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Chapter 42: President Davis's letter to General Johnston after the fall of Vicksburg.

Richmond, July 15, 1863.
General J. E. Johnston, Commanding, etc. General:
Your despatch of the 5th instant stating that you “ considered” your “assignment to the immediate command in Mississippi” as giving you “a new position” and as “limiting your authority,” being a repetition of a statement which you were informed was a grave error, and being persisted in after your failure to point out, when requested, the letter or despatch justifying you in such a conclusion, rendered it necessary, as you were informed in my despatch of the 8th instant, that I should make a more extended reply than could be given in a telegram. That there may be no possible room for further mistake in this matter, I am compelled to recapitulate the substance of all orders and instructions given to you, so far as they bear on this question.

On November 24th last you were assigned, [426] by Special Order No. 275, to a defined geographical command. The description included a portion of Western North Carolina and Northern Georgia, the States of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, and that portion of the State of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River. The order concluded in the following language: “General Johnston will, for the purpose of correspondence and reports, establish his headquarters at Chattanooga, or such other place as in his judgment will best secure communication with the troops within the limits of his command, and will repair in person to any part of said command, whenever his presence may for the time be necessary, or desirable.”

This command by its terms embraced the armies under command of General Bragg in Tennessee, of General Pemberton at Vicksburg, as well as those at Port Hudson, Mobile, and the forces in East Tennessee.

This general order has never been changed nor modified, so as to affect your command, in a single particular, nor has your control over it been interfered with. I have as Commander-in-Chief given you some orders which will be hereafter noticed, not one of them however indicating in any manner that the general control confided to you was restricted or impaired. [427]

You exercised this command by visiting in person the armies at Murfreesboro, Vicksburg, Mobile, and elsewhere, and on January 22d I wrote to you, directing that you should repair in person to the army at Tullahoma, on account of a reported want of harmony and confidence between General Bragg and his officers and troops. This letter closed with the following passages: “As that army is part of your command, no order will be necessary to give you authority there, as, whether present or absent, you have a right to direct its operations, and to do whatever belongs to the General Commanding.”

Language cannot be plainer than this, and although the different armies in your geographical district were ordered to report directly to Richmond as well as to yourself, this was done solely to avoid the evil that would result from reporting through you when your headquarters might be, and it was expected frequently would be, so located as to create delays injurious to the public interest.

While at Tullahoma you did not hesitate to order troops from General Pemberton's army, and learning that you had ordered the division of cavalry from North Mississippi to Tennessee, I telegraphed to you that this order left Mississippi exposed to cavalry raids without means of checking them. You did not [428] change your orders,1 and although I thought them injudicious, I refrained from exercising my authority in deference to your views.

When I learned that prejudice and malignity had so undermined the confidence of the troops at Vicksburg in their commander as to threaten disaster, I deemed the circumstances such as to present the case foreseen in Special Order No. 275, that you should “repair in person to any part of said command whenever your presence might be for the time necessary or desirable.”

You were therefore ordered, on May 9th, to “proceed at once to Mississippi and take chief command of the forces, giving to those in the field, as far as practicable, the encouragement and benefit of your personal direction.”

Some details were added about reinforcements, but not a word affecting in the remotest degree your authority to command your geographical district.

On June 4th you telegraphed to the Secretary of War, in response to his inquiry, saying: “My only plan is to relieve Vicksburg; my force is far too small for the purpose. Tell me if you can increase it, and how much.” To which he answered on the 5th: “ I regret inability to promise more [429] troops, as we have drained resources, even to the danger of several points. You know best concerning General Bragg's army, but I fear to withdraw more. We are too far outnumbered in Virginia to spare any,” etc.

On June 8th the Secretary was more explicit, if possible. He said: “ Do you advise more reinforcements from General Bragg? You, as Commandant of the Department, have power so to order if you, in view of the whole case, so determine.”

On June Ioth you answered that it was for the Government to determine what department could furnish the reinforcements, that you could not know how General Bragg's wants compared with yours, and that the Government could make the comparison. Your statements that the Government in Richmond was better able to judge of the relative necessities of the armies under your command than you were, and the further statement that you could not know how General Bragg's wants compared with yours, were considered extraordinary; but as they were accompanied by the remark that the Secretary's despatch had been imperfectly deciphered, no observation was made on them till the receipt of your telegram to the Secretary of the 12th instant, stating, “ I have not considered myself commanding in Tennessee [430] since assignment here, and should not have felt authorized to take troops from that Department after having been informed by the Executive that no more could be spared.”

My surprise at these two statements was extreme. You had never been “ assigned to the Mississippi command.” You went there under the circumstances and orders already quoted, and no justification whatever is perceived for your abandonment of your duties as Commanding General of the geographical district to which you were assigned.

Orders as explicit as those under which you were sent to the West, and under which you continued to act up to May gth, when you were directed to repair in person to Mississippi, can only be impaired or set aside by subsequent orders, equally explicit; and your announcement that you had ceased to consider yourself charged with the control of affairs in Tennessee because ordered to repair in person to Mississippi, both places being within the command to which you were assigned, was too grave to be overlooked; and when to this was added the assertion that you should not have felt authorized to draw troops from that Department (Tennessee) “after being informed by the Executive that no more could be spared,” I was unable to account for your language, being entirely confident [431] that I had never given you any such information.

