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Chapter 13: responsibility for the failure to pursue.

I continue my husband's review of the causes and responsibility for the failure of the Confederate army to pursue the Federals after the victory of Manassas, for those who loved him could scarcely give the just and impersonal account that he has, of the misrepresentations which fell thick as hail from his detractors upon him.

When the smoke of battle had lifted from the field of Manassas, and the rejoicing over the victory had spread over the land and spent its exuberance, some who, like Job's war-horse “sniffed the battle from afar,” but in whom the likeness there ceased, censoriously asked why the fruits of the victory had not been gathered by the capture of Washington City. Then some indiscreet friends of the generals commanding in that battle, instead of the easier task of justification chose the harder one of exculpation for the imputed failure. Their ill-advised zeal, combined, perhaps, with malice against me, induced the allegation that the President had prevented the [121] generals from making an immediate and vigorous pursuit of the routed enemy.

This, as the other stories had been, was left to the correction which time, it was hoped, would bring; the sooner, because it was expected to be refuted by the reports of the commanding generals with whom I had conferred on that subject immediately after the battle.

After considerable time had elapsed it was reported to me that a member of Congress, who had served on that occasion as a volunteer aid to General Beauregard, had stated in the House of Representatives that I had prevented the pursuit of the enemy after his defeat at Manassas.

This gave to the rumor such official character and dignity as seemed to me to entitle it to notice not hitherto given. Wherefore I addressed to General Johnston the following inquiry, which, though restricted in its terms to the allegation, was of such tenor as left it to his option to state all the facts connected with the slander, if he should choose to do me that justice, or should see the public interest involved in the correction, which, as stated in my letter to him, was that which gave it, in my estimation, its claim to consideration and had caused me to address him on the subject; [122]

Richmond, Va., November 3, 1861.
General J. E. Johnston, Commanding Department of the Potomac.
Sir: Reports have been and are being widely circulated to the effect that I prevented General Beauregard from pursuing the enemy after the battle of Manassas, and had subsequently restrained him from advancing upon Washington City. Though such statements may have been made merely for my injury, and in that view might be postponed to a more convenient season, they have acquired importance from the fact that they have served to create distrust, to excite disappointment, and must embarrass the administration in its further efforts to reinforce the armies of the Potomac, and generally to provide for the public defence. For these public considerations I call upon you, as the commanding general, and as a party to all the conferences held by me on July 21st and 22d, to say whether I obstructed the pursuit of the enemy after the victory of Manassas, or have ever objected to an advance or other active operation which it was feasible for the army to undertake.

Very respectfully yours, etc.,

Jefferson Davis.


headquarters, Centreville, November 10, 1861.
To his Excellency the President.
Sir: I have had the honor to receive your letter of the 3d instant, in which you call upon me “as the commanding general, and as a party to all the conferences held by you on July 21st and 22d, to say whether you obstructed the pursuit after the victory of Manassas, or have ever objected to an advance or other active operation which it was feasible for the army to undertake?” To the first question I reply, No; the pursuit was “obstructed” by the enemy's troops at Centreville, as I have stated in my official report. In that report I have also said why no advance was made upon the enemy's capital for reasons as follows:

The apparent freshness of the United States troops at Centreville, which checked our pursuit, the strong forces occupying the works near Georgetown, Arlington, and Alexandria; the certainty, too, that General Patterson, if needed, would reach Washington with his army of more than thirty thousand sooner than we could; and the condition and inadequate means of the army in ammunition, provisions, and transportation, prevented any serious thought of advancing upon the Capitol. [124]

To the second question I reply that it has never been feasible for the army to advance farther than it has done — to the line of Fairfax Court-House, with its advanced posts at Upton's, Munson's, and Mason's Hill. After a conference at Fairfax Court-House with the three senior general officers, you announced it to be impracticable to give this army the strength which those officers considered necessary to enable it to assume the offensive. Upon which I drew it back to its present position. Most respectfully, your obedient servant,

J. E. Johnston.

This answer to my inquiry was conclusive as to the charge which had been industriously circulated, that I had prevented the immediate pursuit of the enemy and had obstructed active operations after the battle of Manassas, and thus had caused the failure to reap the proper fruits of the victory.

