Jefferson Davis’s “Unsent” Message to Congress

ECW welcomes back guest author Greg Thiele

Jefferson Davis was particularly sensitive where his authority was concerned. He possessed an unshakeable belief in his own judgment and never hesitated to make sure others knew when he was right. Davis could be unbending and was not given to compromise. An incident which occurred during the last months of the Civil War illustrates Davis’s quirks as both a man and leader.

By late 1864, it was apparent to virtually everyone – North and South – that the war was going very poorly for the Confederates.  Union armies won a series of battlefield victories from August to October 1864. These military successes ensured Abraham Lincoln’s reelection as president. Lincoln’s reelection extinguished Southern hopes of a negotiated end to the war which would include Confederate independence.

Union victories continued as 1864 ended and 1865 began. Union general William T. Sherman’s armies rampaged through Georgia to the Atlantic coast and turned northward to exact revenge on South Carolina (the first state to secede in 1860). U. S. Grant directed Union armies which slowly cut the lines of supply feeding Richmond, the Confederate capital. In a desperate gamble, John Bell Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee invaded the state which gave the army its name, but was routed at Nashville in mid-December 1864.

As the flotsam of Hood’s defeated army drifted south, James Phelan, Jefferson Davis’s friend and former Confederate senator from Mississippi, reported his observations to Davis. Writing from Meridian, Mississippi, on 17 January 1865, Phelan painted a depressing picture of the army’s current state. Phelan believed the army’s “spirit and morale are gone” and “All – all – agree that the Army is a mere mob without spirit but that of a mutinous anger, and without hope or care for the future.” Phelan recommended that Davis appoint Joseph E. Johnston as army commander. According to Phelan, the troops believed in Johnston and only Johnston could restore the army’s temper and again make them ready to fight.[1]

Jefferson Davis

Phelan knew this was not welcome news to Davis. Davis and Johnston had quarreled at various points during the war, but their break had become final and public after Vicksburg fell in July 1863. At the time, Johnston had been the Western Department commander and had not acted energetically as Union forces besieged Vicksburg. Davis blamed Johnston for the loss of the fortress and the army trapped within.

Believing he had no other options and against his better judgment, Davis placed Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee to defend Atlanta for the 1864 Spring campaign.  Johnston retreated before Sherman’s larger Federal force to the outskirts of Atlanta. Pressed to reveal his plans to defend the city, Johnston demurred; in mid-July 1864, Davis sacked him.  John Bell Hood replaced Johnston and fought several furious battles, but was unable to hold Atlanta. Johnston, meanwhile, remained in limbo.

Important events transpired in early 1865 during the month it took for Phelan’s letter to make its way to Davis in Richmond. Throughout the war, Davis had resisted the appointment of a Confederate general-in-chief with real authority. Davis viewed the exercise of military command as a constitutionally protected part of his duties as president. Ever sensitive to any trespass on his authority, Davis guarded his prerogatives jealously and steadfastly refused to consider appointing a general-in-chief with any real power.

The decline of Confederate fortunes in late 1864 and early 1865 changed things. The restive Confederate Congress called upon Davis to make Robert E. Lee general-in-chief and place Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee.[2] In early February 1865, Davis bowed to the pressure and appointed Lee as general-in-chief.[3] Soon thereafter, Lee requested Johnston’s assignment as commander of the Army of Tennessee.[4]

Davis received Phelan’s letter in late February 1865. His response is interesting. Rather than simply inform Phelan that events had anticipated his letter and that Johnston had already been placed in command, Davis sent Phelan a copy of a long and detailed message he had prepared in response to the congressional request for Johnston to be given a command. This message rehashed virtually every point which had caused Davis to doubt Johnston’s fitness and capacity for command. Davis charged Johnston with evacuating Harper’s Ferry prematurely in 1861 and continued with criticism of Johnston’s conduct of the defense of Richmond in 1862, inability to relieve Vicksburg in 1863, and failure to fight for Atlanta in 1864.  Davis’s final judgment was damning, “My opinion of General Johnston’s unfitness for command has ripened slowly and against my inclinations into a conviction so settled that it would be impossible for me again to feel confidence in him as the commander of an army in the field.”[5]

Davis decided against forwarding the message to Congress – probably because it would have precipitated further attacks against him at a time when unity was essential – Davis was happy to send it to Phelan. Why? What could Davis have hoped to gain? Davis is silent on this in his covering letter to Phelan, but it is possible to speculate.

Davis may have hoped to gain an advantage over his political rivals in Congress. He did not want Johnston to receive another command and had been forced to accede to this. Phelan could be expected to show this remarkable document to friends sympathetic to Davis. If Johnston performed poorly, as Davis expected, the message identifying Johnston’s faults and errors of judgment would be proof that the responsibility rested with the Congress which had demanded Johnston’s appointment and not with Davis. Unfortunately for Davis, the war ended several weeks after he responded to Phelan. Davis was denied the opportunity to show his opponents that he understood Johnston’s shortcomings as a general and they did not.

