Soldiers and Statesmen of the Civil War: I. President Davis and General Joseph Johnston

IT is a commonplace of military textbooks that policy and strategy should go hand in hand. This, like most other attempts to present truth in the form of a caption, is only partially successful. Indeed, without explanation it is misleading, for the picture it is apt to call up, of two associates advancing together in close union to their task, is not a fair representation of relations which are in reality far more complex than are those of simple comradeship. If analogy be needed I prefer that of parent and child. It is the duty of policy to choose the road for strategy, to set it on its way, to provide means sufficient for the journey, to give timely counsel, to watch the youngster’s progress carefully, to be prompt to give a hand should he stumble, to be ready to turn him in a new direction should a change of course seem necessary or opportune, but to resist the temptation to interfere save as a measure of real emergency, and then to make interference as little obvious as may be. It is no easy task to be a wise parent, and as strategy is born only in days of stress and strain the task of father policy is one of special difficulty. It is indeed so difficult that statesmen have not infrequently wrung their hands in despair when it has been thrust upon them. In the midst of the Boer War Lord Salisbury, then Prime Minister, said: ’I do not think that the British Constitution as at present worked is a good fighting machine.’ More than one British minister used during the Great War very similar words in conversation with me, and I have listened to French ministers bemoaning the difficulties of conducting war in a democracy, while it was not unusual to hear Germany’s military strength ascribed in a measure to her autocratic system of government. Certainly democracy had a very terrible price to pay for victory.

If it be true that modern democracy can neither prevent war nor wage it save at undue cost, its incapacity to deal with w hat is probably the greatest evil to which modem civilization is exposed is a serious count against that form of government. But before we assume that the charge is true, democracy should at least be heard, and there is the more reason for this in that the alternative system of government has a record in the conduct of war which is by no means beyond reproach.

It has often been said that the autocratic system is superior, at least in time of war, because it admits of a closer alliance between policy and strategy than any other; but Napoleon, who in his own person directed both, failed to hold the balance between the two, and for that reason more than any other brought about his own downfall and all but ruined his country, while in the Great War Germany’s failure to coördinate policy and strategy contributed directly to her defeat, and the memoirs of Ludendorff disclose a state of friction between soldiers and statesmen as great as any that existed in the countries of Germany’s enemies. It would appear, then, to be at least possible that mistakes in the conduct of war are not necessarily the consequence of any particular form of government, but may be due to causes which are remediable, whether the form of government be an autocracy, a constitutional monarchy, or a republic.

We are too near to the events of the World War to make it possible to examine dispassionately the relations which existed between statesmen and soldiers in the countries concerned, nor have we yet, save as regards such portions of the war as have been the subject of official inquiry, the material needed to enable us even to begin a judicial examination of questions which bristle with controversy. But some sixty years ago there was fought out a bitter and protracted struggle between two democracies, and the documents relating to the conduct of that struggle are unusually complete and accessible.

The similarity, in their broad lines, of the problems of the American Civil War and of the Great War has struck more than one critic. In both one side held, relatively to the other, a central position, and it happened in each war that the side which was centrally placed was exposed to the rigors of a blockade. In both there were numerous theatres of war, and in both the coördination of effort was difficult, yet urgently needed.

‘ Unity of command ’ is a phrase which appears at an early stage of both struggles in the correspondence of soldiers and statesmen. In both wars there were two main fronts, and in both there was a controversy as to which front should be regarded as decisive. Easterners and Westerners fought in council and on paper sixty years ago as they did ten years ago. It has seemed to me, therefore, to be worth while to examine critically, in the light of our own recent experience, the method of conducting war adopted by North and South in the years 1861-1865, in the hope that this inquiry may help us to decide whether the British Constitution, while — to quote Lord Salisbury again — ‘unequaled for producing happiness, prosperity, and liberty in time of peace, becomes but a feeble instrument when battle is joined. Such an inquiry has this of interest: that it brings into contrast widely different characters, minds, and methods. It would be hard to find men more diverse as statesmen than Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, as soldiers than Lee and Grant. In the clash of personalities we may hope to discern some spark of truth.


