WI: Switch the roles of R. E. Lee and J. E. Johnston in the ACW

Pat Answer

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My knowledge and wisdom is sadly miniscule but I can see one possibility:

When Beauregard goes rogue, Lee inherits Polk and Bragg as senior lieutenants. I’ll let the reader decide whether he is more successful here at getting his command team to cooperate than he was in western Virginia in 1861 - either way he still has no counter for Union naval preponderance and resources for the front to be defended. New Orleans, Corinth, and Memphis fall “on schedule”.
And then J Johnston retreats from Richmond rather than lose his army to McClellan’s methodical siege. Bye, bye Tredagar if nothing else. No way foreign recognition happens at that point and the boost to Northern morale can only be imagined.
Hard to see the war in this timeline lasting anywhere close to 1865…
 
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BillO

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Richmond falls in 1862.
Confederate Congress probably moves back to Montgomery.
Kentucky goes to the south and Cincinnati falls. Then anybody's guess.
 
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With Johnston in Virginia I agree that he would've been more passive and definitely never would've gone north into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Perhaps though he would've been more aggressive in defense of his home state and the capital of the CSA. Also, it's important to note that Johnston will be going up against the likes of McClellan, Pope, and Burnside early on. I think Johnston could have handled them but might have been a bit more hard pressed if Hooker gets command of the army as IOTL.

Thanks again for the responses.
 

Saphroneth

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And then J Johnston retreats from Richmond rather than lose his army to McClellan’s methodical siege. Bye, bye Tredagar if nothing else. No way foreign recognition happens at that point and the boost to Northern morale can only be imagined.
I'm actually not so sure about that, assuming the arrival of reinforcements for the Confederates goes as planned. Johnston was willing to sally for Seven Pines and even to sally on the north bank of the Chickahominy if that was weaker, but the actual weaker bank was the south.

I think the more interesting discussion here is the resource allocation question during the initial response to the Peninsula.
 
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I'm actually not so sure about that, assuming the arrival of reinforcements for the Confederates goes as planned. Johnston was willing to sally for Seven Pines and even to sally on the north bank of the Chickahominy if that was weaker, but the actual weaker bank was the south.

I think the more interesting discussion here is the resource allocation question during the initial response to the Peninsula.
Exactly. I think Johnston could hold on just about as well as Lee did historically. He might even be a bit better off than Lee was as he wouldn't have gone on the offensives into Northern territory that so sapped Lee's army historically.
 

Saphroneth

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So rewinding to mid-March. The situation is that Harpers Ferry has just been reoccupied, fulfilling Lincoln's conditions for the Urbanna plan to go ahead.

What happened historically was that Johnston pulled back and abandoned Centreville, since he was worried about his left flank being turned. Lee may do this or he may not.

Option one. Lee does not pull back from Centreville.

In this case, the Urbanna plan probably goes ahead, depending on if Lincoln tries to kill it with a vote again. If it does not, then instead the Peninsular plan goes ahead.
If Lee has not pulled back from Centreville then Urbanna is strategically devastating. It is essentially three divisions with bridging equipment landing at Urbana, about twenty miles from Fraser's Ferry; if the Union gets to Fraser's Ferry before the Confederates can rush troops there to stop them* then they can cut the Richmond and York, neutralize Yorktown as a garrison (cutting the supply route there) and open up the York for supply ships and gunboats in early April.
* which is basically guaranteed, since historically the alarm was raised 27th March and only a few reinforcement brigades reached the Peninsula in time; here with the alarm being raised only when the amphibious corps actually lands at Urbana then there's big trouble.

If the Peninsula plan goes ahead instead, then all else being equal the arrival of reinforcements on the Peninsula will be later. Lee has to march away from Centreville before he can properly rail more than a couple of brigades away; he might instead try attacking Washington as a diversion, but that's unlikely to work.


Option two. Lee does pull back, but Johnston does not call for a strategic reserve to be made ready.

In this case, again, the arrival of reinforcements on the Peninsula is later.

This might mean very little actually changes, but any possible change is downside for the Confederates.

Option three. The Yorktown siege happens as historical, but when the siege guns open fire Lee does not pull back.

Historically Lee did not want to pull back from Yorktown, but Johnston as the man on the scene overrode Lee in Richmond. If Lee on the scene decides not to pull back once the siege guns destroy the wharves at Yorktown, then what you have the day Johnston historically abandoned Yorktown is a major artillery-led Federal assault of five divisions going in against Yorktown. This is unlikely to result in anything so dramatic as the loss of the Confederate army, but the offensive battle that results is (IMO) likely to do a lot to convince Lincoln that McClellan is "doing things slow but right" instead of being buffoonish.
 

