Joseph Eggleston Johnston (February 3, 1807 – March 21, 1891) was a career U.S. Army officer, serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War and Seminole Wars, and was also one of the most senior general officers in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.
Johnston's effectiveness in the Civil War was undercut by tensions with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but he also suffered from a lack of aggressiveness and victory eluded him in every campaign he personally commanded.
Johnston was born at Longwood House in Farmville
. (Longwood House later burned down. The rebuilt house is now the home of the president of Longwood University
.) His father, Judge Peter Johnston, was of Scottish
descent and his mother, Mary (née
Wood), Scottish and English
. Johnston was named for Major Joseph Eggleston
, under whom his father served in the American Revolutionary War
. Johnston attended the United States Military Academy
, graduating in 1829, ranking 13th of 46 cadets, and was appointed a second lieutenant
in the 4th U.S. Artillery. He would become the first West Point graduate to be promoted to a general officer in the regular army
, reaching a higher rank in the U.S. Army than did his 1829 classmate, Robert E. Lee
(2nd of 46).
Johnston resigned from the Army in March 1837 and studied civil engineering. During the Second Seminole War
, he was a civilian topographic engineer aboard a ship led by William Pope McArthur
. On January 12, 1838, at Jupiter, Florida
, the sailors who had gone ashore were attacked and Johnston was to claim there were "no less than 30 bullet holes" in his clothing and one bullet creased his scalp, leaving a scar he had for the rest of his life. Having encountered more combat activities in Florida as a civilian than he had had previously as an artillery officer, Johnston decided to rejoin the Army. He departed for Washington, D.C.
, in April 1838 and was appointed a first lieutenant
of topographic engineers on July 7; on that same day, he received a brevet
promotion to captain
for the actions at Jupiter Inlet and his explorations of the Florida Everglades
During the Mexican-American War, Johnston won two brevets and was wounded at both Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec. He had also been brevetted for earlier service in the Seminole Wars. He served in California and was appointed brigadier general and Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army on June 28, 1860.
Johnston married Lydia McLane, the daughter of Louis McLane, a congressman from Delaware, and a member of President Andrew Jackson's cabinet. They had no children. She died in February 1887. His brother Charles Clement Johnston also served as a U.S. Representative, and his nephew John Warfield Johnston was a United States Senator; both represented Virginia.
When his native state seceded
from the Union
in 1861, Johnston resigned his commission as a brigadier general in the regular army
, the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer to do so. Initially commissioned as a major general
in the Virginia militia
on May 4, he was appointed a brigadier general
in the Confederate Army on May 14. Johnston relieved Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson
in command at Harpers Ferry
in May and organized the Army of the Shenandoah
In the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), July 1861, Johnston brought forces from the Shenandoah Valley to combine with those of Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, but he ceded direction of the battle to the more junior Beauregard since he lacked familiarity with the terrain. He did manage to claim a share of public credit for the Southern victory, however. After Bull Run, Johnston assisted Beauregard and William Porcher Miles in the design and production of the Confederate Battle Flag. It was Johnston's idea to make the flag square.
In August, Johnston was promoted to full general—what is called a four-star general in the modern U.S. Army—but was not pleased that three other men he had outranked in the "old army" now outranked him. Johnston felt that since he was the senior officer to leave the U.S. Army and join the Confederacy he should not be ranked behind Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee. Only Beauregard was placed behind Johnston on the list of five new generals. This led to much bad blood between Johnston and Jefferson Davis, which would last throughout the war.
Johnston was placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia
and led it in the start of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign
. Defending the capital of Richmond
against Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan
, Johnston employed a strategy of gradual withdrawals before any general engagement, until his army was only five miles in front of the city, where McClellan intended to besiege it. Finally cornered, Johnston attacked on May 31, 1862, south of the Chickahominy River
, in the Battle of Seven Pines
. The battle was tactically inconclusive, but it stopped McClellan's advance on the city and would turn out to be the high-water mark of his invasion. More significant, however, was that Johnston was wounded on the second day of the battle, hit in his right shoulder and chest. This led to Davis turning over command to the more aggressive Robert E. Lee, who would lead the Army of Northern Virginia for the rest of the war.
After recovering from his wounds, Johnston was given command of the Department of the West, the principal command of the Western Theater
, which gave him titular control of Gen. Braxton Bragg
's Army of Tennessee
and Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton
's Department of Mississippi
and East Louisiana
. Pemberton faced Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant
from inside the besieged city of Vicksburg, Mississippi
, and Johnston urged him to abandon the city temporarily, join forces with Johnston's troops, and outnumber Grant, but Davis ordered Pemberton to stay in Vicksburg, causing great consternation in the South when its last stronghold on the Mississippi River
fell on July 4, 1863. Later that year, Bragg was defeated in the Battle of Chattanooga
and Davis reluctantly relieved his old friend Bragg and replaced him with Johnston.
