Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jefferson Davis Visits Fairfax, Confers with the Top Brass, and Reviews the Army: Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 1861

As I discussed in a recent post, Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston wrote to Judah P. Benjamin, the acting Secretary of War in Richmond, urging that Benjamin, a representative, or President Jefferson Davis come to Fairfax Court House to confer about a possible offensive.  Benjamin responded to Johnston on September 29, 1861, telling him it was "extremely difficult. . . to determine whether or not we can furnish you the further means you may deem necessary to assume the active offensive."  (OR, 1:5, 883.)  The secretary in part blamed Johnston for the government's inability to assess the situation:  "We have not in the Department a single return from your army of the quantity of ammunition, artillery, means of transportation, or sick in camp or in hospitals, to enable us to form a judgment of what your necessities may be."  (OR, 1:5, 883.)  Benjamin told Johnston that he had "earnestly requested the President to visit your headquarters in person, and to learn on conference with you the true position of your army in all respects, and the possibility of a prompt offensive movement."  Davis "consented to this," and Benjamin hoped that Davis would reach Johnston's camp within a day or two. (OR, 1:5, 883.)

Arrival in Fairfax

The Confederate President boarded the train to Richmond early on September 30 and arrived at Fairfax Station late in the afternoon. Civilians and soldiers lining the route to Fairfax Court House cheered the President as he passed by, and Davis tipped his hat to the admirers. Due to an apparent "misunderstanding," the army never procured a house in Fairfax for the President to use during his visit. (Davis to Varina Davis, Oct. 2, 1861 in Crist & Dix 352.) Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, however, came to the rescue and brought the President to stay at his headquarters. Generals Johnston and Gustavus W. Smith called on Davis that evening to pay their respects, but "no official subjects were alluded to in that interview." (OR, 1:5, 884-85.)

Jefferson Davis, photo by Matthew Brady, c. 1858-60 (courtesy of Library of Congress).
The October 1 Conference

The next day, October 1, Davis "rode many miles visiting the encampments."  (Davis to Varina Davis, Oct. 2, 1861 in Crist & Dix 352.)  A couple companies of the 16th Mississippi also took Davis on a reconnaissance mission near the Union lines, which now occupied the high ground around Falls Church that the Confederates had just recently abandoned.

The night of October 1, Davis conferred with Generals Johnston, Beauregard, and Smith at headquarters.  Much ink has been spilled on this famous "council of war," at which Davis and the top commanders in Virginia discussed the possibility of assuming the offensive and invading the North.  First and foremost, I counsel readers to check out the entire text of Smith's January 31, 1862 memorandum on the conference in the OR. (See OR, 1:5, 884-87.)  The memorandum was also signed by Beauregard and Johnston. Davis himself claims to have seen this document for the first time in 1880. (Davis 450.)  The accounts by Davis, Johnston, and Roman are also worth reading.  (See the sources below for links.)  Sherman over at Living in the Past has done a great job of describing the meeting and the subsequent controversy between Davis and his generals over the conference.  (See here.) The Civil War Daily Gazette also has a good post on the subject.  (See here.)

At the conference, Smith was the first to broach the subject that had compelled Davis to come to Fairfax in the first place.  He asked, "Mr. President, is it not possible to put this army in condition to assume the active offensive?" (OR, 1:5, 885.)  A discussion ensued.  All those present at the conference agreed that "the military force of the Confederate States was at the highest point it could attain without arms from abroad; that the portion of this particular army present for duty was in the finest fighting condition; that if kept inactive it must retrograde immensely in every respect firing the winter, the effect of which was foreseen and dreaded by us all."   (OR, 1:5, 885.) 

Davis was again asked, "Is it not possible to increase the effective strength of this army, and put us in condition to cross the Potomac and carry the war into the enemy's country? Can you not by stripping other points to the last they will bear, and, even risking defeat at all other places, put us in condition to move forward?"  (OR, 1:5, 885.)  The generals argued that "success here was success everywhere, defeat here defeat everywhere."  (OR, 1:5, 885.)  Gen. Beauregard had been pushing a more aggressive strategy for quite some time now, and most certainly wanted to ensure that Davis accepted his plan to invade Maryland and threaten Washington. 

