By September 1861, General Albert Sidney Johnston assumed command of the primary Confederate army in the western theater of the American Civil War. While the Confederate army in the east had to protect Richmond, Johnston’s task was more challenging. With roughly 19,000 poorly armed men, Johnston was expected to defend an area stretching from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River.
Since taking command on Sept. 10, 1861, Johnston realized the task he faced. He was informed by Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin that he could seek recruits from the states of Arkansas, Tennessee and portions of Mississippi.
Unlike President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to quell the southern rebellion, Johnston’s quest for volunteers was much more laborious.
The difference between the federal government of the Union and the states’ rights of the Confederacy was that Johnston had to ask the governors of each individual state for whatever support he needed. Johnston did this, asking for 30,000 volunteers from Tennessee, 10, 000 from Arkansas and 10,000 from Mississippi.
In asking for these soldiers, Johnston said, “I prefer volunteers for the present war, as securing better-discipline, more skilled and effective forces. . .”
Soon after Johnston’s request, he was informed by Benjamin that Mississippi had already provided a number of volunteers. Benjamin advised Johnston to seek more soldiers from Arkansas and Tennessee which had not, at that time, contributed as many soldiers as other southern states.
Even though Mississippi had provided regiments for the Confederate army, Governor John J. Pettus quickly provided two regiments, armed and equipped and promised two more at a later date. Pettus was known as the “Mississippi Fire-eater” having once said he would rather eat fire than sit down with Yankees.
By the winter of 1861-62, Johnston raised an army of 40,000 soldiers. Of those men, twelve regiments were from Mississippi. Even with the increased numbers, Johnston still had too much ground to defend and needed better armaments.
The scattered defense of the western front became evident in February 1862, when Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Donelson opening up Tennessee for future Federal campaigns.
George E. Estes of the 14th Mississippi said of that time, “I started out in May, 1861, from home with the expressed intention of cleaning up Yankeedom. I had been taught by demagogues and politicians to believe I could whip a ‘cowpen full’ of common Yankees.” After Fort Donelson, Estes said, “I lived and acted under this delusion till Gen. Grant and his army met us at Fort Donelson. I soon found that the Yankees could shoot as far and as accurately as I could and from then until the end of the war I was fully of the opinion that the United States Army was fully prepared to give me all the fight I wanted.”