While we do not know how Phelan handled the message, Johnston was made aware of the message’s existence shortly after the war’s end. He did not see a copy of the message, but he was apprised of its contents by several friends who had read it. Johnston believed the message had “been exhibited freely.”[6] He responded to Davis’ criticisms in a lengthy chapter in his 1874 memoirs.  Johnston provided a point-by-point rebuttal. As to his failure to save Vicksburg, Johnston claimed he did not have sufficient troops and placed the blame squarely on Davis, “These disasters were caused by the hesitation of the Government to reinforce the Army of the Mississippi.”[7] At Atlanta, Davis relieved Johnston because Johnston provided no indication he had a plan to defend the city. Davis concluded that Johnston would ultimately surrender Atlanta without a fight so he replaced him with Hood. Johnston claimed he planned to attack the Union army as it approached Atlanta, but he was relieved before he could do so.[8]

Jefferson Davis’s handling of his undelivered message to Congress illustrates some of his worst traits. At a time when Confederate fortunes were failing, he took the time to leak a document the purpose of which could only have been to embarrass his political opponents.  Such an action can only be described as petty. Davis demonstrated that when it came to his enemies, among whom one could count Joseph E. Johnston, he would forget nothing and forgive nothing. Davis’s antipathy for Johnston brought out his worst characteristics.

Greg Thiele is a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. He commanded infantry units up to battalion level.


[1]      James Phelan, Letter to Jefferson Davis 17 January 1865, The Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

[2]      United States, War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1894), Series I, Part 2, 47: 1304.  Davis’ message.  Hereafter cited as O. R.

[3]      O. R., Series I, Part 2, 46: 1205.

[4]      O. R., Series I, Part 2, 47: 1247.

[5]     O. R., Series I, Part 2, 47: 1311.

[6]      Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874; reprint, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959), 431.  Hereafter referred to as Narrative.

[7]     Narrative, 454.

[8]     Narrative, 350-1.  In the chapter dedicated to replying to Davis’s unsent message, Johnston claims he “was never questioned as to my ability to hold Atlanta” (Narrative, 459), but he is silent regarding his plans to attack the Union army.  Johnston’s statement that he was seeking an opportunity to strike the Federals when he was relieved is contained in the body of his memoirs.

4 Responses to Jefferson Davis’s “Unsent” Message to Congress

  1. The Johnston-Davis relationship and Davis’ personality have been well-discussed. But there was a complex set of local circumstances from the Confederate point of view regarding Vicksburg which neither Johnston nor Davis could have remedied. There are some good comments on this and I’m going to copy over one of them for another reason; because it points out a key problem for Vicksburg and perhaps the reason that Johnston wouldn’t relay his specific plans re Atlanta to Davis – the likelihood of interception. I have never seen anyone mention this but it jumps out from the following remark. To be clear, Johnston planned to lure in Sherman and attack from behind a well-defended postition rather than wasting any more troops in open confrontations. Here’s the comment: “Both Pemberton and Johnston were outnumbered by Grant’s forces (sorry, I don’t have the numbers at hand right now). Their only hope of succeeding in an attack was a coordinated effort. This applies to any break-out attempt by Pemberton, as well.

    But communications between Johnston and Pemberton were problematic, as the Grant’s army was between them. Union pickets and cavalry were on the lookout for any attempt at communication between the forces, and a good number of messages were intercepted. Remember that a messenger from Johnston had to not only sneak through the Union lines, but also into the Confederate lines at Vicksburg – a very dangerous proposition as any movement in the “no man’s zone” was likely to be a magnet for fire from the sentries of both sides.

    Add to that the problem that one of the regular Confederate couriers was a turncoat who immediately turned over messages to Grant’s headquarters. Grant knew the content of the messages considerably sooner than either Johnston or Pemberton.

    In his autobiography, Grant dismisses any thought of danger posed by Johnston. He simply said he had adequate resources to deal with Johnston if necessary, and didn’t discuss it further.”

    My apologies to the commenter; I didn’t copy his name and can’t get back to the comment to pick it up. It’s not far down in the thread.

  2. Thank you for this interesting article and for your reflections about Davis and Lee. Neither had the largeness and maturity of character to adequately perform their roles. I’ve concluded too that Johnston was simply deceptive and dishonest about his intentions when he held command.

  3. Davis often had a Nero fiddles while Rome burns quality about him, composing lengthy missives on points of Constitutional nicety when he should have been conserving his energy for more significant matters. As far as Johnston, he lied so often he came to believe it himself.

  4. The hatred in the Davis-Johnston relationship apparently went both ways. For example, diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut, speaking of Johnston opined, “His hatred of Jeff Davis amounts to a religion. With him it colors all things.” Jefferson Davis and His Generals, p. 258, n. 18, quoting Chestnut’s A Diary From Dixie (Ed. Ben Ames Williams, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA 1905). Wholly apart from their interaction before 1865 and how it affected the ongoing conflict, it is interesting to speculate how the Civil War might have ended if Davis and Johnston had enjoyed a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Johnston was the last field commander with whom Davis could directly interact after Lee’s surrender. In the vicinity of Bennet Farm, NC in mid to late April, 1865, Davis tried to persuade Johnston to continue the fight. At the time, Johnston had as many as 35,000 troops under his direct command, with almost 90,000 total in his entire department (albeit heavily outnumbered by U.S. troops). Rather than cooperating with Davis, Johnston disobeyed orders and negotiated with William T. Sherman to surrender the entire Confederate nation. When that tentative deal fell apart (Andrew Johnson & Cabinet rejected the terms), Johnston again disobeyed Davis’ orders to try and escape to continue the fight and instead promptly surrendered both his field army and department. While certainly defensible from a moral standpoint – the desire to end the bloodshed – Johnston’s actions flew in the face of civilian control of the military, and could be characterized as treason (to the CSA). Was Johnston simply doing what he felt was morally right, and what common sense dictated, or was his conduct influenced in any way by a hatred of Davis?

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