Faced with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
's advance from Chattanooga
in the spring of 1864, Johnston reverted to his strategy of withdrawal. He conducted a series of actions in which he prepared strong defensive positions, only to see Sherman maneuver around them, causing him to fall back in the general direction of Atlanta. Johnston saw the preservation of his army as the most important consideration, and hence conducted a very cautious campaign. He handled his army well, slowing the Union advance and inflicting heavier losses than he sustained. On June 27, Johnston defeated Sherman at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain
, but the purely defensive victory did not prevent Sherman from continuing his offensive. Critics have claimed that Johnston's strategy was entirely defensive and that his unwillingness to risk an offensive made the chance of a Confederate victory impossible.
Jefferson Davis became increasingly irritated by this strategy and removed Johnston from command on July 17, 1864, shortly before the Battle of Peachtree Creek, just outside of Atlanta. (His replacement, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, was overly aggressive, but ineffective, losing Atlanta in September and a large portion of his army in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign that winter.) Davis's decision to remove Johnston was one of the most controversial of the war.
Final campaigns in North Carolina and surrender
As the Confederacy became increasingly concerned about Sherman's March to the Sea
across Georgia and then north through the Carolinas
, the public clamored for Johnston's return. Through a request by Robert E. Lee, Davis reinstated him to a command called collectively the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and also the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. These commands theoretically included three Confederate armies, but they were paper tigers
and Johnston could do little to blunt Sherman's advance.
On March 19, 1865, Johnston was able to catch a portion of Sherman's army by surprise at the Battle of Bentonville and briefly gained some tactical successes before superior numbers forced him to retreat to Raleigh, North Carolina. Unable to secure the capital, Johnston's army withdrew to Greensboro, North Carolina, where it made its final stand.
After learning of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Johnston decided to meet with General Sherman between the lines at a small farm near present day Durham, North Carolina, known as Bennett Place. After three separate days of negotiations in April 1865, Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee and all remaining Confederate forces still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. It was the largest surrender of the war, totaling 89,270 soldiers.
After the war Johnston settled in Savannah, Georgia, was president of a railroad company in Arkansas, and became engaged in the general insurance business in 1868 and 1869.
He returned to Virginia and settled in Richmond in 1877 and became president of an express company. Johnston served in the 46th Congress from 1879 to 1881 as Democratic Congressman; he was not a candidate for renomination in 1880.
He was a commissioner of railroads in the administration of United States President Grover Cleveland.
His analysis of his activities in the Civil War, Narrative of Military Operations, published in 1874, was highly critical of Davis and many of his fellow generals.
Johnston, like Lee, never forgot the magnanimity of the man to whom he surrendered, and would not allow an unkind word to be said about Sherman in his presence. When Sherman died, Johnston served as a pallbearer at his funeral; during the procession in New York City on February 19, 1891, he kept his hat off as a sign of respect in the cold, rainy weather. Someone had some concern for the old general's health and asked him to put on his hat, to which Johnston replied "If I were in his place and he standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat." He caught pneumonia and died several weeks later. He was buried in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.
The only known public monument to Johnston was erected in Dalton, Georgia, in 1912. During World War II, the United States Navy named a Liberty Ship in honor of Johnston.
The 1988 alternate history
novel Grey Victory
by Robert Skimin
takes a very clear position in favor of Johnston in the debate on the Atlanta Campaign
, arguing that had he been left in command, Johnston would have continued to engage the Union forces in a long-drawn out war of attrition until the time of the Northern elections in November 1864, whereupon the war-weary Northern voters would have replaced Abraham Lincoln
with George B. McClellan
as President, ending the war by recognizing the South.
- Coski, John M. The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem, Belknap Press, 2005, ISBN 0-674-01983-0.
- Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Vol. III Red River to Appomattox, Vintage Books, 1986, ISBN 0-394-74622-8.
- Hughes, Robert M., style="font-style : italic;">Great Commanders: General Johnston, D. Appleton & Co., 1893.
- Marszalek, John F. Sherman: A Soldier's Passion for Order, The Free Press (Macmillan, Inc.), 1993, ISBN 0-02-920135-7.
- Symonds, Craig L., Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, W. W. Norton, 1992, ISBN 978-0-393-31130-3.
- Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders, Louisiana State University Press, 1959, ISBN 0-8071-0823-5.
- Govan, Gilbert E., and Livingood, James W., A Different Valor: The Story of General Joseph E. Johnston C.S.A., Indianapolis, 1956.
- Johnson, Bradley T., A Memoir of the Life and Public Service of Joseph E. Johnson, Baltimore, 1891.
- Johnston, Joseph E., Narrative of Military Operations, New York, 1874.