Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born near Farmville, Virginia on February 3, 1807. Johnston’s father Peter was an officer under the command of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father, during the Revolutionary War and he was a prominent Virginia planter and judge. His mother, Mary Valentine Wood Johnston, was the niece of Patrick Henry.
Johnston was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1825 and was a classmate of Robert E. Lee. In 1829 Johnston graduated thirteenth in his class and was appointed second lieutenant in the United States Artillery. Johnston rose quickly through the ranks, and in 1860 he was promoted to brigadier general, the first West Point graduate to make general. During his rise he was involved in the suppression of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). During his service, Johnston was wounded multiple times.
Johnston opposed slavery and secession, but his loyalty to Virginia made him resign as general when the state seceded in 1861. Johnston became a brigadier general in the Provisional Confederate Army and was assigned all forces around Richmond, Virginia. Johnston’s strategy differed greatly from Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Johnston believed that preserving the Army’s ability to fight was most important while Davis preferred to hold territory. The philosophical difference in strategy would put Johnston at odds with Davis throughout the entire war. The first instance of strategic withdrawal was Johnston’s retreat at Harpers Ferry (May 1861). Johnston deployed a cavalry screen that prevented the Union from knowing the direction of the retreat – a technique Johnston became known for throughout the Civil War.
At the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Johnston took command of the field after P.G.T. Beauregard’s plan began to falter. Thanks to Johnston, the Union was thoroughly routed and humiliated, but Beauregard received most of the credit for the victory. President Davis reprimanded Johnston and Beauregard for failing to pursue the fleeing Union army into Washington but refrained from publicly attacking Johnston; Johnston was extremely popular with the people, his fellow officers, and the men under his command. In August 1861, Johnston was given the rank of full general.
In early-1862, Johnston was given command of the Army of the Potomac (Army of Northern Virginia) and was tasked with defending Richmond. After initiating a series of strategic withdrawals during General McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Davis presented Johnston with an ultimatum, to fight or be relieved of command. At the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862), Johnston attacked and, after a costly battle, forced the Union to retreat. Johnston was critically injured and unable to return to the field for six months. Robert E. Lee replaced Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
After recovering, Johnston was assigned command of all forces between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Unable to secure reinforcements for the defense of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Johnston retreated from to preserve his army. Davis superseded Johnston and commanded the Mississippi Army to hold Vicksburg at all costs. The remaining garrison was overwhelmed, and the city was burned to the ground on July 4, 1863.
After General Braxton Bragg was defeated at Chattanooga in November 1863, Johnston was placed in direct command of the Army of Tennessee. Johnston resisted the advance of Union General William T. Sherman on Atlanta in early 1864. Sherman’s force outnumbered Johnston’s by nearly two to one, and Johnston tried fighting Sherman from fortified strategic positions. Johnston would hold a position as long as possible before retreating. Sherman, a brilliant tactician, forced Johnston’s retreats by attempting to flank and encircle the Confederates. Unhappy that Johnston kept losing ground, Davis replaced Johnston with Lieutenant General John Bell Hood on July 17, 1864. Instead of tactically retreating, Hood continuously attacked Sherman’s larger force and lost Atlanta on September 2, 1864. He then proceeded to lose much of the Army of Tennessee in November and December.
Sherman’s “March to the Sea” created public outcry in the South, and Davis was forced to reinstate Johnston. Johnston accepted the assignment and returned to the field on February 25, 1865 as Sherman was approaching North Carolina as part of his Carolinas Campaign. Johnston fortified Charlotte, North Carolina, but Sherman instead pushed toward Fayetteville. Johnston’s Cavalry, led by General Wade Hampton, battled Sherman’s Cavalry at the Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads on March 10 and the Battle of Averasboro on March 15 and 16. As the cavalry delayed Sherman’s advance, Johnston repositioned his army at Bentonville blocking the road to Goldsboro, N.C. The Battle of Bentonville (March 19-21, 1865) was a morale victory for the Confederacy; thanks to Johnston’s leadership, the Southern forces outperformed the Union. However, Sherman claimed victory because the Confederate Army retreated, and he held the battlefield. Bentonville was the last major conflict in the Civil War. After the battle, Johnston retreated his forces to Raleigh and then to Greensboro.
Johnston planned to make his stand at Greensboro, but when he learned of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865. Johnston met with Davis at a house in Greensboro and convinced the Confederate President to authorize ceasefire negotiations. Johnston and Sherman met at Bennett’s Place outside of Durham’s Station, North Carolina, on April 17 and 18 to negotiate the formal surrender of the Army of Tennessee as well as all forces still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The initial terms of surrender were generous; Sherman offered complete amnesty to everyone in the South. However, Washington politicians felt Sherman overstepped his authority and rejected the terms. Davis ordered Johnston to disperse his army and reform later so that the war could continue. Johnston ignored Davis’s orders and met with Sherman again on April 26, 1865 and officially surrendered the Confederate Army.
After the war, Johnston moved to Savannah, Georgia and in 1874 his Narrative of Military Operations, an analysis of the Civil War that criticized Jefferson Davis’s poor strategic decisions, was published. Johnston returned to Virginia in 1877 and became a Democratic Virginian Representative in the United States Congress. He retired after a single term. In 1885 he was appointed as a United States commissioner of railroads and he served in the position until 1891. Johnston proudly served as a pallbearer in Sherman’s funeral on February 19, 1891 and contracted pneumonia due to the poor weather. He died on March 21, 1891.
Alan Axelrod, Generals South Generals North: The Commanders of the Civil War Reconsidered. (Lyons Press: Guilford, Connecticut, 2011) 14-26.
John G. Barrett, Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1956).
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1963).
Sharyn Kane and Richard Keeton, Fiery Dawn: The Civil War Battle At Monroe’s Crossroads, North Carolina, prepared for the U.S. Army, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida, 1999.
Mark L. Bradley, Last Stand in the Carolina’s: The Battle of Bentonville. (Campbell: Savas Woodbury Publishers, 1996).