Joseph E. Johnston

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Joseph E. Johnston

Born February 3, 1807
Cherry Grove, Virginia
Died March 21, 1891
District of Columbia

Confederate general

Led Army of Tennessee against Union
general William T. Sherman's forces during
Atlanta campaign

Joseph Johnston's reputation as a Civil War general is a mixed one. On the one hand, he became known as one of the Confederacy's most sensible and intelligent military leaders. Careful and crafty, he never sent his troops into battle rashly. This reluctance to commit troops to battle without good cause understandably made Johnston very popular with many of the soldiers under his command. But critics of Johnston argued that he avoided conflict on too many occasions, such as during the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign and the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. This criticism, coupled with his bitter feud with Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) has made Johnston's Civil War performance a subject of continued debate among students and historians.

Born and raised in Virginia

Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born in Virginia in 1807 into a powerful and respected family. His father was Peter Johnston, a judge and congressman who had fought in the Revolutionary War on behalf of the rebellious American colonies. The Revolutionary War—also known as the War for Independence—was waged from 1776 to 1783 and eventually resulted in American independence from British rule. Joseph Johnston's mother, meanwhile, was the niece of Patrick Henry (1736–1799), one of the most famous American heroes of the Revolutionary War.

Johnston grew up in Abingdon County, Virginia, attending classes in the state's finest schools. In 1825, he left home for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. Johnston excelled at his studies at the prestigious military school. He also became friends with a group of fellow cadets (military students) that included a young Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) during his stay at West Point.

Early military experiences

In 1829, Johnston graduated from the academy and joined the U.S. Army. He spent most of the next decade at frontier outposts and in Florida. During his time in Florida, he took part in the expedition through the state of explorer John Wesley Powell (1834–1902) and participated in the socalled Seminole Wars (1835–42). This war between the U.S. military and the Seminole Indians eventually forced the Indians off of their ancestral homelands and onto reservations in Oklahoma.

In 1845, Johnston married Lydia McLane, a member of a prominent Delaware family. A year later he traveled west to fight on behalf of the United States in the Mexican War (1846–48). This war was a struggle between Mexico and the United States for ownership of vast expanses of land in the West. Wounded twice during the conflict, Johnston impressed his commanding officers with his coolness and bravery. The Mexican War ended in 1848 when America forced its southern neighbor to give up its claims on California, New Mexico, and other western lands in exchange for $15 million.

With the conclusion of the Mexican War, Johnston returned to the army's topographical engineering branch. This division was responsible for exploring and surveying the geography of the growing nation (topography is the practice of creating maps that show exact geographic features of a region). In 1855, however, Johnston received a promotion to lieutenant colonel in order to command a newly created army cavalry unit known as the First Cavalry. Five years later he successfully pushed to be appointed as the army's quartermaster general when that position became vacant. Johnston thus became responsible for supervising all efforts to provide soldiers with food, clothing, and equipment. He also was promoted to brigadier general around this time.

In the spring of 1861, though, Johnston abruptly left the ranks of the U.S. Army when the nation's Northern and Southern regions took up arms against one another. The arrival of war did not really surprise Johnston. After all, relations between the two sides had become tattered by years of bitter arguments and threats over a number of issues, especially slavery. Northern states wanted to abolish slavery because many of their citizens thought that it was a cruel and evil institution. The agriculture-based Southern economy had become extremely dependent on slavery over the years, though, and white Southerners worried that their way of life would collapse if slavery was abolished (eliminated). America's westward expansion during this time made this dispute even worse, since both sides wanted to spread their way of life—and their political views—into the new territories and states. The two sides finally went to war in early 1861, after the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the Union and form a new country where slavery was allowed, called the Confederate States of America.

Early Civil War success

Johnston viewed the South's attempt to secede from the United States as a terrible mistake. Ignoring early offers of generalship in the Confederate Army, he did not join the rebel (Confederate) military until April 1861, when his home state of Virginia announced its intention to secede. But Johnston left the U.S. Army with a heavy heart. As he submitted his resignation to Union secretary of war Simon Cameron (1799–1889), he confessed his belief that secession "was ruin in every sense of the word." Upon arriving in Richmond a few days later, he was made a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

Initially assigned to defend Harpers Ferry, Virginia, from Union invaders, Johnston played a major role in helping the South win the first major battle of the Civil War in July 1861. Using clever maneuvers to escape from an advancing Federal army, he quickly transported thousands of soldiers by railroad to Manassas Junction, Virginia, where rebel troops under the command of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893; see entry) were being challenged by a larger Union force led by General Irvin McDowell (1818–1885). Johnston's troops arrived just in time to turn the battle in favor of the South. Combining their two armies, Johnston and Beauregard produced a sloppy but decisive victory over McDowell's troops. This triumph at the First Battle of Manassas (known as the First Battle of Bull Run in the North) gave Southerners confidence that they could fend off Northern attempts to restore the Union.

