Sunday, June 5, 2011

June 6, 1861 (Thursday): Johnston Advocates Retreat

General Joseph E. Johnston

                                                            Harper’s Ferry, Va., June 6, 1861.

General R. E. Lee, Commander-In-Chief, Richmond, Va:
    GENERAL:  I had the honor to receive your letter of the 3d instant by the last mail.  My object in writing each of the several communications in relation to this command was to ascertain exactly the manner in which the Government wishes it to be used, no instructions having been given to me.  Do these troops constitute a garrison or a corps of observation?  If the former (which your letter of the 3d implies somewhat), it is to be considered that our only defensible position has a front of nearly two miles; that the supply of ammunition is not more than sufficient to repel one vigorous assault, and that the position could not then be evacuated, as the enemy would be nearer than ourselves to the only line of retreat-that through Loudoun.  If as a corps of observation, it will have a task which the best troops would find difficult, for this force even to observe, and, while watching them, it is likely to be cut off by the troops from Ohio, who you know are commanded by a man of great ability.  The operations of these troops and those from Pennsylvania will no doubt be combined.  A retreat from the presence of the enemy is the most difficult of military operations to the best troops.  To very new ones it is impossible.  It would soon become a flight.
    You say that “the abandonment of Harper’s Ferry would be depressing to the cause of the South.”  Would not the loss of five or six thousand men be more so?  And, if they remain here, they must be captured or destroyed very soon after General McClellan’s arrival in the valley.  Might it not be better (after the troops here have delayed the enemy as long by their presence as they prudently can) to transfer them to some point where they may still be useful.
…..I offer these opinions for what they are wroth, thinking it my duty to present them to you, and being anxious to conform closely to what-ever general plan of operations has been determined upon.  I beg you, therefore, to let me understand my position.
      Most respectfully, your obedient servant,
                                                                                             J. E. JOHNSTON
                                                                                    Brigadier-General, C. S. Army

Johnston relieved Jackson at Harper’s Ferry on May 25.  Unlike Jackson, who a month earlier wrote Lee Harper’s Ferry should be defended with the “Spirit of Thermopylae”, Johnson immediately perceived the post untenable as it could be turned by crossing the river above or below.  He also commented on the “utter want of discipline and instruction” of the troops and began a letter writing campaign to Lee constantly asking to remove the garrison to some other unnamed point.  Lee had given Johnston discretion to destroy any useful material at Harper’s Ferry and withdraw if threatened, but this did not satisfy the officer who seems in great fear of McClellan “the man of great ability”.  The affair at Philippi seems also to have rattled Johnston, who would be reassured by Lee there was no immediate danger and to hold fast for the time being.  Logistically, McClellan's closest forces from the West were about 180 miles distant and the Pennsylvania troops 30 miles away at Hagerstown were not sufficient in number to take Harper's Ferry.  No doubt Johnston was correct in his assessment of his position, but withdrawal would likely have had the effect of bringing on what he feared, a more rapid movement eastward by McClellan.  

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