Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born near Farmville, in Prince Edward County, Virginia, on February 3, 1807. He was the seventh son of Judge Peter Johnston and Mary Valentine (Wood) Johnston. Johnston’s parents named him after his father’s Revolutionary War commander, Joseph Eggleston. Johnston’s mother was a niece of American patriot Patrick Henry. As a youth, Johnston attended Abingdon Academy, a military school, in southwestern Virginia.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1825, Johnston secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy. He graduated from West Point on July 1, 1829, ranked thirteenth in the class of forty-six cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, Johnston received a brevet commission as a second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Artillery. Johnston served in the army for nearly eight years before resigning in the spring of 1837 to study civil engineering. During that time, he took part in the Black Hawk War (1832) in Illinois and in the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) in Florida.
Following his resignation, Johnston worked as a civilian topographic engineer and received minor wounds during an Indian attack in Jupiter, Florida on January 12, 1838.
Return to Army Life
Six months later, on July 7, 1838, Johnston rejoined the army as a first lieutenant, with a brevet captaincy for gallantry in Florida. For the next few years, Johnston served as a topographical engineer, principally in the southwest, where he surveyed the Texas–Mexican border.
On July 10, 1845, in Baltimore, Johnston married Lydia McLane, the daughter of Louis McLane, a prominent political figure who had served in the U.S. Senate and as secretary of the treasury and secretary of state in the cabinet of President Andrew Jackson. The couple remained married for over forty years, but they had no children.
Four months after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Johnston earned the rank of captain on September 21, 1846. During the war, he saw considerable action and twice received wounds. In April 1847, Johnston received a brevet to lieutenant colonel. Five months later, in September, he attained the brevet rank of colonel.
Grievance Over Rank
When the war ended, officials returned Johnston to his previous rank of captain with the topographical engineers. For the next several years, Johnston challenged the army’s decision to return him to his former rank, believing that his brevet promotions entitled him to the rank of colonel. On March 1, 1855, Johnston joined the 1st U.S. Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and received a promotion to lieutenant colonel. Despite his promotion, Johnston continued to pursue his grievance.
On July 11, 1855, U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ruled against Johnston’s appeal, starting a contentious relationship between the two men that lasted throughout their service with the Confederacy during the American Civil War. When Johnston’s relative by marriage, John B. Floyd, succeeded Davis as secretary of war, he reversed Davis’s ruling and promoted Johnston to the rank of colonel in 1858. Floyd’s decision smacked of favoritism amongst the officer corps.
On June 28, 1860, Floyd appointed Johnston as Quartermaster General of the Army, carrying with it a promotion to brigadier-general. Johnston served in the position only ten months, resigning his commission on April 22, 1861, five days after his native state of Virginia seceded from the Union. Johnston was the highest-ranking United States Army officer to resign his commission when the American Civil War began.
After resigning his commission, Johnston served briefly in the Virginia militia. On May 14, 1861, he received a commission as a brigadier-general in the Confederate Army and departed for Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where he relieved Colonel Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson of command. When Federal forces threatened to reoccupy the garrison there, Johnston abandoned the city on July 15, 1861, rather than risk being overrun or isolated. The decision to evacuate Harpers Ferry was the first of several tactical retreats that would earn Johnston the nicknames of “the great retreater” and “retreatin’ Joe” during the Civil War.
First Battle of Bull Run
After leaving Harper’s Ferry, Johnston moved his troops, now designated the Army of the Shenandoah, to Winchester, Virginia. He then advanced to Manassas, where he reinforced General P. G. T. Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac during the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). When Johnston arrived at Manassas, on July 20, 1861, Beauregard had already developed a battle plan for defeating McDowell’s forces. Although Johnston was senior in rank to Beauregard, he deferred command of the forces in the field and approved Beauregard’s plans. After the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run, Johnston assumed command of the Department of the Potomac and combined armies, which kept the name “Army of the Potomac.”
Dispute Over Rank
On August 31, 1861, at President Jefferson Davis’s request, the Confederate Congress promoted Johnston, Beauregard, Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee to the rank of full general. However, the effective dates of the promotions of Cooper (May 16, 1861), A. S. Johnston (May 30, 1861), and Lee (June 14, 1861), predated the effective date of Johnston’s promotion (July 4, 1861), making Johnston the fourth-highest officer in the Confederate chain-of-command.
Because Johnston ranked higher in the old federal army than the other three men when they resigned their commissions, he felt slighted by Davis’s decision. In a letter dated September 12, Johnston accused Davis of tarnishing his “fair fame as a soldier and as a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service.” He went on to
protest against the wrong which I conceive has been done me. I now and here declare my claim that, not withstanding the nominations made by the President, and their confirmation by Congress, I still rightfully hold the rank of first general in the armies of the Southern Confederacy.
Davis dismissed Johnston’s complaints with a curt reply dated September 14, stating that
I have just received and read your letter of the 12th instant. Its language is, as you say, unusual; its arguments and statements utterly one-sided, and its insinuations as unfounded as they are unbecoming.
Davis’s decision stood, but it further eroded the two men’s already rocky relationship.
Department of Northern Virginia Commander
Davis’s feelings about Johnston’s complaints did not prevent him from placing the general in charge of the Department of Northern Virginia on October 22, 1861, and charging him with the defense of Richmond, Virginia. When the 1862 campaign season began, Union Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac began its advance up the Virginia Peninsula toward the Confederate capital. To the chagrin of Davis and other Confederate leaders, Johnston used defensive tactics against McClellan, gradually retreating up the peninsula toward Richmond.
Wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines
On May 31, with the Union army on the outskirts of Richmond, Johnston went on the offensive and attacked McClellan’s forces near Fair Oaks in Henrico County. Johnston’s forces did not execute his complex battle plan very well, but they surprised the Federals as designed. During the fighting on the first day of the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31–June 1, 1862) an exploding Yankee shell severely wounded Johnston. The severity of his injuries forced Johnston to retire from the field. Jefferson Davis soon placed Robert E. Lee in charge of Johnston’s command became the Army of Northern Virginia. The results of the battle were inconclusive, but the Rebels halted McClellan’s offensive. Using a more offensive strategy than Johnston, Lee eventually drove McClellan’s army off the peninsula and back to Washington, D.C.
Command in the West
After Johnston recuperated from his wounds, Davis reassigned him to head the Department of the West on November 12, 1862. Johnston’s new assignment placed him in command of most Confederate forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, including General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee and Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. Johnston’s principal task was to coordinate the efforts of these two armies.
Events did not start well for Johnston. A little over one month after Johnston assumed his new appointment, Major General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland forced Bragg’s army to withdraw from Murfreesboro, Tennessee following a fierce fight at the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863). Immediately after the defeat, Johnston had to intercede in a dispute between Bragg and his senior commanders.
Vicksburg Operations and Loss of Command
Even more pressing was Pemberton’s situation at Vicksburg. Late in December 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant began his campaign to capture the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. Although Grant’s operations faltered initially, he continued to pursue his goal with characteristic doggedness. By April 1863, Grant established a beachhead on the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg and moved his army east to isolate the city along with Pemberton’s army.
Anticipating Grant’s intentions, Johnston proceeded to Jackson, Mississippi, hoping to relieve Pemberton. The size of the Confederate force at Jackson was not nearly large enough to defeat Grant’s forces, and Johnston had to abandon the Mississippi capital after the Battle of Jackson (May 14, 1863). Johnston’s retreat left Pemberton alone to face Grant’s growing army.
Union victories at the Battle of Champion Hill (May 16, 1863) and the Battle of Big Black River Bridge (May 17, 1863) drove Pemberton’s army back to the fortifications surrounding Vicksburg. Sensing the hopelessness of the Rebel situation, Johnston advised Pemberton to abandon the city and to save his army. President Davis, however, ordered Pemberton to hold the city at all costs. Pemberton followed Davis’s orders, and Northern forces surrounded his army. On July 4, following a siege of forty-five days, Pemberton surrendered his army and the city to Grant.
The fall of Vicksburg was a devastating blow to the Confederacy, and Davis publicly held Johnston accountable. As a result, he removed the Army of Tennessee from Johnston’s authority, leaving him in charge of relatively minor operations in Mississippi and Alabama.
Return to Command
Johnston remained in obscurity until Braxton Bragg resigned his command of the Army of Tennessee following Ulysses S. Grant’s breakout from Chattanooga. After considerable agonizing, President Davis assigned Johnston to replace Bragg in December 1863.
Relieved of Command Again
In May 1864, Major General William T. Sherman launched his Atlanta Campaign. Unwilling to risk an offensive against Sherman’s advancing juggernaut, Johnston resorted to a defensive strategy similar to that which he used during the Peninsula Campaign. Although Johnston’s men constructed strong defensive fortifications at strategic points to thwart Sherman’s advance toward Atlanta, more often than not, Sherman flanked Johnston’s positions, forcing the Rebels to retreat southward. On the few occasions that Sherman risked assaults, such as at the Battle of Resaca (May 13–May 15, 1864), the Battle of New Hope Church (May 25–26, 1864), and the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June 27, 1864), the Confederates were successful. Still, Davis eventually tired of Johnston giving ground and replaced him with the more pugnacious John Bell Hood on July 17, 1864.
Johnston lived in limbo with no command for the next several months, as the Confederate situation in the Deep South rapidly deteriorated. After Sherman captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, he launched his March to the Sea on November 15. One month later, Union forces soundly defeated Hood’s Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville (December 15–December 16, 1864). The following week, Sherman took possession of the coastal city of Savannah, Georgia, opening the way for a march north through the Carolinas to reinforce the Army of the Potomac’s assault on Richmond, Virginia.
In January 1865, the Confederate Congress urged President Davis to reinstate Johnston, hoping to salvage the situation in the Carolinas. Davis refused. In a lengthy diatribe dated February 18, 1865, Davis documented Johnston’s perceived failures and concluded,
My opinion of General Johnston’s unfitness for command has ripened slowly and against my inclinations into a conviction so settled that it would be impossible for me again to feel confidence in him as the commander of an army in the field.
Opposition to Davis’ leadership reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865, when the Confederation Congress enacted legislation creating the post of General-in-Chief of Confederate forces. The same bill contained a resolution stating:
That if the President will assign Gen. JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON to the command of the Army of Tennessee, it will, in the opinion of the Congress of the Confederate States, be hailed with joy by the army and receive the approval of the country.
A week later, the bedeviled president appointed Robert E. Lee to the post of General-in-Chief. On February 1, Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General (CSA) informed Lee that the Confederate Senate confirmed his appointment.
On the same day that Cooper informed Lee of his confirmation, Major General William T. Sherman led 60,000 battle-hardened Union soldiers out of Savannah, Georgia. As Sherman moved north nearly unabated, alarmed Southerners called for Lee to stop the Union marauders.
Lee redeployed the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, which Union forces had decimated during the Franklin-Nashville Campaign, to bolster the Confederate forces in the Carolinas. On February 22, 1865, the General-in-Chief ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to “Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.” Lee ordered Johnston to “Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” On the same day, Johnston advised Lee that “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman. The remnant of the Army of Tennessee is much divided.”
Army of the South
Johnston’s assessment was correct. On March 6, 1865, Confederate officials added the Department of Southern Virginia to Johnston’s command. The general designated the 20,000 to 25,000 men serving under him in North Carolina as the Army of the South. In reality, Johnston’s army was a paper tiger, as he commanded only a few fit soldiers. Johnston began gathering his forces near Smithville, North Carolina in early March 1865.
Battle of Bentonville
On March 16, 1865, Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia, which comprised Sherman’s left-wing, attacked Johnston’s entrenched Rebels north of nearby Averasboro, North Carolina, forcing them to fall back to Bentonville. Often characterized as a defensive general because of his performance during the Peninsula Campaign (1862) and the Atlanta Campaign (1864), Johnston went on the offensive and engaged the right-wing of Sherman’s army near Bentonville.
Surrender at Bennett Place
After being soundly defeated at the Battle of Bentonville on March 19, 1865, Johnston withdrew and eluded Sherman for the next month. On April 26, 1865, two weeks after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Johnston surrendered his forces to Sherman at Bennett Place, virtually ending major organized combat in the American Civil War.
After the war, Johnston accepted a position as president of a small railroad company that failed in 1867. One year later, he established a successful insurance agency in Savannah, Georgia.
In 1874, Johnston attempted to salvage his military reputation by publishing his Narrative of Military Operations Directed During the Late War Between the States. The book was highly critical of Jefferson Davis’s leadership during the conflict and accomplished little beyond refueling his quarrel with the former Confederate president.
In 1877, Johnston moved to Richmond, Virginia. One year later, voters elected him to Congress, where he served from 1879 to 1881. After one term in Congress, Johnston chose not to run for re-election. He later served as the U.S. Railroad Commissioner during President Grover Cleveland’s first administration.
Johnston outlived most of the Civil War’s general officers. After the war, he developed a friendship with William T. Sherman that lasted until their final days. On February 19, 1891, Johnston stood bare-headed, while he served as an honorary pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral. He contracted a severe cold soon thereafter and died at his home in Washington, D.C. on March 21, 1891. Johnston was buried next to his wife, who had died four years earlier, at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.