November 14, 1862 – Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston found himself at odds with President Jefferson Davis over strategy, and the Confederate secretary of war resigned.
Johnston reported to the War Department ready for action after recovering from wounds suffered at the Battle of Fair Oaks. Johnston met with Secretary of War George W. Randolph, who informed him that due to General Robert E. Lee’s success with the Army of Northern Virginia, Johnston would not be getting his old command back. He would instead most likely be put in a new command overseeing the armies between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi. These included Braxton Bragg’s, Edmund Kirby Smith’s (though now technically under Bragg), and John C. Pemberton’s.
Johnston replied that since Vicksburg was the most likely Federal target in that theater, there should be a unified command over both banks of the Mississippi. As it stood, the west bank belonged to General Theophilus H. Holmes’s Trans-Mississippi Department, which would be beyond Johnston’s jurisdiction. Randolph said he had already asked Holmes to lead troops east, but Davis overrode him in a letter dated that same day (the 12th):
“I regret to notice that in your letter to General Holmes of October 27… His presence on the west side (of the Mississippi) is not less necessary now that heretofore, and will probably soon be more so… The withdrawal of the commander from the Trans-Mississippi Department for temporary duty elsewhere would have a disastrous effect, and was not contemplated by me.”
Two days later, Randolph submitted his resignation as secretary of war, partly because of Davis’s interference in his department. In particular, Randolph had taken offense to Davis superseding his authority in regards to Holmes and Johnston. Before resigning, Randolph sent Davis’s letter from November 12 with a note: “Inclose a copy of this letter to General Holmes, and inform the President that it has been done, and that (Holmes) has been directed to consider it as part of his instructions.”
Davis, who had generally agreed with Randolph’s management of the War Department, had intervened to override Randolph because the secretary ordered Holmes to come east to reinforce Johnston himself, which would have left the Trans-Mississippi Department without a commander. Davis also expressed concern that Randolph had issued the order without Davis’s prior knowledge.
Davis requested a personal meeting with Randolph to try discussing the matter with him. Randolph declined, his resentment toward Davis’s involvement in War Department affairs finally reaching its breaking point. Davis responded: “As you thus without notice and in terms excluding inquiry retired, nothing remains but to give you this formal notice of the acceptance of your resignation.”
Major General Gustavus W. Smith, commanding Confederate forces defending Richmond, became the interim secretary of war until Davis appointed James A. Seddon of Virginia to the post. As a prominent Richmond attorney and scholar, Seddon had roughly the same high social standing in Virginia as Randolph. Seddon was also a former U.S. and Confederate congressman, and although he had no military experience, he would ably lead the War Department despite much southern criticism.
Meanwhile, Special Order No. 275 officially gave Johnston command of the Division of the West. This included Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Louisiana. His primary objectives were to oversee Bragg in Tennessee and Pemberton in Mississippi.
Johnston and Davis had never cared for each other, but this intensified while Johnston was recovering because he became close friends with Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, an outspoken critic of Davis and his administration. As such, Johnston attended many social gatherings held by Wigfall and other politicians whom Davis considered enemies.
Davis may have sought to appease these enemies by making Johnston “plenary commander” of the West. The order directed Johnston to set up 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 wherever his presence may, for the time, be necessary or desirable.”
On Seddon’s first full day in his new job, Johnston repeated his request for Holmes to send part or all of his forces east. He pointed out that Holmes’s men were about 400 miles closer to the Mississippi than Bragg’s, who could not be relied upon to help defend Vicksburg if needed. Johnston then complained to the adjutant general that the forces in his new domain were “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.”
Davis wanted to keep the departments on either side of the Mississippi separate because he sought to hold Confederate territory. However, Johnston contended that the 83,000 men in his department could not defend the hundreds of square miles from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi. Johnston instead sought to rely on maneuver, giving up territory as needed in favor of preserving the strength of his forces.
Johnston argued that the Tennessee River was a “formidable obstacle” that divided Bragg and Pemberton. He also questioned the provision in the order stating that Bragg and Pemberton would continue reporting directly to the War Department and not Johnston; this seemed to relegate Johnston to an advisory role rather than a position of real authority. As such, Johnston called it a “nominal and useless” job.
Johnston was expected to aid Bragg in improving his army’s morale since Bragg was despised among his officers and men. Johnston was also expected to advise Pemberton, another unpopular commander, on how best to defend Vicksburg, the area in the department under the greatest threat. Johnston’s uncertainty of his authority, his commanders’ reluctance to cooperate with each other, and the enormity of the region would make this a formidable assignment.
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