Monday, September 26, 2011

The Confederates Evacuate the Advanced Line, Part I

As September 1861 drew to a close, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston pondered his next move.  His line stretched from around Flint Hill through Fairfax Court House and Fairfax Station to Sansgter's Crossroads.  The advanced forces of the Confederate Army sat astride Munson's and Mason's Hills, within a few miles of the Union lines and Washington.  The exposed position of the advanced elements worried Johnston, and only a few weeks before, he had vetoed Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard's suggestion for a general advance closer to the Federal capital. 

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston (courtesy of Library of Congress)
On September 26, Johnston wrote to Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin in Richmond.  The general noted that his objective in occupying his present position in Northern Virginia was "to remove the troops from the unhealthy atmosphere of the valley of Bull Run and to be ready to turn the enemy's position and advance into Maryland whenever the strength of this army would justify it."  (OR, 1:5, 881.)  However, "the numbers and condition of this army have at no time justified our assuming the offensive. To do so would require more men and munitions."  (OR, 1:5, 882.)  Johnston put the choice starkly before the Secretary:
We are not now in a strong defensive position either to fight a battle or to hold the enemy in check. The position was occupied for a different purpose. It is now necessary to decide definitely whether we are to advance or fall back to a more defensible line. There are very grave and serious objections to the latter course, and the idea even should not be entertained until after it is finally determined to be impracticable to place this army in such condition as would justify its taking at an early day the active offensive. (OR, 1:5, 882.)
The general took aim at the Confederate government's ability to organize for an advance:
The difficulty of obtaining the means of establishing a battery near Evansport and length of time required for the collection of those means have given me the impression that you cannot at present put this army in condition to assume the offensive. (OR, 1:5, 882.)
Johnston, for all his doubts, gave the Secretary a chance to prove him wrong:
If I am mistaken in this, and you can furnish those means, I think it important that either his excellency the President of the Confederate States, yourself, or some one representing you, should here upon the ground confer with me in regard to this all-important question. (OR, 1:5, 882.)
The response from the War Department could not come soon enough.  Johnston's anxieties about the state of Confederate preparedness troubled him, and it was only a matter of hours before Johnston would take action to deal with his army's vulnerabilities.

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