That Splendid Little War

The seeds of the Spanish-American War

Background to the Modern Navy

There are naval historians who will tell you that the United States Navy never shined so brightly as it did during the American Civil War.  There may not be a better example of Navy innovation than its advancements in ship design, technology, medicine, and expeditionary (brown water) operations.  These innovations convince some that the Civil War must be regarded as the world’s first modern conflict.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had 6,700 officers, and around 52,000 enlisted men serving aboard 670 ships.  The Navy Department consisted of 89 individuals, including the Secretary of the Navy.  But for the twenty following years, the U.S. Navy entered a period of steady decline.  The Navy’s decline was not due to the inattention of any naval officer or senior official; it was simply the result of a Congress that did not believe the nation could afford a standing navy.  Within a decade following the Civil war, all but a few navy ships had been sold off, scrapped, or mothballed for some future crisis.

In February 1880, the U.S. Navy had 65 operating steam vessels, 22 ships under sail, and 26 old ironclad vessels.  Five years later Admiral David D. Porter noted, “It would be much better to have no navy at all than one like the present, half-armed with only half-speed unless we inform the world that our establishment is only intended for times of peace, and to protect missionaries against the South Sea savages and eastern fanatics.  One such ship as the British ironclad Invincible could put our fleet ‘hor de combat’ in a short time.”

The concept of a peacetime navy was finally embraced with Congressional approval for new battleships in 1890.  Within four years, the United States Navy ranked sixth in naval power behind Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Germany.  Both political parties may claim credit for restoring the U.S. Navy, but in reality, it was all due to the attention and diligence of one man: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.

Background to Cuba and the Spanish Empire

Cuba, derived from the native Taino word Coabaña (Great Land), had been part of the Spanish Empire since 1494 when Columbus landed to carry out the Papal Bull of 1493, to conquer and convert West Indies pagans to Catholicism.

Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the early 19th century witnessed three movements in Cuba: reformation, annexation, and independence.  After the removal of Ferdinand VII from the Spanish throne in 1808, Cuban creoles rebelled against Spanish authority and declared Cuba a sovereign state.  It was a brief period of independence because everyone involved was either executed or sent to prison in Spain.  The effects of Spanish authoritarianism were the development of several secret societies, all of which sought independence from Spain and all of whom became the focus of brutal suppression by Spain’s executive military commission.

 In 1868, Cuba was one of the few remaining locations of legalized slavery in the Western Hemisphere.  Cuban intellectuals felt terrible about that, of course.  Still, slavery was how Cubans achieved and maintained their vast wealth from sugar production, which explains slavery in Cuba.

The Plot to Aid Cubans

On 10 October 1868, certain landowners rallied the Cuban people to demand their independence from Spain; it later began the Ten Year’s War.  True to form, Spain employed its military to suppress the movement.  In the United States, President Ulysses S. Grant wondered if the United States should intervene; Secretary of State Hamilton Fish urged Grant to pursue a hands-off policy with Cuba.

As the insurrection continued, however, there developed an international sympathy for the Cuban people — including the empathy of the American press.  The American people responded to these press reports by actively supporting the Cuban people by purchasing bonds to help raise money for Cuban insurgents.  One patron of the Cuban insurgency was John F. Patterson, who was acting on behalf of the rebels when he purchased the former Confederate ship Virgin, lying idle in the Washington Navy Yard.  The ship was a side-wheeler designed as a blockade runner.  Patterson registered the ship in New York and renamed her Virginius.

At the same time, the United States had a vibrant business arrangement with Cuba, the consequence of which was the presence of U.S. Navy vessels charged with ensuring the protection of American citizens (and their business interests).  While in Cuban waters, the USS Kansas and USS Canandaigua protected Virginius, an American-flagged ship, from Spanish seizure. The ship operated for three years, funneling weapons, munitions, and men into Cuba.

In 1873, Patterson hired Joseph Fry as Master of Virginius.[1] Fry was an experienced seaman with fifteen years of service in the U.S. Navy before resigning in 1861 to join the Confederate States Navy.  After the war, Commodore Fry struggled to find worthwhile employment, so he understandably jumped at the opportunity to serve as the ships’ captain.

At the time Fry accepted his appointment, Virginius was moored in Kingston, Jamaica undergoing repairs.  Virginius was a tired ship in need of substantial rework, but Patterson and his Cuban allies could only afford to maintain essential seaworthiness.  The boilers were shot, but those repairs were far too expensive.  Fry discovered that most of the crew had deserted upon arriving in Jamaica, so he initiated a recruiting effort.

Of the 52 men hired, most were either American or British.  Many of these men were inexperienced seamen; most did not realize that the ship supported the Cuban rebellion.  Some of the crew were still boys, aged 13 and 14.  In those days, child labor was not an issue, and no one gave a second thought to youngsters taking on dangerous work.  While in Jamaica, the U.S. Consul met with Fry and warned him that if Spanish authorities ever captured him,  they would very likely have him executed.  Captain Fry did not believe the Spanish would execute a mere blockade runner and dismissed the warning out of hand.

