Johnston, Joseph E.

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Johnston, Joseph E. (1807–1891), Confederate army general.Born near Farmville, Virginia, Johnston attended Abingdon Academy and graduated from West Point in 1829. He fought in the Seminole and Mexican Wars, was often breveted for gallantry, and became quartermaster general (with staff rank of brigadier general) of the U.S. Army in June 1860.

Johnston joined the Confederacy as a brigadier in May and became a full general in August 1861. He stood fourth in general's rank, and that led to a caustic breach with PresidentJefferson Davis that affected Johnston's, and the Confederacy's, career.

First assigned to the Shenandoah Valley, he eluded a Union force and marched his troops to aid Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at First Manassas. In 1862, Johnston, in command of the army, moved his force south to oppose Gen. George B. McClellan's advance toward Richmond. He attacked at Seven Pines on the York peninsula in May 1862, failed to achieve a decisive victory, was severely wounded, and was replaced by Robert E. Lee.

In November 1862, Davis, overcoming doubt and dislike, gave Johnston one of the great opportunities of the war as commander of the new Department of the West. Failing to understand a unique experiment in theater command or that he had been handed a satrap's wide powers, Johnston missed his chance to combine the military, social, and economic resources of a vast area against various enemy armies in a grand scheme to save the western flank of the Confederacy. He lapsed, instead, into the role of a local army commander in trying to relieve the siege of Vicksburg. Understanding the crisis there, he worked earnestly to build an army with which to attack Ulysses S. Grant's siege lines from behind. But he could not gather enough men or supplies quickly enough to save that important Mississippi River bastion.

In November 1863, Johnston took command of the Army of Tennessee, which languished in the doldrums after the loss of Chattanooga, Tennessee. His masterly strategic retreat down the Western & Atlantic Railroad from Dalton to Atlanta, Georgia, ahead of William Tecumseh Sherman's larger army ranks as a model strategic retreat. His withdrawal into Atlanta's defenses displeased Davis, however, who replaced him with the more aggressive Gen. John B. Hood in July 1864. Recalled to duty in February 1865 to command the remnants of his old army, after Hood's shattering defeats, he could not halt Sherman's march. Johnston surrendered at Durham Station, North Carolina, 26 April 1865.

In 1874, Johnston published Narrative of Military Operations. Subsequently a congressman from Virginia (1879–81), he became U.S. Commissioner of Railroads, 1885–91. He died in Washington, D.C., in March 1891 from a cold apparently caught while marching bareheaded in General Sherman's funeral procession.

Was Johnston a defensive genius or a nonfighter? The question persists. His quarrel with Davis limited his usefulness, but his Atlanta campaign shows him to have been a brilliant defensive tactician. Critics say he lacked aggressiveness and brand him too harshly as “Retreating Joe.” Audacity is often urged on the weaker side, but Johnston's method of staging fighting retreats, which inflicted more casualties than he took, might have prolonged the Confederacy's existence.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Gilbert E. Govan and and James W. Livingood , A Different Valor: The Story of General Joseph E. Johnston, 1956.
Joseph E. Johnston , Narrative of Military Operations, Directed, During the Late War Between the States, 1874; repr. 1959.
Craig L. Symonds , Joseph E. Johnston, 1992.

Frank E. Vandiver

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Johnston, Joseph E.

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