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Joseph E. Johnston

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Joseph E. Johnston
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Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (February 3, 1807March 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 Farmville, Virginia, Johnston attended the U.S. Military Academy, graduating in 1829. He served eight years in the artillery before he was transferred to the topographical engineers in 1838, when he rejoined the army 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. Initially commissioned as a major general in the Virginia militia, he relieved Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson in command at Harpers Ferry and organized the Army of the Shenandoah.

In the First Battle of Bull Run, July, 1861, Johnston brought forces from the Shenandoah Valley to combine with those of P.G.T. Beauregard, but ceded direction of the battle to the more junior general due to a lack of familiarity with the terrain. He did manage to claim a share of public credit for the Southern victory, however.

In August, Johnston was promoted to full general—what is called a four-star general in the modern army—but 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.

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 General 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, 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 given command of 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. Pemberton faced Ulysses S. Grant from inside the besieged city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, 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. Later that year, Bragg was defeated in the Battle of Chattanooga and Jefferson reluctantly relieved his old friend and replaced him with Johnston.

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.)

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. 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.

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.

After the war Johnston served a term as Congressman from Virginia and 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 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.

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