The Executions

In mid-October 1873, Captain Fry and four mercenaries took the ship to Haiti, where Fry loaded ammunition and around 100 Cuban nationals.  A spy informed the Spanish when Virginius left port, and Spanish authorities dispatched the warship Tornado to capture her.  On 30 October, Tornado spotted Virginius approximately six miles off the Cuban coast and gave chase.  Virginius was heavily laden; the stress applied to barely adequate boilers made the vessel sluggish, and the ship began taking on water.  Tornado was a much faster ship — and heavily armed.  After sustaining some damage from Tornado’s guns, Fry surrendered the ship.  Spanish officers apprehended Fry, his crew, and all other passengers and transported them to Santiago de Cuba, where the Spanish military governor ordered them court-martialed for piracy.  The four mercenaries were put to death immediately, without trial.

The Executions

The Spanish court-martial found Fry and his crewmen guilty as charged.  Every man received a death sentence. U.S. Consul to Cuba, Henry C. Hall, protested the court-martial and imposed sentence, but the Spanish military authority ignored him.  As it happened, one of these condemned men claimed British citizenship.  Upon learning this, the British Consul to Cuba wired Jamaica and asked for the assistance of the Royal Navy to intervene in the scheduled executions.

The execution of Captain Fry and 37 of his crewman took place on 7 November.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the Spanish mutilated their remains and decapitated them to warn others.  An additional eight men were executed on 8 November.  However, the executions came to a halt when HMS Noble arrived and threatened to bombard Santiago — by this time, the Spanish had executed 53 men.

Until this time, the American press was reasonably conservative in reporting the Virginius incident, but when news of the executions became common knowledge, the press became aggressive in promoting the Cuban rebel’s position.  The New York Times, and other newspapers, urged war and demanded an end to Spanish colonies in the Americas.  Protests broke out all across the United States, with people demanding vengeance on Spain.  The British Ambassador to the United States even publicly opined that the American public was ready for war with Spain (which is by itself thought-provoking) and may suggest a British interest in such a confrontation.

The United States’ Response

After Consul Hall notified the State Department of Captain Fry’s arrest and court-martial on 4 November, Secretary Fish believed that it was simply another ship captured while aiding the Cuban rebellion, but at a cabinet meeting with the President on 7 November, the execution of the four mercenaries headed the agenda.  Present Grant determined that the United States would regard these executions as “an inhuman act not in accordance with the spirit of civilization of the nineteenth century.”  On the following day, Secretary Fish met with Spanish Ambassador Don José Polo de Barnabé to discuss the legality of Spain’s capture of a US-flagged ship.

At the next cabinet meeting on 11 November, President Grant (with the advice of his cabinet) determined that war with Spain was not desirable, but Cuban intervention was possible.  Then, on the following day, Secretary Fish learned that Spanish officials executed Captain Fry and 37 of his crew.  He cabled U.S. Minister Daniel Sickles in Spain, directing that he protest the executions and demand reparations for any American citizen killed.  On 13 November, Fish informed Spanish minister Polo that the United States would exercise a “freehand” in Cuba vis-à-vis the Virginius affair.  On 14 November, Grant’s cabinet agreed to close the Spanish legation unless Spain met U.S. demands for reparations.  Reports of other executions found their way into the White House.

On 15 November, Minister Polo visited Secretary Fish to inform him that Virginius was a pirate ship, that the crew posed a threat to the security of Spanish territory, and assured him that Spain would continue to act in its own national interests in this manner.  On that same day, Fish cabled Sickles again and instructed him as follows: (1) demand the return of Virginius to the United States, (2) release surviving crewmen, (3) offer a salute to the Flag of the United States, (4) punish the perpetrators of the inhuman crimes, and (5) pay an indemnity to the survivors of those killed.

The conversation between Sickles and Spanish Minister of State José Carvajal became testy, and Sickles concluded that an amicable settlement was not likely.  The Spanish press attacked the United States, Mr. Sickles, the British government and urged war with the United States.  Spanish President Emilio Castelar maintained a more relaxed attitude and resolved to settle the matter reasonably.

On 27 November, Minister Polo visited with Secretary Fish and proposed that Spain would relinquish Virginius and the remaining crew if the United States would agree to investigate the legal status of the ship’s ownership.  President Grant directed Fish to accept Spain’s proposals.  Grant suggested that the United States dispense with its demand that Spain render honors to the American flag if investigators determined that Virginius had no legal U.S. ownership.  A formal agreement to this effect was signed on 28 November — both governments would investigate the proprietorship of Virginius and any crimes perpetrated by any Spanish volunteers.

