A Nominal and Useless Job

Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston reported to the War Department ready for action on November 12. It had been over five months since he had been seriously wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Johnston met with Secretary of War George W. Randolph, who informed him that due to General Robert E. Lee’s success with the Army of Northern Virginia, Johnston would not be getting his old command back. He would instead most likely be put in a new command overseeing the armies between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi under Braxton Bragg, Edmund Kirby Smith (though now technically under Bragg), and John C. Pemberton.

Gen Joseph E. Johnston | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Johnston replied that since Vicksburg was the most likely Federal target in that theater, there should be a unified command over both banks of the Mississippi River. As it stood, the west bank belonged to Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes’s Trans-Mississippi Department, which would be beyond Johnston’s jurisdiction. Randolph said that he had already asked Holmes to lead troops east to reinforce Pemberton in Mississippi, but President Jefferson Davis overrode him in a letter dated that same day (the 12th):

“I regret to notice that in your letter to General Holmes of October 27… His presence on the west side (of the Mississippi) is not less necessary now that heretofore, and will probably soon be more so… The withdrawal of the commander from the Trans-Mississippi Department for temporary duty elsewhere would have a disastrous effect, and was not contemplated by me.”

Davis added, “The cooperation designed by me was in co-intelligent action on both sides of the river.” Davis had generally agreed with Randolph’s management of the War Department, but he objected to bringing Holmes east and leaving the Trans-Mississippi without a commander. Davis also expressed concern that Randolph had issued the directive to Holmes without Davis’s prior knowledge.

Randolph had long resented Davis’s interference in his department. He publicly described himself as a “chief clerk” since most of the important military decisions were made by Davis, himself a former secretary of war. The Holmes issue brought matters to a head, and Randolph submitted his formal resignation on the 14th. He returned Davis’s letter of the 12th with a note: “Inclose a copy of this letter to General Holmes, and inform the President that it has been done, and that (Holmes) has been directed to consider it as part of his instructions.”

Davis asked to meet with Randolph to discuss the matter. Randolph declined, his resentment toward Davis’s involvement in War Department affairs finally reaching its breaking point. Davis responded, “As you thus without notice and in terms excluding inquiry retired, nothing remains but to give you this formal notice of the acceptance of your resignation.”

Randolph’s resignation caused political turmoil in Richmond, as many Confederate politicians who had supported Davis now began to turn against him. Davis appointed Major General Gustavus W. Smith, commanding Confederate forces defending Richmond, as interim secretary of war until he could find someone who would be acceptable to both his supporters and opponents. Davis found him in James A. Seddon.

Seddon was a prominent Virginia attorney with roughly the same high social standing as Randolph. As a former U.S. and Confederate congressman, Seddon strongly supported the principles of John C. Calhoun (i.e., states’ rights and secession). He had no military experience, but he had enough political guile to handle Davis’s interference in War Department matters. And Virginia would maintain representation in the cabinet. The two newspapers most critical of Davis, the Richmond Examiner and Charleston Mercury, approved of Seddon’s appointment.

Davis briefly considered appointing Johnston as secretary of war. But instead, Johnston was officially given command of the new Confederate Division of the West. This included Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, western North Carolina, northern Georgia (eventually including Atlanta), and eastern Louisiana. His primary objectives were to coordinate the efforts of E.K. Smith in eastern Tennessee, Bragg in Middle Tennessee, and Pemberton in Mississippi.

Johnston and Davis had never cared for each other, but this intensified while Johnston was recovering from his wounds because he became close friends with Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, an outspoken critic of Davis and his administration. As such, Johnston attended many social gatherings held by Wigfall and other politicians whom Davis considered enemies.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Davis may have sought to appease these enemies by making Johnston “plenary commander” of the West. The order directed Johnston to set up headquarters “at Chattanooga, or such other place as in his judgment will best secure facilities for ready communication with the troops within the limits of his command, and will repair in person to any part of said command wherever his presence may, for the time, be necessary or desirable.” Johnston accepted this new command on the 24th and wrote:

“If I have been correctly informed, the forces which it places under my command are greatly inferior in number to those of the enemy opposed to them, while in the Trans-Mississippi Department our army is very much larger than that of the United States. Our two armies on this side of the Mississippi have the disadvantage of being separated by the Tennessee River, and a Federal army (under Ulysses S. Grant) larger, probably, than either of them.

“Under such circumstances, it seems to me that our best course would be to fall upon Major-General Grant with the forces of Lieutenant-Generals Holmes and Pemberton, united for the purpose; those of General Bragg cooperating, if practicable.

“The defeat of General Grant would enable us to hold the Mississippi, and permit Lieutenant-General Holmes to move into Missouri.”

Davis wanted to keep the departments on either side of the Mississippi separate because he thought it vital to hold Confederate territory. However, Johnston contended that the 83,000 men in his department could not defend the hundreds of square miles from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi. Johnston instead sought to rely on maneuver, giving up territory as needed in favor of preserving the strength of his forces.

Johnston argued that the Tennessee River was a “formidable obstacle” that divided Bragg and Pemberton. He also questioned the provision in the order stating that Bragg and Pemberton would continue reporting directly to the War Department and not Johnston; this seemed to relegate Johnston to an advisory role rather than a position of real authority. As such, Johnston called it a “nominal and useless” job.

Johnston was expected to aid Bragg in improving his army’s morale since Bragg was despised among his officers and men. Johnston was also expected to advise Pemberton, another unpopular commander, on how best to defend Vicksburg, the area in the department under the greatest threat. Johnston’s uncertainty of his authority, his commanders’ reluctance to cooperate with each other, and the enormity of the region would make this a daunting assignment.


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