I shall now proceed to separate your two statements, and begin with that which relates to your “not considering” yourself commanding in Tennessee, since assignment “here,” i.e., in Mississippi.

When you received my telegram of June 15th, informing you that “the order to go to Mississippi did not diminish your authority in Tennessee, both being in the country placed under your command in original assignment,” accompanied by an inquiry about the information said to have been derived from me, restricting your authority to transfer troops, your answer on June 16th was, “ I meant to tell the Secretary of War, that I considered the order directing me to command here as limiting my authority to this Department, especially when that order was accompanied by War Department orders transferring troops from Tennessee to Mississippi.”

This is in substance a repetition of the previous statement without any reason being given for it. The fact of orders being sent to you to transfer some of the troops in your Department from one point to another to which you were proceeding in person, could give no possible ground for your “considering” that Special Order, No. 275, was rescinded [432] or modified. Your command of your geographical district did not make you independent of my orders as your superior officer, and when you were directed by me to take troops with you to Mississippi, your control over the district to which you were assigned was in no way involved. But the statement that troops were transferred from Tennessee to Mississippi by order of the War Department, when you were directed to repair to the latter State, gives but half the fact, for although you were ordered to take with you three thousand good troops, you were told to replace them by a greater number, then on their way to Mississippi, and whom you were requested to divert to Tennessee, the purpose being to hasten reinforcements to Pemberton without weakening Bragg. This was in deference to your own opinion, that Bragg could not be safely weakened, nay, that he ought even to be reinforced at Pemberton's expense; for you had just ordered troops from Pemberton's command to reinforce Bragg. I differed in opinion from you, and thought Vicksburg far more exposed to danger than Bragg, and was urging forward reinforcements to that point, both from Carolina and Virginia, before you were directed to assume command in person in Mississippi.

I find nothing then either in your despatch [433] of June 16th, nor in any subsequent communication from you, giving a justification for your saying, that you “ had not considered yourself commanding in Tennessee, since assignment here” (i.e., in Mississippi). Your despatch of the 5th instant is again a substantial repetition of the same statement without a word of reason to justify it. You say, “I considered my assignment to the immediate command in Mississippi as giving me a new position, and limiting my authority to this Department.” I have characterized this as a grave error, and in view of all the facts cannot otherwise regard it. I must add that a review of your correspondence shows a constant desire on your part, beginning early in January, that I should change the order placing Tennessee and Mississippi in one command under your direction, and a constant indication on my part, whenever I wrote on the subject, that in my judgment the public service required that the armies should be subject to your control.

I now proceed to your second statement, in your telegram of June 12th, that “you should not have felt authorized to take troops from that Department (Tennessee) after having been informed by the Executive that no more could be spared.”

To my inquiry for the basis of this statement, [434] you answered on the 16th, by what was in substance a reiteration of it.

I again requested, on the 17th, that you should refer by date to any such communication as that alleged by you. You answered on June 20th, apologized for carelessness in your first reply, and referred me to a passage from my telegram to you of May 20th, and to one from the Secretary of War of June 5th, and then informed me that you considered “ Executive” as including the Secretary of War.

Your telegram of June I 2th was addressed to the Secretary of War in the second person; it begins “ Your despatch,” and then speaks of the Executive in the third person, and on reading it, it was not supposed that the word “Executive” referred to anyone but myself; but of course, in a matter like this, your own explanation of your meaning is conclusive.

The telegram of the Secretary of War of June 5th, followed by that of June 8th, conveyed unmistakably the very reverse of the meaning you attribute to them, and your reference to them as supporting your position is unintelligible. I revert therefore to my telegram of May 28th. That telegram was in answer to one from you in which you stated that, on the arrival of certain reinforcements, then on the way, you would have about 23,000; that Penberton could be saved [435] only by beating Grant; and you added, “unless you can promise more troops we must try with that number. The odds against us will be very great. Can you add seven thousand?”

My reply was “ The reinforcements sent to you exceed by, say seven thousand, the estimate of your despatch of 27th instant. We have withheld nothing which it was practicable to give you. We cannot hope for numerical quantity, and time will probably increase the disparity.”

It is on this language that you rely to support a statement that I informed you no more troops could be spared from Tennessee, and as restricting your right to draw troops from that Department. It bears no such construction. The reinforcements sent to you, with an exception presently to be noticed, were from points outside of your Department. You had, in telegrams of May Ist, 2d, and 7th, and others, made repeated applications to have troops withdrawn from other Departments to your aid; you were informed that we would give all the aid we possibly could. Of your right to order any change made in the distribution of troops in your own district, no doubt had ever been suggested by yourself, nor could occur to your superiors here, for they had given you the authority. [436]

The reinforcements which went with you from Tennessee were (as already explained and as was communicated to you at the time) a mere exchange for other troops sent from Virginia.

