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The Day Joe Johnston Stopped the War

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

The day after I became a teenager in 1960, Look magazine published a piece by American novelist MacKinlay Kantor, titled, “If the South Had Won the Civil War.” At the time I found the title intriguing, but the substance eluded me.

Having had more than half a century to think it over, I now suspect that Kantor would’ve done better to write, “If Johnston Hadn’t Surrendered Almost 90,000 Soldiers at Bennett Place in North Carolina More Than Two Weeks after Lee Hung It Up at Appomattox.”

That, I think, would have been both more interesting and more plausible, given the situation as the long war ground to a halt.

The South was never going to “win” the war in the sense that the North won it: with its troops deployed in the cities and towns of a beaten adversary and its civil authorities deciding everything from voting rights to the content of state constitutions. Richmond was never going to become the capital of a Disunited States of America. Yes, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia drew close enough to the District of Columbia that he might have taken it. But Lee knew that his prospects of holding it were so slim that he didn’t try. Yes, Lee invaded the North; but conquest was not his purpose. He didn’t even envision crippling the North’s industrial capacity. The aims of his drive into Pennsylvania included resupply, disruption and demoralization. Sherman Lite, you might call it.

No matter which way you flip or flop the template, it doesn’t work. Less than a year into the war, much of the North Carolina coast was in Union hands. What was the Confederacy’s counterpart to that? And where, in New York and Massachusetts, did the Confederacy land decisive blows? Where were its Gettysburg and its Vicksburg? But wait. Not all of those 89,000-plus soldiers were in North Carolina, under Johnston’s direct command. There were, among his top generals, men who were entirely capable of rallying to Jefferson Davis’ side and continuing the war in some way, shape or fashion.

Anyone who flatly states that they couldn’t have done it is being reckless. Still at large were savvy, experienced leaders, some of whom hinted even after the surrender that they would be available to serve if hostilities were resumed.

What might they have done, and to what end? Everything points to insurgency, and no one doubts that a pair of cavalrymen, lieutenant generals Wade Hampton and Nathan Bedford Forrest, were up to that challenge.

Insurgency, however, is often more process than product. Would there have been a goal, other than resisting peace and reconciliation on Washington’s terms? You bet. But to follow that train of thought, look not at the generals but at the geography.

Most of the South’s viable assets were in or near the Western theater, and freedom of movement likely would have drawn them to the very real estate that most concerned the Southern slave states even before the war began: the territories. There, where statehood and most of the attendant issues were still open, was where armed mischief might have altered U.S. history in profound ways.

Like MacKinley Kantor, we’ll have to settle for conjecture because Joe Johnston, who was not known for expending the lives of his men wastefully, disobeyed Davis and sent them all home on a spring day in North Carolina.

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