Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891)

Joseph E. Johnston was a veteran of the Mexican War (1846–1848), quartermaster general of the United States Army, a Confederate general during the American Civil War (1861–1865), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1879–1881), and a U.S. railroad commissioner in the first administration of U.S. president Grover Cleveland (1885–1889). The highest-ranking U.S. Army officer to resign his commission at the start of the Civil War, Johnston helped lead Confederates to victory at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861; a month later, however, when Confederate president Jefferson Davis appointed five men to the rank of full general, he was only fourth on the list, igniting a bitter feud with the president that would last the war and even spill into his postwar memoir, Narrative of Military Operations (1874). Historians, meanwhile, have split on his military performance, with some dubbing him "Retreatin' Joe," citing, among others, his retreats in the face of General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula in 1862. Johnston was wounded on June 1, 1862, at the Battle of Seven Pines, and Davis turned the Army of Northern Virginia over to General Robert E. Lee, who led it for the remainder of the war. Other historians have argued that Johnston's strategy of withdrawal saved Confederates from destruction during the Atlanta Campaign (1864); nevertheless, Davis replaced him then, too. MORE...


Early Years

Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born on February 3, 1807, at Longwood House near Farmville, Virginia. His father, Judge Peter Johnston, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) who named his son after Joseph Eggleston, his commander during the war and later a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1798–1801). Johnston's mother, Mary Wood, was a niece of Patrick Henry. Raised in Abingdon, Johnston attended the Abingdon Academy there and then the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, from which he was graduated in 1829, finishing thirteenth out of a class of forty-six cadets. (His classmate Robert E. Lee finished second.)

Commissioned an artillery lieutenant, Johnston served in the Black Hawk War (1832) in Illinois before resigning from the army to study civil engineering. He saw combat as a civilian topographical engineer during the Second Seminole War in Florida (1835–1842), and, on July 7, 1838, rejoined the army in Florida as a topographical engineer, earning a brevet rank of captain. During the Mexican War he was wounded at Cerro Gordo in April 1847 and then again at Chapultepec in September 1847, and earned a brevet rank of colonel for his leadership under fire.

On July 10, 1845, Johnston married Lydia McLane in Baltimore, Maryland, after a five-year courtship. Her father, Louis McLane, was the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a former congressman, and both U.S. secretary of the treasury and state in the administration of Andrew Jackson. The couple had no children.

In the 1850s Johnston supervised topographical surveys and river improvements in the West and engaged in a long-running battle with his superiors over whether his honorary brevet rank of colonel entitled him to the actual rank of colonel. In 1855, U.S. secretary of war Jefferson Davis ruled against Johnston—the first of many disagreements between the two men—and the U.S. Congress backed him up. But after John B. Floyd, a fellow Abingdon native and related by marriage to Johnston, became secretary of war in 1857, he reversed the decision. When Winfield Scott nominated four officers to fill the post of quartermaster general, including Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, Floyd tapped Joseph E. Johnston, automatically making him a brigadier general.

Johnston's litigiousness where rank was concerned foreshadowed a series of conflicts he would have during the Civil War with Lee and Davis. The historian Douglas Southall Freeman has called Johnston a "difficult and touchy subordinate … though a generous and kindly superior—in sum, a military contradiction and a temperamental enigma."

Manassas and the Peninsula

Virginia's secession on April 17, 1861, led Johnston to resign from the U.S. Army and accept a commission as a Confederate brigadier general in charge of the garrison at Harpers Ferry. In danger of being cut off by advancing Union troops, he soon withdrew his men to Winchester, the first of many tactical retreats that may have made sense militarily but nevertheless drew criticism. Meanwhile, he and General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, the Confederate commander at Manassas, pledged each other mutual support if attacked. When Union troops targeted Beauregard, Johnston reinforced him via the Manassas Gap Railroad and directed his troops into battle on July 21. The combined Confederate forces sent the Union army running back to Washington, D.C.

The First Battle of Manassas was the first major Confederate victory of the war, and on August 31, Davis appointed Johnston and Beauregard to the rank of full general. To Johnston's chagrin, however, Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee were all ranked higher on the list. The general wrote to Davis that the president had "tarnished my fair fame as a soldier and a man," a rebuke Davis (who was every bit as touchy about his prerogatives as Johnston) deemed insubordinate. The two men feuded bitterly for the rest of the war.

Nevertheless, Davis charged Johnston with the defense of the Confederate capital at Richmond. But the following spring, when the Union Army of the Potomac under George B. McClellan—a close friend of Johnston—landed at Fort Monroe and advanced up the Peninsula between the York and James rivers, Johnston and Davis clashed again, this time over strategy and tactics. Johnston wanted to strip the South Atlantic states of troops to enlarge his army, but Davis found this to be politically impractical. Johnston also wanted to withdraw from the Peninsula to prevent Union gunboats from landing troops in his rear, while Davis demanded that every inch of the Peninsula be contested. When Union gunboats did, in fact, land troops in his rear, Johnston withdrew up the Peninsula rather than offer battle at Yorktown.