On 5 December, Fish and Polo signed an agreement that Spanish authorities would turn Virginius over to the U.S. Navy, with U.S. flag aloft, effective on 16 December at the port of Bahiá Honda.  Upon learning of this arrangement, Daniel Sickles resigned his post in protest.[2], [3]

Virginius

Virginius was returned to U.S. control as agreed on 17 December.  Spanish vessels towed Virginius to sea and turned her over to the U.S. Navy.  The ship was in complete disrepair and taking on water.  On the same day, U.S. Attorney George H. Williams determined that ownership of Virginius was fraudulent and that she was not entitled to fly the U.S. flag.  He also decided that Spain had every right to capture the ship on the open sea.

In January 1874, Spanish President Castelar was voted out of office and replaced by Francisco Serrano.  Sickle’s replacement was Caleb Cushing, a well-known attorney and Spanish scholar known for his calm demeanor.  Cushing opined that the U.S. was fortunate that Castelar had been Spain’s president up to that time because otherwise, Serrano’s temperament would have led to war between the U.S. and Spain.  Cushing’s primary duty involved obtaining reparations for the families of murdered crewmen and punishment for the official who ordered their executions.  By May 1874, Cushing had established himself with Spanish authorities as a reasonable and respectable man.

In June, Cushing notified Fish that the Spanish had agreed to proceed with negotiations for reparations.  In October, Cushing learned that President Castelar had secretly agreed to pay the British £7,700.  When President Grant learned of this agreement, he demanded $2,500 for each crewman executed. Each crewman not already identified as a British citizen would be regarded as an American.  Minister Polo’s replacement, Antonio Mantilla, agreed to the demand.  However, the actual payment was placed “on hold” when, in December, Spain reverted to a monarchy, and Alfonso XII became King of Spain.

Under an agreement on 7 February 1875, signed on 5 March, Spain paid the United States $80,000.00 for the killing of the American crewmen.  Spain’s case against General Don Juan Burriel, the officer who ordered the executions, which the Spanish government judged illegal, was taken up by the Spanish Tribunal of the Navy in June 1876, but Burriel died in December 1877 before any trial convened.

At the time of the Virginius Affair, the Spanish ironclad Arapiles anchored at New York Harbor for repairs.  During this visitation, the U.S. Navy realized that it had no ship that could defeat Arapiles; it was an awareness that prompted Secretary of War George M. Robeson to urge the modernization of the American fleet.  Congress subsequently authorized the construction of five new ironclad ships — all five of these ships participated in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

War with Spain (1898)

In 1898, the Spanish Empire was in decline.  It had experienced the Peninsular War (1807-1814), the loss of most of its colonies during the independence movements of the early 1800s, and three civil wars between 1832-1876.  Liberal Spanish elites, including Emilio Castelar, undertook efforts to bring the Old Empire into the age of New Nationalism.  Spanish conservatives, on the other hand, a prideful lot, sought to maintain their traditional sense of Spanish Imperial superiority.

In 1823, President James Monroe published his doctrine, which served as notice to European powers that the United States would not tolerate the expansion of European interests in the Western Hemisphere, nor their interference in newly independent states.  The U.S. would, however, respect the status of existing European colonies.  Before the Civil War, certain southern interests encouraged the U.S. government to purchase Cuba from Spain; they envisioned, of course, a slave state.  Known as the Ostend Manifesto, proposed in 1854, anti-slavery interests vigorously opposed it.

After the Civil War, U.S. business interests began monopolizing sugar markets in Cuba.  In 1894, 90% of Cuba’s total exports went to the United States, approximately 12 times its exports to Spain.  Thus, Spain may have exercised suzerainty over Cuba, but economic power fell within the realm of the United States.

Meanwhile, before he died in 1894, Jose Marti established “Cuba Libre” movement offices in Florida to help influence U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.  The face of Cuban nationalism was vested in Tomas Estrada Palma.  His junta organized fund-raising events in the United States established relationships with the American press and helped organize the smuggling of weapons and munitions into Cuba.  Palma’s propaganda campaign generated enormous support for Cuba’s resistance to Spanish authoritarianism.  No one in the U.S. at the time had any interest in Spain’s other colonies in the Philippines, Guam, or Puerto Rico.  There was also no demand for an American overseas empire.

In 1895, Marti organized an invasion of Cuba from three locations — Costa Rica, Santo Domingo, and the United States.  The latter effort was stopped by U.S. authorities when they became aware of it.  The plan was sound, but its execution failed to deliver the victory promised by Marti.  Revolutionaries settled into another protracted insurrection.

In the minds of Spanish officials, the Cuban insurrection was an assault on Spain because Cuba was an off-shore province of Spain (not a colony), which was why Spanish officials resisted the insurrection with every drop of blood needed to accomplish it.  Spanish General Valeriano Weyler was both clever and ruthless in his efforts to contain the rebellion.  President McKinley regarded Weyler’s efforts as a campaign of human extermination.

No one was more effective in promoting Cuban nationalism than Joseph Pulitzer (New York Post) and William Randolph Hearts (New York Journal).  They became the face of America’s “yellow journalism.”[4]  Both papers regularly denounced Spain but had little influence outside New York.  As Cuban insurrection and suppression continued, American business interests suffered to such an extent that they petitioned President McKinley to end the revolt.  Concurrently, European businessmen petitioned Spain to restore order.

