Joseph E. Johnston

by Stephen Cushman

Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) was the highest ranking United States officer to resign and serve the Confederacy. Member of the class of 1829 at West Point, he served in various capacities and saw action in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican American War. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was appointed brigadier general in the Confederate States Army (he was a major general of Virginia volunteers) and then rapidly promoted to General. He commanded the Army of the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry and led it at the Battle of First Bull Run. He began the defense of Richmond against McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign, but after his wounding at seven Pines, Robert E. Lee succeeded to command. From 1862 to 1863 he was commander of the Department of the West. From 1863 to 1864 and then again in early 1865 he commanded the Army of Tennessee. In the former command he presided over the steady retreat from northern Georgia to Atlanta, and in the latter over the surrender of the Army of Tennessee to Sherman in April 1865. He quarreled with Jefferson Davis throughout his service, and the publication of his memoirs in 1874 re-ignited controversies and animosities among senior Confederates. After the war he went into the rail road then the insurance business. He served one term in the US House of Representatives and also served as US Commissioner of Railroads.

The highest ranking United States officer to resign and serve the Confederacy, Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born February 3, 1807, near Farmville, Virginia, the seventh child, and seventh son, of Peter Johnston, who served during the Revolution in the brigade of Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee, and Mary Valentine Wood, a niece of Patrick Henry. Information about Johnston’s early life, spent in Abingdon, Virginia, is relatively scarce before his nomination to West Point by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. In June 1825 he entered the United States Military Academy as a member of the class of 1829, which included Robert E. Lee, who graduated second to Johnston’s thirteenth in a class of forty-six. At West Point Johnston excelled in the study of French and earned few demerits. He admired Lee greatly and served under him as a cadet officer when Lee was named Adjutant of the Corps, although his admiration for his classmate was mixed with competitive rivalry, as it would be throughout his career.

Upon graduation Johnston received his commission as second lieutenant in Company C, Fourth United States Artillery, and was assigned to Fort Columbus on Governor’s Island in New York harbor until the summer of 1831. In the fall of 1831, in the aftermath of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, he was assigned to Fort Monroe, on the Virginia coast, where he was a student in the Artillery School of Practice. In June 1832 Company C of the Fourth U. S. Artillery left with General Winfield Scott for the Black Hawk War in Illinois, but Johnston did not see action in this conflict. Instead, he waited at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) while the war ended with the Battle of Bad Axe, August 1-2, 1832, fought in what later became Wisconsin. Having come back to Fort Monroe in November 1832, Johnston left again with Company C almost immediately, this time assigned to Charleston, South Carolina, during the nullification crisis, and returned to Fort Monroe in the spring of 1833. He spent the winter of 1834 in central Alabama to help keep the peace between Creeks and whites on the frontier, again without seeing action. Appointed to Winfield Scott’s staff as aide-de-camp in January 1836, Johnston began active campaigning in March in the Second Seminole War. Promoted to first lieutenant in July 1836, he remained in Florida until the spring of 1837, when he resigned from the army. He hoped to become a civil engineer.

With the panic of 1837 many construction projects halted, and many engineers were unemployed. Finding work with the Topographical Bureau in Washington, Johnston returned to Florida in the fall, the only civilian in an expedition assigned to survey the coast from St. Augustine to Key West. In January 1838 the expedition, under the command of Navy Lieutenant Levin M. Powell, collided with Seminoles on the Jupiter River. Fighting as a civilian, Johnston received a wound on his scalp; he also distinguished himself with his courage and leadership. In March 1838 he became one of the first white men to enter the Florida Everglades, where he saw more fighting against the Seminoles. Having returned to Washington in April, he joined the army again in the summer, this time as first lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, soon breveted to captain for his bravery and service during the Second Seminole War. Assigned to surveying projects along the international boundary between the United States and Canada (1840) and the Sabine River on the Texas-Louisiana border (1841), Johnston returned to Florida in 1842 as Assistant Adjutant General on the staff of William A. Worthen. On July 10, 1845, he married Lydia Mulligan Sims McLane, sister of his fellow officer Robert McLane and fifteen years younger than her new husband, in Baltimore. Their long marriage, the closest and most important relationship in Johnston’s life, proved childless.

Nearly two years later, as a topographic engineer on Winfield Scott’s staff, Captain Johnston entered the Mexican War at Vera Cruz in March 1847. Having completed the envelopment of Vera Cruz from the landward side, Scott sent Johnston to governor Juan Morales with an invitation to surrender before bombardment commenced. Morales politely declined, bombardment followed, and Vera Cruz surrendered on March 27, 1847, both Johnston and fellow staff-officer Robert E. Lee participating in the formal ceremony two days later. Wounded by grapeshot while reconnoitering Santa Anna’s position at Cerro Gordo on April 12, Johnston was hospitalized at Jalapa and rejoined the army at Puebla, having been breveted to lieutenant colonel and skipping the rank of major altogether. When Scott moved westward from Puebla toward Mexico City in August 1847, Johnston was second-in-command of the Regiment of Voltigeurs and Foot Riflemen, Colonel Timothy Patrick Andrews commanding. The Voltigeurs joined the 11th and 14th Infantry Regiments in a brigade commanded by Major General George P. Cadwalader. In the subsequent campaign against Mexico City, the Voltigeur lieutenant colonel performed effectively at the battles of Contreras, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey. For his part in the storming of Chapultepec, he was breveted to colonel. Dimming the luster of his achievements, however, was the grievous news, delivered to him by Lee, that Johnson’s beloved nephew Preston, serving in the First Artillery commanded by John Bankhead McGruder, had been killed on August 14, 1847. The pain of this loss remained with Johnston for the rest of his life.

