previous next

Chapter 19: effort to effect exchange of prisoners-evacuation of Manassas-visit to Fredericksburg.

About the end of January, 1862, the Confederate Government endeavored to procure the exchange of prisoners taken by the armies of the belligerents, and an officer was sent by General Johnston to General McClellan.

The proposition was not entertained by the Federal Government, and our efforts to shorten the imprisonment of the captives in our hands met no encouragement from their own friends.

Thus early in the war the Confederate Government displayed its desire to secure a free exchange of prisoners, which, had it been carried out in good faith by the Federals, would have saved from unavoidable suffering and death, thousands of both armies.

In view of the near approach of the spring campaign, President Davis issued the following proclamation:

By virtue of the power vested in me by law, to declare the suspension of the privilege [185] of the writ of habeas corpus in cities threatened with invasion;

I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, do proclaim that martial law is hereby extended over the city of Richmond and the adjoining country to the distance of ten miles. And I do proclaim the suspension of all civil jurisdiction with the exception of the Mayor of the city, and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus within the said city and surrounding country to the distance aforesaid.

In faith whereof I have hereunto signed my name and set my seal, at the city of Richmond, on the first day of March, in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two.


Jefferson Davis.

On February 2d General Beauregard took leave of the Army of the Potomac, having been transferred to the army in West Tennessee, commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston.

The Federal forces then organizing in front of Washington, under General George B. McClellan, and estimated to number one hundred thousand men, gave indication of active operations. General Johnston, in a personal interview in Richmond, gave notice that he considered his position as unsafe, and a withdrawal of the army from Centreville was [186] necessary before McClellan's invasion; the latter accordingly addressed to him the following letter:

Your opinion that your position may be turned whenever the enemy chooses to advance, and that he will be ready to take the field before yourself, clearly indicates prompt effort to disencumber yourself of everything which would interfere with your rapid movement when necessary, and such thorough examination of the country in your rear as would give you exact knowledge of its roads and general topography, and enable you to select a line of greater natural advantages than that now occupied by your forces.

The heavy guns at Manassas and Evansport, needed elsewhere, and reported to be useless in their present position, would necessarily be abandoned in a hasty retreat. I regret that you find it impossible to move them.

The subsistence stores should, when removed, be placed in positions to answer your future wants. Those cannot be determined until you have furnished definite information as to your plans, especially the line to which you would remove in the contingency of retiring. The Commissary-General had previously stopped further shipments to your [187] army, and given satisfactory reasons for the establishment at Thoroughfare.1 ...

I need not urge on your consideration the value to our country of arms and munitions of war; you know the difficulty with which we have obtained our small supply; that to furnish heavy artillery to the advanced posts we have exhausted the supplies here which were designed for the armament of the city defences. Whatever can be, should be done to avoid the loss of these guns ...

As has been my custom, I have only sought to present general purposes and views. I rely upon your special knowledge and high ability to effect whatever is practicable in this our hour of need. Recent disasters have depressed the weak, and are depriving us of the aid of the wavering. Traitors show the tendencies heretofore concealed, and the selfish grow clamorous for local and personal interests. At such an hour the wisdom of the trained and the steadiness of the brave possess a double value. The military paradox that impossibilities must be rendered possible, had never better occasion for its application.

The engineers for whom you asked have been ordered to report to you, and further additions will be made to your list of brigadier-generals. [188] Let me hear from you often and fully.

Very truly and respectfully yours,

Jefferson Davis.

The President again wrote as follows:

Richmond, Va., March 6, 1862.
Generalj. E. Johnston:
Notwithstanding the threatening position of the enemy, I infer from your account of the roads and streams that his active operations must be for some time delayed, and thus I am permitted to hope that you will be able to mobilize your army by the removal of your heavy ordnance and such stores as are not required for active operations, so that, whenever you are required to move, it may be without public loss and without impediment to celerity. I was fully impressed with the difficulties which you presented when discussing the subject of a change of position. To preserve the efficiency of your army, you will, of course, avoid all needless exposure; and, when your army has been relieved of all useless encumbrance, you can have no occasion to move it while the roads and weather are such as would involve serious suffering, because the same reasons must restrain the operations of the enemy ...

