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

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Joseph Johnson is no hero to those of us from Vicksburg. Sending him south was an insult from Jefferson Davis. In my professional opinion the rear guard of Joseph Johnson and the rear guard of Mc Clellan army would have bumped into each other in the Mojave desert from backing away from each other from retreating 😂🤣😂
I feel I should point out that Johnston's relief army at Vicksburg was nowhere near large enough at any point to actually relieve the siege. There just weren't enough troops available, and by the fall of Vicksburg he had between 20,000 and 25,000 men but Grant had got more than that in reinforcements since Champion Hill.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
There is one element of Virginia territory in particular which is highly defensible, and that is the Rapidan. This is because it acts as a kind of "logistical firebreak" - you can't simply advance down the rail lines, because if you pick the western one you have to take the strong position of Rapidan Station (while your flanks are exposed at Culpeper etc.) and if you pick the eastern one then you have to take Fredericksburg. This means that you have to either fight a slugging match in which the defensive has the advantage, or cross by manoeuvre, and if you cross by manoeuvre you more or less have to go through the Wilderness (which puts you on a time limit, you have to regain supply before you run out of food in the Wilderness and the clock is not long, and you can't forage there because it's the Wilderness - which means that simply being able to stop the Union army marching for long enough can compel a withdrawal, as per Hooker)

Once the Union has secure supply south of the Rapidan then they can always outflank Confederate positions between there and Richmond by working around the eastern flank.



What really makes defensible terrain is that your enemy has no good options for circumventing it, though. The Tullahoma movement compels Bragg to fall back dozens of miles - but of course he has those dozens of miles to fall back.
Which raises the question of what happened in the second attempt by the Army of the Potomac to get past the Wilderness? What attempt did the Confederates make to disrupt the US wagon train, and why wasn't it successful?
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Which raises the question of what happened in the second attempt by the Army of the Potomac to get past the Wilderness? What attempt did the Confederates make to disrupt the US wagon train, and why wasn't it successful?
Basically, Lee messed up his deployment. And it's not disrupting the US wagon train, it's disrupting the movement of the whole US army.


This is a rough map of where the Confederate corps were cantoned:

startpos_wild.jpg



The basic issue here is that there isn't one that can "get in the way" of Grant moving to Fredericksburg. They effectively have to do a "stern chase" and catch up to him to hit him in the flank.

Now, even with that in mind, it nearly works. Lee manages to stop up three of the four Union corps behind the Wilderness Run, even though he has to attack, but he can't quite get "ahead" of the Union to block their movement.


A possible alternative deployment would have been:

startpos_wild2.jpg



This is a little weaker to the west, but if Grant does commit to going to the headwaters of the Rapidan then Longstreet can charge through the Wilderness that way and help out (or come cutting in behind them and interdict their supply line, of course).
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Well...I don‘t know....many a general blundered in territory even more suited for defense than Virginia.
Maybe all of us are just concluding that Virginia is that easy to defend because Lee made it look that easy?
The landscape is pretty much wooded - hence one can always steal a march on you....

Fredericksburg is a tough place to take if you can't outflank it. Joe Johnston was out in the West when he heard of Lee's battle there. Johnston's comment of the news of his friend's triumph: "What luck some people have. Nobody will ever attack me in such a place."

Flash forward to 1864 and Johnston is sitting at Kennesaw Mountain when Sherman attacks. I guess he got lucky after all. :smile:

Twenty years or so earlier, the area called The Wilderness was actually well-developed and prosperous. It was a center of iron-mining from about the 1720s onward. This was bog-iron. After the Panic of 1837, British competition (dumping) and new technology (high-temperature coal-fired plants, particularly in Pennsylvania) drove the old bog-iron furnaces out of business. The bog-iron furnaces required a large amount of timber to be cut and burnt to create charcoal for the furnaces, a lot of land that was clear-cut. That required a large workforce, which required lots of farmland to feed the workforce.

When the bog-iron furnaces went broke, the workforce left and then the farmers went. The Wilderness sprang up: a new growth forest featuring brambles, bushes, vines and low trees. Most farms disappeared, along with roads and trails that the few remaining locals didn't use. Only one furnace was in operation in 1860, and that was shut down by the war; most of the young men on the remaining farms went off to the war, so things got worse in 1861-62-63. Moving troops anywhere off the two main roads was generally a nightmare at Chancellorsville and The Wilderness. It did have some advantages for a small army fighting a large one, negating the advantages of size and artillery.

