Ranking is everything

Ranking is everything

As the Confederate Government began to take shape, the Southern Congress approved the formation of the Brigadier General grade in March 1861. The Union at that time had only two grades of General: Brigadier General and Major General and not until at the end of 1864 that the Federal added a Lieutenant General grade. Meanwhile the Confederate wanted to do something different and installed 4 grades of Generalship: Brigadier, Major, Lieutenant and full General.

The Confederate Congress authorized the establishment of full General in May 1861. President Jefferson Davis decided to appoint 5 full Generals and dated their appointments retroactively in this order. He appointed Samuel Cooper on 8/31/61 and backdated the commission on 5/16/61 and Albert Sidney Johnston on previous day, 8/30/61 and dated retroactively on 5/30/61. Robert E. Lee got his Confederate brigadier on 5/14/61 and Davis made him the third full General. Davis promoted Joseph E. Johnston as the 4th General on 8/31/61 and dated it on 7/21/61 and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard as the 5th General. David Twigg was offered the first appointment but he declined because of old age and ailment.

If it were you and me that got promoted to full General, won't you gratefully say thanks, take the commission and run? But no, these two rare birds not only did not thank the President, but also complained loudly that the position was not high enough. They protested and appealed.

The trouble started when neither Davis nor the Congress announced the new ranks and Joe Johnston subsequently found out something wrong, when an officer reported to him as an adjunct General from Lee's order. He felt annoyed. Since he thought he was the highest rank General, he should do his own picking. So he thought. He wrote a letter to Cooper and refused to accept the officer, explaining that he was the ranking General. Cooper passed the letter to Davis who endorsed with one word comment, "Insubordinate." A few days later, Johnston got more orders from Lee. Johnston complained that those orders were illegal in another letter and again Davis wrote another remark "Insubordinate." Johnston at last found out he ranked 4th in the midst of September and he did something that nobody would do. He wrote a long letter to Davis, with lecturing tone and argued that he should be the ranking General.

The Confederate Congress passed its legislation that the relative rank in the Military should refer to their former commissions in the Old Union Army. Joe Johnston stated that Sidney Johnston had been a colonel and Lee & Cooper were full colonels in the Old Army, while Beauregard was a mere Major, but Joe was a brigadier General in the old Army. Therefore, he ranked highest, according to the laws of Congress. He further accused Davis on "trampling" on the laws and implying Davis had abused his Presidential authority. To Johnston, ranking 4th didn't make sense at all. In March, Congress sent in 3 names for brigadiers, namely, Lee, Joe Johnston and Cooper. So by that logic, at least Joe should be ranked within the top three and not the top four.

Well, Joe should have known better. Davis was a person who valued personal friendship and loyalty but abhorred disrespect. Nor would Davis forgive and forget any slight from an opponent. Joe sealed his own fate. Davis reacted angrily and replied that Joe's language was unusual and arguments one-sided but Davis did not explain why.

Albert Sidney Johnston ranked Lee. Sidney was appointed colonel with a brevet brigadier's star when he stationed in Texas in 1855, with the help of his friend Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War during the Franklin Pierce Administration. At that time, Lee served as a Lieutenant Colonel in Texas. Sidney also held the rank of a true brigadier General in the independent Republic of Texas, before Texas joined the Union. President James Buchanan appointed Sidney Johnston to command an U.S. expedition force to suppress the Mormon's "self-rule" in the Utah territory, in 1857. The solid friendship between Davis and Sidney went back long time starting from the West Point days through the Mexican War. They served together under Gen. Zachary Taylor in 1846, fighting the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista and Sidney Johnston was credited for saving Davis' life. Davis was a loyal friend to Sidney Johnston and knew the later so well that Davis could recognize the sound of his footsteps when Sidney arrived the entrance floor of the Confederate White House from California. "That is Sidney Johnston's footsteps." Davis exclaimed from upstairs without looking down. Davis adored Sidney Johnston and nobody should doubt why Davis made Sidney the highest ranking field commander.

Lee had no personal ambition. He first declined the offer to command the whole Union Army from his mentor Gen. Winfield Scott, through Frank Blair, Sr. The sacrifice is more than an actor giving up an Academy Award, or a scientist giving up a Noble Prize. Lee would do his best to prevent the dissolution of the Union except for honor, except that he could not lay his hand to the sons of Virginia. But for honor, he joined the Confederacy. He served well wherever he was sent, with no complaint and nor protest, no matter how obscure the assignment might be: western Virginia (to "advise" a small command), Georgian and Carolina's coastal defenses (a remote and unglamorous job), Military advisor (a job with no real authority) and finally, field commander. Lee and Davis were good friends and respected greatly each other. Davis also played a role to help the promotion of Lee from Lieutenant Colonel to Colonel in the Old Army in the late 1859, just before the John Brown's raid.

Samuel Cooper, an aide to General Winfield Scott, met Davis in 1837 and became fast friends. They respected each other's integrity and worked well together when Davis took the post of Secretary of War in early 1853. Why did Davis name Cooper, a New Yorker, a number one General? I could speculate some good reasons.

