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Chapter 14: General Johnston's correspondence.

After the battle of Manassas the Confederate army settled down in camp at and around Centreville.

Although after combining the armies of Generals Johnston and Beauregard at Manassas the command of the whole would unquestionably devolve upon General Johnston, matters did not apparently run smoothly between the two generals, and conflicts of authority occurred, as will appear by the following letters and telegrams.1

In fact, General Johnston brooked no interference with his command, even by his superiors in the government at Richmond.

On July 24, 1861, General J. E. Johnston wrote to General Cooper, the Adjutant-General, as follows:

General: Lieutenant-Colonel Maury reported to me this morning as A. A. G., being assigned to that place by General Lee. I had already selected Major Rhett for the position [139] in question, who had entered upon its duties, and can admit the power of no officer of the Army to annul my order on the subject; nor can I admit the claim of any officer to the command of “ the forces,” being myself the ranking General of the Confederate Army.2

Let me add that I have a high opinion of Lieutenant-Colonel Maury as an officer, and warm personal regard for him.

Most respectfully,
Your obedient servant,

Joseph E. Johnston, General C. S. A.

Upon this letter President Davis endorsed the word, “insubordinate.”

On July 29, 1861, General Johnston wrote again to General Cooper:

headquarters, Manassas, July 29, 1861.
General: I had the honor to write to you on the 24th instant on the subject of my rank compared with that of other officers of the Confederate Army. Since then I have received daily orders purporting to come from the “Head Quarters of the forces,” some of them in relation to the internal affairs of this army. [140]

Such orders I cannot regard, because they are illegal.

Permit me to suggest that orders should come from your office.

Most respectfully,
Your obedient servant,

J. E. Johnston, General C. S. A.

Upon this letter President Davis also endorsed the word “insubordinate.”

On August 1, 1861, President Davis wrote to General Johnston at Manassas as follows:

We are anxiously looking for official reports of the battle of Manassas, and have present need to know what supplies and wagons were captured. I wish you would have prepared a statement of your wants in transportation and supplies of all kinds, to put your army on a proper footing for active operations . ...

I am as ever your friend, (Signed)

Jefferson Davis.

General Johnston apparently becoming more and more impatient and irritated at affairs at Centreville and at Richmond, wrote to the President under date of September 10th, as follows: [141]

Manassas, September 10, 1861.
his Excellency, the President.
Sir: It was said that during the past summer I have been censured by the two persons in Richmond highest in military rank, for not having assumed command of this army, and that they complain of the inconvenience to the service which had been produced thereby.

Permit me to say that this accusation is untrue. I am, and have been, in command of the army. Have felt the responsibility of that command, and understood that, even if so disposed, I could not put it aside.

The fact that I treat General Beauregard in the manner due to the commander of a corps d'armee, not in the manner usual from a United States colonel to his next in rank, must have produced this impression. Let me remind you, too, that in an army which has been almost stationary, there are few orders necessary to the commander of an army corps.

Having heard no specification of inconveniences, I shall not attempt specific defence, but will venture to say that the inconveniences perceived in the army have been thought by it to have been produced in Richmond.

I have taken the liberty, more than once, [142] to suggest to you to assume the military functions of the Presidency, and to command on this northern frontier. I thought my meaning was very plainly expressed. I find I was mistaken, and that you regard one of the last expressions of this idea as not applicable to yourself. I may have written carelessly because, being by our laws next in military place to yourself, it did not occur to me that anyone else could be supposed to be thought of. In offering this suggestion, I was prompted by the idea that such a course on your part would prevent any political agitation in the country.

Most respectfully,
Your obedient servant,

J. E. Johnston, General.
I could not doubt from your letters to me that you considered me as commanding this army.

J. E. Johnston.

My dear General: Yours of the 10th instant is before me, and I can only suppose that you have been deceived by someone of that class in whose absence “the strife ceaseth.” While you were in the Valley of Virginia, your army and that of General [143] Beauregard were independent commands; when you marched to Manassas, the forces joined and did duty together. I trust the two officers highest in military rank in Richmond were too well informed to have doubted in either case as to your power and duty.

Persons have talked here of the command of yourself and Beauregard as separate armies, and complaints have been uttered to the effect that you took the reinforcements and guns for your own army; but to educated soldiers this could only seem the muttering of the uninstructed, the rivalry of those who did not comprehend that unity was a necessity, a law of existence.

Not having heard the accusations, I am like yourself ignorant of the specifications, and will add that I do not believe any disposition has existed on the part of the gentlemen to whom you refer to criticise, still less to detract from, you. If they believed that you did not exercise command over the whole it was, I doubt not, ascribed to delicacy.

You are not mistaken in your construction of my letters having been written to you as the Commanding General. I have, however, sometimes had to repel the idea that there was a want of co-operation between yourself and the second in command, or a want of recognition of your position as the [144] senior and commanding general of all the forces serving at or near the field of your late brilliant achievements.

