February 25, 1865 – General Joseph E. Johnston reluctantly took command of the shattered Army of Tennessee and all other Confederates in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
Most troops in this vast region had been under General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Division of the West. However, Beauregard had been in poor health, and now he was breaking down from the stress of trying to stop the Federal thrust through the Carolinas. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and 17 senators had petitioned General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee to put Johnston back in charge of his old Army of Tennessee, and Lee responded on the 13th:
“The three corps of that army have been ordered to South Carolina and are now under the command of Genl Beauregard. I entertain a high opinion of Genl Johnston’s capacity, but think a continual change of commanders is very injurious to any troops and tends greatly to their disorganization… Genl Beauregard is well known to the citizens of South Carolina, as well as to the troops of the Army of Tennessee, and I would recommend that it be certainly ascertained that a change was necessary before it was made. I do not consider that my appointment… confers the right which you assume belongs to it, nor is it proper that it should. I can only employ such troops and officers as may be placed at my disposal by the War Department.”
Less than a week later, the Federals captured Columbia and Charleston. Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals continued their relentless march toward North Carolina, and Major General John Schofield’s Federals threatened Wilmington. Lee wrote to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge:
“I do not know where his (Beauregard’s) troops are, or on what lines they are moving… Should his strength give way, there is no one on duty in the department that could replace him, nor have I anyone to send there. Genl J.E. Johnston is the only officer whom I know who has the confidence of the army and the people, and if he was ordered to report to me I would place him there on duty…”
President Jefferson Davis had strongly disliked Johnston almost since the beginning of the war. However, Johnston had influential supporters such as Stephens and Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas. Therefore, Lee and the War Department issued orders recalling Johnston to duty on the 22nd. His command included the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, as well as the Department of Tennessee and Georgia.
The next day, Lee informed Davis that Johnston had been reinstated. Lee acknowledged that the Confederates in South Carolina were “much scattered,” but “by diligence & boldness they can be united.” Davis agreed to the appointment after assurances that Lee would oversee all of Johnston’s operations. Lee told Davis, “I shall do all in my power to strengthen him.”
Johnston was reluctant to accept the assignment. He had recently speculated to a friend that if Davis ever gave him another command, it would be one destined to fail so that Davis could blame him for the Confederacy’s downfall. Nevertheless, Johnston obeyed orders.
Lee instructed him to “concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” Lee then notified Davis that he had “directed all the available troops in the Southern Dept to be concentrated, with a view to embarrass, if they can not arrest Sherman’s progress.” But before Johnston even left to take command, he replied to Lee, “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman.”
Two days later, Johnston arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina, to take command. His jurisdiction included:
- Lieutenant General William Hardee’s 8,000 Confederates at Cheraw, South Carolina (75 miles southeast of Charlotte)
- General Braxton Bragg’s 5,000 Confederates retreating from Wilmington to Goldsborough
- The once mighty Army of Tennessee, now numbering just a few thousand men at Newberry, South Carolina (about 100 miles south of Charlotte)
Johnston’s top priority was to unite these commands, but he reported that they numbered no more than 25,000 against Sherman’s estimated 40,000 (Sherman actually had closer to 60,000). Moreover, Sherman’s army could “prevent their concentration or compel them to unite in its rear by keeping on its way without loss of time.” Johnston wrote, “In my opinion, these troops form an army too weak to cope with Sherman.”
Johnston hoped that Sherman would move toward Fayetteville because this would allow Bragg to confront the Federals from the east while the rest of Johnston’s force came in from the west. However, as February ended, Johnston and the Confederates were still unaware whether Sherman planned to head for Fayetteville or Charlotte. Either way, it seemed that they could do little to stop him now.
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