General Joseph E. Johnston, the victor of the Battle of Bull Run and commander of the Confederate Army of the Potomac, was insulted by the rankings President Jefferson Davis had given his top commanders at the end of August. Davis had placed Johnston fourth on the list of five full Confederate generals; the rankings were awarded according to their graduation from West Point:
- Samuel Cooper (1815)
- Albert Sidney Johnston (1826)
- Robert E. Lee and J.E. Johnston (1829)
- P.G.T. Beauregard (1838)
Lee was ranked above Johnston because Lee had graduated second in the class of 1829 while Johnston graduated 13th. However, Johnston stated that he was “mortified” that after winning the Battle of Bull Run, he was outranked by Cooper (a desk officer from New Jersey), A.S. Johnston (who had not yet seen combat in this war), and Lee (failing in western Virginia).
Johnston argued that Davis had broken the law authorizing the president to appoint full generals because, in his view, the law stated that the officers were to be ranked according to the ranks they had held in the U.S. Army. This would have put J.E. Johnston at “the rank of first general in the Armies of the Southern Confederacy,” with the other four men in the same order below him. Claiming “that it was a blow aimed at only me,” Johnston considered this “as a punishment and a disgrace for some military offense.” He went on:
“It seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service. I had but this, the scars of many wounds, all honestly taken in my front and in the front of battle, and my father’s Revolutionary sword. It was delivered to me from his venerated hand, without a stain of dishonor. Its blade is still unblemished as when it passed from his hand to mine. I drew it in the war, not for rank or fame, but to defend the sacred soil, the homes and hearths, the women and children; aye, and the men of my mother Virginia, my native South.”
To Johnston, this was a demotion that “degraded one who has served laboriously from the commencement of the war… and borne a prominent part in the one great event of the war, for the benefit of persons (none) of whom has yet struck a blow for the Confederacy.” Johnston had written this letter on September 10 but hesitated before sending it to Davis two days later.
Davis received the letter on the 14th and responded with just two terse sentences: “I have just received and read your letter of the 12th instant. Its language is, as you say, unusual; its arguments and statements utterly one sided, and its insinuations as unfounded as they are unbecoming.”
Davis later explained that Lee and A.S. Johnston ranked higher because they had held higher line commissions in the U.S. Army, while J.E. Johnston held a staff commission. But this did not explain the top rank for Cooper, who had also been a staff officer. Johnston did not reply and the men never spoke of this incident again. However, it created hostility between Davis and Johnston that would never be reconciled.
- Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.