I propose to begin with Jefferson Davis, who has been as bitterly criticized as has the leader of any cause which has been defeated. And this is natural, for, while it is the usual lot of statesmen and soldiers who have led a people to disaster to share the obloquy and abuse of quondam friends and foes, in this case the soldier, Robert E. Lee, had the rare experience of retaining in defeat the devoted affection of his men, and of gaining the respect of his former enemies. There remained, therefore, but one of the chief targets of criticism, which gained in volume by concentration. Much of this had to do with the causes of the conflict. There have been many less competent statesmen in time of war than Jefferson Davis. It happened that he was opposed to a giant, and the inevitable comparison has made him appear to be a dwarf, which he was not. In another milieu he would have appeared to be an administrator of more than average competence; where he failed was in the general direction of military operations, in combining policy and strategy; and he failed there because he had never worked out in his mind a system for the conduct of war.

When Jefferson Davis was chosen to be President of the Southern Confederacy lie possessed an unusual equipment for a statesman confronted with problems of war. The son of a small farmer of the South, he obtained through the influence of an elder brother a nomination to West Point, and passed through the Military Academy at a time when two men with whom he was to be closely associated, Robert E. Lee and J. E. Johnston, were there. He entered the United States Cavalry in 1828 and was engaged as a young officer in that Black Hawk War in which his great opponent, Abraham Lincoln, served as a volunteer captain. But he tired of military service and, his elder brother having made a fortune as a cotton planter in Mississippi, he left the army to become, like his brother, a successful grower of cotton and employer of slaves. Turning his mind to politics, he was elected to Congress in 1845, and was a member of the Federal legislature when the Mexican War broke out. He then raised and commanded a regiment of Mississippi Rifles, which he took to the front, and at the battle of Buena Vista he gained with his regiment a somewhat facile success over the Mexicans which made him one of the heroes of the war. The effect of this upon his political career was immediate, and may be compared with the consequences of Roosevelt’s not dissimilar exploits in Cuba. He was made a Senator at once, and became one of the protagonists of the Southern cause and eventually the Southern leader in the Senate. When Pierce became President, in 1853, he chose Davis as his Secretary of War, and for four years the future leader of the Confederacy controlled the War Department of the United States, returning in 1857 to the Senate to resume his advocacy of the Southern cause.

Naturally, then, when the breach came, the South turned to him and unanimously elected him President. In that position he had, out of such resources as the several states could provide, to create a government, an army, and a navy, to provide the Confederacy with a financial system, and to organize the supply of munitions and of war material. If the fact that the North was almost equally unready for war assured him of some leisure for these preparations, their magnitude would have taxed the capacity of the greatest organizer with unlimited time at his disposal. The South, in which the chief industries were the growing of cotton and tobacco, was poor in manufacturing resources; all the powder factories and most of the coal and iron were in Northern territory, while the Federal fleet, if small at the outset, was sufficiently strong to make communication with Europe precarious even in the early days of the struggle. Criticism of Davis’s war administration must therefore be tempered with a sense of the weight of the burden which he had to carry.


The Confederacy, on its creation, adopted the Constitution of the United States, with a preamble affirming the right of secession and with the addition of clauses securing the right of property in Negro slaves and making it the duty of Congress to protect slavery in any territory which might subsequently be acquired. Therefore both North and South possessed a Constitution which conferred on the President such powers as permitted him, if they did not specifically authorize him, to act as a dictator in time of war. These powers were freely used both by Jefferson Davis and by Abraham Lincoln, and on the whole this attempt to adapt to the needs of modern democracy the custom of the Roman Republic stood the test of a prolonged war amazingly well.

The practice of placing supreme authority temporarily in the hands of one man in a time of great emergency, when rapid decisions are frequently needed, has been proved by the experience of the Civil War to have, for the purpose of conducting war, most of the advantages which have been claimed for a permanent autocratic system of government. It may, however, be doubted whether the provision of the Constitution of the United States that makes the President Commanderin-Chief of the Army and Navy proved to be equally wise. The control of military forces by the civil power could be assured in other ways and the distinction between control and command should be clear. In fact, as we shall see, on such occasions as either President was tempted to exercise the military functions of Commander-inChief he was usually unsuccessful, and in the event Jefferson Davis was forced by the pressure of circumstances and of public opinion to hand over those functions to another, while Abraham Lincoln abrogated them voluntarily.

