Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891)

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (February 3, 1807 March 21, 1891) was a career U.S. Army officer and one of the most senior generals in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. His effectiveness was undercut by tensions with President Jefferson Davis, but he also suffered from a lack of aggressiveness and victory eluded him in every campaign he personally commanded.

Born in Farmvillein Prince Edward County, Virginia, Virginia, Johnston attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1829. Like many other Civil War military figures, Johnston saw action in the Black Hawk War, the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War. He served eight years in the artillery before he was transferred to the topographical engineers in 1838. He left the service to work as a civil engineer, but rejoined a year after his resignation. During the Mexican-American War he 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 Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army on June 28, 1860.

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 and rated by many as more capable than Lee.

His Virginia and Confederate assignments included: major general, Virginia Volunteers (April 1861); brigadier general, CSA (May 14, 1861); commanding Army of the Shenandoah June 30 - July 20, 1861); commanding Army of the Potomac July 20 - October 22,1861); general, CSA (August 31, 1861, to rank from July 21); commanding Department of Northern Virginia (October 22, 1861 - May 31, 1862); commanding Department of the West (December 4, 1862 - December 1863); commanding Army of Tennessee (December 27, 1863 - July 18, 1864); commanding Army of Tennessee and Department of Tennessee and Georgia (February 25 - April 26, 1865); also commanding Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (February 25 - April 26, 1865); and also commanding Department of North Carolina (March 16 - April 26, 1865).

Initially commissioned in the Virginia forces, he relieved Thomas J. (later "Stonewall")Jackson in command at Harpers Ferry and continued the organization of the Army of the Shenandoah. When the Virginia forces were absorbed into the Confederate army he was reduced to a brigadier generalship.

When the Union army under Irvin McDowell moved out of Washington and Alexandria to attack Pierre G.T. Beauregard at Manassas, Johnston managed to totally fool Pennsylvania General Robert Patterson with a small force in the Shenandoah Valley and move the bulk of his forces to Beauregard's support. During the battle of First Bull Run, Johnston, although senior to Beauregard, left the general direction of the battle to the junior officer due to a lack of familiarity with the terrain. Johnston was basically engaged in forwarding freshly arrived Valley troops to the threatened sectors. The two generals shared the glory and were critical of supply problems which they felt prevented a march on Washington.

In August, Johnston became one of five men advanced to the grade of full general—what is called a four-star general in the modern army. All Confederate generals wore the same insignia of rank, three stars in a wreath, but Johnston was not pleased that three other men now outranked him. He 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.

With his increased rank, Johnston was given command of the Department of Northern Virginia and became engaged in what was virtually a phony war with the Washington-based army of George B. McClellan. Throughout the winter of 1861-62 he maintained his position at Manassas junction and then withdrew just as McClellan's superior force advanced. In the meantime he had engaged in a dispute with his president over a policy of brigading troops from the same state together. Johnston argued that a reorganization could not with propriety be carried out in the face of an active enemy.

When he withdrew his army from the line of Bull Run he reinforced John B. Magruder on the Peninsula east of Richmond and took command there. With McClellan again facing him, he held Yorktown for a month before pulling back just before his opponent again advanced. His forces fought a rearguard action at Williamsburg and then employed a strategy of gradual withdrawals before any general engagement, until Johnston's 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 (Fair Oaks). The battle was tactically inconclusive and for years afterwards there was acrimonious debate among various Confederate generals over who was to blame for the limited success. 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, and Davis turned over command to the more aggressive General Robert E. Lee, who would lead the Army of Northern Virginia for the rest of the war.

After recovering from his wound, Johnston was a largely supervisory command entitled the Department of the West, which gave him titular control of Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee and John C. Pemberton's Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. With few troops under his immediate command he proved powerless in attempting to relieve the besieged garrison of Vicksburg under Pemberton. Pemberton faced Ulysses S. Grant from inside Vicksburg and Johnston was not able to find troops to relieve him, causing great consternation in the South when its last stronghold on the Mississippi River fell on July 4, 1863. Following the river city's fall, he made a feeble attempt to hold Jackson, Mississippi, against the advance of William T. Sherman.

Later that year, Bragg was defeated in the Battle of Chattanooga and Jefferson reluctantly relieved his old friend and replaced him with Johnston, who in the next spring and summer directed a masterful delaying campaign against Sherman during his advance on Atlanta.

Faced with William T. Sherman's advance from Chattanooga to Atlanta 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. 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, General John Bell Hood, was overly aggressive, but ineffective, losing Atlanta in September and a large portion of his army in Tennessee that winter.)

His successor, John B. Hood, was overly aggressive, but ineffective, losing Atlanta in September and a large portion of his army in Tennessee that winter with reckless tactics. With Sherman having marched clear through Georgia and begun his drive through the Carolinas, a clamor arose in the Confederate Congress for Johnston's resumption of command. Davis finally relented in early 1865 and the general took eventual command of three departments. Davis appointed 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.

Johnston could do little but hope for a linkup with Lee's army so that they could turn on either Grant or Sherman and then on the other. 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. After learning of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman at the Bennett Place near Durham, North Carolina, two weeks later on April 26, 1865, despite orders to the contrary from Jefferson Davis.

Johnston is considered a truly talented defensive military leader, but lacking the daring and innovation to become an offensive threat. The tension between Johnston and Jefferson Davis did little to further the Confederate cause.

After the war Johnston worked in the insurance business and served a single term as a Congressman from Virginia from 1879 to 1881. He later was appointed a federal commissioner of railroads by Grover Cleveland. His analysis of his activities in the Civil War, Narrative of Military Operations (1874) was highly critical of Davis and many of his fellow generals.

Johnston had the grace to be a pallbearer at the funeral of General Sherman, his former opponent. Although it was cold and raining during the funeral, he refused to wear a hat, as a sign of respect to Sherman. As a result, he caught pneumonia and died on March 21, 1891. He is buried in Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland. The only known public monument to Johnston was erected in Dalton, Georgia, in 1912.