Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to Maj. Gen. Robert E. Lee, Asking for Clarification of the Role of His Command

18 12 2020



O. R. – Series I – VOLUME 2 [S #2] CHAPTER IX, pp. 907-908

Harper’s Ferry, Va., June 6,1861.

General R. E. Lee,
Commander-in-chief, Richmond, Va.:

General: I had the honor to receive your letter of the 3d instant by the last mail. My object in writing each of the several communications in relation to this command was to ascertain exactly the manner in which the Government wishes it to be used, no instructions having been given to me. Do these troops constitute a garrison or a corps of observation ? If the former (which your letter of the 3d implies somewhat), it is to be considered that our only defensible position has a front of nearly two miles; that the supply of ammunition is not more than sufficient to repel one vigorous assault, and that the position could not then be evacuated, as the enemy would be nearer than ourselves to the only line of retreat—that through Loudoun. If as a corps of observation, it will have a task which the best troops would find difficult, for the enemy north of us can find crossing places too numerous for this force even to observe, and, while watching them, it is likely to be cut off by the troops from Ohio, who you know are commanded by a man of great ability. The operations of these troops and those from Pennsylvania will no doubt be combined. A retreat from the presence of an enemy is the most difficult of military operations to the best troops. To very new ones it is impossible. It would very soon become a flight.

You say that “the abandonment of Harper’s Ferry would be depressing to the cause of the South.” Would not the loss of five or six thousand men be more so ? And, if they remain here, they must be captured or destroyed very soon after General McClellan’s arrival in the valley. Might it not be better (after the troops here have delayed the enemy as long by their presence as they prudently can) to transfer them to some point where they may still be useful?

We have, according to the statement of the Master of Ordnance, about forty rounds of ammunition, besides eighty-two thousand five hundred cartridges, just received, which makes an addition of about four rounds, as there are with them but twenty-two thousand five hundred caps.

Notice of the arrival of the Tennessee regiment in Winchester is just received. The colonel informs me that they are without percussion caps.

Our troops are not equipped for a campaign. More than two regiments are without cartridge-boxes. Most of them having traveled by railroad, use trunks and valises, instead of knapsacks, and few are provided with shoes fit for marching.

With money I could have obtained more caps probably. I have not thought it worth while to provide a supply of provisions out of proportion to that of ammunition.

I offer these opinions for what they are worth, thinking it my duty to present them to you, and being anxious to conform closely to whatever general plan of operations has been determined upon. I beg you, therefore, to let me understand my position.

Most respectfully, your obedient servant,

Brigadier-General, C. S. Army.



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