Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph E. Johnston, the most underrated Confederate commander in either theater of the Civil War and the only man to command armies in both, was born at Farmville, Virginia, in 1807. A classmate of Robert E. Lee at West Point, Johnston rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general in the U.S. Army before resigning his commission in April 1861, to join the Confederate forces. Johnston was made a brigadier general in the Southern army and given the command of Harper's Ferry, Virginia. From there, Johnston moved his command by rail to Manassas, where he won the first major battle of the Civil War. Promoted to full general, Johnston commanded the army in Virginia during the Seven Days battles. Though outnumbered, his army halted General George McClellan's advance on Richmond. Johnston was wounded during the battle of Seven Pines. While he convalesced, Davis replaced him as commander of the Virginia army with a friend, Robert E. Lee.

When he returned to duty, Johnston received the command of the western military department. After General Braxton Bragg's fiascoes in Middle Tennessee, Kentucky, and northern Georgia, Johnston was placed in command of the Army of Tennessee. In contrast to Bragg's strict discipline, “Uncle Joe” Johnston's relaxed and gentle character instantly won the respect and confidence of the Tennessee soldiers. During the Atlanta campaign, Johnston retained the trust of his army despite its desperate campaign against overwhelming odds. Some critics viewed Johnston as unaggressive for his decision to fight from entrenched defensive positions rather than grant his opponent, General William T. Sherman, the choice of battleground. Johnston was relieved of his command and replaced by General John Bell Hood.

Following Hood's near destruction of the army during his late 1864 campaign in Tennessee, Johnston again assumed command. From February to April 1865 Johnston led the remnants of the Army of Tennessee to North Carolina, where he successfully blocked his old antagonist Sherman from combining forces with Grant against Lee. On April 26, 1865, two weeks after Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, Johnston capitulated to Sherman at Greensborough, North Carolina.

Johnston, the commander of the Army of Tennessee, never led that army in a battle on the soil of the state. Nevertheless, he remained the most respected and beloved leader of that army; to the soldiers, he was always “Uncle Joe.”

Suggested Reading

Gilbert Govan and James Livingood, A Different Valor: The Story of Joseph E. Johnston (1956)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Joseph E. Johnston
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018