150 Years Ago This Week: Joseph E. Johnston takes command

December, 1863

John A. Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, submitted his annual report to President Jefferson Davis on Saturday, Dec. 11. In it, he admitted serious military defeats, especially in Mississippi, and reduced military effectiveness because of desertion, straggling and absenteeism. Mr. Seddon recommended repeal of the substitute and exemption provisions of the draft law in the Confederate States.

In Washington, there was some indignation on Dec. 13, when Mrs. Mary Lincoln’s half-sister, Emily Todd Helm, visited the Executive Mansion. She was the widow of Confederate Maj. Gen. Ben Hardin Helm, killed in action at Chickamauga. The president granted Mrs. Helm amnesty after she swore allegiance to the United States, as provided by a presidential proclamation given on Dec. 8.

The local press the following day condemned the president and his wife for allowing “a Rebel into the White House.” It was a classic example of how the nation and families were torn apart by the war. In Virginia, on Dec. 15, Confederate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early was assigned to the Shenandoah Valley District, paving the way for what would become the 1864 Valley Campaign.

The Confederate Army announced some major command changes on Wednesday, Dec. 16. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was named commander of the Army of Tennessee, succeeding Lt. Gen. William Hardee, who had temporarily commanded the army after Gen. Braxton Bragg resigned. Gen. Leonidas Polk was placed in command of the Army of Mississippi.

Gen. Johnston and President Davis had a long history of serious differences, but the Confederate president had little choice, and most Confederates favored Gen. Johnston’s appointment. Gen. Johnston was at his headquarters at Brandon, Miss., east of Jackson, when he was ordered to his new headquarters at Dalton, Ga., leaving his forces in Gen. Polk’s charge.

In Washington, Brig. Gen. John Buford, who had performed spectacularly at Brandy Station in June and at Gettysburg in July, was named a major general only a few hours before his death of typhoid on Dec. 16. At Yorktown, Va., a million-dollar fire destroyed a regimental hospital, arsenal and a bakery.

On Thursday, Dec. 17, President Lincoln submitted to Congress a plan by the Freedman’s Aid Society to set up the Federal Bureau of Emancipation to assist freed blacks; nothing was to come of it until the Freedman’s Bureau was established in March 1865.

The following day, President Lincoln sent a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, urging that Brig. Gen. John Schofield be replaced by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans. For quite some time, Mr. Lincoln had been disturbed over relations between the Missouri state government and the military under Gen. Schofield. The president said he believed that Gen. Schofield should be relieved from command of the Department of Missouri, yet suggested that he be promoted to major general.

In view of “this decisive crisis in the national affairs,” the Richmond Dispatch called for postponement of minor differences and criticisms of the Confederate government. In the Army of Northern Virginia, chaplains of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army met at Orange Courthouse to discuss the “high state of religious feeling throughout the army.”

There was no question that a wave of religious fervor made its appearance, not only in the Confederate army in Virginia, but in Gen. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee as well. There were large prayer and gospel meetings held each night, and thousands of baptisms in local streams and rivers.

This wave of religious fervor was to last throughout most of the winter of 1863-1864, and with good reason: The fighting through the North and South continued unabated each day, with hundreds of minor skirmishes, military expeditions and cavalry raids in almost every state where the armies were posted. Each soldier, facing the uncertainty of death each day from bullets and disease, wanted to make himself right and at peace with his God.

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