Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Johnston Prepares to Leave Centreville: The Logistical Challenges of Withdrawal

Confederate commander Joseph Johnston was summoned to Richmond to confer with President Jefferson Davis in mid-February 1862.  The Confederate President wanted to discuss "the question of withdrawing the army to a less exposed position."  (Johnston, Narrative, 96.)  Johnston left the Confederate lines at Centreville and traveled to Richmond, where on February 19 (or 20, depending on the account), Johnston joined a meeting of Davis and his Cabinet.  Johnston and Davis agreed that the army should fall back to a more defensible position before Federal commander George McClellan launched his anticipated advance into Virginia.   The general, however, argued that current winter conditions were less than optimal for such a move.  The roads were deep with mud and in no shape to transport men and materiel.  The heavy artillery pieces along the lower Potomac at Evansport and other locations presented particular difficulties.  Johnston also worried about the ability of the Orange & Alexandria (O&A) Railroad to move his vast supplies from Manassas Junction to a safer location.

The meeting allegedly lasted around seven hours.  When all was said and done, Johnston left the President's office "with the understanding. . . that the army was to fall back as soon as practicable."  (Johnston, Narrative, 96.)  Davis walked away with a somewhat different interpretation of what was agreed.  He had given Johnston the discretion as to the exact timing of a general withdrawal, but seemed to think that an evacuation of Centreville was not in the works any time soon.  Instead, he felt that Johnston should wait until a withdrawal was "absolutely necessary."  (Symonds 145.)  It later became evident that Davis even imagined that he might find a way to pull together enough reinforcements to enable Johnston to take the offensive.  (OR, 1:5, 1084.)

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Back at his hotel, Johnston ran into an officer who asked him if  he knew that "the cabinet had been discussing that day the question of withdrawing the army from the line then occupied."  (Johnston, Narrative, 97.)  Likewise, during his return trip, Johnston ran into "an acquaintance from the county of Fauquier, too deaf to hear conversation not intended for his ear, who gave me the same information."  (Johnston, Narrative, 97.)  Johnston was alarmed by the leak and likely feared that McClellan would get word of the Confederate plans before he had time to act.

Arriving in Centreville on February 21, Johnston immediately set to work preparing for the evacuation of the Centreville line.  On February 22, he issued orders to "the chiefs of the quartermaster's and subsistence departments to remove the military property in the depots at Manassas Junction and its dependencies, to Gordonsville, as quickly as possible. . . ."  (Johnston, Narrative 97.)  Johnston also directed the president and superintendent of the O&A Railroad to work the network "to its utmost capacity" for the purpose of transporting the army's supplies. (Johnston, Narrative 97.)  At the same time, Johnston informed his divisional commanders to prepare "in a quiet way" for the evacuation.  (Early 53.)

Johnston faced a daunting task.  The Confederates had accumulated mountains of supplies while staying a Centreville.  Johnston only needed around 1.5 million pounds of provisions on hand, enough to feed his army for fifteen days.  He tried throughout January 1862 to limit the food that Richmond was sending his way, but to no avail.  Now he had stores of around 3 million pounds.  The government had also constructed a meat-packing establishment at Thoroughfare Gap without Johnston's knowledge.  That facility possessed 2 million pounds of cured meat, as well as extensive herds of cattle and pigs, that were in danger of falling into Union hands if not shipped away or destroyed.   

Aside from Confederate commissary and quartermaster stores, Johnston had to deal with the clothing and provisions that state governments had forwarded to the front at Centreville.  Private baggage presented another difficulty.  As Gen. Jubal Early recalled:
Owing to the fact that our army had remained stationary so long, and the inexperience in campaigning of our troops, there had been a vast accumulation of private baggage by both officers and men. . . .
After the confidential instructions for the evacuation were given, I tried to persuade all my officers to send all their baggage not capable of being easily transported and for which they did not have immediate necessary use, on the railroad to some place in the rear out of all danger, but the most that I could accomplish was to get them to send it to Manassas Junction. This was generally the case with the whole army, and the consequence was that a vast amount of trunks and other private baggage was accumulated at the Junction at the last moment, for which it was impossible to find any transportation. (Early 53.)
Johnston soon vented to Davis about the situation.  On February 25, he wrote:
The accumulation of subsistence stores at Manassas is now a great evil. The Commissary-General was requested more than once to suspend those supplies. A very extensive meat-packing establishment at Thoroughfare is also a great incumbrance. The great quantities of personal property in our camps is a still greater one. Much of both kinds of property must be sacrificed in the contemplated movements.  (OR, 1:5, 1081.)
Davis sent Johnston a pointed response on February 28:
The subsistence stores should, when removed, be placed in position to answer your future wants; those cannot be determined until you have furnished definite information as to your plans, especially the line to which you would remove in the contingency of retiring. The Commissary-General had previously stopped further shipments to your army, and gives satisfactory reasons for the establishment of a packing establishment at Thoroughfare.  (OR, 1:5, 1084.)
Given the state of the muddy roads, the rails were the best option for moving the large quantity of supplies from Centreville.  Johnston, however, worried that the railroad was not up to the task.  The commander complained to Davis of the "wretched mismanagement" of the line.  (OR, 1:5, 1083)  By the start of March, Johnston expressed his concern to Davis that "[t]he removal of public property goes on with painful slowness, because, as the officers employed in it report, sufficient number of cars and engines cannot be had."  (OR, 1:5, 1088.)  A.C. Myers, the Quartermaster General, disputed Johnston's claim.  He told Davis that all cars and engines from the O&A Railroad, the Manassas Gap Railroad, and the Virginia Central Railroad were "in use at Manassas," and that "no further increase can be made."  (OR, 1:5, 1093.)  In any event, the system was stretched to capacity, causing innumerable delays, and could not handle much more.

Johnston also remained concerned about his ability to remove the big guns blockading the Potomac and feared that the army would be forced to abandon them in the withdrawal.  Davis was obviously dissatisfied with the commanding general's assessment.  He urged Johnston that "[w]hatever can be should be done to avoid the loss of those guns."  (OR, 1:5, 1084.)

To make matters worse, Johnston's scouts were picking up increased Union activity.  On February 22, he reported to Davis:

The enemy may not allow us much time for changes of position. He has been more active than usual lately. It is reported that a picket of 8 men was captured this morning near Fairfax Court-House. Reconnaissances on the Lower Occoquan and on the Potomac have been frequent, the latter in balloons as well as boats. (OR, 1:5, 1079).
A few days later, on February 28, Johnston learned that "the enemy is in force at Harper's Ferry, having crossed the Potomac on a pontoon bridge."  (OR, 1:5, 1083.)  He warned Davis that "[s]hould they move directly upon Winchester from that point as well as Hancock, our left would be so threatened as to compel the movement you have ordered without further delay."  (OR, 1:5, 1083.)  Johnston's now sensed danger on both his flanks.  As March got underway, the cautious general surely felt the pressure to complete his plans for withdrawal as expeditiously as possible.  If only those pesky logsitics weren't so difficult!

Jubal A. Early, Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (1912); Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations (1874); Joseph E. Johnston, "Responsibilities of the First Bull Run,"  Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 1 (1887); Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campagin (1992); Craig L. Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography (1992); Jeffry Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier (1993).

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