On May 31, 1862, he attacked Union troops that were separated from the rest of the Army of the Potomac by the rain-swollen Chickahominy River. The Battle of Seven Pines failed to annihilate the isolated Union units, and for that Johnston was largely to blame. He also was severely wounded, first by musket ball in the shoulder and then by artillery shell fragments in the chest. His wounds came just after he had gently scolded an officer for attempting to dodge the bullets: "Colonel, there is no use dodging; when you hear them they have passed." Davis, who was present at the battle, helped to attend to the wounded general. Still, while recuperating in Richmond, Johnston lived with Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, a leader of the anti-Davis faction in the Confederate Congress. The situation only deepened the president's distrust of his general.

In the Western Theater

Despite this growing estrangement, Davis appointed Johnston to the new Department of the West in November 1862. Johnston was responsible for coordinating the strategy and operations of two major armies—one commanded by Braxton Bragg, the other by John C. Pemberton—and lesser forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Johnston lacked the desire, imagination, and will to make this new command effective, however, and he did little to coordinate strategy or operations. Early in 1863, when generals in Bragg's Army of Tennessee rebelled, Davis backed Bragg but could not quiet the discontent.

In May, as Union general Ulysses S. Grant tightened his noose around the vital Mississippi River town of Vicksburg, Davis ordered Johnston to take command in Mississippi. Arriving in Jackson on May 13, Johnston was too late and lacked the forces to save Vicksburg. Union general William T. Sherman was already at Clinton, positioning his army between Johnston and Pemberton. As Sherman neared Jackson, Johnston withdrew northward. He ordered Pemberton to join him, but the general instead moved his army into Vicksburg, in obedience to previous orders from Davis. Although Johnston received reinforcements from Virginia, he was unable to break Grant's siege. Vicksburg fell on July 4, Pemberton and his army were captured, and Pemberton blamed Johnston for his humiliating surrender.

Jefferson Davis also blamed Johnston and reduced his command to Mississippi and Alabama. When Grant and Sherman moved against Georgia in September, Johnston reinforced Bragg with two of his divisions and, on September 19–20, 1863, contributed to the victory at Chickamauga. (Except for the action of Virginia-born Union general George H. Thomas, the Union Army of the Cumberland might have been destroyed at Chickamauga.)

End of the War

Bragg resigned after he lost the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, and Davis reluctantly named Johnston commander of the Army of Tennessee. Refusing to attack without reinforcements, Johnston gave Sherman the opportunity to amass superior numbers in Chattanooga and, in May 1864, commence a series of attacks against Johnston. Hoping to avoid frontal assaults, Sherman repeatedly flanked and Johnston repeatedly and skillfully withdrew, forcing costly Union attacks at Resaca, New Hope Church, and Kennesaw Mountain. His casualties mounting, Sherman resumed his dance with Johnston—flank, withdraw, flank, withdraw.

Johnston drew Sherman deeper and deeper into Georgia, hoping but failing to isolate his forces, cut his dangerously extended supply lines, and lure him into a trap. Convinced that Johnston was willing to give up Atlanta, Davis, on July 17, controversially relieved him of command in favor of John Bell Hood, an aggressive fighter who had lost use of his left arm at Gettysburg (1863) and lost his right leg at Chickamauga. "We should attack," Hood had written the president, although Robert E. Lee, from Virginia, cautioned Davis that he was "All lion, none of the fox." After the fact, Sherman gloated, writing, "This was just what we wanted." What Davis didn't want—and his concerns were dominated, necessarily, by politics—was to lose Atlanta without a fight. He got the fight, with the terrible casualties to go with it, and Hood evacuated the city on September 1.

In February 1865 Davis reappointed Johnston to command the weakened Army of Tennessee in North Carolina. His objective was to delay Sherman in time to reunite with Lee, moving south from Virginia. Lee never made it, though, surrendering at Appomattox Court House on April 9 following the Appomattox Campaign. Davis thought continued fighting might be possible, but Johnston and others advised otherwise. On April 26, Johnston surrendered his army to Sherman on the same terms Grant had given Lee.

Later Years

After the war Johnston opened an insurance agency in Savannah, Georgia, relocating to Richmond in 1877. The following year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat, but he disliked electioneering and served only one term. In 1885 he was appointed a U.S. railroad commissioner in the administration of U.S. president Grover Cleveland.

