Joseph E. Johnston

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Joseph E. Johnston
American Civil War
Rank General, CSA
Born February 3, 1809
Place of birth Wolf Hills, Virginia
Died March 21, 1891
Place of death Washington, D.C.
Battles engaged in First Battle of Bull Run
Vicksburg Campaign
Kennesaw Mountain

Joseph E. Johnston (born February 3, 1809,[1] died March 21, 1891) was a Confederate general during the American Civil War.

Early life

Johnston was born in a house settled between the Appalachian frontier and the Abingdon society. This small town in Virginia was also named ‘Wolf Hills’ by Daniel Boone when a wolf pack allegedly attacked his dogs. It was in this town that Joseph, or Joe, learned the fundamental skills such as hunting and riding with a bold courage and faceless determination he soon applied to day-to-day life.

Those who met young Joe would not have thought him to be extra ordinary, with a simple 5’7, thin frame and dark eyes. His hair was cropped short, his expression serious. Despite his appearance, Joe had a stout heart that did not sway from hardship.

In fact, while growing up Joseph Johnson experienced an exceptionally agonizing event when his leg broke on a riding trip with his friends. He did not cry out, merely called them back saying:

"Hello boys. Come here and look, the confounded bone has come clean through."

It became apparent that his friends would have to carry him the many long and bumpy trails to the end of their journey. Through it all Joe did not cry out or complain, proving once again his daring and seemingly fearless personality.

Education and early military service

Joe's parents, Judge Johnston and his wife,[2] were very strong in their views on education. There was no doubt that Joe and his brothers would go to school. Joseph respected his father and adored his kindhearted mother, so he respected their wishes and attended Abingdon Academy.At the age of Nineteen, Joseph Eggleston Johnston was accepted into West Point, and made the thirty-five mile trip from New York Harbor up the Hudson River to join his classmates (the most noted of which was Robert E. Lee).

Upon graduating West Point in 1829, he joined the Fourth Artillery where he served for seven years (until 1836). Two years later and throughout the Florida war, he accepted the title of First Lieutenant of Topographical Engineers. While there and during the Mexican War, he obtained the brevet[3] of Captain. Afterwards he gained two more brevets for “distinguished conduct”.

Civil War

Service in Virginia

At the onset of the Civil War, Johnston was a Brigadier General in the US Army, serving as Quartermaster General. When Virginia seceded, he resigned his commission to join the fledgling Confederacy, the highest-ranking officer to do so. He was in command during the First Battle of Bull Run, although he delegated command on the field to his second-in-command, P. G. T. Beauregard, who was more acquainted with the battlefield. In recognition of that victory, Johnston was promoted to command the Confederate forces defending Virginia against the Union Army of the Potomac. His relations to Confederate President Jefferson Davis were strained, however, when Davis revealed the ranks of the Confederate full generals. Johnston, who considered himself the highest-ranking soldier of the Confederacy because he had outranked his colleagues in the US Army, was placed fourth, behind Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee. Johnston sent Davis an acerbic letter of protest, the beginning of a severe deterioration of their relation that led to a complete breakdown later in the war. Johnston contested Union general George B. McClellan's invasion of the Virginia Peninsula until he was wounded at the battle of Fair Oaks. His fellow student Robert E. Lee succeeded him.

Department No. 2 and Vicksburg

When Johnston had recovered, he was assigned command of Department no. 2, a vast district containing most of the Confederacy between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, where he was to ensure cooperation between the field armies of Braxton Bragg in Tennessee and John C. Pemberton in Mississippi. When Union general Ulysses S. Grant seriously threatened Vicksburg in early May 1863, Johnston hurried there. When he arrived at Mississippi's capitol of Jackson, 40 miles east of Vicksburg, Grant had already interposed his troops between Jackson and Vicksburg, making cooperation between Johnston and Pemberton difficult. Johnston ordered Pemberton to evacuate Vicksburg and save his army, but Pemberton delayed. By May 4, Grant had dispached two corps under William T. Sherman to drive Johnston from Jackson; Johnston, who at that time only had about 6,000 men, retreated. When Pemberton was defeated by the remainder of Grant's army on May 6 at the battle of Champion Hill, the fate of Vicksburg's defenders was sealed. While Johnston hovered in the vicinity with all the reinforcements he could gather, he never reached a strength sufficient to take on Grant, and communication with Vicksburg became so difficult that a coordinated attack on Grant from both sides became impossible. After a long siege, Vicksburg surrendered on July 4. Grant immediately dispached Sherman with overwhelming force to once again drive Johnston from Jackson.

