150 Years Ago: Monday, November 17, 1862

Gustavus W. Smith
Source: Library of Congress

Though he had been passed over for the position of head commander of the Army of Northern Virginia (that went to Robert E. Lee), today General Gustavus W. Smith is appointed the new Confederate Secretary of War by President Jefferson Davis. In reality, choosing the Kentuckian has little to do with skill or knowledge; he is simply the “only general available in Richmond” for the position.

Ninety miles northwest of Richmond near Culpeper Court-House, C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee writes a letter to the old Secretary of War George Randolph about Union troop movements heading further south into Virginia. He is still uncertain of U.S. General Ambrose Burnside’s final destination but assumes it will be Gordonsville (67 miles northwest of Richmond) or Fredericksburg (60 miles directly north of the capital). His scouts have seen increased train activity in Alexandria, Virginia, but they are unsure whether they are bringing in more troops or actually moving them to Alexandria for a potential battle further northwest in the Blue Ridge mountains.

Lee concludes that if Burnside is to march upon Fredericksburg, he has yet to make any preparations for his men to cross the Rappahannock River that runs along the city. Given that Lee has a large amount of men absent from North Carolina and has yet to receive recruits from the latest draft, he recommends that they not advance upon the enemy; instead, they will “embarrass and damage the enemy” wherever possible by capturing enemy men and supplies. President Davis quickly responds that “Every effort will be made to hasten the return of absentees and obtain conscripts.

Andrew Johnson (1860)
Source: Library of Congress

Andrew Johnson, Union Governor of Tennessee, had written a scathing letter to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in early September with harsh criticism of U.S. Major General Don Carlos Buell. Buell, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, had been in charge of military operations in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, including the capital of Nashville. He had earned a reputation that he was slow to move even when directed. Tennessee is strategic ground, as the state is a part of the Confederacy and other Union General’s such as Ulysses S. Grant have done a great deal to control its key cities, railroads and waterways.

Though Buell was relieved of command on October 24, someone must have felt the need to provide proof that the decision to remove Buell was the correct one; the letter was obtained by the New York Times and is printed today for its readers:

Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 1.

To His Excellency Abraham Lincoln, Washington City:

On two occasions I have stated to the President that Gen. Buell would never enter and redeem the eastern portion of this State. I do not believe he ever intended to, notwithstanding his fair promises to the President and others that he would.

A portion of the rebel troops, it is stated, under the command of (Braxton) Bragg, have crossed the Tennessee River, above Chattanooga, and are marching in the direction of Nashville. His force is variously estimated at from 20,000 to 50,000. My own opinion is that it cannot exceed 20,000.

Gen. Buell and his forces are in his front, ranging from Decherd, on the railroad, to McMinnville and Sparta, and, in my opinion, with such Generals as he has under his command, could meet Bragg and whip him with the greatest ease; entering lower East Tennessee, and turn the rear of the force said to be now before Gen. (John Hunt) Morgan, at Cumberland Gap, leaving Morgan to march into East Tennessee, and take possession of the railroad, at once segregating and destroying the unity of their territory, and that, too, in the midst of a population that is loyal, and will stand by the Government.

The forces which have passed Cumberland Gap, on Morgan’s right, under command of Kirby Smith; entering Kentucky in Morgan’s rear, can and will be met by forces coming in the direction of Lexington and Nicholasville, and whipped and driven back.

I am now compelled to state, though with deep regret, what I know and believe Gen. Buell’s policy to be. Instead of meeting and whipping Bragg where he is, it is his intention to occupy a defensive position, and is now, according to the best evidence I can obtain, concentrating all his forces upon Nashville, giving up all the country which we have had possession of south and east of this place, leaving the Union sentiment and Union men, who took a stand for the Government, to be crushed out and utterly ruined by the rebels, who will all be in arms upon the retreat of our army.

It seems to me that Gen. Buell fears his own personal safety, and has concluded to gather the whole army at this point as a kind of body guard to protect and defend him, without reference to the Union men who have been induced to speak out, believing that the Government would defend them.

Gen. Buell is very popular with the rebels, and the impression is that he is more partial to them than to Union men, and that he favors the establishment of a Southern Confederacy.

I will not assume that Gen. Buell desires the establishment of a Southern Confederacy and a surrender of Tennessee to the rebels, but will give it as my opinion that, if he had designed to do so, he could not have laid down or pursued a policy that would have been more successful in the accomplishment of both these objects.

Notwithstanding the untoward events which have transpired since I came to Nashville, I feel and believe that much good has been done in preparing the public mind in being reconciled to the Government; but if the policy which I have indicated is carried out by Gen. Buell, all will be thrown away, without the most distant idea, if ever, when we shall recover our lost ground. East Tennessee seems doomed. There is scarcely a hope left of her redemption; if ever, no one now can tell. May God save my country from some of the Generals that have bean conducting this war.

About The Civil War Project

Like many others, I have a passion for the Civil War era, and for decades have chosen to spend my much of free time researching this topic - particularly the people, as the human component is what I find most fascinating. This site is not a source of revenue for me, nor is it tied in with a company or other individual behind the scenes. It is my own personal venture. It is because of this genuine bond of respect and affection I feel towards this period in our history that I created "The Civil War Project." If this is your first time visiting the site, I welcome you and thank you for your interest. If you have any feedback or questions, please feel free to contact me at thecivilwarproject@yahoo.com.


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