No specific inquiry was made by me as to the part I took in the conferences of July 21St and 22d, but a general reference was made to them. The entire silence of General Johnston in regard to those conferences is noticeable from the fact that, while his answer was strictly measured by the terms of my inquiry as to pursuit, he added a statement [125] about a conference at Fairfax Court-House, which occurred in the autumn, say October, and could have had no relation to the question of pursuit of the enemy after the victory of Manassas, or other active operations therewith connected. The reasons stated in my letter for making an inquiry, naturally pointed to the conferences of July 21st and 22d, but surely not to a conference held months subsequent to the battle, and on a question quite different from that of hot pursuit. In regard to the matter of this subsequent conference I shall have more to say hereafter.

I left the field of Manassas proud of the heroism of our troops in battle, and of the conduct of the officers who led them. Anxious to recognize the claim of the army on the gratitude of the country, it was my pleasing duty to bear testimony to their merit in every available form.

With all the information possessed at the time by the commanding generals, the propriety of maintaining our position while seeking objects more easily obtained than the capture of the United States capital, seemed to me so demonstrable as to require no other justification than the statements to which I have referred, in connection with the conference of July 22d. It would have seemed to me then, as it does [126] now,1 to be less than was due to the energy and fortitude of our troops, to plead a want of transportation and supplies for a march of about twenty miles through a country which had not been denuded by the ravages of war.

Under these impressions and with such feelings, I wrote to General Beauregard as follows:

my dear Sir: I think you are unjust to yourself in putting your failure to pursue the enemy to Washington to the account of short supplies of subsistence and transportation. Under the circumstances of our army, and in the absence of the knowledge since acquired, if indeed the statements be true, it would have been extremely hazardous to have done more than was performed. You will not fail to remember that, so far from knowing that the enemy was routed, a large part of our forces were moved by you, in the night of the 21st, to repel a supposed attack upon our right, and that the next day's operations did not fully reveal what has since been reported of the enemy's panic. Enough was done for glory, and the measure of duty was full. Let us rather show the untaught that their desires [127] are unreasonable, than, by dwelling on the possibilities recently developed, give form and substance to the criticisms always easy to those who judge after the event.

With sincere esteem, I am your friend,

Jefferson Davis.

I had declared myself content and gratified with the conduct of the troops and the officers, and supposed the generals, in recognition of my efforts to aid them by increasing their forces and munitions, as well as by my abstinence from all interference with them upon the field, would have had neither cause nor motive to reflect upon me in their reports, and it was with equal surprise and regret that in this I found myself mistaken.

General Johnston, in his report, represented an order to him to make a junction with General Beauregard as a movement left to his discretion, with the condition that, if made, he should first send his sick and baggage to Culpepper Court-House. I felt constrained to put upon his report, when it was received, the following endorsement:

The telegram referred to by General Johnston in this report, as received by him at about one o'clock on the morning of July 18th, is inaccurately reported; the following is a copy: [128]

General Beauregard is attacked. To strike the enemy a decided blow a junction of all your effective force will be needed. If practicable make the movement, sending your sick and baggage to Culpepper Court-House, either by railroad or by Warrenton. In all the arrangements exercise your discretion.

S. Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector-General.

The word “ after” is not found in the despatch before the words “sending your sick,” as is stated in the report; so that the argument based on it requires no comment. The order to move “ if practicable,” had reference to General Johnston's letters of July 12th and 15th, representing the relative strength and positions of the enemy under Patterson, and of his own forces, to be such as to make it doubtful whether General Johnston had the power to effect the movement.

Upon the receipt of General Beauregard's report of the battle of Manassas, I found that it contained matter which seemed to me out of place, and therefore addressed to him the following letter: [129]

Sir: Yesterday my attention was called to various newspaper publications, purporting to have been sent from Manassas, and to be a synopsis of your report of the battle of July 21st, last, and in which it is represented that you have been overruled by me in your plan for a battle with the enemy, south of the Potomac, for the capture of Baltimore and Washington, and the liberation of Maryland.