As @Saphroneth says, supplying an Army stationary in The Wilderness would be very difficult. That was the risk Hooker took in the Chancellorsville Campaign when he swung around through the Wilderness with 3 Corps. They are in a risky supply situation until they can connect with Sickles near Chancellorsville (when they can re-connect to some supply across US Ford). Grant/Meade would have been happy to get through The Wilderness without a fight -- but they were also perfectly willing to turn and fight when Lee came after them in The Wilderness. Grant was willing to take risks with supply, but he also knew that in that position he could fall back towards Fredericksburg, securing that crossing and supply route even in defeat.

Fredericksburg and The Wilderness make the Rappahannock a very strong position. Behind it are a series of river positions large and small. As @Saphroneth says, the Rapidan can be a strong one, as can the North Anna, and several smaller rivers provide good delaying positions in a retreat.

Grant's first impulse was to take the riskiest method. He wanted to outflank all the river lines to the West, his right brushing the slope of the Blue Ridge as he marched South, to successively turn them. To do so, he thought of packing ten days food and ammo in the wagons so he could cut loose from his supply line. As you can judge, he intended to fight and win through in those ten days, to re-establish his supply. Lee would either have to come out to fight him or retreat to avoid being cut off from Richmond. (Or, since it is Lee we are talking about, pull a rabbit out of the hat.) It would have been one heck of a campaign to study. :smile:

In the end, Grant chose a different plan.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Grant's first impulse was to take the riskiest method. He wanted to outflank all the river lines to the West, his right brushing the slope of the Blue Ridge as he marched South, to successively turn them. To do so, he thought of packing ten days food and ammo in the wagons so he could cut loose from his supply line. As you can judge, he intended to fight and win through in those ten days, to re-establish his supply. Lee would either have to come out to fight him or retreat to avoid being cut off from Richmond. (Or, since it is Lee we are talking about, pull a rabbit out of the hat.) It would have been one heck of a campaign to study. :smile:
In looking at the possibilities of that plan, I think the really tricky thing is what has to be achieved to establish supply. This is because Grant has three possible ways to reconnect with supply after his movement:


1) Reconnect with the Orange and Alexandria

This involves clearing the rail line from Culpeper down to wherever it is he reconnects with the rail line, such as Gordonsville or Charlottesville, as he can then recieve rail supply there. The main risk here is that he needs that whole rail line to be intact, or as far south as possible, to make it function - if he marches the sixty miles around the headwaters of the Rapidan from Culpeper to Charlottesville, only to discover that Lee has wrecked the rail line through Culpeper county and Charlottesville is 50-60 miles from his rail head, then Grant has no real succor except to march straight back.
This means that Grant can't send his whole force on the outflanking move. He has to defend the rail line through Culpeper, and that will cut down on the force he can send on his flanking move (plus it offers the possibility of Lee defeating him in detail).

This is not insurmountable but it is a possible issue.

2) Get to Fredericksburg/Port Royal and connect to supply there.

This is a long march (I make it ca. 90 miles to Fredericksburg if going around the headwaters of the Rapidan) and it has the same problem as the move through the Wilderness - all Lee has to do is delay Grant for a few days and the prospects of the move get worse over time as the food runs out. Lee can quite readily present a front of two corps which is hard enough that it takes most of a day to deploy the forces to overcome it (down two roads) and every deployment takes time which slows Grant's movement; Grant's "exit route" through Culpeper is his abort button if the campaign goes badly, but this is as vulnerable as in (1) to Lee wrecking the rail line and would need to be defended if Grant wanted to keep that option open.

3) Get to Richmond/the James area.

This is the longest march of all. It's 160-170 miles going via Charlottesville to get to either White House Landing (the head of navigation on the Pamunkey) or Bermuda Hundred, possibly more in the latter case depending on how far upriver you want to cross the James, and at that point you really do need to rely on foraging en route which means dispersal.


It just seems to have the same basic problems as the Wilderness route in all cases (time limit before you regain supply) but with the time limit being stricter and a serious risk of losing your "escape route" (in (1) and (2)) unless you divide your forces.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
In looking at the possibilities of that plan, I think the really tricky thing is what has to be achieved to establish supply. This is because Grant has three possible ways to reconnect with supply after his movement:


1) Reconnect with the Orange and Alexandria

This involves clearing the rail line from Culpeper down to wherever it is he reconnects with the rail line, such as Gordonsville or Charlottesville, as he can then recieve rail supply there. The main risk here is that he needs that whole rail line to be intact, or as far south as possible, to make it function - if he marches the sixty miles around the headwaters of the Rapidan from Culpeper to Charlottesville, only to discover that Lee has wrecked the rail line through Culpeper county and Charlottesville is 50-60 miles from his rail head, then Grant has no real succor except to march straight back.
This means that Grant can't send his whole force on the outflanking move. He has to defend the rail line through Culpeper, and that will cut down on the force he can send on his flanking move (plus it offers the possibility of Lee defeating him in detail).

