Presenting a fascinating portrait of Ulysses S. Grant, a reexamination of the most crucial battle of the Civil War explores the broader campaign and political decisions made in the White House and the Executive Mansion in Richmond. 20,000 first printing.
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Larry J. Daniel is the author of Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee and Cannoneers in Gray. He lives in Murray, Kentucky.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
To all outward appearances, Southerners had reason to celebrate New Year's Day in 1862. During the previous eight months, the Confederacy had won most of the major land battles: Manassas; Wilson's Creek; Lexington, Missouri; Belmont; and Ball's Bluff. Confederate forces defiantly stood their ground from northern Virginia, through southern Kentucky, to the southwest comer of Missouri. The war had not yet turned vicious; Southern casualties totaled fewer than 5,000. Nor had the Richmond government felt the crushing weight of Northern industry and manpower. Hoped-for British intervention seemed closer than ever with the Federal seizure of two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell, aboard the British steamer Trent. "King Cotton" diplomacy appeared to be working. More than 80 percent of England's cotton came from the American South, and the mills of England were already reduced to half-time. Although no official dialogue had occurred with Confederate commissioners, informal meetings had been conducted.
Bright sunshine and a springlike breeze warmed the streets of Richmond that New Year's Day. At 11 A.M., President Jefferson Davis hosted the first of what would become annual receptions at the Executive Mansion, the old three-story Brockenbrough house at East Clay and Twelfth Streets. The fifty-three-year-old president was frequently short-tempered, rarely compromising, and often impatient with disagreement. Although he had never fought in a duel, he had come dangerously close to it on no fewer than ten occasions. Davis's military as well as political background caused him to view himself as the emerging nation's war manager, a responsibility he probably could not have avoided even if he so desired. He was commonly seen as cold and aloof, and today proved no exception; several guests considered his cordiality forced and insincere. The wife of Colonel Joseph Davis, the president's nephew, stood in for the First Lady, Mrs. Varina Davis, who was indisposed. For four hours the chief executive, standing at the door of the main drawing room, greeted an uninterrupted line of visitors.
The sanguine veneer soon disintegrated. Even as Davis greeted guests that morning, information had reached the capital that the "Trent Affair" had been defused. The United States had offered a face-saving compromise that proved acceptable to the British. Confederate newspapers continued to carry articles for several days claiming that the British were preparing for war, but the peaceful resolution had dashed all immediate hope for intervention. This fact was not immediately evident to Davis and his Cabinet. John B. Jones, a perceptive clerk in the War Department, saw the situation clearly. He wrote in his diary that evening: "Now we must depend upon our own strong arms and stout hearts for defense."
Both the North and the South mistakenly believed that Great Britain desired to go to war with the United States. In truth, England had much more to lose in a war with the Union than she had to gain by diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy. The reason for the mill slowdown was not a cotton shortage (inventories were at an all-time high in December 1861), but, rather, that the market was already saturated with cloth. The British needed Northern grain far more than raw cotton, which could be purchased in Egypt and India. They were not going to risk their merchant shipping in a prolonged war that could not be won with the United States. For now, however, Davis continued to cling to the illusion of foreign intervention, a naivete that would have far-reaching implications for the Confederacy.
The administration had adopted a policy of territorial defense that called for protecting as much territory as possible. Troops were kept widely scattered rather than concentrated on a few strategic points. This policy was, to a degree, political appeasement, but it went deeper than that. The proverbial tail wagging the dog was foreign intervention. Davis considered it vital that the fledgling nation prove its viability by protecting its territory. To relinquish large chunks of land would send the wrong signal. Even after the flaws of the policy became blatantly apparent, Davis asserted that the gamble had been worth it.
Politicians, the Southern press, and the Davis administration had focused largely on the Virginia front. Popular sentiment dictated that it was there that the war would be won or lost. Ominous clouds soon began to loom, however, over the vast expanse west of the Appalachian Mountains known as the western theater.
A blast of arctic cold soon replaced the unseasonably mild temperatures. Snow blanketed the streets of Richmond on January 14 as Colonel St. John Liddell trudged to the door of the Executive Mansion. A black boy answered and showed him into a room where a lamp hung suspended over a center table. The setting offered Liddell a comfortable respite from his exhausting railroad journey from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Davis shortly entered the room. The two men had been formally introduced six months earlier, although Liddell vaguely remembered Davis from his childhood; they had lived in the same county in Mississippi, and their families were well associated. The colonel handed him a letter from General Albert Sidney Johnston.