Davis got to the point.  He wanted to know how many men were needed to take the offensive.  Smith said 50,000; Johnston and Beauregard stated a more conservative 60,000.  The latter two also claimed that the supplies in Northern Virginia were "entirely inadequate for an active campaign in the enemy's country even with our present force."  (OR, 1:5, 886.)  Davis opposed the suggestion to transfer soldiers to Virginia. After all, the President was under pressure from all parts of the country to defend the Confederacy.  Davis regretted that he could furnish no reinforcements at the time, and even if he could, he had no weapons to arm them.

The generals seemed resigned that "there was no other course left but to take a defensive position and await the enemy."  (OR, 1:5, 886.)  Davis toyed with the idea of "partial operations" into Maryland to strike a "sudden blow" against Union troops on the lower or upper Potomac.  The generals saw too many risks in such a plan and largely rejected the idea.  However, they threw a bone to Davis, agreeing that "if any opportunity should occur offering reasonable chances of success, the attempt would be made." (OR, 1:5, 887.)  The two-hour conference thus dashed Beauregard's dream of a decisive blow across the Potomac. 

Review of the Army

The Confederate President woke up to rain on October 2.  Davis wrote to his wife that  "if the weather permits, I shall resume my labors and to-morrow hope to return."  (Davis to Varina Davis, Oct. 2, 1861 in Crist & Dix 352.)  The President also expressed disappointment with what he had seen so far: "The condition of things here is not as good as I expected and the position has nothing but its comfort to recommend it."  (Davis to Varina Davis, Oct. 2, 1861 in Crist & Dix 352.)  I have not yet found a record of what the President did that day, but the rain may have caused a disruption in Davis' schedule.

The next afternoon, the President reviewed the Confederate troops quartered in the area.  Soldiers from several brigades lined the road for about a mile and a half, stretching from Fairfax Court House towards Germantown.  Gen. James Longstreet's men, including the 17th Virgina, participated in the spectacle.  Tom Goree, an aide to Longstreet, described "quite a display" in a letter to his sister a few days later:
The President & Genls Johnston, Beauregard & Smith, with their aids [sic] & escort, road along the line in front, whilst our bands as they passed were discoursing excellent music. The President would salute each flag as he passed it. After he passed the line, he then took a position, and the line formed into column and passed him, the officers saluting as they passed. (in Cutrer 47.)
Following the review, Longstreet  and his staff headed to Beauregard's headquarters to meet with Davis.  According to Goree, the President "spoke of the honorable positions we had occupied in the advance" and "asked if we could give him a view of the Potomac."  (in Cutrer 47.)  Goree, all to aware of the recent evacuation of Munson's and Mason's Hills, replied that "we could have done so, a few days since, but could not now."  (in Cutrer 47.)  Davis, full of bluster, replied that "I hope that in a short time we will force a view of it, at the Long Bridge."  (in Cutrer 47.)  How the Confederate President expected that to happen in light of the conference of October 1, he did not say.

Davis boarded a train that night and returned to Richmond. The President's trip had given Johnston the answer he needed.  The cautious commander had made the right decision after all in withdrawing his men from their advanced position.  Now Johnston would turn to establishing a purely defensive position, and even Fairfax felt a bit too forward for his purposes.


Aside from the OR, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Lynda L. Crist & Mary S. Dix (eds.), The Papers of Jefferson Davis, 1861, Vol. 7 (1991); Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Thomas J. Goree (1995); Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1 (1881); Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Actions During the Late War Between the States (1874); Alfred Roman, The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 1861 to 1865, Vol. 1 1884); Lee A. Wallace, Jr., 17th Virginia Infantry, from the Virginia Regimental History Series (1990); Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox: The Civil War Memoirs of Pvt. Edgar Warfield, 17th Virginia Infantry (1996 ed.).

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