In the meantime, Johnston continued to nurse his grievances from the war. Against the advice of friends, he published his Narrative of Military Operations in 1874, a book that defended his own actions while finding fault, most significantly, with Jefferson Davis. Regarding Davis's 1861 appointment of Johnston as only the fourth-highest-ranking general, he wrote: "This action was altogether illegal, and contrary to all the laws enacted to regulate the rank of the class of officers concerned." And in defense of his retreats before Atlanta, Johnston wryly argued that because other generals' retreats "had not lowered the President's estimate of the military merit of those officers, I supposed that my course would not be disapproved by him." He then provocatively mentioned Robert E. Lee, who died in 1870 and by 1874 was actively being turned into a secular saint by advocates of the Lost Cause. Davis should hardly have criticized Johnston, the general protested, referring to the Overland Campaign of 1864, "especially as General Lee, by keeping on the defensive, and falling back toward Grant's objective point, under circumstances like mine, was increasing his great fame." In the end, the book won Johnston little sympathy.

Johnston outlived many of his old opponents, attending the funerals of George B. McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant in 1885. He was a pallbearer at William T. Sherman's funeral in New York City in February 1891, but caught a cold standing bareheaded in the winter chill. Johnston died on March 21, 1891, and was buried next to his wife, who had died in 1887, at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

Time Line

  • February 3, 1807 - Joseph Eggleston Johnston is born at Longwood House near Farmville, Virginia.
  • July 1, 1829 - After graduating thirteenth in his class from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Joseph E. Johnston is commissioned a second lieutenant of artillery.
  • 1832 - Joseph E. Johnston serves in the Black Hawk War in Illinois.
  • March 1837 - Joseph E. Johnston resigns from the U.S. Army to study civil engineering.
  • July 7, 1838 - In Florida, Joseph E. Johnston reenters the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant of topographic engineers and receives a brevet rank of captain for leadership under fire.
  • July 10, 1845 - Joseph E. Johnston marries Lydia McLane at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. McLane is the daughter of Louis McLane, a former U.S. senator from Delaware and U.S. secretary of state in the administration of Andrew Jackson.
  • September 12–13, 1847 - During the Mexican War, Joseph E. Johnston wins a brevet rank of colonel for his leadership under fire at the Battle of Chapultepec.
  • July 11, 1855 - U.S. secretary of war Jefferson Davis denies an appeal by Joseph E. Johnston that, following the Mexican War, his brevet rank of colonel entitled him to the actual rank of colonel. The ruling would be the first of many disagreements between the two men.
  • 1858 - U.S. secretary of war John B. Floyd reverses an earlier decision by Jefferson Davis and awards Joseph E. Johnston the rank of colonel. Floyd is a fellow Abingdon native and related to Johnston by marriage, and some fellow officers dismiss the decision as favoritism.
  • June 28, 1860 - U.S. secretary of war John B. Floyd, working from a list of nominees that includes future Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, appoints Joseph E. Johnston Quartermaster General. The position comes with the rank of brigadier general.
  • August 31, 1861 - Confederate president Jefferson Davis appoints Joseph E. Johnston full general retroactively effective July 4. Based on the timing of the promotion, Johnston is ranked below three other generals, which rankles him and helps to ignite a feud with the president that will last the war and beyond.
  • November 12, 1862 - Confederate president Jefferson Davis appoints Joseph E. Johnston to command the Department of the West, which includes two major armies—one commanded by Braxton Bragg and the other by John C. Pemberton—and lesser forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.
  • December 16, 1863 - After the Confederate loss at the Battle of Chattanooga, Joseph E. Johnston is appointed commander of the Army of Tennessee. He replaces Braxton Bragg.
  • July 17, 1864 - Convinced that he was willing to give up Atlanta, Confederate president Jefferson Davis relieves Joseph E. Johnston of command in favor of John Bell Hood. It is a highly controversial decision, and while Hood attacks more openly, he loses more men, and Atlanta falls on September 1.
  • April 26, 1865 - Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston surrenders his army to William T. Sherman, receiving the same terms afforded Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.
  • 1874 - Former Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston publishes his Narrative of Military Operations, an account of his own actions during the Civil War and an attack, most significantly, on Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The book wins Johnston little sympathy.
  • February 22, 1887 - Lydia Johnston, wife of former Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, dies.
  • March 21, 1891 - Former Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston dies a few weeks after catching a cold while serving as a pallbearer at William T. Sherman's funeral in New York City. He is buried next to his wife at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland.
Further Reading
Connelly, Thomas L. Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
Connelly, Thomas L., and Archer Jones. The Politics of Command: Factions and Ideas in Confederate Strategy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
Escott, Paul D. Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2006.
Johnston, Joseph E. Narrative of Military Operations Directed During the Late War Between the States. 1874. Reprinted with an introduction by Frank E. Vandiver. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959.
Newton, Steven H. Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Symonds, Craig L. Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
Vandiver, Frank E. Rebel Brass: The Confederate Command System. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956.
Woodworth, Steven E. No Band of Brothers: Problems in the Rebel High Command. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Bell, J. L., Jr., & Wolfe, B. Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891). (2014, March 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    Bell, John L., Jr. and Brendan Wolfe. "Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Mar. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: October 6, 2009 | Last modified: March 21, 2014

Contributed by John L. Bell Jr. and Brendan Wolfe. John L. Bell Jr. is a professor emeritus at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Brendan Wolfe is managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia