Monday, September 17, 2012

Joseph E. Johnston: Misunderstood?

General Joseph E. Johnston

       Some of my friends believe the old legend that if President Davis would have left Joseph E. Johnston in command of the Army of Tennessee then Atlanta would not have fallen. I say we take a look at General Johnston's record as a commander and see if it supports the legend. 
       In early March of 1862, General Johnston abandoned the Manassas line before the Federal army ever left Washington. He promised President Davis that he would do his best to secure all the supplies and heavy artillery. Johnston made no attempt to keep this promise. Most of the heavy artillery was abandoned to the Federal army and most of the supplies were burned. A meat processing plant at Thoroughfare Gap was burned along with one million pounds of meat. All this occurred without a single threat of a Federal move. He further surprised the president when he stated that he hadn't selected a line to hold when he retreated. 
       He stated during the Peninsula Campaign that he could make no guarantee's that he would be capable of holding Richmond. The man could have been Union General George McClellan's long lost twin. Neither man wanted to fight at all unless assured of a victory before hand. Unfortunately for Johnston, but fortunately for the South, he was wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks just east of the capital. Davis turned to a man who would willingly fight the Federals to save his state. Robert E. Lee drove McClellan away from the capital with attacks upon his right flank and by September had invaded Maryland. Johnston would never have accomplished as much.
       During the siege of Vicksburg, Johnston was given a force of 24,000 troops and ordered to assault the rear of Grant's army in an attempt to help Pemberton's forces escape. Johnston refused to move without more men. It was the same thing McClellan had done with Lincoln. Neither man could ever have enough men. Mary Boykin Chestnut the famed diarist of Charleston, South Carolina had told a story about Johnston before the war. He'd been invited to go duck hunting with Wade Hampton. They'd hunted all morning and Hampton had taken several ducks. Johnston had never fired a shot. Each time the birds came by he said they were too high or too far. You see, Johnston had a reputation as a crack shot and if he missed a duck he was afraid his reputation would be ruined. He was the same way in command of an army. As long as he didn't risk a battle, his generalship could never be questioned. 
       My friends use the Atlanta Campaign as evidence of his superior generalship. They claim (along with the legend) that he was luring Sherman far from his supplies and then planned on striking him. I have seen nothing in the record of the man that would make me believe he would ever have attacked Sherman. He would not give President Davis an assurance that he would fight for Atlanta and therefore he was relieved and a man was put in command that would fight. As General Hood stated following the war, if a man couldn't hold the mountains of Northern Georgia, he wasn't much of a general. William Sherman himself stated that Northern Georgia itself was one vast fortress. General Longstreet wrote his friend Joseph Johnston before the Atlanta Campaign began. He understood Johnston's philosophy and wanted to help him. He told Johnston that unless he placed a force on Sherman's flank to force him to protect his long supply line, Sherman would simply turn his flanks all the way to Atlanta and that is exactly what he did. 

The late Shelby Foote

       The late Shelby Foote once said that Joseph Johnston was the worst full general in the Confederacy during the war. That is a pretty bold statement and tells you what he thought of Johnston when you had Braxton Bragg as another pretty bad full general. Foote believed the man was afraid to fight and the record supports this claim. 

Johnston monument at Bentonville

       I took my wife to her first reenactment at Bentonville, North Carolina and she was able to see the unveiling of the statue of General Johnston at the time. She was so excited to witness the event. I told her what I thought of the general and how he was quite a bit overrated in my opinion. That didn't deter her one bit. She was still excited to have witnessed something that historic. I suppose she has a point. Studying these men wouldn't be interesting if each of them were alike. I do enjoy learning the parts of the war that are legend and how we come to believe today what was decided by one person and truly isn't very accurate.


  1. Good analysis. I like the anecdote about the duck hunting. It sheds a lot of light on what was going on in their minds. An awful lot of active reputation building, maintenance and protection took place in the ACW.

  2. Thanks for the comments Chris. There were quite a few generals that struggled with vanity and ego's during the war.