December 27, 1863 – General Joseph E. Johnston arrived at Dalton, Georgia, to assume command of the demoralized Confederate Army of Tennessee.
Johnston left his Mississippi headquarters by train on the 22nd. He was replaced as commander of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana by Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk. From Enterprise, Mississippi, Polk issued his first general order, which renamed the command “The Department (and Army) of the Southwest.”
Polk’s new command consisted of just two infantry divisions under Major Generals William W. Loring and Samuel G. French, and two cavalry units under Major Generals Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stephen D. Lee. These Confederates faced threats from superior Federal land and naval forces in Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico. As such, the Confederate government did not expect much success in this department.
They did, however, expect success from the once-proud Army of Tennessee. Although its interim commander, Lieutenant General William Hardee, had reported a massive lack of supplies and morale, President Jefferson Davis sent one of his own staff officers, Colonel Joseph C. Ives, to inspect the army on the president’s behalf and report on its condition. Ives, who had no practical military experience, concluded that the army was “still full of zeal and burning to redeem its lost character and prestige.”
Upon receiving this report, Davis wrote Johnston, “The intelligence recently received respecting the condition of that army is encouraging, and induces me to hope that you will soon be able to commence active operations against the enemy.” The president speculated that the defeat at Chattanooga was “not attributable to any general demoralization or reluctance to encounter the opposing army,” despite first-hand accounts to the contrary.
Noting that the latest report “presented a not unfavorable view of the material of command,” Davis continued downplaying Hardee’s somber assessment by asserting that the army had adequate artillery, and “the troops were tolerably provided with clothing.” With reinforcements and the return of stragglers, convalescents, and deserters, the army should be “perhaps exceeding in numbers than actually engaged in any battle on the Confederate side during the present war.”
Davis assured Johnston that “nothing shall be wanting on the part of the Government to aid you in your efforts to regain possession of the territory from which we have been driven.” However, Johnston needed to take the offensive quickly, “not only from the importance of restoring the prestige of the army, and averting the dispiriting and injurious results that must attend a season of inactivity, but from the necessity of reoccupying the country, upon the supplies of which the proper subsistence of our armies materially depends.”
Urging Johnston to “communicate fully and freely with me concerning your proposed plan of action,” Davis concluded by promising “that all the assistance and co-operation may be most advantageously afforded.”
Johnston arrived at Dalton on the 27th and saw a much different army than what Davis had described. After issuing an order proclaiming that he had officially taken command, Johnston inspected the camps and counted less than 37,000 effectives. According to Private Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee, the new commander–
“… found the army depleted by battles; and worse, yea, much worse, by desertion. The men were deserting by tens and hundreds, and I might say by thousands. The morale of the army was gone. The spirit of the soldiers was crushed, and their hope gone. The future was dark and gloomy. They would not answer roll call. Discipline had gone. A feeling of mistrust pervaded the whole army.”
The next day, Johnston reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “This army is now far from being in condition to resume the offensive. It is deficient in numbers, arms, subsistence stores, and field transportation.”
Seddon had authorized Johnston to commandeer the supplies of local farmers and governments for the army, but Johnston countered, “Let me remind you that I have little if any power to procure supplies for the army. The system established last summer deprives generals of any control over the officers of the quartermaster’s subsistence departments detailed to make purchases in different States.” Currently two officers were assigned to work with the states regarding supplies, “neither of whom owes me obedience.”
Johnston urged his superiors “to consider if the responsibility of keeping this army in condition to move and fight ought not to rest on the general, instead of being divided among a number of officers who have not been thought by the Government competent to high military grades.”
Regarding mobilization, Johnston stated, “I find the country unfit for military operations from the effect of heavy rains. Its condition prevents military exercises–most important means of discipline.” Besides, Johnston believed that Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Military Division of the Mississippi numbered at least 80,000 men, or more than double his total.
Nevertheless, Johnston set about changing what he could in the army. He immediately addressed the crisis of mass desertions by granting amnesty to any deserter voluntarily returning to the ranks. He then implemented a furlough system to further discourage absences without leave. From this point forward, anyone caught deserting would be shot. Johnston then saw to it that the men received their rations on time, including tobacco and whiskey twice a week. Private Watkins recalled:
“He allowed us what General (Braxton) Bragg had never allowed a mortal man–a furlough. He gave furloughs to one-third of his army at a time, until the whole had been furloughed. A new era had dawned; a new epoch had been dated. He passed through the ranks of the common soldier’s pride; he brought the manhood back to the private’s bosom; he changed the order of roll-call, standing guard, drill, and such nonsense as that. The revolution was complete. He was loved, respected, admired; yea, almost worshiped, by his troops. We soon got proud.”
Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 27-31; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 813; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 891; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 385-86; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 448-49; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 707; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 501; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 707