This is not insurmountable but it is a possible issue.

2) Get to Fredericksburg/Port Royal and connect to supply there.

This is a long march (I make it ca. 90 miles to Fredericksburg if going around the headwaters of the Rapidan) and it has the same problem as the move through the Wilderness - all Lee has to do is delay Grant for a few days and the prospects of the move get worse over time as the food runs out. Lee can quite readily present a front of two corps which is hard enough that it takes most of a day to deploy the forces to overcome it (down two roads) and every deployment takes time which slows Grant's movement; Grant's "exit route" through Culpeper is his abort button if the campaign goes badly, but this is as vulnerable as in (1) to Lee wrecking the rail line and would need to be defended if Grant wanted to keep that option open.

3) Get to Richmond/the James area.

This is the longest march of all. It's 160-170 miles going via Charlottesville to get to either White House Landing (the head of navigation on the Pamunkey) or Bermuda Hundred, possibly more in the latter case depending on how far upriver you want to cross the James, and at that point you really do need to rely on foraging en route which means dispersal.


It just seems to have the same basic problems as the Wilderness route in all cases (time limit before you regain supply) but with the time limit being stricter and a serious risk of losing your "escape route" (in (1) and (2)) unless you divide your forces.
On April 9th, 1864 Grant is at Culpepper C.H., writing his thoughts on the coming Spring campaigns to George Meade. After the parts about Sherman and others, he gets to Meade and the Army of the Potomac:

Lee's army will be your objective point. Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also. The only point upon which I am now in doubt is, whether it will be better to cross the Rapidan above or below him. Each plan presents great advantages over the other with corresponding objections. By crossing above, Lee is cut off from all chance of ignoring Richmond and going north on a raid. But if we take this route, all we do must be done whilst the rations we start with hold out. We separate from Butler so that he cannot be directed how to co-operate. By the other route Brandy Station can be used as a base of supplies until another is secured on the York or James rivers.
These advantages and objections I will talk over with you more fully than I can write them.
Burnside with a force of probably 25,000 men will reinforce you. Immediately upon his arrival, which will be shortly after the 20th inst., I will give him the defence of the road from Bull Run as far south as we wish to hold it. This will enable you to collect all your strength about Brandy Station and to the front. There will be naval co-operation on the James River, and transports and ferries will be provided so that should Lee fall back into his intrenchments at Richmond, Butler's force and yours will be a unit, or at least can be made to act as such. What I would direct then, is that you commence at once reducing baggage to the very lowest possible standard. Two wagons to a regiment of five hundred men is the greatest number that should be allowed, for all baggage, exclusive of subsistence stores and ordnance stores. One wagon to brigade and one to division headquarters is sufficient and about two to corps headquarters.
Should by Lee's right flank be our route, you will want to make arrangements for having supplies of all sorts promptly forwarded to White House on the Pamunkey. Your estimates for this contingency should be made at once. If not wanted there, there is every probability they will be wanted on the James River or elsewhere.
If Lee's left is turned, large provision will have to be made for ordnance stores. I would say not much short of five hundred rounds of infantry ammunition would do. By the other, half the amount would be sufficient.
In his memoirs, Grant says that the supply issues decided which approach they would take:

At this time I was not entirely decided as to whether I should move the Army of the Potomac by the right flank of the enemy, or by his left. Each plan presented advantages. If by his right–my left–the Potomac, Chesapeake Bay and tributaries would furnish us an easy hauling distance of every position the army could occupy from the Rapidan to the James River. But Lee could, if he chose, detach or move his whole army north on a line rather interior to the one I would have to take in following. A movement by his left–our right–would obviate this; but all that was done would have to be done with the supplies and ammunition we started with. All idea of adopting this latter plan was abandoned when the limited quantity of supplies possible to take with us was considered. The country over which we would have to pass was so exhausted of all food or forage that we would be obliged to carry everything with us.
However, later in his memoirs, making comments on what he thought after it was all over, Grant said that if he had experience with the Army of the Potomac before that campaign, had known how good an army it was, he would have been inclined to try his first impulse, to turn Lee's left. That is certainly a risky plan.

On your three options, I can tell you that Grant would have done everything he could to avoid #1. He had a personal trait of hating to re-trace his steps. He would go to great lengths to find another way (including walking completely around the block instead of just turning around to get to his destination).

My guess would be that Grant would have assumed some form of #2. He clearly had given thought to uniting Meade's force with Butler's back in early April, and he was attempting it with Sheridan's raid in May., does it again at the beginning of May June at Cold Harbor, then crosses the James to Petersburg. If he was thinking in terms of your #3, I would guess he would have done it in more than one step.