The American people overwhelmingly supported Cuban rebels.  For his part, McKinley wanted to end the insurrection peacefully — and opened negotiations with the Spanish government to accomplish it.  Initially, Spanish authorities dismissed McKinley’s efforts but offered the possibility of negotiation at some unspecified future date.

As a demonstration of the United States’ guarantee for the safety of Americans living in Cuba, President McKinley ordered the USS Maine to Havana Harbor.  Less visible to the American people, McKinley also directed additional ships of the Atlantic Squadron to take up station in Key West, Florida.  Other U.S. Navy ships quietly moved to Lisbon, Portugal, and Hong Kong.

At around 21:40 on 15 February 1898, USS Maine blew up and sank.  Two hundred fifty sailors and Marines lost their lives.  Yellow journalists told the American people that the Spanish destroyed Maine while at anchor — an overt act of war.  All Spain could do was deny the allegation, but the more they denied any involvement, the less anyone in the United States believed them.  Somewhat panicked, the Spanish government turned to other European powers to intercede with the United States.  Most of these European powers advised the Spanish government to accept U.S. conditions for Cuba.  Only Germany urged a united European confrontation with the United States.

The U. S. Navy’s investigation of the sinking of the Maine concluded that the ship’s powder magazines ignited under the ship’s hull.  No one was interested in this finding, however, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.

So, America went to war.

Sources:

  1. Allin, L. C.  The First Cubic War: The Virginius Affair.  American Neptune, 1978.
  2. Auxier, G. W.  The Propaganda Activities of the Cuban Junta in Precipitating the Spanish American War 1895-1898.  Hispanic American Historical Review, 1939.
  3. Bradford, R. H.  The Virginius Affair.  Colorado Associate University Press, 1980.
  4. Calhoun, C. W.  The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace.  University Press of Kansas, 2017.
  5. Campbell, W. J.  Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.  Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
  6. Carr, R.  Spain: 1808-1975.  Clarendon Press, 1982.
  7. Hudson, R. A.  Cuba: A Country Study.  Library of Congress, 2001.
  8. Karnow, St.  In our Image.  Century Publishing, 1990.
  9. Nofi, A. A.  The Spanish-American War, 1898.  Combined Books, 1998.
  10. Soodalter, R.  To the Brink in Cuba, 1873.  Military History Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] While we do not hear much about Joseph Fry (1826-1873) in history, this Florida-born lad graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1846.  In 1841, the 15-year old Fry traveled to Washington, made a call on the President of the United States (John Tyler), and asked for his patronage for admission to the US Naval Academy.  Tyler granted the appointment and Fry entered the Academy on 15 September 1841.  Fry had a distinguished career in the Navy, attaining the rank of Captain before 1861.  He resigned from the Navy to serve the state of Florida.  During the Civil War, while serving as a Commodore, Fry earned an exceptional reputation for his fighting spirit and combat seamanship.

[2] Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914) was a member of the US House of Representatives, served as a New York State Senator, a Civil War major general, and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor.  He served as US Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874.  While serving in the New York Assembly, Sickles received a reprimand for escorting a prostitute, one Miss Fanny White, into its chambers.  He also reportedly took her to England in 1853 while serving as a secretary to the US Legation in London and upon introducing her to Queen Victoria, used the name of one of his New York political opponents.

[3] In February 1859, when Sickles discovered that his wife, Teresa Bagioli (aged 21, half her husband’s age) was having an affair with Washington DC district attorney Philip Barton Key III, Sickles shot Key dead in the street across from the White House.  Philip Key was the son of Francis Scott Key.  Authorities charged Sickles with premeditated murder.  His attorney, Edwin M. Stanton (later, Secretary of War Stanton) won an acquittal on the basis of Sickles’ “temporary insanity.”  The plea was the first time it was used in an American courtroom.

[4] Journalism that was based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration, which continues to characterize the American media today.



Battle of the Generals

Introduction

Seniority in the United States Armed Forces is determined by rank, date of rank, and in the case of two officers promoted to the same rank on the same date, by the last lineal number.  It sounds confusing, but it isn’t.  And it’s important because seniority determines assignments, tactical commands, promotions, and general courtesy.  In the early days, seniority determined appropriate honors rendered to senior officers (generally, field grade and flag rank officers).

In the modern-day, seniority works on two different levels.  For officers serving at different ranks, seniority is determined by rank.  An Army colonel is senior to an Army captain, and the captain is senior to a lieutenant.  The system extends across the armed services.  An Army major is senior to an Air Force captain, and a Navy commander is senior to both.  Whenever officers serve at the same rank, their seniority is determined by their date of promotion to that rank.  If two officers advance to the same rank on the same day, seniority is determined by the date of promotion to their previously held rank.