Atlanta Campaign

When Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee was defeated by Union forces under Grant at the battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, Jefferson Davis reluctantly removed Bragg from command and sent Johnston. Davis' confidence in Johnston had declined severely after the Vicksburg debacle, with Davis blaming the fall of Vicksburg on "a lack of provisions inside, and a general outside who wouldn't fight". Johnston proceeded to reorganize and re-equip the Army of Tennessee, a task well-suited to his administrative talents. He took a strong defensive position at Dalton, on the railroad connecting Chattanooga to Atlanta. Davis wanted Johnston to take the offensive as soon as possible, but Johnston, being outnumbered by his Union opponents, preferred to remain on the defensive until the Union armies had been defeated in battle and weakened. He also claimed insufficient wagons and horses to supply his army when on the offensive.

By spring 1864, Johnston had been reinforced by Leonidas Polk's troops from Mississippi. His opponent was Sherman, who had succeeded Grant as Union commander of the western theater. Sherman engaged in a campaign of manoeuver, time and again outflanking Johnston, who retreated from one fortified position along the railroad to the next. Twice during this retreat towards Atlanta Johnston tried to offer a battle. The first time, his subordinates Polk and John Bell Hood claimed their lines could be enfiladed by Union artillery and could not be held. The second time Johnston tried to annihilate a separated column of Sherman's troops while it was out of supporting range of the rest of Sherman's army, but Hood, who commanded the attacking forces, canceled the attack when Union troops surprisingly appeared on his flank.

By June 27, Johnston and Sherman had reached Kennesaw Mountain, one of the last mountains of north Georgia before Atlanta. Again Johnston assumed a fortified position, but here Sherman believed Johnston had streched his forces too thin and ordered a frontal assault. The battle of Kennesaw Mountain was a bloody repulse for Sherman, but it did not suffice to cancel Sherman's numerical superiority, and when he resumed outflanking, Johnston once again retreated.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis became alerted by Johnston's repeated retreats and inquired about Johnston's plans for the defence of Atlanta, an important railroad hub. Johnston's explanations were unsatisfactory for Davis, partly because Johnston believed he had to remain on the defensive and to adapt his actions to the enemy's, partly because Johnston was secretive and did not like to reveal his plans to politicians who, in Johnston's opinion, could not be trusted to keep a secret. Finally Davis dispatched Braxton Bragg, then the President's military advisor. When Bragg reported that he couldn't tell whether Johnston had any plans, Davis dismissed Johnston on July 17, 1864 and replaced him with John Bell Hood, after Polk's death in battle the Army of Tennessee's senior corps commander and renowned for his aggressiveness.


Davis was forced to recall Johnston, who remained popular with the public and with the soldiers, for the 1865 spring campaign after Hood had been defeated at Nashville and Sherman had marched through Georgia. Sherman now threatened the Carolinas, but Confederate manpower was depleted. Johnston commanded an assortment of garrison troops and the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, but his strength never even reached half Sherman's. Johnston still managed to repulse one of Sherman's columns at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina on March 19–21, but when Union reinforcements arrived, he was forced to retreat.

By early April the Confederate situation became desperate. Johnston suggested joining his forces with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, then besieged by Grant at Richmond. The combined Confederate forces could then try and defeat Grant and Sherman separately. When Lee had to abandon Richmond, he retreated towards Johnston, but Grant's troops caught up with him at Appomattox Court House and forced Lee's surrender.

Johnston now considered the Confederate cause lost and advised Davis to surrender. Davis believed a guerilla campaign might still succeed, but allowed Johnston to open negotiations with Sherman. Johnston and Sherman agreed to terms very generous to the south, touching not only a military capitulation but also the south's political future. When Sherman submitted these terms to Washington for approval, he was rebuffed by President Andrew Johnson, and Grant was dispatched to secure a purely military capitulation. On April 26, 1865, Johnston agreed to the terms Grant had granted Lee and surrendered the Army of Tennessee and the entire military district of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

Post-War life

After the Civil War Johnston remained a Democrat and active participant in the fire insurance business as well as railroad construction. He died of pneumonia on March 21, 1891 in Washington, D.C. after catching a cold while serving as pallbearer during Sherman's funeral.


  1. Records also state him to be born in 1804 and 1807, so an accurate date is questionable.
  2. Remains unlisted.
  3. A commission promoting an officer to a higher nominal rank than that for which he is paid.


Primary sources

  • Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War, New York 1874. Johnston's memoirs, quite self-serving and continuing his feuds with Jefferson Davis and John Bell Hood.