Very respectfully yours,

Jefferson Davis.


General Johnston began his retreat on March 7th, but such was the confusion incident upon moving the troops out of their winter quarters, that it was not until the evening of the gth that order was restored to the retreating column. The troops moved out on the 8th, passed the succeeding twenty-four hours on the roadside, and suffered much from the inclement weather and excessive cold.

The retreat continued to the south bank of the Rappahannock, where a halt was called, and the troops encamped.

In the undue haste to retire from the front of McClellan, who did not follow, nor even interfere with General Johnston's rear-guard, stores, arms, clothing, etc., were abandoned and burned, notwithstanding the urgent warning of Mr. Davis in his letters of February 28th and of March 6th.

General Early, in stating the amount of unnecessary loss at Manassas, wrote as follows:

A very large amount of stores and provisions had been abandoned for want of transportation, and among the stores was a very large quantity of clothing, blankets, etc., which had been provided by the States south of Virginia for their own troops. The pile of trunks along the railroad was appalling to behold. All these stores, clothing, trunks, etc., were consigned to the flames by a portion of [190] our cavalry left to carry out the work of their destruction. The loss of stores at this point, and at White Plains, on the Manassas Gap Railroad, where a large amount of meat had been salted and stored, was a very serious one to us, and embarrassed us for the remainder of the war, as it put us at once on a running stock.

The same officer subsequently wrote, in regard to the loss of supplies:

I believe that all might have been carried off from Manassas if the railroads had been energetically operated.

On March 10th the President, not then informed of General Johnston's retrograde movement, telegraphed him as follows:

Further assurances given me this day that you shall be promptly reinforced, so as to enable you to maintain your position and resume first policy when the roads will permit.

The first policy was to carry the war beyond our own border.

On March 15th the President received notice that the army was in retreat, and replied:

Richmond, Va., March 15, 1862.
General J. E. Johnston, Headquarters Army of the Potomac.
General: I have received your letter of the 13th instant, giving the first official account [191] I have received of the retrograde movement of your army.

Your letter would lead me to infer that others had been sent to apprise me of your plans and movements. If so, they have not reached me; and before the receipt of yours of the 13th I was as much in the dark as to your purposes, condition, and necessities, as at the time of our conversation on the subject about a month since.

It is true I have had many and alarming reports of great destruction of ammunition, camp equipage, and provisions, indicating precipitate retreat; but having heard of no cause for such a sudden movement I was at a loss to believe it.

I have not the requisite topographical knowledge for the selection of your position. I had intended that you should determine that question; and for this purpose a corps of engineers was furnished to make a careful examination of the country to aid you in your decision.

The question of throwing troops into Richmond is contingent upon reverses in the West and Southeast. The immediate necessity for such a movement is not anticipated.

Very respectfully yours,

Jefferson Davis.


On the same day the President sent the following telegram:

Richmond, Va., March 15, 1862.
General J. E. Johnston, Culpepper Court-House, Va.
Your letter of the 13th received this day, being the first information of your retrograde movement. I have no report of your reconnaissance, and can suggest nothing as to the position you should take, except it should be as far in advance as consistent with your safety.

Jefferson Davis.

The President immediately went to General Johnston's headquarters, and found him on the south bank of the Rappahannock River, to which he had retired, in a position possessing great natural advantages.

Upon inquiring whether the south bank of the river continued to command the other side down to Fredericksburg, General Johnston replied he did not know, that he had not been there for many years.

The President and General Johnston proceeded to Fredericksburg, and a reconnaissance soon manifested that the hills on the opposite bank commanded the town, and therefore Fredericksburg could only be defended by an army occupying the opposite [193] hills, for which the Confederate force was inadequate.

