Though Gen. Robert E. Lee trusted Joseph E. Johnston in command in North Carolina, his continued retreat in front of Sherman greatly alarmed Lee, who wrote “Should you be forced back in this direction [Richmond] both armies would certainly starve. You must judge what the probabilities will be of arresting Sherman by battle. A bold and unexpected attack might relieve us.”
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Seeking to Seriously Wound Sherman
“Sherman came on irresistibly – like Lord Cornwallis – North Carolinians were reminded. The feeling of dread, of terror, may have been comparable to the folk tales of their grandparents, but not the speed, the destructive power, the calamitous results. Compared to Sherman’s, Cornwallis’s invasion during the Revolution was child’s play.
Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, fell on February 17; Charleston, the following morning; Wilmington, on the twenty-second. Richmond had looked to Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard to coordinate defensive efforts and obstruct Sherman’s advance . . . [though he resorted] to heady 1861 rhetoric; concentrate 35,000 Confederates at Salisbury, North Carolina and fight Sherman there, “crush him, then to concentrate all forces against Grant, and then to march on Washington to dictate a peace.”
[Once Robert E. Lee was appointed] commander-in-chief of all Confederate armies . . . Lee turned to President Jefferson Davis and asked that Joseph E. Johnston be retrieved from oblivion. With greatest reluctance, Davis acquiesced [though concerned that the] General will not risk a battle unless he has all the chances in his favor.” Lee wired Johnston on February 22. “Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.”
The controversial Johnston had worked a miracle before – when he gathered fragments of two defeated Confederate armies at Dalton, Georgia, in early 1864, and fashioned them into an effective fighting force that proceeded to frustrate Sherman’s heavier numbers and resources for three months.
Sherman’s strategy by the last week of February 1865 was becoming clear to the Confederates. He would continue to push through the Carolinas, up into Virginia, and there unite with Grant against Lee. Lee doubted that Sherman would move northwest via Charlotte . . . rather, Lee expected him to turn toward Goldsboro and the coast – to snap the vital [Wilmington &] Weldon railroad and unite with Schofield.
On February 24, Johnston went to Charlotte, assumed command from Beauregard, and immediately held a review. [The troops cheered the General] and this feeling of confidence in Johnston and enthusiasm over his return to command swept through the ranks and the officer’s corps of the Army of Tennessee. They loved the man. He could redeem them. They knew it.
Once [Johnston combined his disparate forces into one, he] would possess a sizable fore, admittedly less than half of Sherman’s numbers but sufficient to cause mischief, perhaps even to wound his adversary seriously. If Sherman’s army could be caught divided and fought in fractions, certainly before he united with [his other wing], there might be hope of checking, perhaps defeating, part of his force – an isolated column perhaps. Once this had been accomplished, other positive opportunities would present themselves.”
(Bentonville, The Final Battle of Sherman & Johnston, Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr., UNC Press, 1996, pp. 21-24)