I inquired for your long-expected report, and it has been to-day submitted for my inspection. It appears, by official endorsement, to have been received by the Adjutant-General on October 18th, though it is dated August 26, 1861.

With much surprise I found that the newspaper statements were sustained by the text of your report. I was surprised, because if we did differ in opinion as to the measure and purposes of contemplated campaigns, such facts could have no appropriate place in the report of a battle; further, because it seemed to be an attempt to exalt yourself at my expense; and, especially, because no such plan as that described was submitted to me. It is true that, some time before it was ordered, you expressed a desire for the junction of General Johnston's [130] army with your own. The movement was postponed until the operations of the enemy rendered it necessary, and until it became thereby practicable to make it with safety to the Valley of Virginia. Hence I believe was secured the success by which it was attended.

If you have retained a copy of the plan of campaign which you say was submitted to me through Colonel Chesnut, allow me to request that you will furnish me with a duplicate of it.

Very respectfully yours, etc.

Jefferson Davis.

As General Beauregard did not think it proper to omit that portion of his report to which objection was made, it necessitated, when the entire report was transmitted to Congress, the placing of an endorsement upon it reviewing that part of the report which I considered objectionable. The Congress in its discretion, ordered the publication of the report, except that part to which the endorsement referred, thereby judiciously suppressing both the endorsement and the portion of the report to which it related. In this case and every other official report ever submitted to me, I made neither alteration nor erasure.

That portion of the report which was suppressed [131] by the Congress has, since the war, found its way into the press, but the endorsement that belongs to it has not been published. As part of the history of the time, I here present both in their proper connection:

General S. Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector-General, Richmond, Va.
Before entering upon a narration of the general military operations in the presence of the enemy on July 21st, I propose, I hope not unreasonably, first to recite certain events which belong to the strategy of the campaign, and consequently form an essential part of the history of the battle.

Having become satisfied that the advance of the enemy with a decidedly superior force, both as to numbers and war equipage, to attack or to turn my position in this quarter, was immediately impending, I despatched on July 13th one of my staff, Colonel James Chesnut, of South Carolina, to submit, for the consideration of the President, a plan of operations substantially as follows:

I proposed that General Johnston should unite, as soon as possible, the bulk of the army of the Shenandoah with that of the Potomac, then under my command, leaving only sufficient force to garrison his strong works at Winchester, and to guard the five defensive [132] passes of the Blue Ridge, and thus hold Patterson in check. At the same time Brigadier-General Holmes was to march hither with all his command not essential for the defence of the position at Acquia Creek. These junctions having been effected at Manassas, an immediate impetuous attack of our combined armies upon General McDowell was to follow, as soon as he approached my advanced position at and around Fairfax Court-House, with the inevitable result, as I submitted, of his complete defeat and the destruction or capture of his army. This accomplished, the army of the Shenandoah, under General Johnston, increased with a part of my forces and rejoined, as he returned, by the detachment left to hold the mountain-passes, was to march back rapidly into the Valley, fall upon and crush Patterson with a superior force, wheresoever he might be found. This, I confidently estimated, could be achieved within fifteen days after General Johnston should march from Winchester for Manassas.

Meanwhile, I was to occupy the enemy's works on this side of the Potomac, if, as I anticipated, he had been so routed as to enable me to enter them with him; or if not, to retire again for a time within the lines of Bull Run with my main force. Patterson having been virtually destroyed, then General Johnston [133] would reinforce General Garnett sufficiently to make him superior to his opponent (General McClellan), and able to defeat that officer. This done, General Garnett was to form an immediate junction with General Johnston, who was forthwith to cross the Potomac into Maryland with his whole force, arouse the people as he advanced to the recovery of their political rights and the defence of their homes and families from an offensive invader, and then march to the investment of Washington, in the rear, while I resumed the offensive in front. This plan of operations, you are aware, was not acceptable at the time, from considerations which appeared so weighty as to more than counterbalance its proposed advantages. Informed of these views and of the decision of the War Department, I then made my preparations for the stoutest practicable defence of the line of Bull Run, the enemy having developed his purpose, by the advance on, and occupation of, Fairfax Court-House, from which my advance brigade had been withdrawn.