Undoubtedly Jefferson Davis found his military experience to be of great value when he was shaping his administration; later he was tempted to rely unduly on that experience, and to take too much upon himself, a not uncommon failing with ministers who have some expert knowledge of the department which they administer. The greatest asset which he possessed was his knowledge of the character and qualifications of the officers in the Army of the United States. His first selections for command from among those who threw in their lot with the South proved him to be an exceptional judge of men. When he moved the Government of the Confederacy from Montgomery to Richmond he found in the capital of Virginia Robert E. Lee, whom he made his military adviser. He sent A. S. Johnston to the Mississippi front and chose J. E. Johnston and Beauregard to watch the Potomac. It is indeed rare that the selection of four commanders, made before a shot was fired, proves at the end of a long war to have been more than justified, though it must be confessed that some of Davis’s later appointments to command in the west were less happy.

Davis has been accused of lack of energy in providing arms and equipment for the Confederate armies. The best answer to that charge is the fact that the Federal Government, with an established organization, considerable manufacturing facilities, and free access to Europe, made at first little better progress, while our own recent experience of the time it takes to organize the manufacture of munitions and to obtain them from other countries should make us skeptical of suggestions that, in the first months of the war, Davis should have succeeded in providing arms for all who were willing to fight.

He has also been charged with neglecting to use the cotton of the South to provide his administration with financial facilities in Europe. There has been more misunderstanding about the influence of cotton upon the war than about any other of its features. By the time the Confederate Government had been constituted, the whole of the 1860-1861 cotton crop had been exported, and before the 1861-1862 crop was ready the Northern blockade had become sufficiently effective to make exportation in bulk impossible. There was no substantial neglect of opportunity. Davis, like most Southerners, had an excessive belief in the influence of ‘King Cotton’ in Europe. His conviction that a cotton famine would certainly cause Great Britain, and probably France, to intervene undoubtedly influenced his conduct of the war, and here he was wrong in his estimate of the situation. Professor Channing, in the latest volume of his History of the United States, has shown conclusively that when the war broke out there was a glut of cotton in Europe, and that the brokers of Manchester were actually reëxporting cotton to Northern ports as late as May 1862. Before the cotton famine had become severe Lincoln’s first Emancipation Proclamation, of September 1862, by making abolition the prime issue in the struggle, so won over popular opinion in Great Britain as to remove what little prospect of British intervention had ever existed, and later the distressed cotton hands of Lancashire were among those who sent addresses of sympathy and encouragement to the Federal President.

But if Davis was wrong in this respect his administrative measures at the beginning of the war compare favorably with those taken during the same period at Washington. He cannot fairly be accused of lack of foresight, seeing that, when most of his countrymen believed that they would be allowed to secede without fighting, he insisted that the North would fight and fight hard. He was one of the few who foresaw and said publicly that the war would be a long one. He succeeded in getting Congress to change its proposal that first enlistments should be for sixty days in favor of a term of twelve months. Later he obtained authority for the acceptance of volunteers without limit of numbers for the duration of the war, and in April 1862 he had a conscription act passed. In many of these measures he had the advantage of the advice of Lee, but he had the merit both of recognizing good advice when he received it and of acting upon it. The terms of service of the Confederate Armies were more judiciously arranged than those of the North and this fact materially increased the power of resistance of the South.


I have been at pains to answer some of the critics of Davis’s war administration and to show my agreement with those who take a kindly view of his capacity because, if he had been merely a blunderer, there would clearly be nothing to be learned from his experience. Davis was not a great man, but I believe him to have been above the average of war ministers, and during the first year of the war his experience of affairs in general and of military affairs in particular made him a formidable opponent of Lincoln, who had no such experience. His weaknesses were due to his failure to insist that the interests of the Confederacy as a whole should take precedence of the interests of the individual states, to an excess of caution, and to a tendency to rely too much on his small military experience, which caused him to concern himself with minor details.