First, Cooper was a staff General and as a number one General, it would make it easier to run the administration of the armies. Secondly, his appointment as a highest rank staff Commander won't interfere the authority of the Field Commanders. Thirdly, since Cooper was very agreeable to Davis, Davis could exercise the control of the armies through Cooper without any problem. Fourth, Cooper was a Northerner turned Southern and a high appointment would attract other Northerners to join the South, with equal opportunity for appointment and promotion. For example, Josiah Gorgas, a Pennsylvanian married South, created the Ordinance Department from nothing, for the Confederacy, and John C. Pemberton, also a Pennsylvanian married South, defended Vicksburg, the last strategic Southern stronghold of the Mississippi river.

Davis considered Joe Johnston the lesser of the two "evils." At least Johnston argued on facts and whereas Beauregard twisted the facts and accused Davis of committing treason. Wow! That made Davis furious! Beauregard also quarreled with Secretary of War Judah Benjamin, who had just replaced Leroy Walker, and quarreled with Lucius Northrop, the head of the Commissary Department. The Creole General furnished information to Charleston Mercury, that Davis had prevented the march to Washington in the battle of Manassas, and Davis opposed any invasion of Maryland's soil. When Beauregard found out he ranked 5th he questioned why? After all, wasn't he nominated to brigadier general in 3/1/1861? Wasn't he the hero of Fort Sumter, the brigadier general who captured the Fort? Wasn't he was the victor of the first great battle in Manassas? What had the other generals done? Shouldn't he hold a higher position with his proven performance and merit? He proposed a grand strategic plan but it was a verbal utterance and not a comprehensive written plan. Beauregard had good ideas. However, his plans were not based on practical realism but on fantasy and grandstanding. Put it politely, Beauregard had high opinion on himself. Beauregard disliked his second-in-command position under Joe Johnston and requested Davis to transfer him to New Orleans.

Davis tried to calm him and wrote "my dear general" letters, but the Creole General didn't have a sense when to stop and kept on attacking Northrop and Benjamin. When Davis finally read the Mercury and learned about the treason accusation, it was the last straw and the intended good relationship was forever ruined. Davis transferred Beauregard to the West. After Shiloh, Davis firmly believed that Sidney Johnston won the battle on the first day, but Beauregard lost it on the second day. When Beauregard took a leave of absence without filing the proper paperwork (AWOL), Davis replaced Beauregard with Braxton Bragg permanently and never recalled Beauregard to any important command. (Davis did appointed Beauregard to the post of Second tier Command in 1864.) Later on, only defensive posts of smaller command, like Charleston, Drewry's Bluff and Petersburg were assigned to him.

Davis was fully aware that Johnston held the rank of a brigadier General because it was Senator Davis himself, in the capacity of Chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee in the Pres. James Buchanan's Administration, selected Joe Johnston from the candidates Sidney Johnston, Lee, Charles F. Smith and Johnston. But that was a staff (quartermaster General) position and not a line (field) position. It won't count. So said Davis. Therefore, Joe Johnston's rank would have reverted back to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and Cooper, Sidney Johnston and Lee would have out-ranked him. Besides, when Lee resigned from the Old Army, Lee was appointed as Commander-in-chief of the Virginia State Military by Government John Letcher, and Joe, a Virginian, who joined the Virginia Military, would rank under Lee, in early 1861. Therefore, Lee outranked Joe in that aspect and also at every point of their prior careers. So claimed Davis. Jefferson Davis also sent Johnston the "my dear general" letter. This incident kept their relationship cool and distant, therefore, Davis would not listen to Johnston's many good suggestions. Later, the relationship deteriorated to such a point that Johnston ceased communicating to Davis on what he intended to do with the Army of Tennessee, and that led to his firing on the eve of the battle of Atlanta. Thus, it led to Hood's defeat and the Confederate army's collapse in the western theater.

However, Johnston could ask Davis by which law that the staff officers were prohibited from exercising that rank over the line officers. The answer would be, by the law of the Old Union Army. But Johnston was not talking about the Old Army anymore. Joe was talking about the new Confederate army. Should the Confederate army follow the (unwritten) law of the Old army or, should it establish its own rule? If we follow Davis' logic, Cooper's colonel rank in the Old Army could be argued as a staff position (adjunct general), and ranked as captain in the line position. By that perspective, Cooper should have ranked 5th below Beauregard, and so Joe and the Creole would have ranked 3rd and 4th respectively, if only Davis applied his rule consistently. Furthermore, the Confederate Congressional act of March 1861 said nothing at all about the difference between staff and line rank in the old service. It only said that "In cases of all officers who have resigned ------ from the Army of the United States, ------ the commissions issued shall bear one and the same date, so that the relative rank of officers of each grade shall be determined by their former commissions in the U.S. Army." Nor did any later legislation on approving the full general grade spoke of such distinctions. Neither did any of the Acts said the intermediate service in a state army in any way would negate nor override the preservation of seniority from the Old Union Army service. Instead, Davis retroactively dated the appointments. Davis interpreted the rules as he saw fit, selectively applying different rules to different persons. Thus, the full General ranking controversy prevented the Confederacy from establishing a united front.

So you see, the issue is not black and white. It is gray, and no pun is intended. I think the reader has to decide for yourself who is right on the controversy. (Source: Credit of this article goes to William C. Davis's biography on Jefferson Davis. The main reference came from this book. I also use other sources.)

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Author and Webmaster, Gordon Kwok

First posted on March 10, 2001
Uploaded on the current server: March 19, 2009