Saphroneth

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Exactly. I think Johnston could hold on just about as well as Lee did historically. He might even be a bit better off than Lee was as he wouldn't have gone on the offensives into Northern territory that so sapped Lee's army historically.
I think Johnston would have been willing to go on the offensive if there was a genuine opportunity to be had, and there were historical opportunities to be had both the times Lee did - it's a matter of Johnston's judgement whether the opportunity is sufficient though.
 
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So rewinding to mid-March. The situation is that Harpers Ferry has just been reoccupied, fulfilling Lincoln's conditions for the Urbanna plan to go ahead.

What happened historically was that Johnston pulled back and abandoned Centreville, since he was worried about his left flank being turned. Lee may do this or he may not.

Option one. Lee does not pull back from Centreville.

In this case, the Urbanna plan probably goes ahead, depending on if Lincoln tries to kill it with a vote again. If it does not, then instead the Peninsular plan goes ahead.
If Lee has not pulled back from Centreville then Urbanna is strategically devastating. It is essentially three divisions with bridging equipment landing at Urbana, about twenty miles from Fraser's Ferry; if the Union gets to Fraser's Ferry before the Confederates can rush troops there to stop them* then they can cut the Richmond and York, neutralize Yorktown as a garrison (cutting the supply route there) and open up the York for supply ships and gunboats in early April.
* which is basically guaranteed, since historically the alarm was raised 27th March and only a few reinforcement brigades reached the Peninsula in time; here with the alarm being raised only when the amphibious corps actually lands at Urbana then there's big trouble.

If the Peninsula plan goes ahead instead, then all else being equal the arrival of reinforcements on the Peninsula will be later. Lee has to march away from Centreville before he can properly rail more than a couple of brigades away; he might instead try attacking Washington as a diversion, but that's unlikely to work.


Option two. Lee does pull back, but Johnston does not call for a strategic reserve to be made ready.

In this case, again, the arrival of reinforcements on the Peninsula is later.

This might mean very little actually changes, but any possible change is downside for the Confederates.

Option three. The Yorktown siege happens as historical, but when the siege guns open fire Lee does not pull back.

Historically Lee did not want to pull back from Yorktown, but Johnston as the man on the scene overrode Lee in Richmond. If Lee on the scene decides not to pull back once the siege guns destroy the wharves at Yorktown, then what you have the day Johnston historically abandoned Yorktown is a major artillery-led Federal assault of five divisions going in against Yorktown. This is unlikely to result in anything so dramatic as the loss of the Confederate army, but the offensive battle that results is (IMO) likely to do a lot to convince Lincoln that McClellan is "doing things slow but right" instead of being buffoonish.
This is interesting, but not really what I was asking. I'm not talking about Lee replacing Johnston in Virginia, I'm talking about Johnston not getting wounded and so staying in command while Lee gets sent out west as Johnston historically did.
 

wausaubob

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I'm actually not so sure about that, assuming the arrival of reinforcements for the Confederates goes as planned. Johnston was willing to sally for Seven Pines and even to sally on the north bank of the Chickahominy if that was weaker, but the actual weaker bank was the south.

I think the more interesting discussion here is the resource allocation question during the initial response to the Peninsula.
Johnston was a counter puncher. He was always looking for a chance to fight an army that was strung out, while his logistics were protected. In the vacinity of Richmond Johnston was as likely as Lee to fight a large decisive battle. Either side might have won at that stage of the US Civil War.
 

Saphroneth

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This is interesting, but not really what I was asking. I'm not talking about Lee replacing Johnston in Virginia, I'm talking about Johnston not getting wounded and so staying in command while Lee gets sent out west as Johnston historically did.
In which case...


The Seven Days is basically dependent on Lee still. This is because it's Lee who decides whether to pull in reinforcements from across the Confederacy; if as many arrive as did historically, then the Seven Days probably go more-or-less as historical. Chaos theory might lead to a different outcome but not one driven by the different commanders, unless Johnston has better command of his army than Lee did (he was still bedding in at the time).


