Lee to Johnston: Calling attention to the “vital importance of checking General Sherman”

On February 23, 1864, General Joseph E. Johnston was one day into his command of the “southern army.”Note 1  He had yet to join the force.  Orienting Johnston to his new command, General Robert E. Lee wrote on the 23rd to offer his views as to the situation and how to deal with the threats which seemed poised to rip the Confederacy apart.  Lee began with an assessment of things – both internal and external:

General Beauregard, upon whose cheerful and zealous support I need not say you can fully rely, will apprise you of the present condition of affairs. Leaving the adoption of the best measures of defense to your skill and judgment, I will only suggest what has occurred to me from the information I have received. I have doubted whether it was General Sherman’s intention to move by way of Charlotte, Greensborough, and Danville, toward Richmond, as the difficulties attending that course would be very great. I thought that after a demonstration in [that] direction, laying waste the country and destroying the railroads, he would turn toward the coast and reopen his communications and endeavor to unite with the army of General Schofield, operating on the Cape Fear River. The latest intelligence from General Hampton would indicate that General Sherman is moving eastwardly toward Camden. Should such be his purpose the troops that withdrew from Charleston toward Monk’s Corner would be in some danger of falling between General Sherman and General Schofield, and I think it would be best to move them as rapidly as possible to Fayetteville, or any other convenient point whence they can proceed to General Beauregard’s army, or be otherwise used as you see fit.

Lee’s forecast for Sherman’s next movement was accurate.  So we can confirm that Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s attempt to mislead the Confederates, to think the next march was toward Charlotte, had fooled nobody save perhaps Kilpatrick himself and Beauregard.

Mentioning the need to move the former Charleston garrison to prevent being isolated touched upon the foundation of Confederate strategy during the winter of 1865 – keeping an army in “being” above all else.

Lee continued, turning to what might be done with the remaining elements of the Army of Tennessee:

The movement of General Sherman above suggested would also intercept the march of Stewart’s and Cheatham’s corps, which, as I understand, are advancing east of Columbia to join the forces under Beauregard in front of Sherman. If a junction of these troops cannot be effected at once with the rest of the army they should be kept upon the enemy’s flank so as to embarrass his movements until such time as they can be united with the others.

From there, Lee touched upon some points which were, for the most part, were more abstract than concrete:

I need not say that the first thing to be done is to concentrate all our forces and bring out every available man. If this can be accomplished in time to strike General Sherman before he reaches the coast or unites with Schofield, I hope for favorable results. His progress can be embarrassed and retarded by removing or destroying all kinds of supplies on his route, and I hope you will spare no effort to accomplish this object. You will have to depend upon marching, to a great extent, for the movement of your troops, and upon wagons for transporting supplies.

Somewhat apparent the goal should be to concentrate.  And space had to be traded for time for such concentration.  Any measurable delay in Sherman’s progress was important.

As for Bragg’s forces retreating from Wilmington, Lee made it clear who was senior, “Should your operations bring you within reach of the troops under General Bragg, and you find that they can be used to advantage, of course you will direct their movements.”  Working from the mention of Bragg, Lee made light of other Federal threats which might work with Sherman:

In this connection I call your attention to the fact that a column of the enemy is reported as preparing to move by Kinston toward Goldsborough, to oppose which there is only a small force under General Baker. If, on the other hand, General Sherman should advance northwardly toward Greensborough and Danville and we cannot check him, it will become necessary for this army to change its position. I am endeavoring to hold General Grant in check as long as possible and resist any attempt he may make to co-operate with the Federal forces in North Carolina.

And what assistance could Lee offer?

At this time nothing can be sent from here to your assistance, but should the enemy reach the Roanoke, I should endeavor to unite with you to strike him, or if opportunity occurred, to attack General Grant if he follows me rapidly.

But Lee would not manage the situation for Johnston, though he wished to press the seriousness of the situation (if Johnston was not sufficiently aware):

This outline will explain generally time posture of affairs. It is needless for me to call your attention to the vital importance of checking General Sherman and preserving our railroad communications as far as practicable. I rely confidently upon you to do all that the means at your disposal will permit, and hope for the most favorable issue. You can depend upon receiving all the assistance I can render. Please keep me advised of the enemy’s movements, and of your own, that I may be able to co-operate as far as practicable. It will be well to call upon the State authorities to set to work at once to repair the roads as they are left open by the advance of the enemy.

Responding to Lee, Johnston wrote the same day, providing dispositions and troop strengths for his subordinate commands:

General Beauregard has given orders for the concentration of all his forces. Lieutenant-General Hardee is moving by Florence and Cheraw, and Major-General Cheatham and Lieutenant-General Stewart by Newberry. In front of the Federal army are the cavalry and S. D. Lee’s corps, 3,000; Stewart and Cheatham. 3,200; Lieutenant-General Hardee’s, about 11,000; cavalry, about 6,000. I suggest that General Bragg’s troops join these. Can Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson, assistant adjutant general, join me? I have no staff, that of the Army of Tennessee being dispersed.

As of the evening of February 23, 1865, Johnston had no staff.  He had very few troops.  And what he had were widely dispersed.  What he had plenty of were problems.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 1256-7.)

Note 1 – I’m borrowing the title “southern army” all lowercase from a message Beauregard sent to Lee on February 22, acknowledging Johnston’s appointment and effectively replacing Beauregard. I think it a good “loose” term that both defines Johnston’s authority and the task at hand. 

One thought on “Lee to Johnston: Calling attention to the “vital importance of checking General Sherman”

  1. No one, before or since, could write like Lee.

    With vision, clarity, tact and decisive leadership, he conveys precisely what he expects of subordinates… Which of course renders the phrase, “if practicable,” all the more out-of-character.

    There are those Southerners, like me, who are mighty fine with the way things turned out in 1865, but I wish to my bones he had never given unclear orders on July 1.

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