Any attempt on Lee's left creates difficulties on supply -- but decreases the chance Lee will break free and head North.

Any attempt on Lee's right eases difficulties on supply -- but increases the chance Lee will break free and head North.
 
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Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The biggest risk of the attempt on Lee's left to me seems to be this:


1634721616066.png



Grant's army which crossed the Rapidan, without 9th Corps, was about 120,000 PFD (at the start of May), which is roughly double the strength of Lee's force (66,000 PFD by the same measure). 9th Corps wasn't strictly speaking assigned to the Army of the Potomac and AIUI it was only available as "emergency reinforcements", and was about 20,000 PFD by the same measure.

If Grant attempts the move around Lee's left then either he garrisons Culpeper with significant force or he does not. If he does not garrison Culpeper with significant force then Ewell can go up and wreck the rail line with a short movement, which greatly amplifies Grant's supply problems; if he does do so then the force he has with his moving army is diminished.

Assuming that he gets the go-ahead to use 9th Corps to garrison the Culpeper area and that they (plus whatever other troops he leaves) suffice, then in principle all Grant has to do is fight through the South West Mountains and he can regain supply. He can do this near Orange, or through the passes at Gordonsville, or he can go further south to Charlottesville.

I make it that the shortest of these (Culpeper to Orange via Madison) is about 32 miles but involves going directly over the Rapidan ford at Madison Mills; hooking a bit further to go via Rochelle is 36.
The Gordonsville route is about the same, but Charlottesville is significantly longer at 56. Notably Lee actually has a rail line running directly behind the front formed by the South West Mountains, which means he can make use of interior lines to shift troops much quicker than Grant can; given that it's Lee he might even try a converging attack on Grant from multiple directions while he's in that space, but simply holding tightly to Orange causes Grant major supply difficulties as the rail line comes through Orange.

Depending on how long it takes to reconnect with supply once the rail line is gained, Grant might only have a few days to fight through. Given how long it took to get through at Spotsylvania with a greater amount of force (i.e. he didn't) then it gets quite dubious.


And this has been assuming that Grant finds the forces to garrison Culpeper without cutting into the main army. If Burnside remains nominally assigned to the Fort Fisher expedition (as, I believe, was the case) then he can hardly be moved to Culpeper as garrison, and that means Grant has to cut into the main army for troops...
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Assuming that he gets the go-ahead to use 9th Corps to garrison the Culpeper area and that they (plus whatever other troops he leaves) suffice, then in principle all Grant has to do is fight through the South West Mountains and he can regain supply. He can do this near Orange, or through the passes at Gordonsville, or he can go further south to Charlottesville.

And this has been assuming that Grant finds the forces to garrison Culpeper without cutting into the main army. If Burnside remains nominally assigned to the Fort Fisher expedition (as, I believe, was the case) then he can hardly be moved to Culpeper as garrison, and that means Grant has to cut into the main army for troops...

Please note in my post above this section from Grant's April 9th letter to Meade:

Burnside with a force of probably 25,000 men will reinforce you. Immediately upon his arrival, which will be shortly after the 20th inst., I will give him the defence of the road from Bull Run as far south as we wish to hold it. This will enable you to collect all your strength about Brandy Station and to the front. There will be naval co-operation on the James River, and transports and ferries will be provided so that should Lee fall back into his intrenchments at Richmond, Butler's force and yours will be a unit, or at least can be made to act as such. What I would direct then, is that you commence at once reducing baggage to the very lowest possible standard. Two wagons to a regiment of five hundred men is the greatest number that should be allowed, for all baggage, exclusive of subsistence stores and ordnance stores. One wagon to brigade and one to division headquarters is sufficient and about two to corps headquarters.

Burnside was already being ordered to reinforce Meade on that date, so you should exclude any thought of the Fort Fisher expedition here.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Please note in my post above this section from Grant's April 9th letter to Meade:

Burnside with a force of probably 25,000 men will reinforce you. Immediately upon his arrival, which will be shortly after the 20th inst., I will give him the defence of the road from Bull Run as far south as we wish to hold it. This will enable you to collect all your strength about Brandy Station and to the front. There will be naval co-operation on the James River, and transports and ferries will be provided so that should Lee fall back into his intrenchments at Richmond, Butler's force and yours will be a unit, or at least can be made to act as such. What I would direct then, is that you commence at once reducing baggage to the very lowest possible standard. Two wagons to a regiment of five hundred men is the greatest number that should be allowed, for all baggage, exclusive of subsistence stores and ordnance stores. One wagon to brigade and one to division headquarters is sufficient and about two to corps headquarters.

