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"The Assaults of the Demagogues in Congress": General Albert Sidney Johnston and the Politics of Command Larry J. Daniel On February 16, 1862, Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee fell to combined Union naval and land forces. The first dispatch concerning the surrender was received at the Confederate War Department at 11:30 p.m. on the 17th. The next day the story broke to the public in the Richmond newspapers. Initial reports placed the loss at a staggering fifteen thousand prisoners and a huge quantity of ordnance , but there were conflicting accounts. During the next couple of days, some news reports were received that minimized the losses, although officials at the War Department had access to a New York Herald paper that confirmed earlier stories of a mass surrender.1 It began to drizzle early on February 22 in Richmond, and by midmorning there was a steady rain, attended by a chill. Indeed, the inauguration of President Jefferson Davis—he had been provisionally sworn in at Montgomery, Alabama—had more the overtones of a wake than a ceremony. The gloomy weather was reflective of the mood that prevailed over the capital. Davis had just received definite confirmation of the extent of the Donelson loss, with his worst fears being realized. Coupled with the earlier defeats of Mill Springs and Fort Henry, Confederate forces in Tennessee were now reeling back in confusion. Arriving in Capital Square at noon, Davis, who had been ill for weeks, delivered his address on a temporary platform before the statue of George Washington . There were about five hundred spectators, and the pattering of 1 Thomas Bragg Diary, Feb. 18-20, 1862, Southern Historical Society Collection, Univ. of North Carolina (hereafter cited as SHSC); Steven E. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1990), 88-89. Civil War History, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, ° 1991 by the Kent State University Press GENERAL ALBERT SIDNEY JOHNSTON329 rain on umbrellas drowned out his voice. To John Jones, a clerk in the War Department, Davis appeared "self poised in the midst of disasters."2 General Albert Sidney Johnston, the commander of the vast western department that stretched from the Alleghenies to the Ozarks, was a longtime friend of Davis, dating back to Transylvania College days. Yet, Johnston's assignment in September 1861 to command Department No. 2 was not mere cronyism. Indeed, the association between the two was probably not even necessary, since the Johnston lobby was formidable and his appointment received a broad consensus. Citizen groups were united in their support, and Maj. Gen. Leónidas Polk, commanding Confederate forces in the Mississippi valley, strongly petitioned for Johnston, his West Point roommate.3 As details for the Fort Donelson fiasco became known, Johnston became the target of severe criticism. The populace, which had so strongly supported his appointment five months earlier, now clamored for his removal. The eastern press was particularly brutal. "Shall the Cause fail because Mr. Davis is incompetent? . . . Tennessee under Sidney Johnston is likely to fall. Mr. Davis retains him," stated a Richmond newspaper. Nor was the general spared by the western press. The Memphis Appeal declared that the current state of affairs was due to the "blunders— perhaps the incompetency—of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston." The New Orleans Crescent concluded: "We care not what Gen. Johnston's strategy may have been. He left the main artery of the Confederacy open to the enemy." The Delta of the same city stated: "General A. S. Johnston may be a profound strategist, but profound as his strategy may have been ... it does not seem to have embraced the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers within its scope."4 During the second week in March 1862, the political crisis became more focused. On the 8th, the senators and representatives of the Tennessee congressional delegation, with the exception of Judge W. G. Swan of Knoxville, called upon the president. The delegation was headed by Senator Gustavus A. Henry, who, ironically, had earlier petitioned for Johnston's appointment. The group now urgently requested the general's 2 Clement Eaton, Jefferson Davis (New York: Free Press, 1977), 148; Varina Davis...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 328-335
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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