance with the painful impression made on me when, in our council, it was revealed to me that the Army of the Potomac had been reduced to about one-half the legalized strength, and that the arms to restore the numbers were not in depot. As I then suggested, though you may not be able to advance into Maryland and expel the enemy, it may be possible to keep up the spirits of your troops by expectation, such as that particularly spoken of against Sickle's brigade on the lower Potomac, or Banks' above. By destroying the canal and making other rapid movements, to beat detachments or destroy lines of communication. * * *

Very truly your friend,

The joyous exultation of the people over the victory at Manassas, on the 21st of July, 1861 (was followed by murmurs of dissatisfaction at what was termed a failure to reap the fruits [143] of victory, and partizan zeal invented the excuse that the generals were prevented from pursuing the routed enemy and triumphantly entering his capital, by the untimely interference of the President, when this baseless fiction had been so utterly exploded that those who were responsible should have been ashamed of it; in due time another complaint arose, that patriotic citizens continued to be sent forward to reinforce the victorious army and to spend their time in camps of inactivity; and this begat as fallacious a story as the first, viz.: that the inaction was due to the ‘policy of the administration.’ The two letters inserted above, one written before, and the other after the conference at Fairfax Courthouse, show what was the fact and who could best have corrected the fallacy.

Again thanking you for your kind attention, I am,

Respectfully and truly yours,

1 The exact date does not appear in the records. That above is approximately, if not absolutely, correct.

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