Liddell's mission was an attempt by a frustrated Johnston to bypass the War Department and capitalize upon his long friendship with Davis. Their mutual admiration dated back to Transylvania College days in Lexington, Kentucky (Johnston was five years his senior), and to West Point. They subsequently fought Saux Indians together in the Northwest and Mexicans at Monterey. As secretary of war, Davis had appointed Johnston to the coveted position of commander of the 2nd United States Cavalry Regiment. Believing him to be the South's premier general, Davis wrote ecstatically when Johnston later tendered his services to the Confederacy: "I hoped and expected that I had others who would prove generals; but I knew I had one, and that was Sidney Johnston." Johnston's assignment in September 1861 to command the vast Department No. 2, which stretched from the Appalachians to the Ozarks, did not result from mere cronyism. Their prior association was probably not even necessary, the Johnston lobby being formidable. The general's appointment received support from a broad consensus.
The press coverage that preceded Johnston's odyssey from California would ultimately prove to his detriment; it produced exaggerated expectations on the part of both government officials and the populace. Historians' claims that he was overrated, though arguably true, have been influenced by subsequent events; the character flaws that marked his Civil War career were not apparent in the fall of 1861. The issue of whether he was the best selection for Department No. 2 must be seen in the context of "compared with whom." His prewar accomplishments exceeded those of Joseph E. Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Braxton Bragg.
Among his peers, only Robert E. Lee proved the exception. Although Lee graduated from West Point three years after Johnston and was subordinate to him in the 2nd Cavalry, he was offered top command of the United States Army at the beginning of the war, second only to Winfield Scott. When he declined, the position was offered to Johnston, who similarly refused. Davis subsequently made Lee commander of all the Confederate armies, where he functioned as a presidential chief-of-staff, while Johnston received the actual field command. How different the war might have been had the roles been reversed.
Friendship had not generated favoritism, however, and Johnston's frequent calls for additional troops even encountered occasional resistance. On September 30, 1861, Davis had labeled one of the general's early requests unwarranted. In December, Secretary of War Judah Benjamin insisted that Johnston had underestimated his Bowling Green force by one-half. Such looseness with the figures "made me very uneasy," Benjamin wrote, and the president was "equally at a loss to make out how matters stand." When Johnston attempted to raise troops himself, he was instructed by the War Department to cease.
Davis had not deserted his friend, however. After the early months of the war, few western regiments had been sent to Virginia, and some units en route to that state were diverted to Johnston. During the winter of 1861-62, the administration had even made a minimal effort to send troops from Virginia to the west. In December, Brigadier General John Floyd's brigade of Virginians was ordered to Bowling Green. The reinforcements proved insufficient.
During the fall and winter of 1861, Johnston watched nervously as Federal troop strength in the west far outpaced his forces. His impracticable four-hundred-mile line (east of the Mississippi River), with 57,500 troops, now faced twice that many Federals. Johnston's forces were concentrated in four key locations: 22,000 men under Major General Leonidas Polk at Columbus, Kentucky; 5,000 troops at the Tennessee and Cumberland River forts of Henry and Donelson; 24,500 troops at Bowling Green under Major General William J. Hardee; and 6,000 troops in eastern Kentucky commanded by Major General George Crittenden. Shortly after Liddell's departure from Richmond, Johnston had written Benjamin that he had 19,000 men (though his own reports revealed 4,000 more) to oppose a 75,000-man army under General Don Carlos Buell. The estimate of enemy troop strength was based upon a document stolen from Federal headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. Indeed, an article had appeared in the Richmond Examiner, taken from the New York Tribune, that listed regiments and numbers in Kentucky.
Contrary to some modern assertions, Confederate administration officials fully understood Johnston's numerical weakness. Diarist John Jones noted this on January 23, 1862: "Again the Northern papers gave the most extravagant numbers to our army in Kentucky. Some estimates are as high as 150,000. I know, and Mr. Benjamin knows, that Gen. Johnston has not exceeded twenty-nine thousand effective men." Benjamin later conceded that the Bowling Green force had no more than twenty-four thousand effectives. What Davis may not have fully appreciated was the disproportionate numbers that Johnston faced. In a January 6 Cabinet meeting, the president had said that he did not accept the captured Louisville document, and that Buell's strength "could not exceed 45,000 effectives." He thought that the additional troops on the way to Bowling Green, although not giving Johnston parity, would close the numerical gap.
