On December 8, President Jefferson Davis informed General Robert E. Lee at Fredericksburg, Virginia, that he intended to personally inspect the military situation in the Western Theater. Davis wrote:
“In Tennessee and Mississippi the disparity between our armies and those of the enemy is so great as to fill me with apprehension. I propose to go out there immediately, with the hope that something may be done to bring out men not heretofore in service, and to arouse all classes to united and desperate resistance. God may bless us, as in other cases seemingly as desperate, with success over our imperious foe. I have been very anxious to visit you, but feeble health and constant labor have caused me to delay until necessity hurries me in the opposite direction.”
Davis wanted not only to see things for himself in the West, but he also wanted to silence critics who said he was not devoting enough attention to that theater. Fearful that his departure from Richmond might panic residents into thinking the Confederate government was abandoning the capital, Davis left with just one armed guard along with Custis Lee and his nephew, Joe Davis.
The train brought the Davis party west through Lynchburg and Wytheville before stopping at Knoxville, headquarters of Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederate Department of East Tennessee. It was also the center of Unionist opposition to the Confederacy. Davis delivered a speech in which he claimed that the Unionism “of East Tennessee (was) greatly exaggerated.” But after meeting with Smith, Davis conceded to Secretary of War James A Seddon, “The feeling in East Tennessee and North Alabama is far from what we desire. There is some hostility and much want of confidence in our strength.”
The Davis party reboarded the train and continued on to Chattanooga, arriving there on the night of the 9th. In a speech on the 10th, the president assured his hopeful audience that with a bit more effort, the Confederacy would gain independence.
Davis met with General Joseph E. Johnston, the newly appointed commander of the Western Theater. Davis considered Vicksburg and the Mississippi River Valley to be the most important parts of the theater, and he again insisted that Johnston pull troops from General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee to reinforce Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s Army of Mississippi. But Johnston continued to insist that the Confederates in the Trans-Mississippi needed to do that because weakening Bragg would leave all of Tennessee vulnerable to the Federal army at Nashville. Davis would not commit either way yet.
The presidential party then traveled 90 miles to Murfreesboro, where Bragg’s army was stationed. They arrived to unseasonably warm weather, with a town and army giving them an enthusiastic welcome. Davis responded to a large serenade by announcing that Richmond would stay safe, Tennessee would be reclaimed, and foreign nations would ultimately recognize Confederate independence.
At Bragg’s headquarters, Davis approved one of Johnston’s recommendations by promoting John Hunt Morgan to brigadier general for his recent successes raiding Federal lines. Lieutenant General William J. Hardee had urged Davis to make Morgan a major general, but Davis said, “I do not wish to give my boys all their sugar plums at once.”
Davis reviewed the Army of Tennessee over the next two days and was relieved to see that the men were not as demoralized as feared. Bragg had complained that many of his subordinates were openly disloyal to him, but to his disappointment, Davis did not see evidence of that. To Bragg’s further disappointment, Davis listened to the subordinates’ assurances that the Federals at Nashville would most likely stay there for the winter.
Based on this information, Davis returned to Chattanooga and directed Johnston to send 9,000 Confederates from Bragg’s army (the division of Major General Carter L. Stevenson and the brigade of Major General John McCown) to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were to reinforce Pemberton’s army.
Bragg protested that this would render him unable to take the offensive in Middle Tennessee. And with Morgan raiding near Kentucky and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry in western Tennessee, Bragg could not hope to regain Nashville. In fact, it might encourage the Federal commander at Nashville, Major General William S. Rosecrans, to lead his army in attacking Murfreesboro since he had nearly 100,000 troops at hand.
Davis countered that Pemberton needed the men more because Major General Ulysses S. Grant was threatening Vicksburg. He told Bragg, “Fight if you can and fall back beyond the Tennessee.” Both Bragg and Johnston continued protesting, but since the Mississippi River was more important than Middle Tennessee, they complied. Davis reported to Seddon at Richmond:
“Returned to this place from Murfreesboro last night. Found the troops there in good condition and fine spirits. Enemy is kept close to Nashville, and indicates only defensive purposes. Cavalry expeditions are projected to break up railroad communications between Louisville and Nashville, and between Memphis and Grant’s army. Johnston will go immediately to Mississippi, and will, with the least delay, reinforce Pemberton by sending a division, say 8,000 men, from the troops in this quarter…”
Davis left Chattanooga on the 16th to inspect Pemberton’s forces in the president’s home state of Mississippi.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- 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.
- Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.