General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac stationed in and around Manassas and Centreville in northern Virginia, feared that the Federal army of the same name under General-in-Chief George B. McClellan might come down the Potomac River and turn his right flank. If this happened, the Federals could wedge themselves between Johnston’s army and the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Johnston would most likely have to abandon his position and move south of the Rappahannock River to prevent the Federals from getting to Richmond. But the winter had turned the roads to thick Virginia mud, thus making such a movement tricky at best. On February 19, President Jefferson Davis summoned Johnston to Richmond to discuss options.
Johnston arrived from Manassas and was brought into a meeting between Davis and his cabinet. When Davis expressed fears that McClellan would advance, Johnston asserted that his Confederates would have to stay on the defensive due to lack of men and supplies. He also stated that it would be very difficult to withdraw his army across the Rappahannock due to the muddy terrain. Johnston then announced that he had not taken the time to familiarize himself with the terrain between Manassas and Richmond, which Davis stated was “a great shock to my confidence in him.” The meeting then adjourned to resume the next morning.
Johnston returned to the Confederate Executive Mansion at 10 a.m. on the 20th. Johnston said that he expected the Federals to use their naval firepower to threaten the Confederate right flank from the Potomac River. It was generally agreed that retreat was inevitable, but Davis wanted it conducted in such a way as to protect as many supplies as possible. Johnston assured Davis that he would not fall back until absolutely necessary, but he was skeptical that the roads would be dried enough to move the heavy guns and supply wagons once McClellan started moving.
Near sunset, the meeting ended with the understanding that its purpose was to be a secret. But when Johnston returned to his hotel, he heard rumors already spreading that the Manassas-Centreville line would be abandoned. Johnston wrote, “This extraordinary proof of the indiscretion of the members of the cabinet, or of some one of them, might have taught the danger of intrusting to that body any design the success of which depended upon secrecy.”
Two days later, Johnston returned to his army and, based on the gloomy reports waiting for him, decided to start evacuating immediately. He wrote to Davis, “The condition of the country is even worse than I described it to be, and rain is falling fast. I fear that field artillery near the Potomac cannot be removed soon.” Johnston informed his subordinates that the army would be pulled back to the south bank of the Rappahannock, with the right flank at Fredericksburg. He heard nothing from Davis countermanding the order.
The next day, Johnston wrote to Davis explaining that the withdrawal would have to be very slow due to the terrain: “In the present condition of the country, the orders you have given me (to fall back from the Centreville line) cannot be executed promptly, if at all. Well-mounted officers from the neighborhood of Dumfries report that they could ride no faster than at the rate of twelve miles in six hours and a half.”
Johnston informed Davis on the 25th that the heavy guns and massed supply stores would be a great hindrance to the withdrawal. He wrote that the roads “are not now practicable for field artillery with our teams of four horses… The accumulation of subsistence stores at Manassas is now a great evil. The commissary-general was requested, more than once, to suspend those supplies. A very extensive meat-packing establishment near Thoroughfare is also a great encumbrance… The vast quantities of personal property in our camps is a still greater one. Much of both kinds of property must be sacrificed in the contemplated movement.”
By the end of February, Davis had not given any orders or any indication that Johnston should not withdraw. He wrote Johnston on the 28th, “I regret to be unable to make a favorable report of the progress of our preparations to execute your plan (of withdrawing from Manassas)… As I remarked to you orally, the measure must be attended with great sacrifice of property, and perhaps much suffering.” Davis added:
“Your opinion that your position may be turned whenever the enemy chooses to advance, and that he will be ready to take the field before yourself, clearly indicates prompt effort to disencumber yourself of everything which would interfere with your rapid movement when necessary, and such thorough examination of the country in your rear as would give you exact knowledge of its roads and general topography, and enable you to select a line of greater natural advantages than that now occupied by your forces… I rely upon your special knowledge and high ability to effect whatever is practicable in this our hour of need. Recent disasters have depressed the weak, and are depriving us of the aid of the wavering. Traitors show the tendencies heretofore concealed, and the selfish grow clamorous for local and personal interests. At such an hour, the wisdom of the trained and the steadiness of the brave possess a double value. The military paradox that impossibilities must be rendered possible, had never better occasion for its application.”
Thus, February ended as one of the gloomiest months of the war for the Confederacy. They had endured key defeats in Tennessee, on the North Carolina coast, and in far off New Mexico Territory. And now Johnston was being forced to withdraw his Confederate army in Virginia to prevent its destruction.
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