December 16, 1863 – President Jefferson Davis decided to appoint a bitter rival to command the demoralized Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia.
Lieutenant General William Hardee had replaced General Braxton Bragg as army commander, but Hardee made it clear that he would only accept the job on an interim basis. Thus, Davis had to find a permanent replacement. After considering several candidates, Davis summoned General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, to Richmond. Lee, who had resisted taking the job, expected to be ordered to take it. As such, he wrote to Major General Jeb Stuart before leaving, “My heart and thoughts will always be with this army.”
Lee left his headquarters for Richmond, where he took up residence in a home his wife rented on Leigh Street. There Lee learned that their Arlington, Virginia, home had been confiscated by Federal authorities under a law passed on February 6 allowing for property seizure if the owner was delinquent in taxes. This was meant to confiscate the property of Confederates such as Lee, who no longer paid taxes to the Federal government.
When Lee met with Davis, they discussed the military situation for nearly a week. During this time, Davis ruled out several candidates for the Army of Tennessee command, such as Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, General P.G.T. Beauregard, and Lee himself. This left just one more full general to consider–Joseph E. Johnston, currently commanding the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana at Brandon, Mississippi.
Johnston had disliked Davis ever since the president ranked him fourth on the list of full Confederate generals early in the war. The men had consistently disagreed over military strategy, with Davis favoring defending vital points in the South and Johnston favoring sacrificing vital points if it meant saving armies to fight another day. This disagreement climaxed earlier this year when Johnston refused to save Vicksburg.
Davis and Lee discussed Johnston’s strengths and weaknesses. Finally, during a dinner with the Davises, Lee announced that he supported placing Johnston in charge of the Army of Tennessee. Although Davis resisted, he noted that other high-ranking generals, including beloved Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, had also called for Johnston to take over. Appointing Johnston might also appease Johnston’s political allies, including Texas Congressman Louis T. Wigfall and other anti-administration leaders.
Davis held a cabinet meeting on the 16th to discuss the situation. Secretary of War James A. Seddon believed that Johnston could boost the army’s sagging morale, while Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin argued that Johnston’s tendency to stay on the defensive would ruin an army that needed to go on offense now more than ever. As the discussion progressed, most cabinet members gradually shifted to favoring Johnston, and Davis reluctantly agreed.
Davis telegraphed Johnston at Brandon: “You will turn over the immediate command of the Army of Mississippi to Lieutenant General Polk and proceed to Dalton and assume command of the Army of Tennessee… A letter of instructions will be sent to you at Dalton.”
Johnston would inherit a once-proud army that had become a demoralized throng. Desertions were so common that Bragg, prior to relinquishing command, had directed troops to patrol their own comrades rather than guard against the enemy. The command structure was in shambles, with one corps without a commander due to Hardee’s promotion and another tentatively led by Major General Thomas C. Hindman (after Major General John C. Breckinridge left due to charges of drunkenness on duty). Having once boasted 66,000 men, the army now had just 43,094 effectives.
The day after Davis appointed Johnston, Hardee reported that the army was in such poor condition that it was “necessary to avoid a general action.” If the Federals, currently at Chattanooga, moved to confront him, Hardee stated that “a retrograde movement becomes inevitable.” Hardee continued:
“The question of supplies, both for men and animals, presents a source of infinite trouble. This will be still more complicated by a retrograde movement from this point. Our deficiency of supplies would become aggravated to an alarming extent. I am inclined to think that forces are disposed from Mississippi to North Carolina, along different localities, which, if concentrated, would swell the ranks of this command very largely.”
Seddon tried to downplay Hardee’s report in his instructions to Johnston, writing:
“It is apprehended the army may have been by recent events somewhat disheartened and deprived of ordnance and material. Your presence, it is hoped, will do much to inspire hope and re-establish confidence, and through such influence, as well as by the active exertions you are recommended to make, men who have straggled may be recalled to their standards, and others, roused by the danger to which further successes of the enemy must expose the more southern States, may be encouraged to recruit the ranks of your army.”
Through “vigorous efforts,” the government expected Johnston to restore “the discipline, confidence, and prestige of the army,” as well as “its deficiencies in ordnance, numbers and transportation.”
Seddon then turned to the issue of farmers and state governors refusing to cooperate with central government demands to turn over their crops and supplies for the war effort. He warned that Johnston would “find deficiencies and have serious difficulties in providing the supplies required for the subsistence of the army… the discontents of producers and the opposition of State authorities to the system of impressments established by the law of Congress have caused” these difficulties.
To combat this, Johnston was authorized to use “all means to obtain supplies from the productive States,” and “to rouse among the people and authorities a more willing spirit to part with the means of subsistence for the army that defends them.”
Regarding the Federals controlling Tennessee, “It is not desirable they should be allowed to do so with impunity, and as soon as the condition of your forces will allow it is hoped you will be able to assume the offensive. Inactivity, it is feared, may cause the spirit of despondence to recur and the practice of straggling and desertion to increase.”
However, Seddon ultimately left it to Johnston’s “experience and judgment… to form and act on your own plans of military operations,” and he assured “the fullest disposition on the part of the Department to sustain and co-operate with them.”
The next day, Davis wrote Johnston, advising in part, “The difficulties of your new position are realized and the Government will make every possible effort to aid you…” However, what little aid the Confederate government could provide was rapidly dwindling.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20705-14; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 353; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 887; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 384; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6557-69, 6581; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 447-48; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q463