Burnside was already being ordered to reinforce Meade on that date, so you should exclude any thought of the Fort Fisher expedition here.
He's not committed to either plan, but it does show he has thought out how moving to his left would work. The letter is evidence that he has spoken with Meade and Ingalls. He seems to know that the navy does not have any immediate other commitments.
In dealing with this onslaught, Johnston probably would not have authorized the fight in the Wilderness. Even that is unsure because the second growth forest is so favorable to the Confederates.
Stick with Lee and Johnston, please.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
He's not committed to either plan, but it does show he has thought out how moving to his left would work. The letter is evidence that he has spoken with Meade and Ingalls. He seems to know that the navy does not have any immediate other commitments.
In dealing with this onslaught, Johnston probably would not have authorized the fight in the Wilderness. Even that is unsure because the second growth forest is so favorable to the Confederates.
Stick with Lee and Johnston, please.
Historically speaking when contemplating a defence of the Rapidan, Johnston posted most of his force around Rapidan and had a subordinate force (ca. a corps) around Fredericksburg. This is a pretty good deployment to react to whatever the enemy is intending, and to come in and "bookends" a Union force moving through the Wilderness is tempting.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
Historically speaking when contemplating a defence of the Rapidan, Johnston posted most of his force around Rapidan and had a subordinate force (ca. a corps) around Fredericksburg. This is a pretty good deployment to react to whatever the enemy is intending, and to come in and "bookends" a Union force moving through the Wilderness is tempting.
At this point (mid-March, 1862), McClellan is in Washington and Johnston has just abandoned Centreville. Here is what Johnston was actually saying at the time.

RAPPAHANNOCK BRIDGE, March 15, 1862--10.40 a.m.
Brigadier-General WHITING:
MY DEAR GENERAL: I have just received the dispatches by Captain Randolph, duplicates of which were delivered yesterday by a courier, who bore a brief reply to General Holmes.

The depot at Fredericksburg, unless very small, should be broken up. A point well in rear should be chosen.

It was my intention in falling back to take a line on which the two bodies of troops could readily unite against the body of the enemy operating against either. The Government wishes us to be within reach, also, of the troops on the east and southeast of Richmond. The large force in the valley and the good roads hence to Culpeper Court-House and Gordonsville make it not impossible that McClellan, who seems not to value time especially, may repair this railroad and advance upon both routes, uniting the valley troops with his own. On every account we must be within supporting distance of each other. I can't understand why you should fight with the Rappahannock in your rear. You should, it seems to me, be on its south side. I cannot join you on the north side without crossing at Fredericksburg.

Stuart reported last night the enemy in heavy force at Cedar Run, 12 miles from here. He has made no report this morning. I am waiting for one. Should have moved to-day towards the Rapidan but for the necessity of sustaining him and avoiding the appearance to the men of falling back from the enemy.

I shall cross and be in condition to co-operate with you as soon as this railroad--worse than that at Harper's Ferry--will get off our stores.

Tell General H. not to have a depot at Fredericksburg. Depots should never be on a defensible frontier. Let him attend to that immediately.

Yours, truly,
J. E. JOHNSTON.
-----
RAPPAHANNOCK BRIDGE, March 15, 1862--4 p.m.
General WHITING:
MY DEAR GENERAL: The sentence of mine upon which you wrote the letter brought and delivered to me an hour ago is evidently incomplete, if you quote correctly. In sending you to Fredericksburg it seems to me that I indicated in general such principles as you advocate in your three letters which I have received here. The plan with which I left Manassas was much like that which you proposed a day or two ago. I have been delayed here by anxiety to lose or destroy no more public property and to secure in this rich neighborhood something that otherwise the enemy would get possession of. Perhaps I have been too confident of the slothful condition of our adversaries.
We may be required by the Government to place ourselves within striking distance of the armies of Yorktown and Norfolk. Jackson is compelled to abandon Winchester. He has a very large force in his front. The presence of such a force in front of our left makes it not impossible that this force may be united with the center, and advance, repairing the railroad. We ought, therefore, to be placed so as to be able to unite against the enemy's left upon the Fredericksburg route, or near this route, against his main body. "Ought not to be near Fredericksburg" should have been written "too near," merely as a matter of discipline.
Should a landing be threatened on the south shore of the Rappahannock, a line farther back would be necessary.
Stuart, 2 miles this side of Cedar Run, reports the enemy in force in his front on that stream, with skirmishers deployed on the farther bank, and looking for fords. Jackson, by last accounts, dated yesterday (a mistake probably), was at Strasburg.
I cannot see the merit of a depot of importance at Fredericksburg. I think that I have said this once, but keeping no copies of letters to my friends, I don't know. The depot ought to be emptied forthwith. Tell General Holmes so for me. I am trammeled now by having a reserve supply at Culpeper Court-House; but for it I should have been ere now much nearer to you.
Yours, truly,
J. E. JOHNSTON.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
At this point (mid-March, 1862), McClellan is in Washington and Johnston has just abandoned Centreville. Here is what Johnston was actually saying at the time.
I may be misreading this, but it looks like when Johnston talks about not having a depot at Fredericksburg he's talking in terms of not having a depot there, rather than not having troops there. He specifically refers to the reasoning as not wanting a depot on a defensible frontier, and talks about preferring for Whiting to fight on the south side of the Rappahannock, including stating specifically that that would make it much easier for him to join Whiting.