The Johnston-Davis feud

The victory at Manassas made Johnston one of the Confederacy's first military heroes. Six weeks later, he and four other Confederate officers were promoted to the newly created rank of full general. Johnston, however, expressed great anger with the details of these promotions. As he understood Confederate law, the seniority of Confederate military officers of the same rank was supposed to be based on the relative position they held back in the federal army. According to Johnston, this meant that he should be "top-ranked" of all the new Confederate generals. But Confederate president Jefferson Davis ranked Johnston fourth in seniority, ahead of only one other general.

Johnston responded to news of the promotions by writing Davis a furious letter. He claimed that the president's rankings had been made "in violation of my rights as an officer, of the plighted [promised] faith of the Confederacy and of the Constitution and laws of the land." Johnston concluded his note by stating that "I now and here declare my claim that . . . I still rightfully hold the rank of first general in the armies of the Southern Confederacy." But Davis refused to reconsider his decision. In fact, he sent Johnston an insulting reply in which he called the general's arguments and statements "one-sided" and "as unfounded [without a factual base] as they are unbecoming [unattractive]."

Prior to the promotion controversy, relations between the two men had been cool and mildly distrustful. But the uproar over Johnston's ranking dramatically worsened tensions between the two men. In fact, it created a cloud of animosity between Davis and Johnston that remained in place for years to come. Stubborn and proud, the two men spent the rest of the war believing the worst about each other.

Service in the West

Johnston's next major engagement took place in the spring of 1862, when Union general George B. McClellan (1826–1885; see entry) launched his so-called Peninsula Campaign to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. By late May, McClellan's army had advanced to Fair Oaks, only a few miles outside of Richmond. But a large Confederate force under Johnston's command awaited the Federal army there. On May 31, the two armies clashed together in a bloody struggle for control of the Virginia peninsula. The two-day battle (known as the Battle of Seven Pines in the South) ended in a virtual stalemate (deadlock), with neither side able to gain an advantage. Johnston, though, was seriously wounded in the clash and had to turn command of his Army of Northern Virginia over to General Robert E. Lee. One month later, Lee forced McClellan to end his offensive campaign by defeating the Union general in a series of fierce clashes that came to be known as the Seven Days' Battles. Lee then followed up that victory with a series of other triumphs. Lee's performance convinced Davis to give him command of the Army of Northern Virginia for the rest of the war.

Johnston spent the last months of 1862 recovering from the wounds he suffered at Fair Oaks. When Johnston returned to active duty in November, Davis sent him to the war's western theater (the area of the country between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains). Despite growing doubts about Johnston's abilities, Davis wanted him to take general command of the two main Confederate armies in the region. The president hoped that Johnston would be able to increase the effectiveness of the two armies by coordinating their actions. Johnston, though, complained about his new assignment. He told Davis that his command was "useless. . . . The great distance between the [Confederate] Armies of Mississippi and Tennessee, and the fact that they had different objects and adversaries [enemies], made it impossible to combine their action."

Johnston, Davis, and other Confederate officials continued to argue and debate about strategy, military authority, and other issues throughout the first few months of 1863. Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry), meanwhile, launched a major offensive against Vicksburg, Mississippi, a strategically important Confederate stronghold. Grant knew that if he could seize the city from the Confederacy, the North would control the entire length of the Mississippi River.

By May 1863, Johnston was certain that he did not have enough troops to save Vicksburg from Grant's advancing army. He told Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton (1814–1881), the commander of the Confederate garrison (military post) within the city, to evacuate his army before it was lost to Grant. But Pemberton remained in Vicksburg after receiving orders from Davis to hold the city at all costs.

The struggle for Vicksburg ended in disaster for the Confederacy. In late May, Grant ordered his army to surround the city and stop all shipments of food and other supplies. This strategy, known as a siege, was intended to starve Pemberton's army into surrendering the city. Within a matter of weeks, Grant's siege had created great hunger and misery within Vicksburg. Johnston tried to come up with a plan to lift the siege, but the small size of his army prevented him from posing any significant threat to Grant's much larger force. Pemberton finally surrendered on July 4, giving the North control of both the city and the Mississippi River.

When Davis learned that Vicksburg had fallen into Union hands, he placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Johnston. The Confederate president and many other people believed that Johnston should have offered more resistance to Grant. They charged that Johnston had been too cautious and timid in his actions. Johnston and his supporters, meanwhile, blamed flawed strategies devised by Davis and other Confederate officials for the loss of the city. They also claimed that Johnston's decision to avoid an all-out fight with Grant had kept the South from losing thousands of men in a hopeless cause. Not surprisingly, the debate over who was to blame for the loss of Vicksburg increased the level of hostility (ill will) and distrust that existed between Davis and Johnston. In fact, one acquaintance of Johnston's commented that from this time forward, Johnston's "hatred of Jeff Davis became a religion with him."