Seniority in the Civil War

Officer seniority was an issue in both the United States Army and Confederate States Army.  Some modern historians credibly argue that the pettiness of seniority and military etiquette did as much to damage the internal efficiency of the Confederate States Army as did any battle in which the Union won.  The Union Army experienced similar problems among its senior officers, of course, but in the Confederacy, the animosity and rancor among senior officers was debilitating.[1]

The Confederacy’s problem in this regard may have started with Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, who always had a high opinion of himself — a man who also graduated from the U. S. Military Academy (Class of 1828) and who distinguished himself in combat in the Mexican-American War.

Synopsis

Jefferson Davis

Davis (USMA Class of 1828) (23/33) was more politician than a soldier.  He resigned from the Army in 1835 to pursue plantation farming in Mississippi.  In that same year, both he and his wife Susan (a daughter of Zachary Taylor) contracted either yellow fever or malaria.  Susan died in 1835, and Jeff was slow to recover.  From 1836-1840, a somewhat reclusive Davis confined himself to the plantation.  He first entered Mississippi politics in 1840, serving as a state convention delegate through 1844.  As presidential elector in 1844, he campaigned vigorously for James K. Polk.  In 1844, he won a seat in the U. S. Congress.

In 1846, while still serving in the House of Representatives, Davis raised a volunteer regiment for service in the Mexican-American War and commanded it as a US Volunteer Colonel. However, he distinguished himself in combat during the war — at least sufficiently to convince President Polk to offer him a commission as a brigadier general, but Davis respectfully declined. His insistence on replacing his regiment’s muskets with the M1841 rifle caused a life-long feud with the U. S. Army’s Commanding General, Winfield Scott. He had a broader vision.

Following the war, Davis served as a U. S. Senator (1847-1851), as Secretary of War (1853-1857), and again in the Senate (1857-1861).

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on 9 January 1861, Davis sent a telegram to Governor John J. Pettus, offering his services as the pleasure of his home state.  On 23 January, Pettus appointed Davis to serve as major general of the Army of Mississippi.  At the constitutional convention (of southern states) in early February, delegates considered both Davis and Robert Toombs (Alabama) as a possible Confederacy president; Davis won handily, assuming his office on 18 February 1861.  Davis, himself, did not believe anyone was more qualified to serve the Commander-in-Chief of the Confederacy’s armed forces.

Creating the Confederated States of America was no easy task.  Established on 8 February 1861, the Confederacy initially included seven Southern states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas — soon joined by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland may have joined the Confederacy had it not been for the rapid occupation of those states by the Union Army.  President Jefferson Davis had his hands full trying to organize an effective government.  Of course, he needed an army, and he needed good men to lead it — and this is where the trouble began.

In selecting his most senior generals, the men who would lead the Confederate States Army, he chose Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, and P. G. T. Beauregard.  He would eventually choose another two to serve as full-general, but these were Davis’ initial selections.[2]

Samuel Cooper

Sam Cooper (USMA Class of 1815) (36/40), whom almost no one knows anything about, was, despite his northern roots (New York), an advocate of states’ rights.  His service in the U. S. Army was primarily that of a staff officer who eventually attained the rank of colonel.  He briefly served as interim Secretary of War in 1857 and, in this capacity, first formed a strong friendship with Jefferson Davis.  Cooper received two general officer appointments on the same day, first to brigadier general, and full general, on 16 May 1861.  Davis appointed Cooper as Adjutant General and Inspector-General of the Confederate States Army.[3]

Albert Sidney Johnston

Albert S. Johnson (USMA Class of 1828) (8/41) had a most colorful background.  Davis regarded him as the nation’s finest field commander.  In addition to his service in the U. S. Army, Johnston served as a general officer in the Republic of Texas, as the Texas Republic’s Secretary of War, as a colonel in the U. S. Army during the Mexican-American War, and as a brevet brigadier general (permanent rank colonel) during the Utah War and commander of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He resigned his commission at the outbreak of the Civil War, initially enlisting as a private in the Los Angeles Rifles, a secessionist group in Southern California.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee (USMA Class of 1829) (2/46) was a Virginia aristocrat and an Army engineer of some distinction who served 26 years in that capacity before transferring to the Cavalry in 1855 as a lieutenant colonel.  Lee was prominent during the Mexican-American War as a staff officer and engineer.  He served in command of the Army detachment sent to quell disturbances at Harpers Ferry in 1859, and he commanded Fort Brown, Texas, in 1860-61.  When General David E. Twiggs surrendered U. S. forces to Texas after its secession, Lee returned to Washington, where he was appointed to command the 1st Cavalry Regiment and promoted to Colonel.  Two weeks later, President Lincoln offered Lee advancement to major general.  Lee declined the promotion and, upon the secession of Virginia, resigned from the U. S. Army.[4]

Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (USMA Class of 1829) (13/46) was from a distinguished family of Scots whose grandfather and father both served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.  With his mother being the niece of Patrick Henry and his brother and father-in-law being members of the U. S. Congress, Johnston was politically well-connected.  Joe Johnston was the only Confederate general to have served as a general officer in the Union Army before his resignation to join secession.  This is important because Johnston, although in the same graduating class as Lee, was Lee’s senior officer in the Union Army.