Post-Seven-Days is an interesting question, because a lot of it revolves around Federal decision making and reaction to uncertain intelligence. If Johnston doesn't approve the Cedar Mountain strike then you get Pope's concentrated army facing off against whatever force is up around Gordonsville, which might be quite bad for the Confederates...
 

RedRover

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Some background on the subject From General Longstreet's opinion in his memoirs... Lee was not a Napoleonic commander in his view (more like Wellington)... and only like Napoleon at Waterloo... It was to him Johnston who combined the art and science of war to the greatest possible degree.

General Lee:
1634253322763.png

1634253365275.png


but General Longstreet considered Joe Johnston skilled in both the "science" and "art of war"...

1634253486297.png


And from an 1879 interview explaining more fully his points above...

"Who do you think was the best general on the Southern side of the war?

I am inclined to think that General Joe Johnston was the ablest and most accomplished man that the Confederate armies ever produced. He never had the opportunity accorded to many others, but he showed wonderful power as a tactician and a commander. I do not think that we had his equal for handling an army and conducting a campaign.
General Lee was a great leader—wise, deep and sagacious. His moral influence was something wonderful. But he lost his poise in certain occasions. No one who is acquainted with the facts [thinks] that he would have fought the Battle of Gettysburg had he not been under great excitement, or that he would have ordered the sacrifice of Pickett and his Virginians on the day after the battle [of July 2, 1863]. He said to me afterwards, "Why didn't you stop all that thing that day?"
At the Wilderness, when our lines had been driven in and I was just getting to the field, General Lee put himself at the head of one of my brigades, and leading it into action my men pressed him back, and I said to him that if he would leave my command in my own hands I would reform the lines.
His great soul rose masterful within him when a crisis or disaster threatened. This tended to disturb his admirable equipoise. I loved General Lee as a brother while he lived, and I revere his memory. He was a great man, a born leader, a wise general, but I think Johnston was the most accomplished and capable leader that we had."
 
Joined
Aug 10, 2021
Some background on the subject From General Longstreet's opinion in his memoirs... Lee was not a Napoleonic commander in his view (more like Wellington)... and only like Napoleon at Waterloo... It was to him Johnston who combined the art and science of war to the greatest possible degree.

General Lee:
View attachment 418440
View attachment 418441

but General Longstreet considered Joe Johnston skilled in both the "science" and "art of war"...

View attachment 418442

And from an 1879 interview explaining more fully his points above...

"Who do you think was the best general on the Southern side of the war?
I am inclined to think that General Joe Johnston was the ablest and most accomplished man that the Confederate armies ever produced. He never had the opportunity accorded to many others, but he showed wonderful power as a tactician and a commander. I do not think that we had his equal for handling an army and conducting a campaign.
General Lee was a great leader—wise, deep and sagacious. His moral influence was something wonderful. But he lost his poise in certain occasions. No one who is acquainted with the facts [thinks] that he would have fought the Battle of Gettysburg had he not been under great excitement, or that he would have ordered the sacrifice of Pickett and his Virginians on the day after the battle [of July 2, 1863]. He said to me afterwards, "Why didn't you stop all that thing that day?"
At the Wilderness, when our lines had been driven in and I was just getting to the field, General Lee put himself at the head of one of my brigades, and leading it into action my men pressed him back, and I said to him that if he would leave my command in my own hands I would reform the lines.
His great soul rose masterful within him when a crisis or disaster threatened. This tended to disturb his admirable equipoise. I loved General Lee as a brother while he lived, and I revere his memory. He was a great man, a born leader, a wise general, but I think Johnston was the most accomplished and capable leader that we had."
Wow, this is very interesting. I actually have Longstreet's memoirs but haven't had the pleasure of reading them yet. If I may ask, where'd you find that interview?
 

RedRover

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Wow, this is very interesting. I actually have Longstreet's memoirs but haven't had the pleasure of reading them yet. If I may ask, where'd you find that interview?
The Longstreet interview can be read here:

Historynet: Longstreet, 1879 interview...


Longstreet mentions Johnston's ability to draw his compatriots to risk their lives for him. Philip Dangerfield Stephenson of the Washington Artillery, in his excellent memoir, recalls that at Dalton, GA in the spring of 1864 Gen. Johnston reviewed the Army of Tennessee... that he rode steadily down the lines, etc., and that he looked EVERY man full in the eyes... Duty aside, it was as if a guarantee. After that he says that army could not be conquered so long as Uncle Joe was in charge...
 

