Washington Could Have Been Taken

By this month, Confederate President Jefferson Davis began experiencing dissension among his two top commanders at Manassas. Davis hoped that the combined Armies of the Shenandoah and the Potomac would resume the offensive after the Battle of Bull Run, but Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston, the army’s ranking officer, argued that he lacked the supplies to advance. Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, the army’s second-in-command, proposed that the Confederates advance from Centreville and try to coax the Federals out of their defenses into an open battle. But the cautious Johnston would have none of it.

Davis wrote Johnston on August 1, “We are anxiously looking for the official reports of the battle of Manassas, and have present need to know what supplies and wagons were captured. I wish you would have prepared a statement of your wants in transportation and supplies of all kinds, to put your army on a proper footing for active operations…” Davis urged Johnston to “be prompt to avail ourselves of the weakness resulting” from plummeting Federal morale due to their defeat last month.

That same day, a letter was read to the Confederate Congress from Beauregard arguing that “want of food and transportation has made us lose all the fruits of our victory. We ought to, at this moment, be in or about Washington… From all accounts, Washington could have been taken up to the 24th instant, by 20,000 men!” The press quickly published this letter in various newspapers, and taking the hero of both Fort Sumter and Bull Run at his word, most southerners put the blame on Davis for failing to adequately provision the troops.

Davis testified before Congress and asserted that the Commissary Department was working as well as it could with what it had, and that Beauregard’s letter may have exaggerated the issue. Davis acknowledged that Beauregard had informed him the week before that some regiments had no food, but Davis had shared a report with him from the Commissary stating that local citizens were making up the ration shortages by donating food. Davis conceded that if the army lacked rations, “the neglect of the subsistence department demands investigation and proper correction.”

Three days after Beauregard’s letter was read to Congress, Davis wrote to him assuring that the government was doing all it could to meet the army’s needs. Davis then added:

“I think you are unjust to yourself in putting your failure to pursue the enemy to Washington to the account of short supplies of subsistence and transportation. Under the circumstances of our army, and in the absence of the knowledge since acquired, if indeed the statements be true, it would have been extremely hazardous to have done more than was performed… Enough was done for glory, and the measure of duty was full; let us rather show the untaught that their desires are unreasonable, than, by dwelling on possibilities recently developed, give form and substance to the criticisms always easy to those who judge after the event.”

Davis then wrote once more to Johnston regarding the complaints about inadequate food and medical care in the army. The president continued defending himself against criticisms and accusations from the public, Congress, and his commanders throughout the month.


  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2 (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963, Kindle Edition), Loc 1252
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 6398-405, 6742;
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 103-05, 110

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