Having returned from the Mexican War in 1848, Johnston was assigned the next year to survey a possible railroad route between San Antonio and El Paso, Texas. After a leave of absence from fall 1852 until fall 1853, he spent two years as supervisor of navigation improvements on the Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers. Eager to leave the Topographical Engineers, Johnston sought assignment to one of four new regiments authorized by Congress at the urging of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, two of infantry, two of cavalry. In March 1855 he found himself with the rank of lieutenant colonel and second-in-command of the new First Cavalry Regiment under Colonel Edwin Vose “Bull” Sumner. Moving from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Laramie in September 1855, Johnston formed a close friendship with one of the First Cavalry captains, George Brinton McClellan, with whom he corresponded frequently and frankly after McClellan resigned from the army in the fall of 1856. During that year of clashes between free-state and pro-slavery men in Kansas, the First Cavalry saw duty as a peacekeeping force in that territory, an assignment Johnston found deeply distasteful. After an interlude at Jefferson Barracks, south of St. Louis, he returned to Kansas on assignment to survey its southern border in anticipation of statehood. From May 3 to August 26, 1858, he served as Acting Inspector-General of the Utah Expedition, under the command of Albert Sidney Johnston. As the 1850s drew to a close, he traveled to Vera Cruz once again, this time in the company of his brother-in-law, Robert Milligan McLane, whom President James Buchanan had appointed Minster to Mexico in March 1859. Johnston’s official assignment was to assess possible military routes across the country; his unofficial mission was to help McLane in negotiations with Mexican President Benito Juarez, from whom Buchanan wanted to buy Chihuahua and Sonora in exchange for official recognition of his government by the United States.

After the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, the disastrous Tennessee battles of Franklin (November 30) and Nashville (December 15-16), the completion of Sherman’s March to the Sea, and the opening of his Carolinas Campaign in late January 1865, public and military opinion turned so sharply against Hood that Davis had little choice but to replace him. He had no enthusiasm for recalling Johnston, but he had no good alternatives. Furthermore, in January 1865 both houses of the Confederate congress passed a bill—in effect a vote of no-confidence in Jefferson Davis—that gave Robert E. Lee the powers of general-in-chief and recommended the assignment of Johnston to command of the Army of Tennessee. On February 22, Lee issued orders assigning Johnston to command of the Department of South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia and the Department of Tennessee and Georgia. (The two departments split Georgia, the coast belonging to the former, the western part to the latter. North Carolina was added in early March.) Initially, Johnston felt angered by his assignment, sensing that he had been given the thankless job of surrendering to Sherman and taking the blame for it. But when Wigfall told him that it was Lee who had engineered the assignment, and that his old classmate still had full confidence in him, his attitude changed.

Assuming command at Charlotte, North Carolina, on February 25, 1865, Johnston assembled what forces he could to oppose Sherman and directed his last battle at Bentonville (March 19-21), where his vastly outnumbered soldiers fought bravely and well. But news of Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9 confirmed that the end had come for the Confederate States of America. On April 17 Johnston met Sherman, in later life a good friend, for the first time at the farmhouse of James and Nancy Bennett, located between the opposing lines on the Hillsborough Road west of Durham Station, North Carolina. Sherman had just received a telegram about the assassination of Lincoln, which he handed to Johnston at the farmhouse. Against the backdrop of this disruptive news, the two men negotiated for two days, signing a memorandum of agreement on April 18. On April 24 Sherman received word from Washington that Andrew Johnson and Edwin Stanton had rejected the surrender terms, which exceeded his military authority, and on April 26 Johnston surrendered on the same terms offered to Lee by Grant at Appomattox. On May 2 at Greensboro, North Carolina, he issued General Orders No. 22, his farewell to the Army of Tennessee.

After the war the fifty-eight-year-old Johnston had to find a new livelihood, now that the life of a soldier was no longer available to him after thirty-five years of military service. Drawing on his pre-war experience surveying for railroads, he served from May 1866 to November 1867 as president of the Alabama and Tennessee River Rail Road Company, later renamed the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad, which soon failed. In 1868 he turned to the insurance business, establishing Joseph E. Johnston and Company, headquartered in Savannah, Georgia, as agent for a British company. With money he earned from this venture, he was able to turn to writing Narrative of Military Operations, published in 1874 by the New York house D. Appleton and Company, which also published Sherman’s far more successful memoirs the next year. For all the persistent self-justification in Johnston’s book, his final chapter firmly rejected the developing mythology of the Lost Cause, asserting in striking contrast to earlier Confederate memoirist Jubal Early, “The cause of the subjugation of the Southern States was neither wealth and population, nor of devotion to their own cause on the part of the people of those states… They had ample means, which, unfortunately, were not applied to the object of equipping great armies, and bringing them into the field” (Narrative, 421-2). Johnston's self-justifications outraged his enemies, especially John Bell Hood, whose Advance and Retreat: Personal Experiences in the United States and Confederate Armies appeared posthumously in 1880, and Jefferson Davis, who published The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government in 1881; in many cases the carping tone of his Narrative disappointed, or even alienated, his friends as well.