Piedone

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Exactly. I think Johnston could hold on just about as well as Lee did historically. He might even be a bit better off than Lee was as he wouldn't have gone on the offensives into Northern territory that so sapped Lee's army historically.
Well...theoretically I would wholeheartedly agree as JJ was a born defender...
but in Virginia his defence of 1862 ended below the steeples of Richmond with McClellan being just one step away from beginning siege operations, a big panic and JJ‘s gloomy prophecy of having to fight a Last Stand.

Please do not misundestand me - I know that the topography in Virginia would be heavily in favour of the very way JJ fought his battles...and I know that in 1862 everyone was green.....
but why could Lee turn away McClellan‘s host - something JJ just couldn‘t do?

ie What makes you so sure that JJ would have been a bit better than Lee?
 

Saphroneth

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So for reference, counting in regiments (consolidating slack companies/batteries into 10 coy regiments) and ignoring the Richmond garrison:

May (Seven Pines):
Union 151
Confederates 138

At this slate of strength Johnston was willing to attack a Union army divided by the Chickahominy.

June (Seven Days):
Union 175
Confederates (with Jackson) 205
Confederates (without Jackson*) 175
* Jackson treated here as Jackson and Ewell only

Jackson's arrival is useful on an operational level as it unzips the Union defences. If Johnston does not call Jackson back to Richmond however then there could be a pretty major difference.


There are three things that create the situation where the Union is forced away from Richmond in the Seven Days. Change any of them and there's no reason to think the Union would be forced away; keep them all the same and there is every reason to.


1) The willingness of the Confederate commander to attack.
Johnston showed this given the right force ratio at Seven Pines (where he attacked on whichever side of the Chickahominy was an easier target, the south side then). There is no reason to think he would not in June with a larger Confederate advantage, as historically existed.

2) The lack of Union reinforcements.
The Union line north of the Chickahominy was solid against a direct sally, but weak against a flanking movement. If the Union gets reinforced by a couple of divisions then the Union line is strong everywhere.

3) The arrival of Jackson.
Jackson unzips the Union line north of the Chickahominy and cuts off the supply base. This is the key movement of the Seven Days battles, and once it has happened then even before any of the fighting the close siege of Richmond has to be abandoned; anything else is the butterfly effect.
 

Saphroneth

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but in Virginia his defence of 1862 ended below the steeples of Richmond with McClellan being just one step away from beginning siege operations, a big panic and JJ‘s gloomy prophecy of having to fight a Last Stand.
Johnston's retreat makes total sense in context, though. He's trying to get a better force ratio.

McClellan's army is ~150 regiments of all arms at the end of the Yorktown siege, and Johnston has about 100 in Yorktown. He pulls bakc towards Richmond once Yorktown is untenable, and over the course of the retreat he gains 35 new ROAA as reinforcements; this combined with how McClellan has to split his army over the Chickahominy generates an opportunity at Seven Pines and Johnston takes it. It goes from attacking an enemy half again your size to being able to attain local superiority.
 
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Well...theoretically I would wholeheartedly agree as JJ was a born defender...
but in Virginia his defence of 1862 ended below the steeples of Richmond with McClellan being just one step away from beginning siege operations, a big panic and JJ‘s gloomy prophecy of having to fight a Last Stand.

Please do not misundestand me - I know that the topography in Virginia would be heavily in favour of the very way JJ fought his battles...and I know that in 1862 everyone was green.....
but why could Lee turn away McClellan‘s host - something JJ just couldn‘t do?

ie What makes you so sure that JJ would have been a bit better than Lee?
I think he was beginning to begin an offensive against McClellan before he was historically wounded and Lee took over and finished the job. I'm not enough of an expert to say if Johnston would have been aggressive enough to pull it off, but I believe he could have.

I only say he would have been better than Lee in that he wouldn't have gone on the offensives into Maryland and Pennsylvania as Lee did IRL. Despite the potential advantages, both invasions were failures, with Gettysburg seriously depleting the ANV. Johnston would almost certainly not go on those offensives and thus would have more manpower than Lee did late in the war.
 

jackt62

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The question posed about switching the roles of Lee and Johnston leads to a broader examination of which military strategy would be most effective in achieving the Confederacy's goal of attaining independence. The more aggressive "offensive defense" of Lee was in contrast with the "fabian" like policy of Johnston. I suppose a case could be made for either, but the important point is that the Davis government could never settle on a consistent and reasoned strategy, whether it be that of Lee, Johnston, or someone else.
 
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