Thursday, March 9, 2023

Review - " The Civil Wars of General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army - Volume I: Virginia and Mississippi, 1861–1863 " by Richard McMurry

[The Civil Wars of General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army - Volume I: Virginia and Mississippi, 1861–1863 by Richard M. McMurry (Savas Beatie, 2023). Hardcover, 4 maps, photos, footnotes, index. Pages main/total:xxii,326/358. ISBN:978-1-61121-592-2. $34.95]

The personality, character, and leadership flaws of President Jefferson Davis and General Joseph E. Johnston, many of which seriously damaged the Confederate South's bid for independence, are well documented in Civil War history and biography. As part of an Old Army culture justifiably conscious of seniority, Johnston possessed an almost pathological obsession with rank and reputation, treating any professional criticism directed his way as an attempt to personally destroy him. Consuming jealousy also led him to create one-sided rivalries, most notably with fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee. As an army-level commander Johnston was profoundly risk averse, too often unduly pessimistic in outlook, and communicated poorly, when he communicated at all, with his superiors. Reporting directly to Richmond, Johnston, unlike Lee, never found a way to forge a positive working relationship with Davis. He made things worse by associating openly with Davis's emerging political critics, particularly Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas. This was a foolish professional impropriety that Lee studiously avoided.

Equally thin-skinned, President Davis would waste enormous amounts of time and mental energy writing long letters to generals explaining how he was right and they were wrong, with Johnston being on the receiving end of a great many of those scribbling campaigns. An infamous micromanager in military and government affairs best left to subordinates, Davis would then shrink from issuing direct orders to his generals when critically important decisions, those that only the chief executive could meaningfully address, needed to be made. In areas of overlapping responsibility, Davis frequently failed to establish a clear chain of command, often to disastrous effect. Deeply committed to the cause of Confederate military victory and national independence, the president conducted affairs under the fatally naive assumption that all of his generals, without need of any compelling influence from above, would cheerfully cooperate toward achieving those same ends, along the way casting aside any and all personal dislikes and jealousies for the greater good.

Traits such as those above may be merely troublesome in an individual but can become catastrophic in combination when found in a warring nation's commander in chief and leading general. When Davis and Johnston interacted during points of crisis they came together like oil and water, and it was all too often a recipe for military disaster. Historian Richard McMurry's The Civil Wars of General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army - Volume I: Virginia and Mississippi, 1861–1863, the first of two installments, signally warns against underestimating the significance of personality in war direction.

One thing that needs to be mentioned at the outset is that this volume is not a full military biography of General Johnston's 1861-63 Civil War service, nor is it presented in a typical narrative format. Its organization is more closely akin to a theme-based essay compilation. This less conventional approach is clearly disclosed to potential readers in both the publisher's description and the author's introduction. Readers are also forewarned that the book contains no detailed account or critical analysis of Johnston's military decisions and generalship during 1861-62 in Virginia. That will likely disappoint a substantial set of readers, who may or may not agree with McMurry that those early-war operations "did not become the subjects of major disputes between the President and the general, and they do not tell us very much about Johnston the general or Johnston the man" (pg. xvii). That's an arguable point, as the literature tells us that Davis was greatly dissatisfied with Johnston's uncommunicative nature during both the precipitate retreat from Centreville and the withdrawal from Yorktown to Richmond. As a way to explore the contrasting personalities and leadership qualities of Johnston and Davis the essay-style format works well enough, though overlap, repetition, and constant references back and forth between chapters can become distracting on occasion.

Other controversial Confederate generals (ex. Braxton Bragg and John C. Pemberton) are brought into the discussion of Johnston's 'civil wars,' but Johnston's self-styled rival Robert E. Lee figures most prominently. Indeed, Lee himself takes center stage during several lengthy discourses. The author has a good reason for this. McMurry's Lee acts not as a foil to Johnston (as the latter might suggest) but instead his lingering presence in the study constitutes a rather brilliantly drawn contextual tool designed to show readers how forging an effective professional alliance with the prickly Davis was neither impossible nor gained only through uncontested agreement. Lee's actions, through many of the interpersonal strategies outlined in the text, proved that it was possible to harmoniously communicate with Davis while also frequently getting one's own way when opinions clashed. As McMurry demonstrates at length, Johnston was never willing or able to emulate Lee's far more perceptive and effective people-person path in leader-subordinate interaction.

Like other writers, McMurry traces the first major breach between Johnston and Davis to the administration's summer 1861 submission of its seniority list for the army's five full generals. In what ways misconceptions regarding adapted rules and regulations inflamed their differences are also revealed. Other early-war sources of dissension are also detailed and persuasively analyzed. For example, the book's lengthy presentation of the government initiative aimed at reorganizing the army into state brigades (rather than the mixed-state ones that were already commonly formed) might seem out of place in terms of how much coverage is attached to it, but it serves as a good early example of how disagreements between Johnston and Davis often devolved into lengthy, and frequently petty, quarrels. Here again Lee is insightfully brought into the examination, the contrast between his and Johnston's approach clearly demonstrating that Lee, who agreed with many of Johnston's viewpoints on the matter, was far more adept than Johnston in resolving differences with Davis.

Unlike his near-absent coverage of Johnston's field generalship during 1861-62, where again the author feels the personal and military disputes between Davis and the general were largely inconsequential, McMurry goes into some detail regarding Johnston's mid-war appointment to departmental-level authority in the West, where the general was expected to coordinate the efforts of Bragg's army in Tennessee with those of Pemberton's army in Mississippi. As all Civil War students know, Davis's cordon defense strategy was abandoned after a string of early-1862 disasters in the West, replaced by a new offensive-defensive strategy that emphasized mobility and concentration to leverage the Confederacy's presumed advantage in possessing interior lines. McMurry's coverage of the new strategy, its development, and its major flaws contains one of the sharpest analyses of it that one can find in the Civil War literature. A good idea in theory, the offensive-defensive strategy broke down under Confederate reality. By late-1862 Confederate logistics and communications were already beginning to seriously deteriorate, foiling the quick response that the offensive-defensive strategy required in order to work. As the author outlines, nearly infallible intelligence regarding enemy intentions was also a necessary component, as the strategy required quick victory over the opponent's main effort following by rapid reoccupation of friendly territory lost during the initial concentration effort. Given those limitations, implementing such a strategy on a consistent basis would have been immensely difficult under the best of circumstances. In the author's view, successful application was largely impossible across the vast western theater that was Johnston's new responsibility.

Once again, frank communication between Johnston and Davis was dismal during this period, and the pair set to quarreling over strategy almost immediately. Johnston was never comfortable with his prescribed authority and struggled to obtain an unambiguous directive from the president regarding which front (Middle Tennessee or the remaining Confederate-held stretch of Mississippi River between Vicksburg and Port Hudson) was to be prioritized over the other when push came to shove. Even after Davis was able to meet with Johnston and Pemberton in person in Mississippi to discuss strategy, it was still never made crystal clear to all involved what should be done in the event that a decision needed to be made between evacuating Vicksburg (in the process preserving the army as a mobile force) or holding the town under all circumstances and risking a siege. Worse, Davis further muddied official channels by allowing Pemberton to bypass the normal chain of command and communicate with Richmond directly. That left Johnston without full awareness of Pemberton's situation, and, ruinously, Pemberton interpreted Davis's wishes as requiring that Vicksburg itself be held on to at all costs. One would have thought that after the mass surrenders of Fort Donelson, Island No. 10, and Arkansas Post, western commanders would have been explicitly enjoined by Davis to avoid investment at all costs. The author does credit Johnston with at least attempting to comply with Davis's new strategy, formulating what he calls a "pipeline" arrangement of western theater forces to facilitate rapid rail redeployment. Tragically as it turned out for Pemberton, though, Johnston also stripped Mississippi of most of its mounted forces in order to create a single large cavalry corps that could help cover the vast space between the Mississippi and Tennessee fronts.

After U.S. Grant's army finally landed on the Mississippi River's east bank below Vicksburg and struck inland, coordination and communication between Johnston and Pemberton utterly failed. To Johnston's dismay, as the military situation in Mississippi crumbled under Grant's series of hammer blows (the last two being major routs at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge), Pemberton ignored his immediate superior's direct order to evacuate Vicksburg and save the army. Earlier, Pemberton also disobeyed Johnston's order to strike eastward toward Grant's advancing army, instead embarking on a southern detour and countermarch that left the Mississippi army ill-prepared to fight at Champion Hill [note: for a more sympathetic treatment of Pemberton's actions see David M. Smith's careful editing of the general's own defense of his Vicksburg Campaign conduct, published in 1999 under the title Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of General John C. Pemberton]. Both generals are subject to criticism during this time. McMurry acknowledges that Johnston, after evacuating Jackson and marching its defenders northeast toward Canton, did a poor job of following up on his earlier order directing Pemberton to march toward him for some undefined combined action against Grant's army. At the same time, in the aftermath of Grant's investment of Vicksburg, the author does not simply dismiss Johnston as wallowing in pessimistic self-pity and going nothing with his growing Army of Relief. Historians agree that Vicksburg itself was impossible to hold at that point, the remaining question being whether it was still possible to somehow save its defending army. Combining his own views with those of other scholars, McMurry impressively outlines the great many levels of geographical, communication, cooperation, and military strength-based challenges that Johnston would have needed to overcome in order to have any chance of breaking Grant's stranglehold on Vicksburg. At this point, even Johnston's harshest critics have to admit that the window of opportunity in which to act with any hope for success, and which essentially closed after Grant received massive reinforcements in June, was almost impossibly narrow given the litany of obstacles faced. In a rare defense, McMurry seems to part ways with most critics, including the most recent chronicler of the Vicksburg siege, when it comes to making an ultimate judgement of Johnston's actions during this period. Where others see a lack of moral courage during a military emergency that required risking the safety of the Vicksburg relief army, McMurry sees justifiable prudence.

One would like to believe that intelligent, dutiful, and devoted men with lofty military backgrounds would always be able to cast aside personal differences in pursuit of a common goal (especially one with so little margin for absorbing costly self-inflicted wounds), but flawed humanity dictates otherwise. Really, it should surprise no one that qualities of personality and character within a nation's military high command can exert a profound influence on victory and defeat. However, the dysfunction between Davis and Johnston, in both its depth and the frequency with which it reared it ugly head during critical junctures throughout the length of the war, is revealed to be a fairly extreme case study of two leaders bringing out the worst in each other. As Volume I ends, the seeds of conflict between Johnston and Davis that were initially sown in Virginia during the war's first year reached such toxic levels by late-1862 through mid-1863 that they contributed mightily to irretrievable disaster on a level that would seriously impact the Confederacy's ability to effectually wage war going forward. Yet even after all this, Davis, believing he lacked suitable alternatives, continued to turn to Johnston to lead principal Confederate field armies in 1864 and 1865. But that awaits us in Volume II, where the full picture detailing how their incompatible natures went a long way toward dooming the South's quest for independence will be completed.


  1. Another deep review, this one showing the strengths and some limitations of this book. While the Federals certainly had their share of toxic relationships, the Confederates with their resource weaknesses had little room for such divisiveness. The relationship between Kirby Smith and Richard Taylor is another example. To be fair, it certainly did not help Johnston in that his theater of operations is perceived as a dumping ground for ANV rejects.

    1. Hi John,
      Yes, the Prushankin book is another good 'toxic relationship' study.

  2. Drew: Thanks for another typically thorough review. Appropriately, your review focuses on how the book fulfills its stated purpose (unlike those "reviews" we encounter at Amazon which rate a book based on what the "reviewer" wants). Regarding the 1861-1862 period and its military aspects, Steven Newton has pretty thoroughly covered that subject. Of course, we still await an up-to-date tactical study of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks, which was not within the book's intended scope. The fresh analysis of Johnston's role in the Vicksburg campaign would appear to be more than enough reason to get this book.

    1. What do you think of Symonds's biography? It's something I never got around to reading.

    2. Symonds is a good overall read of the man. He favor Johnston but not unduly so. Thanks for the excellent review.

  3. Thanks for the deep insightful review, Drew. Since Richard and technology mix like oil and water, I will copy this and send it to him.
    -- Ted Savas


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