As Davis sat quietly reading Johnston's letter, his features grew pained, even angry. "My God," he erupted to Liddell. "Why did General Johnston send you to me for arms and reinforcements when he must know I have neither? He has plenty of men in Tennessee, and they must have arms of some kind." The brusque and opinionated Liddell, an unlikely emissary, retorted that the troops could come from the army at Manassas, Virginia, which was then not occupied. Davis insisted that Virginians were already angered about the loss of Floyd's brigade to Kentucky. Obstinately persisting, the colonel inquired whether troops could be spared from Charleston, Savannah, Pensacola, or even New Orleans. The president interrupted: "Do you think these places of so little importance that I should strip them of the troops necessary for their defense?" Liddell proved unrelenting, arguing that these locations were not as significant as the heartland of the Confederacy. Unless Johnston held his position, the Mississippi River would be lost and communications severed with the trans-Mississippi. "My God! Why repeat?" Davis again exclaimed, annoyed with Liddell's persistence. The colonel countered that he was simply attempting to make the facts of Kentucky and Tennessee known. The president quieted as Liddell explained Johnston desire that all available troops be concentrated in Kentucky and Virginia to take the offensive. Davis did not disagree, but he claimed that the time was not right. The conversation was cut short, but Davis invited the colonel to have dinner with him the next night.
The president's claim of inadequate troops was not true. There were armed units, but, in keeping with the administration policy of territorial defense, they were widely scattered. At the time of Liddell's visit, 25,000 Confederates (6,800 troops at Pensacola, 9,300 at Mobile, and 8,900 at New Orleans) sat idly on the Gulf Coast, not to mention 4,000 troops in eastern Florida. If Davis had taken advantage of interior lines and acted decisively at this moment (as he would three weeks later), events in the west might have taken a different turn. The subsequent chain of events must be viewed in the light of this mistaken administration policy.
The evening after his first confrontation with Davis, January 15, Liddell found the president more genial. He spoke of his earlier days and carefully avoided the subject of Johnston's dilemma. Liddell attempted to broach the issue, but the expression on the president's face made it apparent that he did not consider the subject appropriate table talk. Showing Liddell to the door at the conclusion of the evening, Dams said: "Tell my friend, General Johnston, that I can do nothing for him. He must rely upon his own resources." The colonel, rapidly coming down with a bronchial infection and a painful cough, found it cold on the streets of Richmond that night.
"We have heard bad news today from Kentucky." Thus began the January 23 diary entry of Thomas Bragg, Confederate attorney general. A dispatch had been received at the War Department via Johnston's headquarters at Bowling Green. Initial information was sketchy and came only from a Northern newspaper -- the Louisville Democrat of January 21. A Confederate division under Major General George Crittenden had been routed near Somerset, Kentucky, and Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer was counted among the slain. Davis immediately canceled his Cabinet meeting for the day. "The President and Sec'y of War keep military matters to themselves -- they have been in conference today. I hope they have been able to devise some means to repair the disaster in Kentucky," Bragg concluded.
A second dispatch arrived at the War Department that evening from Johnston's headquarters. A Crittenden staff officer confirmed the repulse of the division "by superior numbers." The Southerners lost five hundred men, including all of their baggage and artillery, and the division was "in full retreat" southwest toward Nashville.
A stunned populace read the story the next day in the Richmond press. Although there had been other Confederate reversals earlier in the war, at Rich Mountain in western Virginia and at Port Royal, South Carolina, the eastern-Kentucky loss was serious and had far-reaching implications. Johnston's right flank was now uncovered, exposing Cumberland Gap and the east-west rail link connecting Richmond, Virginia, and Memphis, Tennessee. Several poorly armed and widely scattered Confederate regiments protected Cumberland Gap, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, but for all intents and purposes, eastern Tennessee, already crawling with Union partisans, was open to invasion. Indeed, an unconfirmed report (false, as it turned out) stated that 22,000 Federals were advancing on Cumberland Gap against a Southern garrison of 1,500. The road to Nashville also lay exposed to the east.
Johnston clearly understood his difficulty and proposed plugging the breach around Burkesville, Kentucky, about a hundred miles from Nashville. Crittenden's troops would be of no assi...
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