He talks about having two bodies of troops which can operate in concert against troops advancing "on the Fredericksburg route" (the enemy's left"), or "near this route" (which is around Rappahannock Bridge, where he is talking about moving back to Rapidan once his supplies are evacuated). He also mentions the risk to his rear from a column coming down out of the valley, which would obviously be obviated by moving back to Rapidan as the risk is to Culpeper (that is where the good roads out of Front Royal go).

So it seems that Johnston's plan at this point is the one which he adopted later - to have forces at Fredericksburg and in the area of Culpeper-Orange (i.e. Rapidan), where they could unite in support of one another if needed.

Is there some way I'm misreading that? Because it looks like it conforms with what I was saying.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
I may be misreading this, but it looks like when Johnston talks about not having a depot at Fredericksburg he's talking in terms of not having a depot there, rather than not having troops there. He specifically refers to the reasoning as not wanting a depot on a defensible frontier, and talks about preferring for Whiting to fight on the south side of the Rappahannock, including stating specifically that that would make it much easier for him to join Whiting.

He talks about having two bodies of troops which can operate in concert against troops advancing "on the Fredericksburg route" (the enemy's left"), or "near this route" (which is around Rappahannock Bridge, where he is talking about moving back to Rapidan once his supplies are evacuated). He also mentions the risk to his rear from a column coming down out of the valley, which would obviously be obviated by moving back to Rapidan as the risk is to Culpeper (that is where the good roads out of Front Royal go).

So it seems that Johnston's plan at this point is the one which he adopted later - to have forces at Fredericksburg and in the area of Culpeper-Orange (i.e. Rapidan), where they could unite in support of one another if needed.

Is there some way I'm misreading that? Because it looks like it conforms with what I was saying.
Johnston was having a lot of logistics-related problems as he retreats from Centreville. He had way too much supply up there in a forward depot, a lot of which had to be abandoned/destroyed as he retreated. In his writings about this time, he is trying to get the depot that has been established at Fredericksburg moved back, away from what he suddenly sees as the front line -- and he is not aware if there really is a depot in Fredericksburg, or how big it is . Johnston is commonly criticized for this type of unpreparedness (lack of forethought and planning for events that should have been foreseen). Reading Johnston's letters, he seems to feel it was the fault of other people in Richmond, or due to the lack of efficient staff officers in his command.

On the positioning, certainly Johnston wants to unite the two parts of his army if McClellan advances on him. I do not think you are missing that part; just about any general would want to do that. The part you are not considering is where Johnston spells out the other major concern behind his positioning:
"The Government wishes us to be within reach, also, of the troops on the east and southeast of Richmond."
Johnston has already been in discussions with Davis/Lee about the threat down in the Peninsula and the need to be ready to move a large number of troops there if the Yankees move in that direction. As a result, he needs his troops to be where they can move fast in an emergency -- on the RRs.

On the Wilderness -- Johnston is not showing any concern about or plans for the Wilderness. He is talking about the end-points of the Rappahannock line. He has Holmes/Whiting by Fredericksburg, and he has Ewell at Rappahannock Bridge, with most of the rest back at Gordonsville. IMHO, Johnston would have been astounded by the idea of McClellan coming through the Wilderness.
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
The part you are not considering is where Johnston spells out the other major concern behind his positioning:
"The Government wishes us to be within reach, also, of the troops on the east and southeast of Richmond."Johnston has already been in discussions with Davis/Lee about the threat down in the Peninsula and the need to be ready to move a large number of troops there if the Yankees move in that direction. As a result, he needs his troops to be where they can move fast in an emergency -- on the RRs.