The troops subsequently sent to you from Bragg were forwarded by him under the following despatch from me of May 22d: “The vital issue of holding the Mississippi at Vicksburg is dependent on the success of General Johnston in an attack on the investing force. The intelligence from there is discouraging. Can you aid him? If so, and you are wz/iout orders from General 70hnston, act on your judgment.”

The words that I now underscore suffice to show how thoroughly your right of command of the troops in Tennessee was recognized. I knew from your own orders that you thought it more advisable to draw troops from Mississippi to reinforce Bragg, than to send troops from the latter to Pemberton; and one of the reasons which induced the instruction to you to proceed to Mississippi was the conviction that your views on the point would be changed on arrival in Mississippi. Still, although convinced myself that troops might be spared from Bragg's army without very great danger, and that Vicksburg was on the contrary in imminent peril, I was unwilling to [437] overrule your judgment of the distribution of your troops while you were on the spot, and, therefore, simply left to General Bragg the power to aid you, if he could, and zifyou had not given contrary orders.

The cavalry sent to you from Tennessee was sent on a similar despatch from the Secretary of War to General Bragg, informing him of your earnest appeal for cavalry, and asking him if he could spare any. Your request was for a regiment of cavalry to be sent to you from Georgia. My despatch of May 18th pointed out to you the delay which a compliance would involve, and suggested that cavalry could be drawn from another part of your Department, as had been previously indicated.

In no manner, by no act, by no language, either of myself or of the Secretary of War, has your authority to draw troops from one portion of your Department to another been withdrawn, restricted, or modified.

Now that Vicksburg has disastrously fallen, this subject would present no pressing demand for attention, and its examination would have been postponed to a future period, had not your despatch of the 5th instant, with its persistent repetition of statements which I had informed you were erroneous and without adducing a single fact to sustain them, induced [438] me to terminate the matter at once by a review of all the facts.

The original mistakes in your telegram of June 12th, would gladly have been overlooked as accidental, if acknowledged when pointed out. The perseverance with which they have been insisted on, has not permitted me to pass them by as a mere oversight, or, by refraining from an answer, to seem to admit the justice of some of the statements.

Respectfully, etc., (Signed) Jefferson Davis.

Telegrams sent by General Johnston from Jackson, Miss., to Richmond, Va.

May 28, 1863.
To President Davis:
It is reported that the last infantry coming leave Montgomery to-night. When they arrive I shall have about twenty-three thousand.

Pemberton can be saved only by beating Grant. Unless you can promise more troops we must try with that number.

The odds against us will be very great. Can you add 7,000? I asked for another Major-General, Wilcox, or whoever you may prefer. We want good General Officers quickly. I have to organize an army and collect ammunition, provisions, and transportation.

June 10, 1863.
To Secretary of War :
Your despatch of June 8th in cipher received. You do not give orders in regard to the recently appointed General Officers. Please do it.

I have not at my (disposal? 2) half the number of troops necessary. It is for the Government to determine what Department, if any, can furnish the reinforcements required. [439]

I cannot know General Bragg's wants, compared with mine. The Government can make such comparisons.

June 12, 1863.
to the Secretary of War:
Your despatch of 8th imperfectly deciphered and partially answered on the Ioth. I have not considered myself commanding in Tennessee since assignment here, and should not have felt authorized to take troops from that Department, after having been informed by the Executive that no more could be spared. To take from Bragg a force which would make this army fit to oppose Grant would involve yielding Tennessee.

It is for the Government to decide between this State and Tennessee.

June 16, 1863.
to the President:
Your despatch of 15th is received. I considered the order directing me to command here as limiting my authority to this Department. Especially when that order, accompanied by War Department orders transferring troops from Tennessee to Mississippi, and whether commanding there or not, that your reply to my application for more troops, that none could be spared, would have made it improper for me to order more from Tennessee.

Permit me to repeat that an officer having a task like mine, far above his abilities, cannot in addition command other remote Departments. ...

June 20, 1863.
To the President:
I much regret the carelessness of my reply of the 16th, to your telegram of the 15th.

In my despatch of 12th to the Secretary of War, I referred to the words, “we withheld nothing which it was practicable to give.” In your telegram of May 28th, and the telegram of the Secretary of War to me of June 5th, except the last sentence, I considered “ Executive” as including the Secretary of War.

Candy Creek Camp, July 5th, via Jackson, July 7, 1863.
To the President: Your despatch of June 30th is received. I considered my assignment to the immediate command in Mississippi as giving me a new position and limiting my authority to this Department. The ordering of the War Department transferring [440] three separate bodies of troops from General Bragg's army to thistwo of them without my knowledge, and all of them without consulting me, would have convinced me, had I doubted these orders of the War Department expressed its judgment of the number of troops to be transferred from Tennessee.

I could no more control this judgment by increasing the numbers than by forbidding the transfer.

I regret very much that an impression which seemed to be natural should be regarded as a strange error. I thank your Excellency for your approval of the several recommendations you mention.

1 The italics are the author's.

2 Word not legible in cipher despatch.

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