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Joe Johnston’s feud with Jeff Davis spelled disaster.

Early in 1864, Federal troops spread along the Western theater prepared to merge into one huge fighting force designed to quash the rebellious South once and for all.

But the Confederates had an audacious plan of their own to seize momentum and forestall the massive Northern campaign that led to the fall of Atlanta. In the end, it might not have been so much the fighting between North and South that ruined the Confederacy, but the longstanding battle between two leading Confederates: President Jefferson Davis and General Joseph E. Johnston.

Davis, the strong-willed Confederate president, demanded that the Army of Tennessee get up off its backsides at Dalton, in north Georgia, where it had taken refuge after its pell-mell retreat from Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga. Davis wanted this army to attack and regain the territory it had lost in Tennessee, contending that a surprise strike against the Federal armies while they were scattered across Tennessee could break up the Yankees’ rail communications and foul up their plans for a campaign in Georgia.

General Robert E. Lee agreed, arguing such a surprise attack would save the Southern armies from having to follow the enemy’s plans instead of their own. Nearly every other prominent general in the South—P.G.T. Beauregard, James Longstreet, Braxton Bragg, Patrick Cleburne and John Bell Hood—said the Confederate armies must quickly go on the offensive or they would be steadily pushed down the road to final defeat.

The lone dissenter was Joe Johnston.

Johnston,who had a reputation for defensive fighting rather than bold attacks, was the new commander of the Army of Tennessee. He succeeded Bragg, who finally stepped down in late 1863 after a long period of wrangling with the subordinates who distrusted him.

Likewise, Davis didn’t much trust Johnston—but chose him for this new command because nobody else of equal rank, prestige and popularity was available. There was a “Johnston clique” of officers who disregarded Davis inside the Army, and the general had powerful political allies as well—particularly Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall, a “fire-eater” and notorious foe of the president.

Johnston’s wife warned from the beginning that he would have trouble with the president. When Johnston decided to leave the U.S. Army, she cautioned that Davis “hates you—he has power and will ruin you.” He became a Confederate general anyway.

The feud heated up in the summer of 1861 when Davis officially ranked the Confederacy’s full generals. Johnston was fourth, behind Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee. Indignant, “Old Joe” protested that he deserved to rank first because he had served longer than any of the others in the “old army” of the United States. Further, he was a hero of the First Battle of Manassas and had been wounded three times in the war with Mexico.

But Davis countered that Johnston, quartermaster general of the U.S. Army in 1860-61, was a bureaucratic “staff” officer—and refused to change his order. Johnston never forgave him.

Johnston fanned the flame when he declared there could be no hope of Confederate victory as long as Judah P. Benjamin remained as secretary of war, because Benjamin interfered with field operations. Actually, Benjamin was merely carrying out the orders of the president, who ran the department just as he had done as the secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce. “Joseph E. Johnston is a doomed fly,”wrote war clerk J.B. Jones on March 15, 1862.

The feuding Rebels were much alike in their excessive pride, stiffness of manner and keen sense of honor. They were nearly the same age, Johnston having been born in 1807 and Davis in 1808.

But there were a couple of important differences. Johnston came from an old Virginia family making him a genuine “F.F.V.” (First Families of Virginia). Davis, born in a shack in Kentucky, typified the parvenu plantation owners of the Western frontier of their day, the “cotton snobs” of Mississippi.

And Johnston, despite his war wounds, enjoyed fairly good health while Davis was a physical wreck. Davis, too, had been wounded in the Mexican War. He suffered terribly from neuralgia, which caused sharp facial pains,headaches and dyspepsia that forced him to bed for days at a time—all of which doubtless contributed to his tendency to be irritable, short-tempered and arrogant.

Johnston displayed his skill in defensive warfare during the winter of 1861-62 when he kept about 40,000 troops in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., preventing his old friend, George B. McClellan, from attacking. When McClellan began moving his much larger army up the Peninsula toward Richmond, Johnston retreated almost to the gates of the Confederate capital before finally making a goal-line stand. Critics feared that he would retreat all the way through Richmond.

Johnston was wounded in the right shoulder and the chest during the Battle of Seven Pines in May 1862, and during his absence Lee became the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Johnston had to watch from the sidelines as his rival became the savior of Richmond during the Seven Days’ Campaign.