While writing, it occurs to me that statements have been made, and official applications received, in relation to staff officers which suggested a contingence of separation rather than unity in the army of the Potomac.

I did not understand your suggestion as to a commander-in-chief for your army. The laws of the Confederacy in relation to generals have provisions which are new and unsettled by decisions, their provisions special, and as the attention of Congress was called to what might be regarded as a conflict of laws, their action was confined to the fixing of dates for the generals of the Confederate States Army.

Your friend,

Jefferson Davis.

Before the receipt of the foregoing letter of the President, General Johnston addressed him as follows:

headquarters, Manassas, September 12, 1861.
Sir: I have had the honor to receive through the War Department a copy of the proceedings of Congress on August 3r, 1861, confirming the nominations made by the President [145] of the Confederate States of five Generals of the Confederate Army and fixing their relative rank.

I will not affect to disguise the surprise and mortification produced in my mind by the action taken in this matter by the President and by Congress. I beg to state further, with the most profound respect for both branches of the Government, that these proceedings are in violation of my rights as an officer, of the plighted faith of the Confederacy, and of the Constitution and laws of the land. Such being my views, lest my silence should be deemed significant of acquiescence, it is a duty as well as a right on my part, at once to enter my earnest protest against the wrong which I conceive has been done me. I now and here declare my claim that, notwithstanding the nominations made by the President, and their confirmation by Congress, I still rightfully hold the rank of first General in the armies of the Southern Confederacy. I will proceed briefly to state the grounds upon which I rest this claim.

The act of the Confederate Congress of March 6, 1861, section 8, amended by that of March 14, 1861, section 2, creates the .grade of Brigadier-General as the highest rank in their service, and provides that there shall be five officers of that grade. The fifth [146] section of the last-named act enacts “That in all cases of officers who have resigned, or who may within six months tender their resignation from the army of the United States, and who have been or may be appointed to original vacancies in the army of the Confederate States, the commissions issued shall have been one and the same date, so that the relative rank of officers shall be determined by their former commissions in the United States Army held anterior to the secession of the Confederate States from the United States.”

Under these laws, on May 13, 1861, R. E. Lee and myself were nominated as Brigadier-Generals in the Confederate States Army. Samuel Cooper had been nominated to the same grade and confirmed a few weeks previously.

The nominations of myself and R. E. Lee were confirmed by Congress promptly. Each of the three had resigned his commission in the United States Army in accordance with the terms of the law. The other two had resigned colonelcies, but the commission which I had resigned was that of a Brigadier-General. It is plain, then, that under these laws I was the officer first in rank in the Confederate Army. Two or three days afterward, on May 16th, Congress, by the second section of its act of that date, enacted, “That the five [147] general officers provided by existing laws for the Confederate States shall have the rank and denomination of “General” instead of “Brigadier-General,” which shall be the highest military grade known to the Confederate States. They shall be assigned to such commands and duties as the President may specially direct, and shall be entitled to the same pay, etc.”

I conceive, and I submit to the careful consideration of the Government, that this section of the act last cited operated in two ways : 1. It abolished the grade of Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army. 2. It at once, by the mere force of law, raised the three officers already named to the rank and denomination of “ General” in the army of the Confederate States. The right, therefore, which I claim to my rank is founded on this act. Congress by its act, the President by his approval of it, at once made us Generals. It is clear that such likewise was the construction of both branches of the Government, else why were not nominations made then? It was a time of flagrant war. Either we were Generals, or the army and country were left without such officers. Our former grade had been abolished. We were not Brigadier-Generals, we were nothing, and could perform no military duty, exercise no command. I think it [148] clear that I was a General by the plain terms of the law. It is plain from the action of the President and Congress that such was their construction, as I was at once ordered to Harper's Ferry to take command in the valley of Virginia, and the President soon after placed three Brigadier--Generals under my orders. In hurrying to assume the command in the valley of Virginia, I did not wait for my commission to be sent to me. I did not doubt that it would be made out, for I was persuaded that it was my right, and had no idea that there was any purpose of withholding it. I remained two months in the valley, too earnestly engaged in the public service to busy myself particularly in my personal interests. But when the emergencies of the campaign required me to march to Manassas, and to act with another general officer, I appreciated the importance and the indispensable necessity of not leaving the question of rank open or doubtful between us. With this view I transmitted a telegraphic despatch to the President on July 20th, inquiring, in the simplest and most direct terms, what my rank was. He replied that I was a General. The battle of Manassas ensued on the next day. The President came in person to participate in it, but reached the scene of action soon after the close of the struggle. The morning [149] after the battle he announced his purpose to elevate General Beauregard to the rank of General. He returned to Richmond the ensuing day. The nomination was made immediately on his return, and was promptly confirmed by Congress. General Beauregard then became a General and ranked me unless I was such by virtue of the act of Congress on May 16th, already referred to. Yet from the time of General Beauregard's appointment to the day of the renewed nominations I continued to act as the commanding General of the “Army of the Potomac,” under the authority of the President and of the Department of War. Thus it appears that I have the sanction of the President to my claim of rank under the act of Congress. In addition to this, my rank was expressly recognized by Congress also in the resolutions adopted by that body returning the thanks of Congress to General Johnston, to General Beauregard, and to the officers and soldiers of the army for the victory of Manassas.