On the Wilderness -- Johnston is not showing any concern about or plans for the Wilderness. He is talking about the end-points of the Rappahannock line. He has Holmes/Whiting by Fredericksburg, and he has Ewell at Rappahannock Bridge, with most of the rest back at Gordonsville. IMHO, Johnston would have been astounded by the idea of McClellan coming through the Wilderness.
But the question at issue is how to defend the line of the Rapidan, and how Johnston would want to defend the line of the Rapidan if he were faced with the same puzzle. By being on the railways he can move his troops quickly according to need, sure, but does that actually influence his deployment in such a way that he would deploy differently in Lee's place? It's not like the risk of a Peninsular resumption would ever go away.

And yes, I'm aware that Johnston is talking about the ends of the line, but if his enemy does come through the Wilderness then it happens that the Fredericksburg-Rapidan deployment is a good one to deal with that. (I say Fredericksburg-Rapidan because Johnston notes that I am trammeled now by having a reserve supply at Culpeper Court-House; but for it I should have been ere now much nearer to you. which means he'd be closer to Whiting except for the need of having to ship off his reserve supply at Culpeper, and he moves down to Gordonsville later.)
If an enemy (not just McClellan but Hooker 1863 or Grant 1864) comes through the Wilderness, then converging on an enemy in the Wilderness from both sides of it is a good way to slow and stop them. You end up like this:


1634829077328.png


Which is to say, to regain supply the Union force has to actively overcome a blocking force (from Fredericksburg) as well as doing what Grant did in the Overland (i.e. fend off attacks from the direction of Orange Court House to allow him to proceed). It's a similar situation to the one which stymied Hooker at Chancellorsville.

Johnston was explicitly speaking in terms of combining his forces south of the Rappahannock/Rapidan against an enemy, so both his forces would be ready to march in the direction of the other (meaning through the Wilderness, in fact); even if surprised by an enemy choosing to go through the Wilderness, all it really means once he discerns the direction of march is that his forces can actually combine sooner than they would otherwise. (Neither force has to march the whole distance from Fredericksburg to Rapidan.)

Consequently, even if by accident, the deployment scheme which Johnston selected in March 1862 is a good one for defending the line of the Rapidan against a move down the Orange and Alexandria, or the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac, or through the Wilderness. This leads me to believe that he would not significantly mis-deploy if defending that same line in later 1862, 1863 or 1864, and that he may if anything do better than 1864 Lee (all else being equal).
 
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67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
Johnston did not give up Fairfax Ct House etc., but kept Ewell's division at Rappahannock Station to prevent the Federals bridging the Rappahannock there. The Federals would not even be able to reach the Rappahannock fords into the Wilderness without another river crossing battle first. Dispositions in mid-March were roughly:

Rapidan March 1862.png
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
Right, so effectively Johnston was using a forward defence where he could retire behind the Rapidan if pressed, thus meaning that a Union offensive not directly aimed at Fredericksburg would have to be two-stage (that is, first getting over the Rappahannock and then being able to get over the Rapidan).

It looks like Lee pulled back from the Rappahannock to the Rapidan after Gettysburg, after initially facing Meade across the Rappahannock after that battle. In that light the first-stage could be said to be September 1863, and a necessary precondition for the 1864 Overland...
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
Right, so effectively Johnston was using a forward defence where he could retire behind the Rapidan if pressed, thus meaning that a Union offensive not directly aimed at Fredericksburg would have to be two-stage (that is, first getting over the Rappahannock and then being able to get over the Rapidan).

It looks like Lee pulled back from the Rappahannock to the Rapidan after Gettysburg, after initially facing Meade across the Rappahannock after that battle. In that light the first-stage could be said to be September 1863, and a necessary precondition for the 1864 Overland...
One of many preconditions, including all that territory McClellan gained ...
 

Saphroneth

Major
Joined
Feb 18, 2017
One of many preconditions, including all that territory McClellan gained ...
Indeed, though more interesting to me at the moment is the rail line repair. It's the sort of constraint that is more likely to turn up in the West, where there's many months between significant offences because of the need to set things up logistically (I'm thinking here of the months between Stones River and the Tullahoma movement).
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
But the question at issue is how to defend the line of the Rapidan, and how Johnston would want to defend the line of the Rapidan if he were faced with the same puzzle. By being on the railways he can move his troops quickly according to need, sure, but does that actually influence his deployment in such a way that he would deploy differently in Lee's place? It's not like the risk of a Peninsular resumption would ever go away.
Johnston has explicit knowledge of Jefferson Davis' instructions. He has been advised that he must hold his troops ready for a quick move to reinforce the troops in the Peninsula and around Norfolk in the event that the Yankees are moving in that direction. Lee actually wants part of Johnston's army sent down to Richmond to put them in a more central position for re-deployment, whether to Yorktown/Norfolk or back to Johnston once they know which way the Yankees will advance.