When he had recovered, the unlucky warrior received an apparent promotion to supervision of all Confederate forces in the Western theater—but he soon discovered he was little more than an “inspector general” without direct command of either Bragg’s Army of Tennessee or John Pemberton’s troops defending Vicksburg, the Confederate fortress on the Mississippi River threatened by the formidable forces of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Sick and dissatisfied, Johnston could not scrape up enough soldiers to save Pemberton, who disobeyed his order to unite their two small armies to attack Grant. Johnston told him to give up the fort, which now had become useless, and at least escape with his troops rather than lose both. But Pemberton got bottled up in Vicksburg, just as Johnston had warned, and his emaciated soldiers were starved into surrender in July 1863.

This disaster, coupled with Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, devastated Davis. He fired a vicious 15-page letter to Johnston blaming him for the Vicksburg fiasco. The president’s rant was so ferocious that Johnston’s friend Wigfall feared“Davis’ mind is becoming unsettled….No sane man would act as he is acting. I feel that his bad health and bad temper are undermining his reason.”

“The President detests Joe Johnston for all the troubles he has given him,” Davis defender Mary Boykin Chesnut recorded in her famous diary September 20, 1863. “And General Joe returns the compliment with compound interest. His hatred of Jeff Davis amounts to a religion.”

Despite their mutual dislike, Davis reluctantly gave his old foe command of the Army of Tennessee in December 1863; he had nobody else of comparable stature to fill the job. Davis then bombarded Johnston with demands to regain the lost territory in Tennessee and to interfere with the Federals’ plans to unite their scattered armies.He argued that the Confederates“break up”the enemy’s plans, and insisted inaction could let the enemy “consummate his plans without molestation.”

Lee concurred, writing to Davis on February 3, 1864, that “If we could take the initiative and fall upon them, we might derange their plans and embarrass them the whole summer.”

Longstreet had been detached from the Army of Northern Virginia along with enough troops to help win the Battle of Chickamauga the previous autumn, but had spent a frustrating winter in eastern Tennessee trying to chase the Yankees out of Knoxville. Lee now proposed that Longstreet either be sent on a raid into Kentucky or returned to Virginia so that Lee himself “might succeed in forcing Meade back to Washington.” Union Maj. Gen. George Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, was preparing to lead the Army of the Potomac in a spring offensive against Richmond.

In March, Grant became commander of all Federal forces— with headquarters near Washington—while Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman amassed troops in Tennessee for the drive into Georgia.

Whatever plan of attack the Rebels chose, Lee warned, “Time is an important element to our success.”

Davis settled on a plan, which he detailed to Longstreet: “You and General Johnston should unite your forces near Maryville and, crossing the Tennessee River near London with all the re-enforcements which can be sent you for the purpose, move toward Sparta, where, with your united forces, you will be between the enemy’s divided forces at Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville, and be in condition to strike either one of them or move forward into Kentucky….at the same time a demonstration, or perhaps a real move, could be made from North Mississippi into West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee.”

“I have been ordered to prepare for a forward movement but its precise object has not been imparted to me,” Johnston complained to Longstreet about that time. “I will obey any orders of the President zealously,” he vowed, but denounced the Davis plan as “impracticable.”

“In the first place, the enemy could prevent our junction at Madisonville,” he protested.“If I attempt to march directly to that point that can unite all their forces against me. If, to avoid that, I diverge into North Carolina, they can unite those forces upon you.

“In the second place, we must have the means of moving from Madisonville with food for man and beast for at least ten days for the march thence into the productive part of Middle Tennessee and getting the first supplies…”

Nevertheless, Lee insisted“the enemy’s great effort will be in the West, and we must concentrate our strength there to meet them…”

On March 8, he told Longstreet that“If you and Johnston could unite and move into Middle Tennessee where, I am told, provisions and forage can be had, you would cut the armies at Chattanooga and Knoxville in two, and draw them from those points by covering your front well with your cavalry. Johnston could move quietly and rapidly through Benton across the Hiawassee and then push forward in the direction of Kingston….The two commands, upon reaching Sparta, would be in position to select their future course, would necessitate the evacuation of Chattanooga and Knoxville….The particular routes, passage of rivers, you and Johnston must ascertain and choose.”