The first of these weaknesses was inherent in the Southern claim of the precedence of the rights of the states, but Davis appears often to have made little effort to get the states to relinquish their several rights for the common good, and even to have gone further sometimes than the states themselves required. One example will suffice. The Confederate law authorized the President to accept contingents from the states, but left him free to choose all the commanders of larger formations than regiments. Esprit de corps would naturally be promoted by keeping troops from the same state together, under a commander from that state, but the first essential was that the commander should be efficient. We find Davis writing on October 10, 1861, to Major-General G. W. Smith: ‘Kentucky has a brigadier but not a brigade; she has, however, a regiment; that regiment and brigadier might be associated together. Louisiana had regiments enough to form a brigade, but no brigadier in either corps; all of the regiments were sent to that corps which was commanded by a Louisiana general. Georgia has regiments now organized into two brigades; she has on duty with the army two brigadiers, but one of them serves with other troops. Mississippi troops were scattered as if the state were unknown.'

There is in this letter and in a number of others of similar tenor no hint that military exigences should be considered, or that commanders should possess some other qualification than a birthplace in a particular state. Ample evidence exists that Davis was subject to considerable political pressure on these and similar matters, but his position was sufficiently strong, at least in the first years of the war, to have made it possible for him to explain to his complainants that military requirements must have precedence over sentimental considerations and that such matters must be in the hands of the soldiers. As it was, his time was taken up with these details, which he should have insisted on leaving to his War Department, and his generals were worried and sometimes even seriously hampered by untimely requests to change commanders and reorganize troops. Later in the war a number of those generals who had most distinguished themselves proved to be Virginians, and in this the influence of Lee, a Virginian, was seen by jealous citizens of other states. There is good reason to believe that the difficulties between Lee and Longstreet, which had very serious consequences for the South, were not remedied by Davis because Longstreet, a gallant man and a good tactician, but a bad subordinate, was a favorite son of Georgia, and the President was fearful of offending that state.

This kind of difficulty usually arises when forces have to be raised at the outbreak of war. Kitchener has been considerably criticized because he did not use the existing Territorial Force for the expansion of the British Army in the Great War, but preferred to raise new armies ab ovo. The chief factor which influenced him was his memory of the pressure brought by county magnates and persons of influence during the South African War to get employed at the front units which they had raised, or were prepared to raise, according to their fancy, and he feared that similar influences would prevent the development of the systematic organization which he knew to be necessary. The best way to deal with this matter in a country which has not a system of compulsory service, and in which the general public is therefore usually ignorant of the principles and requirements of military organization, is to explain it frankly. A public eager to win the war and not lacking in common sense may be trusted to respond when it knows what is wanted and why it is wanted. If Davis had exercised in this matter the same courage which he displayed in getting the conscription act adopted, which might fairly have been considered a violation of state rights, he would have rendered the South a very real service, and incidentally relieved himself of much vexatious labor.


But the Confederate President’s desire to foster state sentiment, doubtless for what he believed to be good military reasons, led him to make an even more serious mistake. Lie organized the Confederacy into military departments, placing a general in command of all troops in each department. Such an arrangement, excellent in time of peace, was fatal in time of war, for the military situation took no account of geographical boundaries, while tire departments followed, in the main, state lines. The Mississippi early in the war was seen by the Federale, with their command of the sea, to be a promising line of attack, but the great river was a dividing line between Confederate military departments, and lack of cooperation between them was one of the reasons why Lincoln was able, in July 1863, to proclaim that ‘the father of waters goes again unvexed to the sea.’

Nor was this all. For a great part of the war the only coördinating authority between the several departments was the President himself, and he had neither the military competence nor the leisure to arrange and direct timely concentration. The consequence of this was that the Confederacy failed to obtain the fullest advantage from its central position, which was the greatest strategical advantage it possessed. When Lee was at Davis’s side there was combination, and the first battle of Bull Run was won because of J. E. Johnston’s opportune junction with Beauregard. But for a great part of the war Lee was not in Richmond, and combination between departments was then the exception. It is, however, only fair to Davis to say that in 1861 no Power in Europe save Prussia had devised an effective system for the provision of military advice to the head of the State in time of war. Davis’s military knowledge was sufficient to keep him from interfering, save exceptionally, with the operations of his generals in the field, his interference being usually confined to matters of organization and personnel; but that military knowledge was insufficient to enable him to appreciate the difficulties of and the need for unity of direction of forces scattered over a wide area. Failing to understand the difficulties, he could produce no solution. Here is one more example of the danger of a little knowledge. Davis’s small experience of war had taught him what a name and an association may mean to soldiers. He recalled the pride which his Mississippi Rifles in the Mexican campaign had taken in their name and in their state connection, and remembered what this had meant in military efficiency. But he did not realize that the command of a battalion in the field might be an inadequate schooling for the direction of a great war.