While in Fredericksburg the President and General Johnston were the guests of J. Temple Doswell, and at his house met a large number of ladies and gentlemen, among whom were the Honorable W. S. Barton, R. W. Adams, F. T. Forbes, J. L. Marye, and the venerable T. B. Barton. In answer to the question as to the result of the reconnaissance, the President replied to Mr. Doswell, during their ride, that Fredericksburg was “right in the wrong place” for military defence.

Upon learning that the town was not to be defended, young and old, with self-sacrificing patriotism, answered, “If the good of our cause requires the defence of the town to be abandoned, let it be done.”

The President returned to Richmond to await the further development of the enemy's plans.

General Johnston, in an article in the Century of May, 1885, entitled “Manassas to seven Pines,” seems to have entirely forgotten that Mr. Davis visited him at his headquarters in the field after he had retreated to the south bank of the Rappahannock, and that together they went to Fredericksburg. [194]

He uses these words:

Mr. Davis's narrative that follows is disposed of by the proof that after the army left Manassas the President did not visit it until about May 14 ... That he did not make such a visit is proved by Major J. B. Washington, aide-de-camp, Dr. Fauntleroy, surgeon, and Colonel E. J. Harvie, staff officers, who testify that they have no recollection whatever of such a visit at such a time.

While it may not be of any great importance to history whether Mr. Davis and General Johnston did or did not visit Fredericksburg together, still positive proof is presented that such a visit was made, and that General Johnston's memory has failed him.

In the Rebellion Records, published by the War Department at Washington, volume XI., part 3, page 392, will be found the following order, issued to Generai Johnston by the President, while at Fredericksburg, March 22, 1862.

Sir: I. You will relieve Major-General Holmes of his command, and direct him to report at Richmond for further orders.

II. You will detach two brigades of infantry and two companies of artillery, with orders to report to Major-General Holmes with [195] the least delay at his headquarters in the field.

III. The troops when passing through Richmond will be reported to the Adjutant-General for any instructions which it may be needful to give them at that point.

Very respectfully yours,

Jefferson Davis.

Special orders, no. 83.

headquarters, Department of Northern Virginia, Rapidan, March 23, 1862.
Under orders of the President:

I. Major-General T. H. Holmes, commanding Acquia District, is relieved from the command of that district, and assigned to duty temporarily with General Lee, and will report to the Adjutant and Inspector-General, Richmond, Va., for further orders.

By command of General Johnston.

A. P. Mason.

The following letters, written by residents of Fredericksburg, are also appended to prove conclusively that Mr. Davis, and not General Johnston, is right:

my dear Sir: In reply to your inquiry whether I knew that President Davis visited [196] Fredericksburg in March, 1862, I beg to say that I know he did. At what time of the month it was, I cannot now state positively, but my impression is, it was between the 15th and the 20th.

On my return from Richmond, about g or 10 A. M., I found President Davis, General Johnston, and General Holmes at my house. Very soon after General Holmes ordered me (I was his aide) to go with the President and General Johnston across the river, to make a reconnaissance of the country, etc.

On the return from the reconnoissance across the river, I well remember, in coming through the little town of Falmouth, the President, at whose side I was riding at the time, made this remark to me: “To use a slang phrase, your town of Fredericksburg is right in the wrong place,” to which I replied I was well aware of the fact so far as its capability for being defended against an invading force was concerned.

Yours truly,

J. T. Doswell.

Fredericksburg, August 17, 1885.
In March, 1862, President Davis and General J. E. Johnston visited Fredericksburg, and were guests of my friend and connection, Mr. J. T. Doswell. The morning after their [197] arrival, they crossed to the north side of the Rappahannock River, and were absent some hours examining the country. On their return to Mr. Doswell's house, many citizens called to pay their respects to the President.

The result of their examination of the locality was understood here to be unfavorable to the defence of the town itself against an attack from the opposite bank of the river. I am unable to give the exact date of that visit. But some matters, personal to myself and distinctly remembered, enable me to state positively that it was before the arrival here of any of General Johnston's troops on their movement toward Yorktown, and before any of General McClellan's transports had passed down the Potomac River.

W. S. Barton.

1 Thoroughfare Gap was the point at which the Commissary-General had placed a meat-packing establishment.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: