Joe Johnston may have been better that R. E. Lee; he certainly had a different military philosophy. He was also not the man Lee was and had much more trouble with superiors and equals.
He’d had a distinguished career in the U.S. Army, West Point (1829), eight years in the artillery, then the Topographical Engineers. He won brevet promotions against the Seminole Indians and a pair while fighting the Mexicans, as well as being wounded twice in the latter war. In 1860 he was appointed Quartermaster General, to rank as a Brigadier General. He waited until his state (Virginia) seceded before he left Federal service, the most senior officer to do so.
Virginia made him a Major General immediately, and the Confederacy followed with Brigadier General’s stars. He was sent to the Shenandoah Valley, taking over the forces Thomas Jackson – not yet “Stonewall” – had assembled as well as others in the district. He bluffed Robert Patterson, Union commander at Harper’s Ferry, and moved all his men over the Blue Ridge to join Beauregard at Manassas Junction. He was senior to Beauregard, but because the Louisianan knew the ground he allowed him to retain tactical control during First Manassas. Johnston made sure reinforcements arrived, playing a role that nobody on the Union side was doing. He and Beauregard became heroes throughout the South, although neither was impressed with their government, which they thought missed a decisive victory by not supporting a pursuit.
He was rewarded for his service with promotion to full General. But there was a catch: he was fourth in seniority, and everyone ahead of him had been behind him in the U.S. Army. He considered Jefferson Davis responsible, and the two started a running feud. Johnston was left in charge of the troops in northern Virginia over the winter of 1861-62 and trained them into an army while feuding with Davis over petty details. He withdrew suddenly from Manassas Junction in March 1862, before McClellan could land a blow – but at the cost of immense supply dumps. The Confederate supply services are rarely credited with providing a surplus, but they managed once – and nobody had thought far enough ahead to consider evacuation or keeping smaller reserves.
Since McClellan had shifted his army around to the James-York Peninsula, closer to Richmond than Johnston was, the Confederate forces moved to protect their capital. McClellan helped by not moving quickly: he paused to besiege Yorktown (the Confederates slipped away) and Williamsburg (ditto). Johnston took command of the forces John Magruder withdrew, but he was on the outskirts of Richmond. If he stayed on the defensive he would lose, for McClellan could surely mount a siege, and superior numbers and artillery would sooner-or-later ensure Union victory. On May 31 Johnston attacked. He didn’t co-ordinate his subordinates, and instead of a major attack Seven Pines was a series of small battles. To be fair, McClellan was as ineffective in controlling his army. Johnston acquired his third wound, and R. E. took command.
When he recovered (late 1862) he was given a supervisory role in the western theater, but no troops. Bragg had the Army of Tennessee, Pemberton had the troops in Mississippi; Johnston had scattered garrisons and militias. Bragg was pinned down by larger Union forces in east-central Tennessee; Pemberton got himself caught in Vicksburg, and Johnston didn’t have enough men to relieve him. He didn’t have enough troops to defend Jackson, Grant’s next target, and withdrew out of range.
After Bragg’s reputation was shattered (along with his army) at Chattanooga, Johnston took over the Army of Tennessee. He wasn’t strong enough to defeat Sherman, but made him pay in blood and sweat for every mile between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Prudent retreat is never a way to win popular support, and it gave Jefferson Davis the opportunity to install a bolder commander. John Hood proceeded to aggressively wreck the Army of Tennessee, and lose Atlanta; Johnston would have preserved the Army and been able to influence Sherman’s future movement.
Hood not only was tactically aggressive, he took the Army into Tennessee in a winter campaign in 1864, which failed. Only fragments returned, and Johnston was expected to make bricks without straw. He was restored to the Army (little more than a strong Corps) and also given command of the Departments of Tennessee and Georgia, and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (February 1865). There were no more troops to be raised, nor supplies to be wrung from the people; he could only retreat in front of Sherman’s veteran columns, while looking for an opportunity to defeat a portion. He pulled back into North Carolina, attacked Sherman’s men at Bentonville, finally surrendering on April 26, 1865 near Durham.
After the war he moved to Savannah, then ran a railroad in Arkansas and moved into the insurance business. In 1877 he settled in Richmond running an express company and was elected to Congress as a Democrat. He served only one term (1879-81), not seeking another. President Cleveland appointed him a Railroad Commissioner in 1887, a job he held until his death. In 1891 he attended Sherman’s funeral and died from a cold he caught there.
Content provided by:
Eicher, John H. & David J. Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2001.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray - Lives of the Confederate Commanders.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.