Joseph Eggleston Johnston

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Joseph Eggleston Johnston

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) had a distinguished career in the U.S. Army before becoming an important Confederate general.

Joseph E. Johnston was born into a prominent family of Prince Edward County, Va. He enrolled at West Point in 1825 and, except for a brief interlude as a civil engineer, remained in military service until 1865. In 1845 he married Lydia McLane, the daughter of a diplomat and U.S. Cabinet officer. Johnston was a member of Gen. Winfield Scott's expedition against Mexico City during the Mexican War and was made brevet colonel in 1848. In 1860 he became quartermaster general of the U.S. Army.

When Virginia seceded from the Union, Johnston resigned from the Army and accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate service. When the Union army advanced toward Bull Run, he marched to cover Confederate troops at Manassas, thus making possible a Confederate victory. He was subsequently promoted to full general. In spring 1862 he marched to Yorktown to confront Union forces that were preparing to advance on Richmond. Although Confederate president Jefferson Davis believed that Johnston should defend his position as long as possible, Johnston disagreed and fell back on Richmond, leaving behind irreplaceable heavy artillery. He attacked the enemy army before Richmond on May 31, 1862, but poor planning and execution resulted in a drawn battle. Johnston was severely wounded and forced to retire temporarily.

Johnston's first assignment after his recovery was to coordinate the movements of Confederate forces in Mississippi and Tennessee. He complained that this arrangement was unworkable, and in fact he accomplished little. When the Union general Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Mississippi and moved against Vicksburg, Johnston went to take field command. Because one of Johnston's commanders disobeyed orders, both an army and Vicksburg were lost on July 4, 1863.

Despite the loss of Vicksburg, Davis chose Johnston to command the Army of Tennessee in 1863. He opposed Gen. William T. Sherman, who advanced on Atlanta in May 1864. Johnston retreated adroitly in the fact of heavy odds, but by July he had reached the outskirts of Atlanta. Davis relieved him of command on July 17, after Johnston refused to say whether or not he would abandon the city without a fight. He was recalled to active duty in February 1865 but was forced to surrender to Sherman's vastly superior forces that April.

After the war Johnston engaged in various pursuits, serving one term in Congress, writing his memoirs, and continuing his feud with Jefferson Davis. His last employment was as commissioner of railroads under President Grover Cleveland.

Further Reading

A scholarly and sympathetic biography of Johnston is Gilbert E.Govan and James W. Livingood, A Different Valor (1956). See also Robert M. Hughes, General Johnston (1893).

Additional Sources

Johnston, Joseph E. (Joseph Eggleston), 1807-1891, Narrative of military operations during the Civil War, New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1990.

Symonds, Craig L., Joseph E. Johnston: a Civil War biography, New York: Norton, 1992. □

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Joseph Eggleston Johnston, 1807–91, Confederate general, b. Prince Edward co., Va., grad. West Point, 1829. He served against the Seminole in Florida and with distinction under Winfield Scott in the Mexican War. Johnston was quartermaster general with the rank of brigadier general when he resigned (Apr., 1861) to fight for the Confederacy. In May he was made a brigadier general and assigned to command at Harpers Ferry. He evaded the Union army under Gen. Robert Patterson and marched to the aid of General Beauregard at Bull Run, where his part in the Confederate victory won him a generalcy and the command of the Army of Northern Virginia (July). Johnston opposed General McClellan in the Peninsular campaign until he was wounded at Fair Oaks in May, 1862. Upon resuming service in November, he was assigned to command the Dept. of the West. Although it seems certain that President Davis intended him to give orders to John Clifford Pemberton at Vicksburg and Braxton Bragg in Tennessee, Johnston chose to interpret his position as merely nominal. When he finally did take command in the Vicksburg campaign, it was too late to save Pemberton. Johnston, placed in command of the Army of the Tennessee (Dec., 1863), adopted the policy of strategic retreat against William Tecumseh Sherman in the Atlanta campaign—a policy that did not suit Davis, who appointed John Bell Hood to succeed him. He was restored to command in Feb., 1865, by Lee, now commander in chief. He obstructed General Sherman's advance through North Carolina, but upon hearing of Lee's surrender to General Grant, he capitulated to Sherman on Apr. 26. After the war Johnston served (1879–81) in the House of Representatives from Richmond, Va., and by appointment of President Cleveland, was (1885–91) federal commissioner of railroads. Cautious as he was, Johnston was not a brilliant offensive commander but was probably the peer of Lee in defensive generalship. Davis's hostility to Johnston was widely known and seriously disrupted Confederate military organization.

See Johnston's Narrative of Military Operations (1874; new ed. 1959, repr. 1969).