Once a Confederate army could return to Tennessee, he suggested,“its ranks will be recruited by the men from Tennessee and Kentucky who have left it.” Then “a victory gained there will open the country to you to the Ohio.”

Most important, he added, “We cannot now pause.”

Johnston had rebuilt his army from its demoralized condition in December 1863 into a fighting force with ample arms and equipment and, for the first time lately, shoes. The troops were in good shape and the Richmond authorities promised to build their ranks from about 40,000 to about 75,000 for the offensive; Longstreet’s corps plus about 20,000 men under Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk in Mississippi would have made the difference.

Bragg, now the president’s chief military adviser, ordered Johnston on March 12 to begin the offensive. “General Johnson cordially approved of an aggressive advance and informed me of his purpose to make it as soon as reinforcements and supplies, then on their way, should reach him,”Davis recalled in his memoir.“He did not approve of the proposed advance into Tennessee.”The general warned that “defeat beyond the Tennessee would probably prove ruinous to us, resulting in the loss of his army, the occupation of Georgia by the enemy, the ‘piercing of the Confederacy in its vitals,’ and the loss of the southwest territory.

“He declared his purpose to advance to Ringgold [Ga.], attack there and, if successful…to strike at Cleveland, cutting the railroad, control the river and thus isolate East Tennessee…and force his antagonist to give battle on this side of the Tennessee River.”

Davis conceded such a movement “might have been attended by good results, had it been promptly carried out. But no such movement was made or even attempted.”

Speaking for the president,Bragg nagged Johnston to move.“The enemy is not prepared for us and if we can strike him or blow before he recovers, success is almost certain,” he said, adding that a Confederate attack slicing the Nashville-to-Chattanooga rail line would force the enemy to abandon both Chattanooga and Knoxville.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, a Davis favorite, turned up at Dalton to become commander of the First Corps in the Army of Tennessee. Hood told Johnston the president intended to reinforce his army to possibly 91,000, making it the largest of all the Confederate armies, if only Johnston would use it in an attack. Hood contended the army would be strong enough “to defeat and destroy all the Federals on this side of the Ohio River,” if each Federal army were attacked separately before Sherman could weld them together into a mighty machine.“I never before felt that we had it so thoroughly in our power,” he declared.

But Johnston refused to move.

While the Confederates bickered, Sherman spent March and April mobilizing his scattered troops and building a rail transportation system to regularly furnish them with supplies throughout the summer-long invasion of Georgia. He commandeered all the railroads linking Louisville, Nashville and his base in Chattanooga and pressed scores of locomotives and hundreds of freight cars from practically every railroad in the North into wartime service, making sure they delivered 130 carloads of freight to his troops every day. “Johnston,” he wrote, “seemed to be acting purely on the defensive, so that we had time and leisure to take all our measures deliberately and fully.”

General Nathan Bedford Forrest bothered Sherman a little by staging a rampage in western Tennessee and Mississippi in mid-April, but nothing was done to interfere with the Yankees’ buildup for the mass attack in Georgia, to be coordinated with Grant’s offensive against Richmond.

Lee, girding for Grant’s attacks, begged for some move against the Union in Tennessee—either the Davis-Bragg plan that Johnston despised, or Longstreet’s bid to lead an invasion from eastern Tennessee into Kentucky.“If one or the other can be executed, it should be commenced at once,” Lee told Longstreet on March 28.“If not, we shall be obliged to conform to their plans and where they are going.

Longstreet’s plan was never approved, and he returned with his corps to the Army of Northern Virginia. Johnston stalled through the precious days of March and April, until time finally ran out.

Johnston imagined he was playing it safe, avoiding any risky offensive and staying inside his entrenchments at Dalton until the enemy attacked. He thought he could withstand the assault, counterattack and follow the enemy back into Tennessee. He apparently did not fully realize what a machine Sherman was building.

Sherman struck in early May with three armies, not just one— a total of roughly 100,000 men to the Rebels’ 40,000. Major General George H. Thomas,“the Rock of Chickamauga,” brought his Army of the Cumberland to Ringgold; Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield brought his Army of the Ohio from Knoxville to a parallel point, and Major James B. McPherson, with his Army of the Tennessee, took his station at the right end of the long blue line.