Thus stood matters when the recent nominations were made. But one additional name was offered — that of A. S. Johnston. His commission in the army of the United States had been that of Colonel. I as resigning the higher rank in that army, was, by the provisions of the act of Congress of March 14, 1861, [150] and the plighted faith of the Government of the Confederate States, the General first in rank in their armies. By that act and that of May 16, 1861, the rank would stand thus: J. E. Johnston, S. Cooper, A. S. Johnston, R. E. Lee, G. T. Beauregard.3

I held, and claim to hold, my rank as General under the act of May 16, 1861. I was a General thenceforth or never. I had the full authority of the constitutional Government of the Confederate States to sustain me. Heretofore those who disputed my authority as General have done so because they denied the existence of the Government whose officer I claimed to be. Now that Government joins the hostile power in denying my authority. When I sent back the missives of the Government [151] of the United States, because they ignored the Government which I served and acknowledged, I little thought that one of the acts of that Government would be to ignore me as its officer, by trampling upon its own solemn legislative and executive action. The nomination seeks to annul the irrevocable part, and to make me such only from the 4th day of July. The present, and so far as human legislation may operate, the future, may be controlled by Congress. Human power cannot affect the past. Congress may vacate my commission and reduce me to the ranks. It cannot make it true that I was not a General before July 4, 1861.

The effect of the course pursued is this: It transfers me from the position first in rank to that of fourth. The relative rank of the others among themselves is unaltered. It is plain that this is a blow aimed at me only. It reduces my rank in the grade I hold. This has never been done heretofore in the regular service in America but by the sentence of a court-martial as a punishment and as a disgrace for some military offence. It seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and as a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service. I had but this-the scars of many wounds, all honestly taken in my front and in the front of battle, and my father's [152] revolutionary sword. It was delivered to me from his venerable hand without a stain of dishonor. Its blade is still unblemished as when it passed from his hand to mine. I drew it in the war, not for rank or fame, but to defend the sacred soil, the homes and hearths, the women and children, ay, and the men of my mother, Virginia-my native South. It may hereafter be the sword of a general leading armies, or of a private volunteer. But while I live and have an arm to wield it, it shall never be sheathed until the freedom, independence, and full rights of the South are achieved. When that is done, it may well be a matter of small concern to the Government, to Congress, or to the country, what my rank or lot may be.

I shall be satisfied if my country stands among the powers of the world free, powerful, and victorious, and that I as a general, a lieutenant, or a volunteer soldier, have borne my part in the glorious strife, and contributed to the final blessed consummation.

What has the aspect of a studied indignity is offered me. My noble associate with me in the battle has his preferment connected with the victory won by our common trials and dangers. His commission bears the date of July 21, 1861, but care seems to be taken to exclude the idea that I had any part in winning our triumph. [153]

My commission is made to bear such a date that my once inferiors in the service of the United States and of the Confederate States shall be above me. But it must not be dated as of July 21st, nor be suggestive of the victory of Manassas.

I return to my first position. I repeat that my rank as General is established by the acts of Congress of March 14, 1861, and May 16, 1861. To deprive me of that rank it was necessary for Congress to repeal these laws. That could be done by express legislative act alone. It was not done, it could not be done by a mere vote in secret session upon a list of nominations.

If the action against which I have protested is legal, it is not for me to question the expediency of degrading one who has served laboriously from the commencement of the war on this frontier, and borne a prominent part in the only great event of that war, for the benefit of persons neither of whom has yet struck a blow for this Confederacy.

These views and the freedom with which they are presented may be unusual, so likewise is the occasion which calls them forth.

I have the honor to be, most respectfully, Your obedient servant,

J. E. Johnston, General.


To which letter Mr. Davis briefly replied as follows:

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, etc.,

Jefferson Davis.

General Johnston in his “Narrative” respecting the foregoing letter says:

I wrote the President such a statement as the preceding (referring to his rank in the army of the United States), and also expressed my sense of the wrong done me.

But in order that the sense of injury might not betray me into the use of language improper for an officer to the President, I laid aside the letter for two days, and then examined it dispassionately. I believe, and was confident that what it contained was not improper to be said to the President, nor improperly said. The letter was therefore despatched.

It is said to have irritated him, and that his irritation was freely expressed.