When the news reached Richmond that the first battle of the war was about to be joined, the soldier in Davis took control. Having once smelled powder, he could not keep away from a battlefield, and he took train for Manassas Junction on the way to Bull Run. The rear even of a victorious army in battle is never a pleasant sight; and the President, on arriving at the Junction, met, first, stragglers with tales of disaster; then, as he rode forward to the battlefield, more stragglers and wounded, with stories of loss and suffering. He endeavored by personal exhortation to stop what he conceived to be a rout, and was appealing in impassioned tones to the soldiers to rally and to do their duty, when a senior officer, who was having a slight wound dressed near by, told him gruffly that the men were his and had won the day. The officer was Jackson, who had just gained that, sobriquet, ‘Stonewall,’ with which he was to go down to history.

Having chosen to appear on the battlefield, Davis had to take the consequences. There was no Confederate pursuit after the first battle of Bull Run, and a disappointed public jumped to the conclusion, from the fact of the President’s presence in the field, that there had been political interference with the soldiers. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the statement of the two very capable Confederate generals on the spot — J. E. Johnston and Beauregard — that the disorder consequent upon engaging very partially trained troops in battle made pursuit impossible. Pursuit after battle is one of the most difficult operations of war, and the number of successful pursuits even by highly trained armies is small. It is possible that pursuit in the air may be a normal sequel of future victories, and have results as deadly as those of Allenby’s air pursuit in the battles of Megiddo; but as the nervous strain of battle increases, pursuit on land is likely to be less, rather than more, frequent. An eager public has always expected, and but rarely been gratified by, a dramatic pursuit after victory.

Davis, like his public, expected pursuit after Bull Run. He met J. E. Johnston and Beauregard on the night of the battle, inquired whether pursuit had been ordered, and, on hearing that no troops had been sent forward, became the Commander-in-Chief. He asked what troops were available and himself dictated what he proudly claimed after the war was an order for pursuit. It turns out to have been nothing but an order for a reconnoissance by two regiments of infantry, some cavalry, and a battery of artillery, which were ordered to ‘scour the country and roads’ to the front, to collect wounded and all abandoned stores. A very amateur conception of a pursuit after a victory.


If it was not possible for the Confederate troops to advance from the field of Bull Run across the Potomac and carry the war into Northern territory, it soon became not only possible but urgently necessary to do this. The North was much depressed by the defeat; the general in command in Washington was expecting and was apprehensive of attack. The term of service of the militia, which had been enlisted for three months, and formed a considerable part of the Federal Army, had expired and new levies were required to replace it. The North had its difficulties in creating a supply of arms and munitions, and was at this early stage of the war far less well supplied than was supposed in the South. The loss of a quantity of war material at Bull Run was therefore a serious matter. Indeed, at no period of the war was the North so vulnerable; but, given time, the loss would be made good, new armies could be created. Clearly, then, the policy for the South was to allow the North as little time as possible for recovery.

But it was at this period of the war that Davis showed himself to be at his weakest. Lee had been sent off to conduct a difficult campaign in the mountains of Western Virginia, and the President, left to himself, was seen to have no policy save to protect as much of Southern territory as might be and hope for foreign intervention. This was a futile policy: futile politically because the border states, Kentucky, Missouri, Western Virginia, and Maryland, were wavering, — they might be won by enterprise; they would certainly be lost by inaction, — futile militarily because to give an enemy with superior resources time to develop those resources was to make him a present of what he needed most.

The soldiers saw all this. J. E. Johnston, Beauregard, and Augustus Smith were all agreed that, given reënforcements, which they believed to be available, they could and should take the offensive. But August slipped by, and September, and nothing was done. Then, on October 1, Davis came, at Johnston’s request, to the army for a conference with his generals. Johnston said he needed 19,000 men to enable him to invade Maryland. Smith thought 10,000 would suffice. The President answered that he had not a man to give them. More than the number Johnston asked for were guarding the coasts against possible raids by the Federal fleet. That fleet, weak as it then was, saved the North from a great danger.

