Brig. Gen. Samuel Cooper to Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston on Operational Options

22 12 2020



O. R. – Series I – VOLUME 2 [S #2] CHAPTER IX, pp. 923-925

Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office,
Richmond, June 13, 1861.

Gen. Joseph E. Johnston,
Commanding, &c., Harper’s Ferry, Va.:

General: The opinions expressed by Major Whiting in his letter to you, and on which you have indorsed your concurrence, have been duly considered. You had been heretofore instructed to exercise your discretion as to retiring from your position at Harper’s Ferry and taking the field to check the advance of the enemy. It is to be inferred from the papers now transmitted that you have considered the authority given as not equal to the necessity of the case—that you must needs retire before the enemy was present, or otherwise that you would be unable to avoid capture, and would not be permitted to fight in retreat. In all the directions which have been given to you you will not have failed to perceive that, relying equally on your sound judgment and soldierly qualifications, it was intended that you should judge of the necessities of your condition and of the means best adapted to answer the general purpose of the campaign. As the movements of the enemy could not be foreseen, so it was impossible to give you specific directions, and the cause of the country could only be confided to one who, like yourself, was deemed entirely competent to decide upon events as they arose.

We have no reliable information that the enemy is at Cumberland, and had hoped that he could not so soon be able to reach that point. We had not anticipated that he could turn your position without your being apprised of it in time to make your movements conform to that fact. As you seem to desire, however, that the responsibility of your retirement should be assumed here, and as no reluctance is felt to bear any burden which the public interests require, you will consider yourself authorized, whenever the position of the enemy shall convince you that he is about to turn your position and thus deprive the country of the use of yourself and the troops under your command, to destroy everything at Harper’s Ferry—the bridge across the Potomac, platforms, and trestle work included—which could serve the purpose of the enemy, and retire upon the railroad towards Winchester, carrying with you all the rolling stock and destroying the road behind you. Should the people of Winchester and the surrounding valley rally to your aid in such numbers as to enable you to resume active operations, you will avail yourself of the first opportunity to attack the enemy, and endeavor to drive him from his purpose of invasion, and to do as much else as possible. The ineffective portion of your command, together with the baggage and whatever else would impede your operations in the field, it would be well to send without delay to the Manassas road.

Should you not be sustained by the population of the valley, so as to enable you to turn upon the enemy before reaching Winchester, you will continue slowly to retire to the Manassas road, upon some of the passes on which it is hoped you will be able to make an effective stand even against a very superior force. To this end it might be well to send your engineer to make a reconnaissance and to construct such temporary works as may be useful and proper.

The position of Harper’s Ferry, as has been heretofore stated, is deemed valuable because of its relation to Maryland and as the entrance to the valley of Virginia, the possession of which by the enemy will separate the eastern and western sections of the State from each other, deprive us of the agricultural resources of that fertile region, and bring in its train political consequences which it is well believed you cannot contemplate without the most painful emotions. If, therefore, much reluctance has been exhibited to a retirement from your position, you will not fail to appreciate the motives which have led to it. Should you move so far as to make a junction with General Beauregard, the enemy would be free immediately to occupy the valley of Virginia and to pass to the rear of Manassas Junction; so that, unless the proposed attack upon Alexandria should be prompt and successful, you would soon be cut off both from re-enforcements and supplies until an army could be sent large enough to defeat that before which you had retired, and you know too well our condition to render it necessary that you should be informed that this could hardly be done before the enemy could make a conjoint attack upon you by his armies both front and rear. Troops are now coming forward from the Southern States, and it is to be expected that within a week General Beauregard’s position may be re-enforced by troops equal in number to that which is reported as the effective portion of your command. If you have until then covered the valley of Virginia, General Beauregard may thus with more probable success advance upon Alexandria than by the junction of your command with his by surrendering the valley of Virginia to the enemy. It is not expected that you will believe that mere numbers will give you strength, yet it is hoped that the people fighting for their homes and their liberties, with even a small number of instructed troops, may enable you to operate successfully against such forces as are opposed to you; and it is but justice to add that the greatest confidence is placed upon your capacity to inspire others with the soldierly qualities you have so often exhibited, and that the most unlimited confidence is reposed in you both as a commander and a patriot. For these reasons it has been with reluctance that any attempt was made to give you specific instructions, and you will accept assurances of the readiness with which the freest exercise of discretion on your part will be sustained.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Adjutant and Inspector-General.



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