So however he wants to deploy his troops, Johnston must do it in accord with the advice he has from President Davis, his commander-in-chief. If Johnston can find a deployment that works for both needs, fine and good -- but to see what Johnston is doing you must calculate based on the requirements he has in place. If necessary, he must compromise between his instructions and his own ideas.

You should also look at the date of those letters I posted: March 15, 1862.

Johnston has withdrawn from his positions close to Washington and McClellan has just abandoned his Urbana Plan. Johnston is in the midst of a great many logistical and operational problems simply moving his troops back to the Rappahannock. He has unarmed men in his command, he has just abandoned or destroyed many supplies, he is under a bit of criticism for all that. The Battle of Hampton Roads has just been fought, drawing all eyes to the Monitor and the Virginia ironclads. Johnston himself is trying to forage everything he can from the Virginia countryside to leave nothing behind for the Yankees (more instructions from Davis in addition to Johnston's own ideas and needs) while supplying his own troops. McClellan, meanwhile, has abandoned the Urbana plan and is now rushing to get off to the Peninsula (March 17).

Johnston on the 15th is talking about all that, plus the surprisingly large force moving on Jackson in the Shenandoah. He is wondering why McClellan has been so incredibly slow in pursuit of his withdrawal -- and what that might mean. Like everyone else, he has an eye out to see what all the action at Hampton Roads will mean and if McClellan is about to ship his army down to the Peninsula. He is planning for many things, and you are working as if he is only thinking of one.
 

trice

Colonel
Joined
May 2, 2006
And yes, I'm aware that Johnston is talking about the ends of the line, but if his enemy does come through the Wilderness then it happens that the Fredericksburg-Rapidan deployment is a good one to deal with that. (I say Fredericksburg-Rapidan because Johnston notes that I am trammeled now by having a reserve supply at Culpeper Court-House; but for it I should have been ere now much nearer to you. which means he'd be closer to Whiting except for the need of having to ship off his reserve supply at Culpeper, and he moves down to Gordonsville later.)
If an enemy (not just McClellan but Hooker 1863 or Grant 1864) comes through the Wilderness, then converging on an enemy in the Wilderness from both sides of it is a good way to slow and stop them. You end up like this:


View attachment 419082

Which is to say, to regain supply the Union force has to actively overcome a blocking force (from Fredericksburg) as well as doing what Grant did in the Overland (i.e. fend off attacks from the direction of Orange Court House to allow him to proceed). It's a similar situation to the one which stymied Hooker at Chancellorsville.
How did you get McClellan's army to this starting position in, say, late March of 1862?

As @67th Tigers mentions, to get here McClellan had to get across the Rappahannock, which Ewell is defending on March 15th at Rappahannock Bridge. Has Ewell been smashed or destroyed? Has Johnston abandoned the Rappahannock before this by pulling Ewell back to avoid losses? Has Johnston already moved up to fight McClellan and been defeated or forced back with casualties? If any of that is true, why do you have Johnston coming from Orange C.H. -- has Johnston already abandoned everything north of the Rapidan? If Johnston has fallen back to Orange C.H., why hasn't McClellan (with a much larger army) pursued him?

If McClellan is coming this way immediately after Johnston's withdrawal, then McClellan has all four of his Corps (120,000 men?) and Johnston has what, 40,000 or a bit more? If you want to postulate Jackson has left the Shenandoah to join Johnston, has Banks also crossed the Blue Ridge to join McClellan?

Is McClellan also threatening Fredericksburg with 1 Corps while moving across the Rappahannock at Rappahannock Bridge with the other three? If so, how much of a "blocking force" can Holmes/Whiting contribute?

If McClellan is coming across the Rappahannock with all four Corps concentrated, why doesn't he just keep pressing Johnston and crush his main body?

If McClellan wants to go through the Wilderness, why not send 1 or 2 Corps toward Fredericksburg and use the other 2-3 to push Johnston away from there? Why not send 1 against Fredericksburg, detach 1 to go through the Wilderness, and use the other 2 to pressure/contain Johnston's main body?

There are obviously supply issues to consider here, but Johnston's army was terribly short of transport and overburdened with superfluous baggage. McClellan's troops were better equipped and supported. I am not sure either would have had much of an advantage on supply.

No need to answer those point-by-point. This is all just to say that if McClellan advances aggressively in late March, Johnston does not have an awful lot to stop him with and a broad front to cover. Even if you get to the starting position you have here, Johnston still has about 40,000 men against McClellan with 100,000+. The Wilderness is a pain to maneuver in -- but with those numbers McClellan can simply bull his way through.
 
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