The War Department having been informed by me, by telegraph, on July 17th, of the movement of General McDowell, General Johnston was immediately ordered to form a junction of his army corps with mine, should [134] the movement in his judgment be deemed advisable. General Holmes was also directed to push forward, with two regiments, a battery, and one company of cavalry.

The order issued by the War Department to General Johnston was not, as herein reported, to form a junction “ should the movement in his judgment be deemed advisable.” The following is an accurate copy of the order:

General Beauregard is attacked. To strike the enemy a decisive blow, a junction of all your effective force will be needed. If practicable make the movement, sending your sick and baggage to Culpepper Court-House, either by railroad or by Warrenton. In all of the arrangements exercise your discretion.

The words “ if practicable” had reference to letters of General Johnston of July 12th and 15th, which made it extremely doubtful if he had the power to make the movement, in view of the relative strength and position of Patterson's forces as compared with his own.

The plan of campaign reported to have been submitted, but not accepted, and to have led to a decision of the War Department, cannot be found among its files, nor any reference to any decision made upon it; and it was not known that the army had advanced beyond the line of Bull Run, the position previously [135] selected by General Lee, and which was supposed to have continued to be the defensive line occupied by the main body of our forces. Inquiry has developed the fact that a message, to be verbally delivered, was sent by the Honorable Mr. Chesnut. If the conjectures recited in the report were entertained, they rested on the accomplishment of one great condition, namely, that a junction of the forces of General Johnston and Holmes should be made with the army of General Beauregard and should gain a victory. The junction was made, the victory was won; but the consequences that were predicted did not result. The reasons why no such consequences could result are given in the closing passages of the reports of both the commanding generals, and the responsibility cannot be transferred to the Government at Richmond, which certainly would have united in any feasible plan to accomplish such desirable results.

If the plan of the campaign mentioned in the report had been presented in a written communication, and in sufficient detail to permit proper investigation, it must have been pronounced to be impossible at that time, and its proposal could only have been accounted for by the want of information of the forces and positions of the armies in the field. The [136] facts which rendered it impossible are the following:

I. It was based, as related from memory by Colonel Chesnut, on the supposition of drawing a force of about 25,000 men from the command of General Johnston. The letters of General Johnston show his effective force to have been only i ,000, with an enemy 30,000 strong in his front, ready to take possession of the Valley of Virginia on his withdrawal.

II. It proposed to continue operations by effecting a junction of a part of the victorious forces with the army of General Garnett, in Western Virginia. General Garnett's forces amounted only to 3 or 4,000 men, then known to be in rapid retreat before vastly superior forces under McClellan, and the news that he was himself killed and his army scattered arrived within forty-eight hours of Colonel Chesnut's arrival in Richmond.

III. The plan was based on the improbable and inadmissible supposition that the enemy was to wait everywhere, isolated and motionless, until our forces could effect junctions to attack them in detail.

IV. It could not be expected that any success obtainable on the battle-field would enable our forces to carry the fortifications on the Potomac, garrisoned, and within supporting distance of fresh troops; nor, after [137] the actual battle and victory, did the generals on the field propose an advance on the Capitol; nor does it appear that they since have believed themselves in a condition to attempt such a movement.

It is proper also to observe that there is no communication on file in the War Department, as recited at the close of the report, showing what were the causes which prevented the advance of our forces and a prolonged, vigorous pursuit of the enemy to and beyond the Potomac.

I reproduce these evidences of the injustice of the slanders that attributed to my husband the failure to follow the victory at Manassas, because they have been reproduced in book form, and may be regarded in foreign lands as Confederate authorities. I learn the refutations have not been seen by writers who otherwise would have been impartial historians of the war between the States, and have far from exhausted the proof of the absolute verity of my husband's refutation; but I have quoted enough to enable the reader to see the gross injustice of the accusation that he was responsible for the non-action of our armies.

1 This was written after deliberation in 1887.

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