Johnston never had a chance to bounce back from the first shock of the Union assault and “follow the enemy” into Tennessee. Making a feint against Dalton, Sherman directed his main attack against Resaca, 18 miles to the south; Johnston had to give up Dalton and race back to confront the invaders at Resaca.

Johnston gained about 20,000 men when Polk brought them over from Mississippi. But the Rebels were still outnumbered. So for the next two months, they had to maneuver through the mountains—taking one strong position after another, but then retreating to keep one of the three Federal armies from outflanking them.

At Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, Sherman launched a full-scale general assault, but it failed. The Union death toll was much heavier than the Confederates’. Then, to Sherman’s surprise, “within three days, Johnston abandoned the strongest possible position and was in full retreat for the Chattahoochee River.” Once they crossed that stream, the Confederates were in the flat plain, away from the protection of the hills. The Federals followed and soon found the spires of Atlanta within their sight.

Johnston’s defenders praised him for holding Sherman’s larger force at bay through miles of dodging, fencing and combat while keeping his army intact. It was, indeed, a brilliant retreat; but still a retreat. Southerners could not understand it; many feared their army would fall back all the way to Atlanta, or even beyond.

“Joe Johnston gives up one after another of those mountain passes where one must think he could fight, and has hastened down to the plain,” complained a visitor in Mrs. Chesnut’s parlor.

“What’s the matter with Joe Johnston?” asked another.“Overcautious,” came the reply.

“Who brought us into these dismal straits?” Chesnut asked.“If he would not fight in the mountain passes, do you think he could stop Sherman in the plain?”Johnston’s opposition“to the President and our policies has acted like dry rot in our armies,” she charged.“It has served as an excuse for all selfishness, stay-at-homes, all languid patriotism. A man who begins to snarl and sneer and quarrel at the very beginning because he is not put ahead of General Lee:

Could conceit and folly go further? A general who is known to disdain obedience to any order, who refuses to give the President any information, for fear the President will betray him to the enemy—if that is not the madness of self-conceit, what is?” Could this general hold Atlanta?Would he even try?

On July 9, Davis sent Bragg to see Johnston and ascertain the real condition of his army. “Our army is all south of the Chattahoochee and indications seem to favor an entire evacuation of this place,” Bragg reported.

Later Bragg informed Davis that Sherman’s troops were advancing on Atlanta. “Our army is sadly depleted,” he added. He learned little about Johnston’s plans and advised that a change in commanders could be necessary, recommending Hood.

On July 16, Davis telegraphed Johnston for his specific plan of action.“As the enemy has double our number, we must be on the defensive,” Johnston replied. “My plan of operations must, therefore, depend upon that of the enemy.We are trying to put Atlanta in condition and to be held for a day or two by the Georgia militia, that the army movements may be free and wide.”

That struck Davis as an admission Atlanta was lost; no one seriously believed a few thousand state troops could hold the city.

If Johnston had swallowed his pride and assured Davis he would fight to hold Atlanta, Davis would have had no reason to fire him.

On July 17, with the approval of his cabinet, Davis informed Johnston through the War Department,“You have failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta far in the interior of Georgia and express no confidence that you can defeat nor repel him. You are hereby relieved.”

Next day, command of the Army of Tennessee passed to Hood, who, at 33, became the youngest full general in the Confederate Army. For the remainder of July and all of August, Hood launched a series of attacks that killed and wounded many on both sides but failed to stop Sherman. Hood finally pulled out, and on September 2, Sherman sent the telegram Abraham Lincoln had been longing to see: “Atlanta is ours and fairly won.”

Johnston lost the fight for Georgia, but a storm of abuse rained down on Davis for removing“Old Joe.”Typical were the criticisms from James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter who accused Davis of having “the lowest jealousy, the most malignant temper, the most perverse and mulish obstinacy” besides “illimitable conceit and vanity.”

So who won the feud in the end—Davis or Johnston?


Historian Frank Van Der Linden’s latest book is The Dark Intrigue: The True Story of a Civil War Conspiracy.

Originally published in the January 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here