Those who have read the telegrams and letters from the President sent to General Johnston up to the date of the above-mentioned letter, will observe the kind, courteous and friendly tone in which the President always addressed him, and it is not to be wondered at that it produced the “irritation” (if nothing more) that General Johnston mentions. That it did not interfere, however, with their “official” relations will be observed in their later correspondence.

General Johnston's remark that the President's irritation was freely expressed shows either a desire to justify himself for constant strictures upon the President, or that he ignored the President's reticent temper. In the whole period of his official relation to General Johnston, in the confidence of family intercourse, I never heard him utter a word in derogation of General Johnston, though he often differed from him in his views of military strategy.

Of camp gossip one would suppose that a man so eminent as General Johnston would take no cognizance, still less repeat it as the substance of a charge against another.

In connection with the foregoing letter of General Johnston, it may be as well to give here the roster of the “Generals” of the [156] Confederate army in 1861-62. They were as follows:

Samuel Cooper, to rank May 16, 1861.

Albert Sidney Johnston, to rank May 30, 1861.

Robert E. Lee, to rank June 14, 1861.

J. E. Johnston, to rank July 4, 1861.

G. T. Beauregard, to rank July 2r, 1861.

Braxton Bragg, to rank April 12, 1862.

To explain even more fully the position taken by Mr. Davis in assigning the abovenamed officers to their relative rank, the following extract is taken from “Destruction and reconstruction” by General Richard Taylor. He writes:

Near the close of President Buchanan's administration, in 1860, died General Jessup, Quartermaster-General of the United States Army; and J. E. Johnston, then Lieutenant-Colonel of Cavalry, was appointed to the vacancy.

Now the Quartermaster-General had the rank, pay, and emoluments of a Brigadier-General; but the rank was staff, and by law this officer could not exercise command over the troops unless by special assignment. When, in the spring of 1861, the officers in question entered the service of the Confederacy, Cooper had been Adjutant-General of the United States Army, with the rank of [157] Colonel; Albert Sidney Johnston, Colonel, and Brigadier-General by brevet, and on duty as such; Lee, Lieutenant-Colonel of Cavalry, senior to J. E. Johnston in the line before the latter's appointment above mentioned; Beauregard, Major of Engineers.

General Beauregard, who about this time was transferred to the Army of the West, commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston, was also known to have grievances. ... Indiscreet persons at Richmond, claiming the privilege and discharging the duty of friendship, gave tongue to loud and frequent plaints, and increased the confusion of the hour.

In a letter to Honorable James Lyons, of Richmond, Va., dated August 30, 1878, Mr. Davis says:

In relation to the complaint of my giving General Lee the higher rank, I have only to say that it seems to me quite absurd. Of the two, General Lee had the higher rank as a cadet; came out of Mexico with a higher brevet; had the higher rank in the cavalry of the United States; had the higher rank in the Army of Virginia, from which they both came to join the Confederate Army, and was named first when both were nominated to the Congress for commissions as Brigadier-Generals of the Confederacy. It is true General Johnston, as Quartermaster-General of the [158] United States, had the staff commission as Brigadier-General. It is equally true that he was prohibited by virtue of that commission from assuming command of troops.

I suppose he knew that when he was nominated to be Quartermaster-General. I was chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, reported the nomination with the recommendation that he be confirmed; that it met serious opposition, and that all my power and influence were required to prevent its rejection.

In that contest I had no aid from the Senators of Virginia, perhaps because of their want of confidence in Mr. Floyd.

If Mason were living, he could tell more of this than I am disposed to say.

An officer of the War Department at Washington, when sending Mr. Davis, in September, 1880, copies of General Johnston's letters of March, 1862, said: “The official records when published will not add to, but greatly detract from, General Johnston's reputation.” He adds: “I can hardly conceive how you (Mr. Davis) could so long have borne with the ‘snarly tone’ of his letters, which he wrote at all times and on all pretexts.”

1 Published for the first time.

2 The italics are the author's.

3 In a letter from the President, in answer to one of mine regretting that General Johnston should feel annoyed, as he was a friend and his wife was very dear to me, I find this remark : “General Johnston does not remember that he did not leave the United States Army to enter the Confederate States Army, but that he entered the Army of Virginia, and when Virginia joined the Confederacy he came to the Confederate States ; also that in the Virginia Army he was the subordinate of Lee, and that they were nominated to our Provisional Congress at the same time and with the same relative rank they had in Virginia. The Quartermaster-General had only assimilated or protective rank, and from it derived no right to command, but by law was prohibited from exercising command of troops.” General Johnston's promotion under the old Government to be Quartermaster-General was violently opposed in the Senate, and Mr. Davis, then a Senator, spoke for the greater part of two hours to carry the point, and did so, and received General Johnston's acknowledgments for the service.

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