Soon after the author joined the army he learned that Generals Johnston and Beauregard already favored an immediate offensive campaign, beyond the Potomac, provided an adequate force could be concentrated for that purpose: and he urged General Johnston to request President Davis to visit the headquarters of the army with a view to discuss and determine this question. The President came in compliance with General Johnston's invitation.Here is the full account of the meeting:
“On the 26th of September, 1861, General Joseph E. Johnston addressed a letter to the Secretary of War in regard to the importance of putting this army in condition to assume the offensive, and suggested that the President, Secretary of War, or some one representing them should at an early day come to the headquarters of the army, then at or near Fairfax Court House, for the purpose of deciding whether the army could be reënforced to the extent that the Commanding General deemed necessary for an offensive campaign.
“The President arrived at Fairfax Court House, a few days thereafter, late in the afternoon, and proceeded to the quarters of General Beauregard. On the same evening General Johnston and I called to pay our respects. No official subjects of importance were alluded to in that interview. At eight o'clock the next evening, by appointment of the President, a conference was had between himself, General Johnston, General Beauregard and myself—various matters of detail were introduced by the President, and talked over between himself and the two senior Generals.
“Having but recently arrived, and not being well acquainted with the special subjects referred to, I took little or no part in this conversation. Finally, with perhaps some abruptness, I said, ‘Mr. President, is it not possible to put this army in condition to assume the active offensive?’ Adding that this was a question of vital importance upon which the success or failure of our cause might depend. This question brought on discussion. The precise conversation which followed I do not propose to give—it was not an argument—there seemed to be little difference of opinion between us in regard to general views and principles.
“It was clearly stated, and agreed to, that the military force of the Confederate States was at the highest point it could attain without arms from abroad—that the portion of this particular army present for duty was in the finest fighting condition—that if kept inactive it must retrograde immensely in every respect during the winter, the effect of which was foreseen and dreaded by us all. The enemy were daily increasing in numbers, arms, discipline, and efficiency. We looked forward to a sad state of things at the opening of a Spring campaign.
“These and other points being agreed upon without argument, it was again asked—‘Mr. President, is it not possible to increase the effective strength of this army and put us in condition to cross the Potomac and carry the war into the enemy's country? Can you not by stripping other points to the last they will bear—and even risking defeat at all other places, put us in condition to move forward? Success here at this time saves everything—defeat here loses all.’
“In explanation, and as an illustration of this, the unqualified opinion was advanced, that, if for want of adequate strength on our part in Kentucky, the Federal forces should take military possession of that whole state, and enter and occupy a portion of Tennessee, a victory gained by this army beyond the Potomac would, by threatening the heart of the Northern States, compel their armies to fall back, free Kentucky—and give us the line of the Ohio, within ten days thereafter. On the other hand should our forces in Tennessee and Southern Kentucky be strengthened so as to enable us to take, and to hold, the Ohio River as a boundary, a disastrous defeat of this army would at once be followed by an overwhelming wave of Northern invaders, which would sweep over Kentucky and Tennessee, extending to the Northern part of the Cotton States, if not to New Orleans.
“Similar views were expressed in regard to ultimate results in North-Western Virginia, being dependent upon the success or failure of this army, and various other special illustrations were offered. Showing, in short, that success here was success everywhere—defeat here, defeat everywhere,—and that this was the point upon which all the available forces of the Confederate States should be concentrated.
“It seemed to be conceded by all that our force at that time here was not sufficient for assuming the offensive beyond the Potomac, and that even with a much larger force, an attack upon their army under the guns of their fortifications, on this side the river, was out of the question. The President asked me what number of men was necessary in my opinion to warrant an offensive campaign—to cross the Potomac, cut off the communications of the enemy with their fortified Capitol, and carry the war into their country. I answered ‘Fifty thousand effective seasoned soldiers’—explaining that, by seasoned soldiers, I meant such men as we had here, present for duty. And added that they would have to be drawn from the Peninsula, about Yorktown, Norfolk, Western Virginia, Pensacola, or wherever might be most expedient. General Johnston and General Beauregard both said that a force of sixty thousand such men would be necessary, and that this force would require large additional transportation and munitions of war—the supplies here being entirely inadequate for an active campaign in the enemy's country, even with our present force.
