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History of the American Civil War: Joseph E. Johnston (1807-1891)
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History of the American Civil War: Joseph E. Johnston (1807-1891)

 

By Jon R. Warren


Mary Boykin Chesnut called him in her diary "The Great Retreater." In affectionate derision his soldiers gave him the nickname "Retreatin' Joe". He had earned the titles honestly: in his withdrawal before McClellan in the Peninsular Campaign, through his unhappy situation in the hopeless attempt to relieve Pemberton at Vicksburg, the long retreat before Sherman to Atlanta and then through the Carolinas, it seemed always his fate to be moving backward.

West Point-trained Joseph Eggleston Johnston became a member of the exclusive hierarchy of full generals in the confederacy on August 31, 1861, ranking from July 4, for his performance at First Bull Run. Of the six generals he ranked fourth after Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee, taking precedence only over Pierre G. T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg. He had been a brigadier general in the Regular Army before the war, outranking them all, and resentment at this unfairness led to a hatred of Jefferson Davis that , according to Mrs. Chesnut, became "a religion with him."

The venom engendered by Johnston's constant bickering with his President clouded the military decisions of both men. It was a distinct disservice to a nation struggling to keep alive, when unity and cooperation were prime essentials. 

Of all the generals in the Civil War, Johnston was perhaps the most completely professional in study, training, and experience. It can be argued that he was a better defensive tactician than Lee. Circumstances of his assignments were such that he never demonstrated his ability at offense. Yet Union generals feared him as men might fear a running wolf brought to bay. 

He would not waste men in futile, vainglorious assaults. Had he led at Franklin there would have been no useless slaughter of the Army of Tennessee. Had he invaded Pennsylvania (which is unlikely), he was too professional a soldier to have ordered a suicidal charge across a mile of open fields against massed artillery and infantry fire. There was a Scottish strain of caution in him that was at variance with the storybook gallantry and daring of so many of his fellow generals. The men he led "loved, respected, admired" him as one recalled, and "...would gladly have died for him." And yet as Gamaliel Bradford wrote, " I wish the man had achieved something."
     

This article has been read 1747 times. Last read on 3/21/2017 7:36:49 AM


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