Johnston replaces Bragg

During the fall of 1863, Davis relieved Johnston of many of his command responsibilities. He felt that Johnston's tendency to retreat and avoid combat unless certain of victory was hurting the Southern cause. In November 1863, though, Davis reluctantly appointed Johnston to command the Confederate Army of Tennessee, the South's last major army in the western theater.

The Army of Tennessee was a tough and battle-hardened force. Over the course of 1863, however, it had been badly led by Confederate general Braxton Bragg (1817–1876; see entry). By the time Davis finally replaced Bragg, morale among the troops had plummeted to a very low level.

Upon arriving in Dalton, Georgia, to take command of the Army of Tennessee in December 1863, Johnston immediately addressed the lingering morale problem. During the long winter months, he took steps to improve his troops' food rations and living conditions. He also worked hard to re-assure the soldiers that his command style would be different than the stern one adopted by Bragg. "[Johnston] passed through the ranks of the common soldiers, shaking hands with every one he met," recalled one soldier. "He restored the soldier's pride; he brought the manhood back to the private's bosom. . . . He was loved, respected, admired; yea, almost worshiped by his troops. I do not believe there was a soldier in his army but would gladly have died for him."

Sherman's Atlanta Campaign

In May 1864, Johnston faced his first major test as commander of the Confederacy's Army of Tennessee. At that time, a major Union army under the command of General William T. Sherman (1820–1891; see entry) marched into Georgia in order to destroy Johnston's sixty thousand-man army. The North believed that if the Confederate Army of Tennessee could be wiped out, Union control of the West would be complete, and weakening Southern support for the war might collapse altogether.

As Sherman's force of one hundred thousand troops began its pursuit of Johnston, Davis and Johnston once again quarreled about Confederate strategy. Davis and other officials wanted Johnston to strike against Sherman and recapture the state of Tennessee in an offensive campaign. Johnston, however, felt that his best course of action was to engage in a series of strategic retreats against his more powerful opponent. The general thought that if Sherman used up some of his troops in failed attacks, he might eventually be able to launch a counterattack. In addition, Johnston believed that if Sherman failed to gain a major victory during the summer of 1864, Northern voters might replace U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) in the fall elections with a member of the antiwar Democratic Party who would grant independence to the Confederacy in exchange for peace.

Throughout the months of May and June, Sherman moved his army southward in an attempt to smash the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The two armies engaged in countless bloody skirmishes during this period, but Johnston quickly and skillfully avoided all efforts to trap him. Instead, he steadily retreated deeper into Georgia, even as President Davis and other Confederate officials urged him to turn and attack the Yankee (Union) invaders.

By mid-July, Sherman had seized large sections of Georgia. Johnston's Army of Tennessee had been pushed backward to the outskirts of Atlanta, one of the Confederacy's last remaining major cities. Johnston's defensive maneuvers had enabled him to keep most of his army intact, but Davis and many other Confederate officials were very unhappy with his performance. They openly worried that Johnston might give up Atlanta without a fight, and became very frustrated when the general stubbornly refused to tell them about his plans.

On July 17, Davis finally removed Johnston from command and replaced him with John Bell Hood (1831–1879; see entry), an officer with the Army of Tennessee who had a reputation as a fierce and aggressive fighter. The switch delighted Sherman, who had grown weary of pursuing Johnston. "I confess I was pleased at the change [in the Confederate command]," he wrote in a letter to his wife.

Hood promptly ordered a series of attacks on the Union Army, but Sherman and his troops smashed all of these attacks. Within a few months, Sherman had captured Atlanta and launched a devastating campaign deep into the heart of the South. Hood, meanwhile, took his army into Tennessee, where it was torn to shreds by Union forces.

End of the war

After being removed from command, Johnston spent the last part of 1864 traveling around the South with his wife. In February 1865, General Lee convinced Davis to recall Johnston to active service in the disintegrating Confederate Army. Johnston was ordered to assume command of rebel troops in the Carolinas and halt Sherman's advance on Richmond. By this point, however, no Southern army was capable of stopping Union forces as they rolled across the Confederacy. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union forces on April 9, 1865. Eighteen days later, Johnston signed final surrender terms in a meeting with Sherman. Johnston's surrender marked the end of his military career.

In the years following the Civil War, Johnston became involved in the insurance and railroad industries. He also served his home state of Virginia as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1879 to 1881. In addition, he continued his long-running feud with Davis in a series of articles and memoirs. He died in the District of Columbia in 1891.

Where to Learn More

Connelly, Thomas L. Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

Johnston, Joseph E. Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1874. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1990.

Newton, Steven H. Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Symonds, Craig L. Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography. New York: Norton, 1992.

Woodworth, Steven E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

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Joseph E. Johnston

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