When he returned home to Virginia, the governor offered him an appointment to the Virginia State Army as a major general.  Shortly after that, state officials notified him that Virginia only needed one major general, and so they decided to offer that commission to Robert E. Lee.  He could have, however, an appointment as a brigadier general, serving under Lee.  Given that Lee was junior to him in the Union Army, his proposal was unacceptable, and he declined the offer.

Jeff Davis thereafter offered Johnston a commission as brigadier general in the CSA, which he accepted.  Initially, Johnston’s assignment was command of the CSA forces at Harper’s Ferry.  Shortly thereafter, he assumed command of the Army of Shenandoah.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard

P. G. T. Beauregard (USMA Class of 1838) (2/45) was an Army engineer, brevetted to Captain in 1847 for excellence as a staff officer (planning officer) under General Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War.  He served as an engineer for the next 13 years, repairing old forts and building new ones in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana.  Beauregard was born in Louisiana to an aristocratic French-Creole family.  Well-educated in private schools, Beauregard was brought up speaking French, never learning English until he was twelve years old.

Beauregard’s brother-in-law was John Slidell, a prominent attorney, politician, and former United States Minister to Mexico (1844-46).  In January 1861, the War Department appointed Beauregard to serve as Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy.  Before assuming office, however, Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the War Department canceled his appointment.  Incensed, Beauregard promptly resigned his commission and returned home to Louisiana.

With his political connections, Beauregard expected the Governor of Louisiana to appoint him as the general officer commanding Louisiana state militia.  The appointment, instead, went to Braxton Bragg, who in turn offered Beauregard a colonelcy.[5]  Instead, Beauregard enlisted as a private in the New Orleans Guards but at the same time wrote to Jeff Davis offering his services as a general officer in the CSA.  A common rumor was that Davis was considering him as the Commanding General of the CSA — which infuriated Bragg to no end.  On 1 March 1861, Davis appointed Beauregard a brigadier general, the first general appointee in the CSA.  His first assignment was the command of Charleston harbor.  

Essentially, General Beauregard was the officer who initiated hostilities with the United States on 12 April 1861. After negotiations failed to convince the Commanding Officer, Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, to surrender to Confederate authority, Beauregard ordered his artillery to bombard the fort — an assault lasting 34 hours. Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on 14 April.  

Shortly after ordered Beauregard to assume command of the Alexandria Line at Manassas.  In July, Davis promoted Beauregard to full general, with seniority behind Joseph E. Johnston.

Back to Joe Johnston

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) came from a distinguished family of Scots.  Both his grandfather and father fought in the American Revolution.  His mother was a niece of Patrick Henry.  His brother, Charles, served as a Congressman from Virginia.  He married Lydia McLane, whose father was a Congressman from Delaware.[6]  He was politically well-connected, an aristocrat of sorts and perhaps, full of himself.

Despite Johnston’s promotion to full general in August 1861, he stewed over his lack of seniority.  On 12 September 1861, Johnston wrote a letter to President Davis to explain his point of view:

“It (the ranking of senior generals) seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and as a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service.  I had but this, the scars of many wounds, all honestly taken in my front and in the front of battle, and my father’s Revolutionary sword.  It was delivered to me from his venerated hand, without a stain of dishonor.  Its blade is still unblemished as when it passed from his hand to mine.  I drew it in the war, not for rank or fame, but to defend the sacred soil, the homes and hearths, the women, and children — aye, and the men of my mother Virginia, my native South.”[7]

Johnston additionally complained to Davis that the president’s rankings were “in violation of my rights as an officer, of the plighted faith of the Confederacy and the Constitution and the laws of the land. […] I now and here declare my claim that I still rightfully hold the rank of first general in the armies of the Southern Confederacy.”  President Davis responded to Johnston’s letter, accusing the general of being “one-sided” whose complaints were “as unfounded as they are unbecoming.”  President Davis did nothing to resolve this problem, and, to be honest, I’m not sure why Davis kept him on the payroll.

The long-held system of seniority and etiquette explains why Johnston refused to subordinate himself to Robert E. Lee and others.  At the time he resigned from the U. S. Army, Johnston was a regular Army brigadier general.  Lee, upon his resignation, was a colonel.  Ultimately, however, both Lee and Johnston ended up as generals in the Confederate States Army — and Lee ended up being senior to Johnson because he had served, albeit briefly, as a Confederate major general.

As for trying to understand Johnston’s pettiness, there are several possibilities to consider.  Johnston was obviously a prideful man and mindful (possibly obsessed) with his prerogatives as a senior military commander. There are no small egos among high-ranking military officers. The concept of teamwork probably didn’t apply so much during the Civil War as it does today.  Still, there were other issues, such as Johnston’s unwillingness to listen to the advice and recommendations of his subordinate commanders, his ability to admit to or take responsibility for serious errors in planning, judgment, and his inability to acknowledge that in some cases, he was out of his depth.

