Saturday, July 6, 2013

Joe Johnston at the Peninsula

We have considered the Peninsula Campaign from McClellan's standpoint. Let's turn now to McClellan's opponent and see how he was viewing McClellan's activities:

[From page 141 ff of Joseph E. Johnston, A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds] Davis and Johnston were arguing. "Davis insisted that a policy of concentration was both politically and logistically impossible. Johnston therefore accepted what he saw as the only available option, which was to adopt a defensive role and attempt to defeat the Federal army when it again invaded Confederate soil. Johnston disapproved of the strategy, but he perforce accepted it. From his perspective, he bore a double burden: he confronted a vastly superior enemy army, and was undermined by an unsympathetic, frequently hostile, administration. He was, in his own mind, a martyr to Davis's lack of vision."

P. 143: "Fearing that the Federals would pounce upon him if McClellan discovered his true weakness, Johnston tried to deceive his old friend by erecting elaborate fortifications north of Centreville and arming them with so-called Quaker guns . . . the ruse worked largely because McClellan was cautious by nature and did not want to confront the rebel army directly if he could find a better way.

P. 145: "At the meeting on February 19, most of the cabinet members sat, watched, and listened while Davis spent hours questioning Johnston about the situation of the army and its future. Davis had accepted the idea that an attempt to defend everywhere was doomed to failure, and that to hold Richmond it would be necessary to pull the army back closer to the capital. . . Despite these lengthy discussions, Davis and Johnston emerged from the meeting with different conceptions of what had been decided. It was neither the first nor the last time they would leave a conversation with opposing views of the outcome. On this occasion, Johnston believed that it had been agreed 'that the army was to fall back as soon as practicable.' Davis was equally certain that it had been decided to hold on until a withdrawal became absolutely necessary. . . ."

"Johnston returned to Centreville satisfied that Davis had approved a withdrawal, and that the timing was left entirely to his discretion. En route to Manassas, however, an acquaintance approached him to ask if it were true that the cabinet had debated an evacuation of Centreville the day before. Johnston was distressed by the lack of security, and he asked the friend where he had heard such a rumor. The answer was even more distressing: from the wife of a cabinet member. Johnston began to think that he should pull the army back before the rumors also reached McClellan's ear, and he also silently vowed never again to trust Davis and his advisers with military secrets. . . When two weeks later, on March 5, J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry patrols reported a significant increase in Federal activity across the river, Johnston concluded that the long-awaited Federal offensive was about to get under way, and he issued the necessary evacuation orders. . . Davis was not pleased. The president had continued to hope that despite all that had been said at Richmond, somehow he could come up with the reinforcements that would enable Johnston to assume the offensive. . . .”

Davis continues to be unhappy with Johnston for having abandoned Centreville too soon and issues orders restricting Johnston's authority, and "The day after Johnston abandoned Centreville, the Federals marched in to take possession of the town and the important nearby railroad junction of Manassas. . . ."

"On March 18, continued Federal activity convinced Johnston to take the next step and move the left wing of his army to the south bank of the Rapidan. . . Johnston's new position was the best defensive line in northern Virginia. . . ."

"Whereas Johnston believed in concentration of force, even if he had to give ground to achieve it, Lee wanted to meet the enemy as far from the strategic center as possible. Three days after Davis endowed him with overall command, Lee wrote to one officer that 'It is not the plan of the Government to abandon any country that can be held.'

"This disagreement had immediate repercussions, for a second Federal army under Major General Ambrose Burnside had appeared off the coast of North Carolina and was threatening Roanoke Island and the city of New Bern. Johnston considered this a relatively unimportant sideshow, but Davis and Lee were concerned about all Federal initiatives, and the president wanted Johnston to dispatch Longstreet's division to North Carolina. . . [Johnston of course protested. Davis insisted that some force should be sent and eventually allowed him to send Holmes's two brigades instead.]

P. 148: "With the dispatch of these reinforcements, Johnston's army on the Rappahannock dwindled to only 23,000 while Magruder's on the peninsular grew to 31,000. Johnston believed that such dispositions threw away the advantage of interior lines. Instead of using the advantage to concentrate Confederate forces against first one and then the other of the Federal armies, Davis and Lee apparently intended to contest the issue at both places simultaneously. As a result, neither Confederate army was sufficiently strong to be confident of success. . . ."

P. 150 Johnston eventually get's Magruder's force as a "fourth division, the men under Johnston's command now numbered some 55,000 'effectives,' and may have reached as many as 70,000 -- by far the largest army the Confederacy had yet assembled, but still less than two thirds the strength of the Federal army it faced. . . ."

I wish historians wouldn't leave the impression that the attacking force had the advantage if it had a numerical advantage like the one described above. The rule (all?) Civil War Generals used was that the attackers needed to outnumber defenders in entrenched positions three to one in order to have a chance of success. McClellan's 100,000 does not exceed Johnston's 70,000 by three to one. So with 55,000 - 70,000 men Johnston is perfectly willing to let McClellan attack if he will. Johnston's one worry is that McDowell will arrive to reinforce McClellan. If McDowell's army arrives then Johnston has no hope.

