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Joseph Eggleston Johnston
by John T. Marck
 
 
 
 

 
 
 

Joseph Eggleston Johnston

One of the Confederacy's more renown and competent generals, Johnston was born in Farmville, Virginia on February 3, 1807. Following his graduation from West Point in 1825, where he placed thirteenth in a class of forty-six, he was appointed a 2nd lieutenant in the 43th Artillery. Spending eight years fighting Indians on the frontier, he resigned to become a civil engineer.

In this position as engineer, he joined John Wesley, a geologist on an expedition to Florida. On January 15, 1838, he and Wesley were attacked by Indians. Johnston, wounded in the attack, and in spite of his injury, successfully led his group in a resourceful retreat. For this, Johnston was commissioned a 1st lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers. Johnston then was promoted to captain in 1846, while serving with notability in Mexico under General Winfield Scott.

After the war with Mexico, Johnston returned to the Topographical Engineers in 1855 as a lieutenant colonel in the 1st Cavalry, then was promoted to quartermaster general and brigadier general on June 28, 1860.

When Virginia seceded from the Union, Johnston resigned from the U.S. Army on April 22, 1861, and joined the Virginia troops as a major general. A short time later on May 14, 1861, Johnston was given a commission in the Confederate army as a brigadier general. Johnston's first assignment was at Harpers Ferry where upon learning that a greater Union force was en route, quickly and quietly removed his troops from the area. He then by railroad car and on foot, took his troops to the Battle of First Bull Run to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard. Originally assigned to attack from the right flank, he swiftly shifted directions, reinforcing the failing Confederate left. Upon doing so in such a timely manner saved the Confederate troops and drove back the Union. His actions this day turned what would have been a loss for the Confederacy into a victory. As a result, Johnston was promoted to full general on August 31, retroactive from July 4.

His promotion to full general created hard feelings between him and Jefferson Davis, as his date of promotion placed him fourth in seniority after Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee. Since he had been a senior brigadier general in the U.S. Army, he assumed and expected to retain this position and seniority in the Confederacy.

Johnston was an accomplished professional, excelling in the areas of planning, gathering information, and executing defensive actions. Johnston proved himself well during the Peninsula Campaign, and again at Williamsburg. On May 31, 1862, at the Battle of Seven Pines against General George McClellan he did not fare as well, mostly as a result of the officers under his command failing to efficiently convey his orders or failing to oversee them. Wounded twice in this battle, Johnston was forced to leave the army for several months while recovering.

That November 1862 he returned to duty and was placed in charge of the Department of the West. In this command his orders were to stop Union General Ulysses S. Grant's advance toward Mississippi. However, Johnston had problems because his command responsibilities were unclear combined with orders issued by Jefferson Davis that were conflicting. With Grant on the way, Johnston advised Confederate General John C. Pemberton to leave Vicksburg, rather than take the risk of losing his army to Grant. But, because Jefferson Davis ordered him to stay and hold the city, he ignored Johnston's advice. As a result of not having the manpower to successfully hold off Grant, Pemberton was forced to surrender his troops and the garrison at Vicksburg on July 4, 1862.

Because of another failure by Braxton Bragg, Johnston was assigned to take command of the Army of Tennessee in May 1863. It was Johnston's orders to reorganize this army and move them on the offensive. Although he got them into fighting shape, he did not immediately take the offensive action that orders believed he would. Because he was outnumbered by the mighty Union army, his plan was to wait until he was attacked, thereby the Union would expand its strength, then counterattack, believing that the enemy would then be weakened.

By May of 1864, Johnston planned to use this approach against the Union under General William T. Sherman in the Atlanta Campaign, however, this plan was one that Jefferson Davis never approved. While in Georgia, Johnston and his army efficiently fell back rather than attack Sherman whose army considerably outnumbered Johnston. Frustrated by this, Jefferson Davis relieved Johnston of command, replacing him with Lieutenant General John B. Hood. Although Hood was a cautious leader, he did not score any great victories, but did keep the Army of Tennessee from annihilation.

However, as Hood could not hold Atlanta, and following his defeats during the Franklin and Nashville Campaigns, General Robert E. Lee replaced Hood with Johnston on February 23, 1865. With the war all but over, Johnston did lead the tattered remnants of the Army of Tennessee in the campaign in the Carolinas. When Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, Johnston engineered a cease-fire with General Sherman on April 18. Then, Jefferson Davis ordered Johnston South to continue the war, but Johnston had the wisdom to realize that any further resistance on the part of the Confederacy was hopeless. Consequently, Johnston signed the final surrender terms on April 26, 1865.

His military career now over, after the war, Johnston lived in numerous cities in the South where he occupied himself in the insurance business. In 1874 he published his memoirs, titled, Narrative of Military Operations Directed During the Late War Between the States.

Four years later in 1878, he was elected to a term in the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia, where he served from 1879 to 1881. Four years after leaving Congress he held an appointment as commissioner of railroads in President Grover Cleveland's administration (1885-1891).

Joseph Johnston died in Washington, D.C. on March 21, 1891.

Copyrightę John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.