“In this connection there was some discussion of the difficulties to be overcome, and the probabilities of success; but, no one questioned the disastrous results of remaining inactive throughout the winter.
“Notwithstanding the belief that many in the Northern army were opposed on principle to invading the Southern States, and that they would fight better in defending their own homes than in attacking ours, it was believed that the best, if not the only, plan to insure success, was to concentrate our forces and attack the enemy in their own country.
“The President, I think, gave no definite opinion in regard to the number of men necessary for that purpose, and I am sure no one present considered this a question to be finally decided by any other person than the Commanding General of this army. Returning to the question that had been twice asked—the President expressed surprise and regret that the number of surplus arms here was so small—and I thought spoke bitterly of this disappointment. He then stated, that at that time no reinforcements could be furnished to this army of the character asked for—that the most that could be done, would be to furnish recruits to take the surplus arms in store here, (say 2500 stand)—that the whole country was demanding protection at his hands, and praying for arms and troops for defence. He had long been expecting arms from abroad but had been disappointed—he still hoped to get them, but had no positive assurance that they would be received at all. The manufacture of arms in the Confederate States was, as yet, undeveloped to any considerable extent. Want of arms, was the great difficulty; he could not take any troops from the points named, and without arms from abroad could not reinforce this army. He expressed regret, and seemed to feel deeply as did every one pressent.
“When the President had thus clearly and positively stated his inability to put this army in the condition deemed by the Generals necessary before entering upon an active offensive campaign, it was felt that it might be better to run the risk of almost certain destruction fighting upon the other side of the Potomac, rather than see the gradual dying out and deterioration of this army, during a winter, at the end of which the term of enlistment of half the force would expire. The prospect of a spring campaign to be commenced under such discouraging circumstances was rendered all the more gloomy by the daily increasing strength of an enemy already much superior in numbers. On the other hand was the hope and expectation that before the end of winter, arms would be introduced into the country—and all were confident, that we could then not only protect our own country but successfully invade that of the enemy.
“General Johnston said, that he did not feel at liberty to express an opinion as to the practicability of reducing the strength of our forces at points not within the limits of his command. With but few farther remarks from any one, the answer of the President was accepted as final, and it was felt that there was no other course left but to take a defensive position and await the enemy. If they did not advance we had but to await the winter and its results.
“After the main question was dropped the President proposed, that, instead of an active offensive campaign, we should attempt certain partial operations—a sudden blow against Sickles or Banks—or to break the bridge over the Monocacy. This, he thought, besides injuring the enemy, would exert a good influence over our troops, and encourage the people of the Confederate States generally.
“In regard to attacking Sickles, it was stated in reply that, as the enemy controlled the river with their ships of war, it would be necessary for us to occupy two points on the river—one above, and another below the point of crossing—in order that we might, by our batteries, prevent their armed vessels from interfering with the passage of the troops. In any case the difficulty of crossing large bodies over wide rivers, in the vicinity of an enemy, and then recrossing, made such expeditions hazardous. It was agreed, however, that if an opportunity should occur offering reasonable chances of success that the attempt would be made.
“During this Conference or Council which lasted, perhaps, two hours, all was earnest, serious, deliberate. The impression made upon me was deep and lasting; and I am convinced that the foregoing statement is not only correct, as far as it goes, but, in my opinion, it gives a fair idea of all that occurred, at that time, in regard to the question of our crossing the Potomac.
“Gustavus W. Smith, Major-General.”
“My recollection of the above Conference agrees fully with this statement of General G. W. Smith.
“G. T. Beauregard, General C. S. A.
“J. E. Johnston, General.
Signed in triplicate.
“Centreville, Va., January 31, 1862.”