P 152: ". . . Irvin McDowell, the man whom Johnston's armies had routed at Manassas, was just north of Fredericksburg with perhaps another forty-thousand. If those two armies combined north of Richmond, no force the Confederates could assemble could possibly stand up to them. As Johnston read the situation, the Confederacy needed to concentrate all of its forces -- his own, Huger's, Ewell's, even Jackson's if possible, along with whatever reinforcements could be garnered from the Carolinas -- and defeat McClellan's army before McDowell arrived. Every day that passed was crucial, for it brought McDowell and McClellan closer together.

"Lee, too, believed that it was essential to keep the two Federal forces apart, but he believed that McDowell could be lured away by diversions in the Valley and in northern Virginia. In this hope, he had ordered Ewell's force at Fredericksburg to march to Jackson's support in the Shenandoah Valley. This nearly trebled the size of Jackson's army, but it also meant that the only force between McDowell and Richmond was a single brigade of some 2,500 men under Brigadier General Charles W. Field. If McDowell failed to take the bait offered by Jackson's maneuvers, he could march virtually unhindered to Richmond. Risky as it was, Lee's strategic view predominated in Richmond because Lee had Davis's ear and Johnston did not."

P. 156: ". . . Johnston was aware of Jackson's potential value as a decoy, but Lee did not inform Johnston of his plans or actions. The result was that Johnston never had an accurate picture of the location and strength of the forces beyond those under his immediate command."

P. 158: "Johnston had backed himself up to the very outskirts of Richmond. The enemy was within seven miles of the Confederate capital; Federal soldiers in their camps could hear the bells in Richmond chime the hours. The army's morale was at its nadir -- men feigned illness or simply walked away from their posts. The administration was making efforts to bring troops from other parts of the country -- especially from the Carolinas -- but it might be too late. The crisis was at hand."

So ends Symonds chapter on "The Peninsula." Not only were Johnston and McClellan friends before the war but they seem to have similar styles and they also seem able to read each other pretty well. Interestingly their superiors have no intention of leaving them alone to fight it out. Lincoln and Davis both interfere. Davis won't let Johnston concentrate a sufficiently large (by Johnston's standards) army to defend Richmond, but that doesn't matter because Lincoln is falling for the ruse Davis and Lee initiated.

If we only read McClellan's critics then Johnston's fear isn't going to make any sense. What are you worried about, Johnston? McClellan is slow, inept and in popular opinion, an idiot. Just stop retreating and smash the bugger. But Johnston, still considered by some to have been the greatest of the Confederate generals knew better. He knew McClellan personally, knew he had a near genius intelligence, came out second in his West Point class and studied warfare enormously. Maybe that made a McClellan cautious: if you can imagine everything an opponent might do; then what is the wisest thing for you to do? As we have seen, another very smart well-read General, Sherman, had that same problem to such a degree that it crippled him. McClellan wasn't crippled but he was, as every historian tells us, "cautious."

In the days Lincoln "cautious" was understood to be unacceptable. And yet we can understand i retrospect that McClellan's army wasn't truly ready to face Confederate forces. It was assembled, marched and trained, but it wasn't filled with veterans and Lincoln wasn't quite accurate when he earlier told McDowell that the Confederate forces were as inexperienced as his own.

If we take C.C. Adams argument in Our Masters the Rebels, A Speculation on Union Military Failure in the East, 1861-1865 (and apparently Thomas Rowland in his George McClellan & Civil War History does to some extent) the Confederate forces had a psychological edge over their Northern counterparts. Adams on page 95 refers to McClellan's autobiographical narrative McClellan's own Story: McClellan believed "the Southern troops were better disciplined . . the slaveholders formed an aristocracy 'to whom the poor whites were, as a rule, accustomed to defer.' Hence, the two classes experienced little trouble in slotting into their wartime roles as officers and privates. 'Discipline was thus very easily established among them.' In the North, on the other hand, the officers were not always 'intelligent gentlemen; . . . and in these cases the establishment of discipline presented far greater difficulties.'"

". . . There is also some contemporary evidence that McClellan distrusted the reliability of his own men . . . To some extent, McClellan's fears about the reliability of his troops were justified. He was correct in saying that among some regiments good material was spoiled by poor junior officers. . . ."

"The reason is clear to a man McClellan's class and background, the South, defined as an aristocracy, would naturally have a better disciplined and more effective army than the democratic North where individual rights were allowed to get in the way of military priorities.

"But for McClellan, the military weakness for a democracy at war was demonstrated most critically not at the level of the private soldier but at the highest rank: the civilian leadership. . . ."
Did the Confederacy have a psychological advantage over the Federal forces? I have read others saying that, but only in the East. Out West the Confederate forces were facing mid-westerners with no sense of Confederate superiority.

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