In late September, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac, had invited President Jefferson Davis to come inspect the army and discuss future strategy. Davis accepted, arriving at Johnston’s Fairfax Court House headquarters on the October 1. There the president met with Johnston and the two army corps commanders, Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Gustavus W. Smith.
Pressure had been mounting from the southern public and press for Johnston to launch an offensive against Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal army (also named the Army of the Potomac) just a few miles away at Washington. Davis and his generals all agreed that the army was not strong enough to drive the Federals out of their fortifications, but they also agreed that because the Federal army was getting stronger by the day, some action needed to be taken before winter. Johnston and Smith endorsed a bold plan developed by Beauregard.
The three generals explained to Davis that the Confederate army would cross the Potomac River into Maryland and seize the region between Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. This would divide the U.S. and force McClellan to come out of his Washington fortifications and fight on ground of Johnston’s choosing. Johnston hoped to give battle in Maryland and, if victorious, secure that state for the Confederacy.
But the generals needed reinforcements to put this plan into action. Currently, Johnston had only 41,000 officers and men, which Davis questioned since he had recently sent many recruits to Johnston’s army. Davis then asked how many troops would be needed “to cross the Potomac, cut off the communications of the enemy with their fortified capital, and carry the war into their country.”
Beauregard and Smith answered that 10,000 more men, trained and armed, could suffice. Johnston overrode them: “Give me 19,000 more men as good as the 41,000 that I have with the necessary transportation and munitions of war, and I will cross the Potomac and carry the war into the enemy’s country.” Although this would still be less than McClellan’s army of 100,000, Davis considered this nearly impossible since manpower was at such a premium. He explained that he could not provide such numbers without having “a total disregard for the safety of other threatened positions.”
Johnston countered that the central focus of the war was Virginia. If Virginia fell, all surrounding states would also fall until the Confederacy crumbled. Therefore, it would be worth the risk to pull the troops from the Carolinas, Georgia, and other points under Federal threat. From a political standpoint, Davis knew that governors would claim states’ rights and resist transferring troops from their states to Virginia. From a military standpoint, Davis knew that the Confederacy did not have enough arms and supplies to equip such a large army at that time.
The president suggested that Johnston send a raiding party into Maryland instead, but the generals rejected the idea as not worth the risk. Beauregard was infuriated that Davis would not approve his plan. With the grand offensive vetoed, Johnston resolved to stay on the defensive until he could try to mount an offensive in spring. As such, he began preparations to pull out of Centreville and Manassas Junction.
- 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.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. Sharpe Books, Kindle Edition, 2014.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.