Confederates Talk Strategy in Northern Virginia

October 1, 1861 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis met with General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac, and Johnston’s two corps commanders to discuss military strategy at Centreville in northern Virginia.

President Jefferson Davis and Gens J.E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit:
President Jefferson Davis and Gens J.E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit:

Pressure had been mounting from the Confederate public and press for Johnston to take some form of an offensive against the Federals just a few miles away at Washington. That pressure had increased when it became clear that the Federals sought to divide the Confederacy between East and West by taking control of the vital Mississippi River. In response, both Johnston and his Second Corps commander, General Gustavus W. Smith, endorsed a bold plan developed by General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the First Corps.

The three generals explained to Davis that the plan involved crossing the Potomac River into Maryland and seizing the region between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. This would divide the U.S. and force Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac to come out of its Washington fortifications and fight on ground of Johnston’s choosing.

However, the generals stated that they needed reinforcements to put this plan into action. Currently, Johnston had only 40,000 officers and men, which Davis questioned since he had recently sent many recruits to Johnston’s army. Davis then asked how many troops would be needed “to cross the Potomac, cut off the communications of the enemy with their fortified capital, and carry the war into their country.”

Beauregard and Smith answered that 10,000 more men, trained and armed, could execute the plan. However, Johnston overrode them by asserting that he needed 20,000, bringing his army total to 60,000. Davis considered this nearly impossible since manpower was at such a premium. He explained that he could not provide such numbers without having “a total disregard for the safety of other threatened positions.”

Johnston countered by arguing that Virginia was the war’s central focus. If Virginia fell, all surrounding states would also fall until the Confederacy crumbled. Therefore, it would be worth the risk to pull the troops from the other points under Federal threat.

From a political standpoint, Davis knew that governors adhering to states’ rights would resist transferring troops from their states to Virginia. From a military standpoint, Davis knew that the Confederacy did not have enough arms and supplies to equip such a large army at that time.

Davis suggested that Johnston send a raiding party into Maryland instead, but the generals rejected the idea as not worth the risk. Beauregard was infuriated that Davis would not approve his plan. Johnston resolved to maintain a defensive posture until he could try mounting an offensive in spring. As such, he began preparing to withdraw from Centreville and Manassas Junction.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 82-83; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 121-22; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 123


Leave a Reply