However, commanding a field army well is a gargantuan task.  It’s more than directing maneuver elements; there is also the question of logistics, which along with weather, is a war-stopper.  On the one hand, he must win the battles and do it with whatever manpower he has available to him.  Excessive battlefield casualties limit his next moves.  He has to control the battlespace, which means choosing the time and place to fight as much as he is able.  During the Civil War period, rural Virginia was still a wilderness.  Having only one plan up his sleeve simply won’t do.

A series of small battles took place in Virginia following the First Battle of Bull Run (also, First Battle of Manassas), many of which resulted in inconclusive outcomes: Greenbrier River, Camp Allegheny, Cockpit Point, Hampton Roads, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing, and Seven Pines.

Command and control were quite difficult in 1862. At Seven Pines on 31 May – 1 June 1862, General Joseph E. Johnston attempted to overwhelm two Federal corps that he thought were isolated south of the Chickahominy River.  Although Johnston’s Confederates did succeed in driving General McClellan’s forces back, as well as inflicting heavy casualties, his assaults were not well-coordinated.  

On 1 June 1862, Johnston was seriously wounded and evacuated from the field, relinquishing command to Major General Gustavus Woodson Smith.  President Davis rushed Robert E. Lee to assume command of Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia within a day.[8]

In 1862, it was not likely that Johnston had a “deputy commander,” so the next senior general would usually “take charge” should the commanding general become a casualty.  Here’s the problem, though: Before Smith became a major general, he was a U. S. Army captain.  No general can effectively lead an army that has not led or fought a division — which goes a long way in explaining General Smith’s nervous breakdown on 1 June 1862.  President Davis’ decision was a good one, and General Lee retained command of the Army of Northern Virginia until the war’s end.

But Johnston’s problem wasn’t only with President Davis and General Lee; he had little regard for Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, as well.

In the spring of 1864, while in command of the Army of Tennessee, Johnston engaged William T. Sherman between Chattanooga and Atlanta.  By this time, John Bell Hood had lost two of his limbs and yet could ride twenty miles a day while strapped to his saddle.  General Hood was a fire-eater and had little patience with Johnston’s apparent timidity.  He may have wondered why a senior general needed so much encouragement to act.  It wasn’t that Johnston was afraid of being injured; he had more than a few scars from battle wounds — it was, instead, that Johnston was afraid to fail.  It made Johnston, in Hood’s view, far too cautious.  Ironically, on one of the rare occasions when Johnston acted decisively at the Battle of Cassville, General Hood demurred on the battlefield.

Johnston’s strategy involved a series of delaying withdrawals.  Force withdrawal is, on occasion, a worthwhile strategy if its purpose is to maneuver the enemy into a position of disadvantage.  Johnston, however, seemed to focus his efforts on avoiding battle rather than engaging the enemy.  Over several weeks, General Hood sent messages to Richmond that criticized Johnston’s behavior.  The issue came to a head when President Davis ordered General Bragg to travel to Atlanta to investigate Hood’s claims.

After meeting with Johnston, Bragg interviewed Hood and General Joseph Wheeler, who testified that they had urged Johnston to attack rather than withdraw.  Hood claimed that Johnston was ineffective, timid, and weak-willed, saying, “I have, general, so often urged that we should force the enemy to give us battle as to almost be regarded reckless by the officers high in rank in this army [Johnston and Corps commander, William J. Hardee] since their views have been so directly opposite.”

Of course, Hood’s letters were insubordinate and subversive, but at least in Hood’s mind, necessary if the purpose of the war was to win important battles.  Historians today claim that Hood’s letters were self-serving and not entirely honest.[9]

But Hood was not alone in his criticism.  General Hardee reported to Bragg, “If the present system continues, we may find ourselves at Atlanta before a serious battle is fought.”  Presented with the facts of Johnston’s behavior, nearly every Confederate general agreed with Hood, Wheeler, and Hardee.

On 17 July 1864, President Davis relieved Johnston of his command.  Davis initially planned to replace Johnston with Hardee, but Bragg urged that he give control of the Army of Tennessee to Hood.  While it was true that Hood had impressed Bragg, it was also accurate that Bragg harbored ill feelings toward Johnston from bitter disagreements during earlier campaigns.

Davis temporarily promoted Hood to full general and gave him command of the army just outside Atlanta.  The Confederate Senate never confirmed hood’s appointment.  The 33-year old John Bell Hood was the youngest man on either side to command an army.  In Lee’s opinion, Hood was “a bold fighter on the field, but careless off.”  But Hood was well known by his Yankee classmates as temperamentally reckless and rash; they would use that knowledge to their advantage.  Davis’ decision to relieve Johnston was controversial and unpopular — besides which, Hood could no more hold Atlanta than Johnston.

