American Civil War: General Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph E. Johnston during the Civil War
General Joseph E. Johnston. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born February 3, 1807, near Farmville, VA. The son of Judge Peter Johnston and his wife Mary, he was named for Major Joseph Eggleston, his father's commanding officer during the American Revolution. Johnston was also related to Governor Patrick Henry through his mother's family. In 1811, he moved with his family to Abingdon near the Tennessee border in southwestern Virginia. 

Educated locally, Johnston was accepted to West Point in 1825 after being nominated by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. A member of the same class as Robert E. Lee, he was a good student and graduated in 1829 ranked 13 of 46. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Johnston received an assignment to the 4th US Artillery. In March 1837, he left the army to begin studying civil engineering.

Antebellum Career

Later that year, Johnston joined a surveying expedition to Florida as a civilian topographical engineer. Led by Lieutenant William Pope McArthur, the group arrived during the Second Seminole War. On January 18, 1838, they were attacked by the Seminoles while ashore at Jupiter, FL. In the fighting, Johnston was grazed in the scalp and McArthur wounded in the legs. He later claimed that there were "no less than 30 bullet holes" in his clothing. Following the incident, Johnston decided to rejoin the US Army and traveled to Washington, DC that April. Appointed a first lieutenant of topographical engineers on July 7, he was immediately brevetted to captain for his actions at Jupiter.

In 1841, Johnston moved south to take part in surveying the Texas-Mexico border. Four years later, he married Lydia Mulligan Sims McLane, the daughter of Louis McLane, president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and prominent former politician. Though married until her death in 1887, the couple never had children. A year after Johnston's wedding, he was called into action with the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. Serving with Major General Winfield Scott's army in 1847, Johnston took part in the campaign against Mexico City. Initially part of Scott's staff, he later served as second in command of a regiment of light infantry. While in this role, he earned praise for his performance during the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco. During the campaign, Johnston was twice brevetted for bravery, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, as well as was severely wounded by grape shot at the Battle of Cerro Gordo and was hit again at Chapultepec.

Interwar Years

Returning to Texas after the conflict, Johnston served as the chief topographical engineer of the Department of Texas from 1848 to 1853. During this time, he commenced writing Secretary of War Jefferson Davis a series of letters requesting a transfer back to an active regiment and arguing over his brevet ranks from war. These requests were largely declined though Davis did have Johnston appointed lieutenant colonel of the newly-formed 1st US Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, KS in 1855. Serving under Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, he took part in campaigns against the Sioux and helped to quell the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Ordered to Jefferson Barracks, MO in 1856, Johnston took part in expeditions to survey the borders of Kansas.  

The Civil War

After service in California, Johnston was promoted to brigadier general and made Quartermaster General of the US Army on June 28, 1860. With the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861 and secession of his native Virginia, Johnston resigned from the US Army. The highest ranking officer to leave the US Army for the Confederacy, Johnston initially was appointed a major general in the Virginia militia before accepting a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army on May 14. Dispatched to Harper's Ferry, he took command of troops that had been gathering under the command of Colonel Thomas Jackson.

Dubbed the Army of the Shenandoah, Johnston's command rushed east that July to aid Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard's Army of the Potomac during the First Battle of Bull Run. Arriving on the field, Johnston's men helped turn the tide of the fighting and secured a Confederate victory. In the weeks after the battle he aided in designing the famed Confederate battle flag before receiving a promotion to general in August. Though his promotion was backdated to July 4, Johnston was angered that he was junior to Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Lee.

The Peninsula

As the highest ranking officer to leave the US Army, Johnston firmly believed he should have been the senior officer in the Confederate Army. Arguments with now Confederate President Jefferson Davis over this point further soured their relationship and the two men effectively became enemies for the remainder of the conflict. Placed in command of the Army of the Potomac (later Army of Northern Virginia), Johnston moved south in the spring of 1862 to deal with Major General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. Initially blocking Union forces at Yorktown and fighting at Williamsburg, Johnston began a slow withdrawal west.

Nearing Richmond, he was forced to make a stand and attacked the Union army at Seven Pines on May 31. Though he halted McClellan's advance, Johnston was badly wounded in the shoulder and chest. Taken to the rear to recover, command of the army was given to Lee. Criticized for giving ground before Richmond, Johnston was one of a few who had immediately recognized that the Confederacy lacked the material and manpower of the Union and he worked to protect these limited assets. As a result, his frequently surrendered ground while seeking to protect his army and find advantageous positions from which to fight.

In the West

Recovering from his wounds, Johnston was given command of the Department of the West. From this position, he oversaw the actions of General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee and Lieutenant General John Pemberton's command at Vicksburg. With Major General Ulysses S. Grant campaigning against Vicksburg, Johnston desired Pemberton to unite with him so that their combined force could defeat the Union army. This was blocked by Davis who desired Pemberton to stay within the Vicksburg defenses. Lacking the men to challenge Grant, Johnston was forced to evacuate Jackson, MS allowing the city to be taken and burned.

With Grant besieging Vicksburg, Johnston returned to Jackson and worked to build a relief force. Departing for Vicksburg in early July, he learned that the city had capitulated on the Fourth of July. Falling back to Jackson, he was driven from the city later that month by Major General William T. Sherman. That fall, following his defeat at the Battle of Chattanooga, Bragg asked to be relieved. Reluctantly, Davis appointed Johnston to command the Army of Tennessee in December. Assuming command, Johnston came under pressure from Davis to attack Chattanooga, but was unable to so because of a lack of supplies.

The Atlanta Campaign

Anticipating that Sherman's Union forces at Chattanooga would move against Atlanta in the spring, Johnston built a strong defensive position at Dalton, GA. When Sherman began advancing in May, he avoided direct assaults on the Confederate defenses and instead began a series of turning maneuvers which forced Johnston to abandon position after position. Giving up space for time, Johnston fought a series of small battles at places such as Resaca and New Hope Church. On June 27, he succeeded in halting a major Union assault at Kennesaw Mountain, but again saw Sherman move around his flank. Angered by a perceived lack of aggression, Davis controversially replaced Johnston on July 17 with General John Bell Hood. Hyper-aggressive, Hood repeatedly attacked Sherman but lost Atlanta that September.

Final Campaigns

With Confederate fortunes flagging in early 1865, Davis was pressured to give the popular Johnston a new command. Appointed to lead the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and also the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, he possessed few troops with which to block Sherman's advance north from Savannah. In late March, Johnston surprised part of Sherman's army at the Battle of Bentonville, but was ultimately forced to withdraw. Learning of Lee's surrender at Appomattox on April 9, Johnston began surrender talks with Sherman at Bennett Place, NC. After extensive negotiations, Johnston surrendered the nearly 90,000 troops in his departments on April 26. After the surrender, Sherman gave Johnston's starving men ten days' rations, a gesture that the Confederate commander never forgot.

Later Years

Following the war, Johnston settled in Savannah, GA and pursued a variety of business interests. Returning to Virginia in 1877, he served one term in Congress (1879-1881) and was later commissioner of railroads in the Cleveland Administration. Critical of his fellow Confederate generals, he served as a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral on February 19, 1891. Despite cold and rainy weather, he refused to wear a hat as a sign of respect for his fallen adversary and caught pneumonia. After several weeks of battling the sickness, he died on March 21. Johnston was buried at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, MD.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: General Joseph E. Johnston." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: General Joseph E. Johnston. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: General Joseph E. Johnston." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).