150 years ago: J.E. Johnston sent west

On this day (November 24) in 1862, paragraph 3 of Special Orders No. 275 from Confederate Army Headquarters detailed a new assignment for General Joseph E. Johnston:

General J. E. Johnston, C. S. Army, is hereby assigned to the following geographical command, to wit: Commencing with the Blue Ridge range of mountains running through the western part of North Carolina, and following the line of said mountains through the northern part of Georgia to the railroad south from Chattanooga; thence by that road to West Point, and down the west or right bank of the Chattahoochee River to the boundary of Alabama and Florida; following that boundary west to the Choctawhatchee River, and down that river to Choctawhatchee Bay (including the waters of that bay) to the Gulf of Mexico.

All that portion of country west of said line to the Mississippi River is included in the above command.

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 facilities for ready 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 was the second time the Confederates had unified the Western Theater under one commander named Johnston (no relations, BTW).  The first time, while certainly not successful, at least had a moment on the morning of April 6, 1862 before ending tragically for General Albert S. Johnston.  In the aftermath, the Confederate command structure in the west operated more by the strength of suggestions for coordination from distant Richmond.

The late summer/early fall offensive into Kentucky strained the western command structure.  By early November, nobody wanted to work with General Braxton Bragg… and Bragg was none to happy to work with them either!  The solution offered from Richmond was J.E. Johnston, conveniently recovered from his wounds suffered in June.

And how did Johnston respond to this call?

… If I have been correctly informed the forces which it places under my command are greatly inferior in number to those of the enemy opposed to them, while in the Trans-Mississippi Department our army is very much larger than that of the United States. Our two armies on this side of the Mississippi have the further disadvantage of being separated by the Tennessee River, and a Federal army (that of Major-General Grant) larger probably than either of them. Under such circumstances it seems to me that our best course would be to fall upon Major-General Grant with the troops of Lieutenant-Generals Holmes and Pemberton, united for the purpose, those of General Bragg co-operating if practicable.

The defeat of Major-General Grant would enable us to hold the Mississippi and permit Lieutenant-General Holmes to move into Missouri.  As our troops are now distributed Vicksburg is in danger.

Not exactly a tone of confidence.  But in all fairness, Johnston at least summed up the strategic situation as best one could from a thousand mile distance.  But wait a minute… that plan sounds like Seven Pines on a grand scale, doesn’t it?   And there’s that word again – “practicable.” Probably the last word to include in any orders going to Bragg, if you ask me. More importantly, the tone of Johnston’s response is very much indicative of the way he approached command – before and after this appointment.

Perhaps a portent of things to come, Johnston’s arrival in Chattanooga was delayed until the first week of December due to three railroad accidents which impeded his transit.   When he arrived at his new headquarters, he found the situation going from bad to worse, with Pemberton withdrawing in the face of Grant’s force.  A crisis of command from the first day in the office.

So thus began Joseph E. Johnston’s affiliation with the Western Theater.  Say what you will about his generalship, the troops liked him.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 17, Part II, Serial 25, pages 757-8.)


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