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The letter bristled with anger, its author convinced that he had been grievously wronged. A soldier’s professional standing and public reputation had been insulted, and he demanded a response. The letter had serious ramifications for the Confederacy. Its author, General Joseph E. Johnston, believed that he was “the ranking General of the Confederate Army”—and he intended to make President Jefferson Davis aware of it.

In March 1861, the Confederate Congress in Montgomery, Ala., authorized the appointment of five officers to the grade of brigadier general. The law stipulated that “the relative rank of officers of each grade shall be determined by the former commissions in the U.S. Army.” The measure did not distinguish between staff and line rank in the antebellum Army. Under the act, Joseph Johnston, Samuel Cooper and Robert E. Lee received brigadierships.

Two months later, on May 16, the Confederate legislature created the grade of full general. Initially, Davis recommended four men for the new rank, assigning them seniority by date of commission—Cooper (May 16), Albert Sidney Johnston (May 30), Lee (June 14) and Joseph E. Johnston (July 4). Evidently, neither Davis nor the War Department placed the appointments in the public record at the time.

Before the war, Joseph Johnston had been promoted to quartermaster general of the Regular Army, with the staff rank of brigadier. Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston and Lee were below him as full colonels. The prideful Joe Johnston was acutely conscious of matters concerning rank and status. In his judgment, based on his antebellum rank, the Confederate Congress’ action made him the army’s senior general.

Unaware of Davis’ assignments of seniority, Johnston reacted angrily in a letter on July 24 after Lee appointed an officer to his staff. Writing to Cooper, the Confederacy’s adjutant general, Johnston declared that he “can admit the power of no officer of the Army to annul my order.” When Davis read Johnston’s words, he scribbled “insubordinate” on the letter but did not reply directly. Five days later, after another directive from Lee, Johnston asserted to the president, “Such orders I cannot regard, because they are illegal.” Again, Davis marked the letter with the word “insubordinate.”

In the second week of September, Johnston finally learned of his subordinate standing to Cooper, Sidney Johnston and Lee. Humiliated and furious, he regarded Davis’ action as a personal demotion and public reproach. Johnston penned a letter to the president but, in a brief moment of sagacity, laid it aside for two days. After rereading it, however, he decided to send it to Richmond. Dated September 12, 1861, the letter was lengthy and fairly acidic in tone. Johnston lectured Davis on the laws, stressing: “I held and I claim to hold my rank as general under the act of May 16, 1861. I was a general thenceforth or never. I had the full authority of the constitutional Government of the Confederate States to sustain me.” Johnston bluntly added: “The effect of the course pursued is this: It transfers me from the position of first in rank to fourth. The relative rank of the others amongst themselves is unaltered. It is plain, then, that this is a blow aimed at me only. It reduces my rank in the grade I hold. This has never been done heretofore in the regular service in America but by the sentence of a court-martial.”

Johnston’s arguments were justified on a legal basis, but it undoubtedly would have been better for him and the Confederacy if he had held onto the letter. Although Johnston had little tolerance of criticism, Davis seemed to tolerate it even less. Upon reading the letter, he fumed. Without offering an explanation for his decision, Davis answered Johnston’s letter by writing, “Its language is, as you say, unusual, its arguments and statements utterly one-sided; and its insinuations as unfounded as they are unbecoming.” That response ended the correspondence between the two men on the matter. Neither Davis nor Johnston, however, could simply forgive and forget.

Johnston would lead his army for another eight months. A War Department official noted during the period that the general “never treats the Government with confidence, hardly with respect.” Johnston’s dispatches, he said, were “ice tempered.”

Davis’ distrust of his rival deepened, too. When Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) on May 31, 1862, Davis assigned Lee to temporary command of the army. By the time Johnston recovered, Lee had become irreplaceable.

Davis eventually appointed Johnston to command in the Western theater, where further differences between them over strategy likely contributed to the loss of Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4, 1863. Johnston commanded the Confederate Army of Tennessee during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign only to be relieved by Davis with the Federal army looming on the outskirts of the city. Ironically it was Johnston who surrendered the final major Rebel force on April 26, 1865, a few weeks after Appomattox.

It’s hard to believe that heated words over rank could have caused such damage, but the Johnston–Davis feud was irreparable— and its disruptive effects on the Confederate war effort cannot be understated.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here