In Davis’s defense it may be said that there were risks in weakening the garrisons on the coast. The South at this time was uncertain and nervous as to the effect of the war upon the large Negro population in its midst. When the white men went off to the war women and children were left in the midst of Negroes. There were fears that Federal incursions might be the signal for servile risings, and the President was inundated with demands for the protection of exposed points. Davis, who could never make up his mind to take risks for a great end, yielded to these demands and adopted a policy of passive defense, which he mitigated with proposals for enterprises of so minor an order that one is amazed to find the head of a State permitting himself to be concerned with such details. ‘I hoped,’ he wrote, ‘that something could be done by detachments from the army to effect objects less difficult than an advance against his [the enemy’s] main force, and particularly indicated the lower part of Maryland, where a small force was said to be ravaging the country and oppressing our friends. This I thought might be feasible by establishing a battery near to Acquia Creek, where the channel of the Potomac was said to be so narrow that our guns could prevent the use of the river by the enemy’s boats, and by employing a steamboat lying there troops enough could be sent over some night to defeat that force and return before any large body could be concentrated against them.’ The President, instead of devising a policy, plans the emplacement of a battery and the employment of a steamboat load of soldiers!

There is possibly another reason for Davis’s reluctance to give Johnston the troops he needed. He disliked the soldier. That dislike may have originated at West Point, where Johnston was a model and Davis but an indifferent cadet. Be that as it may, Johnston, who was Quartermaster-General in the United States Army when he resigned from its service, held, not without some reason, that Davis had treated him unfairly in the matter of his seniority in the Confederate Army, and expressed his opinion plainly. Davis’s answer was brief and discourteous. Lee would never have troubled his head about such a matter; but Johnston was a man of different temper, and Davis, as head of the State, should have been big enough not to have quarreled with him as long as he wanted to use him. In the event, the ill feeling then begun grew, and the correspondence between the two shows the existence of friction so constant as to have affected seriously the cause hot h were serving. Neither of the men was blameless, but of the two Davis is the more blameworthy. Either he should not have given Johnston the most important command in the Confederate Army or, having placed him in it, he should have trusted him. To retain a general in command and bicker with him is not the act of a statesman. Johnston was one of the three ablest soldiers of the South, and Davis’s treatment of him is among the less creditable acts of his Presidency. Davis eventually dismissed him in favor of a gallant but incompetent favorite, and Johnston was only in the last stage of the agony of the Confederacy called back to command by Lee, when Davis had handed his powders as Commander-in-Chief to that great soldier. Since Davis made no endeavor to stop Lee’s invasions of Northern territory in circumstances certainly not more favorable than those which existed in the autumn of 1861, it may be that he had not sufficient confidence in Johnston to charge him with a mission which he held to be dangerous. There is little prospect of harmony between policy and strategy when there is discord between soldier and statesman.

The price of lost opportunities has to be quickly paid in war, and the lethargy which followed the battle of Bull Run created the crisis of the spring of 1862. That battle, which acted as a spur to the North, sent the South to sleep. In the latter, strategy without a lead from policy was helpless. The people, finding their chiefs inactive, naturally assumed that no special effort was needed, and were the more alarmed when, before winter had gone, they found themselves menaced on all sides. In the west one Ulysses Grant captured, in February 1862, Forts Henry and Donelson, which guarded the roads into the Confederacy by the valleys of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, and thereby secured control of a great part of Tennessee. Federal naval and military expeditions had in March captured Hatteras Inlet and Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina, and Port Royal on the coast of South Carolina. The blockade was becoming more and more effective, and, greatest danger of all, a large and well-equipped army had been assembled and organized by McClellan on the Potomac, before the menace of which J. E. Johnston had retreated. Alarm in the South was turning to consternation, and the President, who had been the hero of 1861, became the target of criticism and abuse. But Davis appeared at his best in an emergency, and in this one he did a brave thing. Robert E. Lee, loudly acclaimed when he placed his sword at the service of his state, had proved a disappointment. The public, unaware of the valuable work he had done quietly in council and in office, knew only that he had been sent to command a force in Western Virginia, and had failed. But Davis had learned his value, and now his calling him to his side as military adviser made possible a swift change in the fortunes of war.