In the winter of 1876-77 Johnston moved from Savannah to Richmond, where he was elected, as a Democrat from Virginia, to one term in the United States House of Representatives from 1879 to 1881. During the first administration of Grover Cleveland, who wanted to fill government posts with prominent southerners, Johnston served as U. S. Railroad Commissioner from 1885 to 1889, when Benjamin Harrison defeated Cleveland’s bid for reelection. During his tenure in this position, Lydia, whose health had been declining steadily, died in 1887 at the age of sixty-five. Although no death affected him as much as this one, other deaths were part of his life during these years. In 1885 he was an honorary pallbearer at both Grant's and McClellan's funerals, and on February 19, 1891, in New York he performed the same ceremonial function at Sherman's. A month later, on March 21, Joseph E. Johnston died of complications from pneumonia at his Connecticut Avenue home in Washington, DC, at the age of eighty-four. The reconciliatory lore soon developed that his final illness originated in a cold he caught at Sherman’s funeral because he insisted on removing his hat, despite raw, rainy weather, as a sign of respect for his old adversary. He was buried next to Lydia in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, where they had married nearly forty-six years earlier.

Joseph Eggleston Johnston

  • [1] Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations, Directed, during the Late War between the States, by Joseph E. Johnston, General, C.S.A., Indiana University Press 1959 ed. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874), 9.  Pagination is the same in both editions, and subsequent page references to this work will appear parenthetically in the text.
  • [2] After the fall of Vicksburg, Davis removed Johnston from command of the Department of the West and limited his responsibilities to Mississippi, southern Alabama, and a small section of western Tennessee.  During this period Johnston reduced the size of his own command to send reinforcements to Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga.  See Craig Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography (New York: Norton, 1992), 219-20, 243-4.
  • [3] For an overview of the battle, see David Detzer, “Bull Run, July 21, 1861,” Essential Civil War Curriculum, , accessed August 21, 2015; for Johnston’s role in the battle, see Johnston, Narrative, 39-57, and Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston, 112-24.
  • [4] For more on Johnston in the Peninsula campaign and the battle of Seven Pines, see Johnston, Narrative, 108-46, and Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston, 140-74.
  • [5] At issue here was James Longstreet’s performance on May 31, 1862.  Johnston intended for Longstreet to move east toward Fair Oaks Station on Nine Mile Road, but Longstreet apparently misunderstood Johnston’s orders and advanced instead along the Williamsburg Road, to the south, where he became entangled with Benjamin Huger’s men.  In the end the confusion meant that only five of Longstreet’s thirteen available brigades did any fighting on May 31.  The evidence strongly suggests that the error was Longstreet’s, but Johnston blamed Huger instead, perhaps because he realized that he himself bore responsibility for Longstreet’s misunderstanding.  After the battle Johnston asked Smith to omit references to Longstreet’s mistake and in his Narrative and blamed Confederate failure on Seven Pines on Huger, who was relieved by Lee on July 12, 1862.  See Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston, 172-4.
  • [6] Jefferson Davis to Joseph E. Johnston, May 24, 1863, and to Robert E. Lee, May 31, 1863, in William J. Cooper, Jr., ed.  Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 302-3; emphasis in original.
  • [7] For more detail on Johnston’s operations in Mississippi, see his Narrative, 175-210, and Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston, 204-18.
  • [8] Johnston defended his performance at length in Narrative, 349-69.  For more objective assessment, see Albert Castel, Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992), esp. 561-2.

If you can read only one book:

Symonds, Craig L. Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography.  New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.


  • Castel, Albert. Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864.  Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

  • Cullum, George. Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, N. Y., from its Establishment in 1802, to 1890: With the Early History of the United States Military Academy.  3rd ed., rev. and extended.  3 vols. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1891.  Joseph E. Johnston is Cullum Number 553, 1:427-9. 

  • Govan, Gilbert E. and James W. Livingood. A Different Valor: The Story of Joseph E. Johnston, C.S.A.  Indianapolis: Bobbs- Merrill Company, 1956.

  • Hughes, Robert M. General Johnston.  New York: D. Appleton, 1893.

  • Johnston, Joseph E. Narrative of Military Operations, Directed, During the Late War Between the States, by Joseph E. Johnston, General C.S.A. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874. Reprinted with introduction by Frank E. Vandiver.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959.

  • Woodworth, Steven E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.


  • Smithfield Light Infantry Camp

    This organization is dedicated to erecting a statue to General Johnston. 

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Web Resources:

  • This is the Civil War Trust page on Joseph Eggleston Johnston.

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