Joseph E. Johnston: Early Life and Military Career
Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born on February 3, 1807, near Farmville, Virginia. His father was a respected judge and Revolutionary War veteran, and his mother was the niece of Patrick Henry. With the help of his father’s political connections, Johnston secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1825. He graduated in 1829, finishing 13th out of 46 in his class.
Johnston was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Artillery, and spent his early military career on garrison duty before serving in a non-combat role in the Black Hawk War (1832). After a stint at Fort Monroe in Virginia, Johnston served on General Winfield Scott’s staff during the Second Seminole War (1835-42) in Florida. Disillusioned with peacetime military service, Johnston elected to resign his commission in 1837 to pursue a career in civil engineering. He found work as a civilian contract worker aboard a U.S. Navy vessel in Florida, and was wounded in the head by Seminoles while leading a survey party in 1838.
Johnston re-enlisted in the Army a few months later and served as a captain of topographical engineers for the next several years. During this time he met Lydia McLane, the daughter of a Delaware politician, and the two were married in 1845. Johnston next served in the Mexican-American War (1846-48), during which he was wounded several times—first at the Battle of Cerro Gordo and later while leading a charge at the Battle of Chapultepec. He left the war with a much-vaunted combat record and secured a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Johnston went on to serve as a topographical engineer in Texas and as a cavalry officer in the Midwest. In 1860 he earned a promotion to brigadier general and was named quartermaster general of the U.S. Army.
Joseph E. Johnston: Early Civil War Service
Although he opposed secession, Johnston resigned his commission in April 1861 after his home state of Virginia joined the Confederacy. He was appointed a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and took command of forces garrisoned at Harpers Ferry. Johnston would achieve the first major victory of the war in July 1861, when he reinforced General P.G.T. Beauregard and oversaw a routing of Union troops at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
While Johnston’s performance earned him a promotion to full general, it also set the stage for a long and strained relationship with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who criticized him for not pursuing the retreating Union Army. Johnston was equally distressed to learn that his promotion to full general still placed him below Samuel Cooper, Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston in rank. Johnston had been the most senior U.S. Army officer to join the Confederacy, and he viewed his new position as a personal insult from Davis.
Despite his tumultuous relationship with the Confederate high command, Johnston was placed in charge of the Confederate Army of the Potomac (later called the Army of Northern Virginia) in early 1862. His first major service in this capacity came during the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, when Union general George B. McClellan attempted to land his army on the Virginia coast and move on Richmond. Against the wishes of Davis, Johnston elected to withdraw from the Virginia Peninsula in the campaign’s early stages. After making a defensive stand at the Battle of Williamsburg, Johnston continued to retreat, eventually positioning his army just outside of Richmond. Under pressure from Jefferson Davis, Johnston attacked McClellan at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. The offensive succeeded in blocking the Union advance, but Johnston was severely wounded during the fighting on June 1 and replaced by Robert E. Lee. While Johnston began what would become a six-month convalescence, Lee launched a series of brazen attacks during the Seven Days Battles and successfully drove McClellan from Virginia.
Joseph E. Johnston: Western Theater
Johnston returned to the field in November 1862 and was placed in command of Confederate forces in the war’s Western Theater. In May 1863 he was ordered to take charge of operations in Mississippi, which was threatened by forces under the command of Union General Ulysses S. Grant. After abandoning the state capital of Jackson, Johnston attempted to rendezvous with General John C. Pemberton, who was besieged at the vital Mississippi River hub at Vicksburg. Recognizing that he was at a severe numerical disadvantage, Johnston ordered Pemberton to cede the city to Union control. Pemberton, however, was under orders from Jefferson Davis to hold the city to the last, and refused to evacuate. Believing he didn’t have enough troops to mount an offensive and break the siege, Johnston elected not to attack Grant. Pemberton’s army was forced to surrender on July 4, 1863, and control of Vicksburg fell to the Union.
Johnston was widely condemned for his overly cautious tactics in Mississippi, but in November 1863 he took command of the Army of Tennessee after General Braxton Bragg was relieved from duty. Tasked with halting General William T. Sherman’s march from Tennessee toward Atlanta, Johnston continued his policy of strategic retreat, which he believed preserved his army and allowed him to maneuver into strong defensive positions. This plan proved largely unsuccessful, as Sherman expertly bypassed Johnston’s army and inched closer toward Atlanta throughout May 1864. While Johnston succeeded in striking a blow against Sherman at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in June 1864, his reluctance make a decisive stand agitated Jefferson Davis, who replaced him with General John Bell Hood a month later.
Johnston was reinstated in February 1865 and took command of the battered Army of Tennessee, which was assembled in North Carolina to delay Sherman’s march north after the fall of Atlanta. Working with General P.G.T. Beauregard, Johnston attempted a surprise attack at the Battle of Bentonville in March 1865, but was overwhelmed by a force three times the size of his own. After falling back to Greensboro, North Carolina, Johnston and Beauregard surrendered in late April 1865 after learning that Robert E. Lee had capitulated several days earlier at Appomattox.
Joseph E. Johnston: Later Life
After the Civil War, Johnston moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he worked as a railroad president and insurance agent. He spent the early 1870s writing a memoir of his wartime service before relocating to Richmond in 1877. In 1878 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but retired from politics after only one term. He was later appointed U.S. commissioner of railroads in the administration of President Grover Cleveland. While he continued his feud with Jefferson Davis even after the war, Johnston was friendly with a handful of former Union generals, including William T. Sherman. A pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral in February 1891, he refused to wear a hat in the winter cold out of respect for his former foe. Johnston subsequently caught pneumonia, dying a month later at the age of 84.