In Johnston’s letter to Davis after his relief, he remarked of Hood, “Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency.”  Of this incident, Mary Chestnut recorded, “We thought this was a struggle for independence.  Now it seems it is only a fight between Joe Johnston and Jeff Davis.”[10]  Even though eventually restored to command, Johnston could never forget the perfidy of Davis, Bragg, and Hood.  Johnston later wrote, “I know Mr. Davis thinks he can do a great many things other men would hesitate to attempt.  For instance, he tried to do what God failed to do — make a soldier out of Braxton Bragg.”

Johnston’s End

History remembers Joe Johnston kindly.  His battle history is second to none: Manassas, Seven Pines, Vicksburg, Dalton, Resaca, Adairsville, New Hope Church, Dallas, Picket’s Mill, Kolb Farm, Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, Averasboro, Bentonville, Morrisville Station, and the Bennett Place.  For him, it was a long war.  He afterward published his memoirs in Narrative of Military Operations, which was highly critical of Jefferson Davis, John Bell Hood, and Braxton Bragg.

He also built a life-long friendship with his former enemy, William T. Sherman — the officer to whom he surrendered in 1865.  Sherman once opined, “No officer or soldier who ever served under me will question the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston.  His retreats were timely, in good order, and he left nothing behind.”  Afterward, because of Johnston’s gentlemanly behavior, he would not tolerate anyone speaking ill of Sherman in his presence.  When Sherman passed away on 14 February 1891, Johnston served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral, keeping his hat off during the burial rites to show his respect.  The weather was cold and rainy, and Johnston caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia.  Joseph E. Johnston died ten days later.  He was 84 years old.

Sources:

  1. Bonds, R. S.  War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta.  Westholme Publishing, 2009.
  2. Bowman, S. M., and R. B. Irwin: Sherman and His Campaigns: A military biography.  Richardson Publishing, 1865.
  3. Davis, S.  Texas Brigadier to the fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood.  Mercer University Press, 2019.
  4. Johnston, J. E.  Narrative of Military Operations: Directed, During the Late War between the States.  Appleton & Co., 1874.
  5. Jones, W. L.  Generals in Blue and Gray: Davis’s Generals.  Stackpole Books, 2006.
  6. Miller, W. J.  The Battles for Richmond, 1862.  National Park Service Civil War Series, 1996.
  7. Symonds, C.  Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography.  Norton, 1992.
  8. Woodworth, S.  Jefferson Davis, and His Generals: A Failure of Confederate Command in the West.  University of Kansas Press, 1990.

Endnotes:

[1] All senior officers in both the Union and Confederacy attended the same school, used the same textbooks, had the same teachers, and graduated within a few years of each other.  They served together in the various military departments, in the Indian wars, and in one capacity or another, in the Mexican-American War (1846-48).  Later, as senior field commanders, they all knew what their opponents were likely to do.  With few exceptions, they all had inflated egos.

[2] Prior to the Civil War, the senior rank of the Army (discounting George Washington) was Major General, although the position was often filled by brigadier generals.  With the expansion of the military during the Civil War, as massive number of combat commands, both Union and Confederate armies expanded their command structure to accommodate much larger units.  Depending on circumstances and the availability of general officers, Brigadier Generals commanded brigades (consisting of from three to five regiments); major generals commanded divisions (three or four brigades); lieutenant generals commanded corps (three to four divisions), and generals command armies (three to four corps).

[3] What we know about the internal workings of the Confederacy today we owe in large measure to Sam Cooper, who maintained concise records and later turned these documents over to the U. S.  government at war’s end.  

[4] Robert E. Lee was an intellectual, a gentleman, and a pro-Union southerner whose final decision to resign his commission and join with his state was prompted by his loyalty to his home state.  His last US Army rank was colonel, and that is the insignia he wore on his uniform throughout the Civil War, rather than the insignia of a full general.  In Lee’s opinion, he had done nothing to warrant his full-general rank. 

[5] Braxton Bragg may have been the worst general officer on either side of the Civil War.  He lost nearly every engagement, shifted responsibility for his failures to junior officers, excessively disciplined subordinates.  He detested LtGen Leonidas Polk, a subordinate, who had a close relationship with President Jefferson Davis.  Bragg’s failures as a field general are among the primary reasons for the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy.

[6] Joseph and Lydia Johnston had no children.  Lydia passed away in 1887; Johnston passed away of a heart attack on 21 March 1891.  

[7] Craig L. Symonds book, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, W. W. Norton, 1992. 

[8] Union armies were named after rivers; Confederate armies were named after the places where the fought.  Earlier, however, both the Union and Confederates has an “Army of the Potomac.”  The confusion of this forced the Confederates to adopt a different naming convention.  

[9] Steven E. Woodworth wrote that Hood had, more than General Hardee, urged Johnston to withdraw his force.

[10] Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut, A Diary from Dixie.

This post previously published at Old West Tales.