FIRST BATTLE OF BULL RUN, JULY 21, 1861
Letting go of Harpers Ferry and consolidating in and around Winchester gave Johnston the room he needed to maneuver what was now called the Army of Shenandoah. The very first major battle of the war, at Manassas Junction near Bull Run Creek, would prove the wisdom of Johnston’s approach. By regarding territory as something to be occupied and relinquished at will, so that forces could be concentrated wherever and whenever needed, Johnston was able to rush his army to reinforce P. G. T. Beauregard when it became clear that Union general Irvin McDowell was leading an attack against Manassas Junction. Consistent with his practical approach to combat, Johnston, though senior to Beauregard, turned over to him the major responsibility for planning the battle because he reasoned that Beauregard, already on the scene, knew the terrain better than he. When execution of the plan threatened to come apart, however, Beauregard threw overall field command back to Johnston while he concentrated on rallying, guiding, and generally exhorting the troops. In the end, this approach brought a major victory for the Confederacy and an even bigger humiliation for the Union. It also meant, however, that Beauregard grabbed the lion’s share of the credit for the victory since he appeared onstage, as it were, while Johnston worked behind the scenes.
Both Beauregard and Johnston resisted pursuing McDowell’s routed forces into Washington—and Jefferson Davis held them both responsible for what he deemed their lack of aggressiveness. Both generals would endure strained relations with Davis throughout the rest of the war, but while the conflict between Davis and Beauregard tended to be a matter of personality, that between Davis and Johnston was always over strategy. In both instances, the result was destructive for the Confederate war effort. As for the judgment of history on the First Battle of Bull Run, most historians believe that Beauregard and Johnston did squander an opportunity to do much more damage to McDowell’s army and to terrorize Washington in the bargain. There is, however, wide difference in opinion about just how costly aggressive exploitation of the Bull Run victory would have been.
Had he a freer hand, Jefferson Davis would likely have formally censured Johnston rather than merely criticized him for failing to follow up on the result of First Bull Run. But he dared not be too critical of a general who was tremendously popular with the people, his fellow officers, and the men under his command. Thus, in August, as Johnston himself had predicted, he was elevated to full general. That was the work of the Congress, and Davis did nothing to stop it; however, in the promotion list he submitted to Congress, he listed Johnston fourth, behind Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee, and ahead of only Beauregard. As the first senior officer (and only general officer) to resign from the U.S. Army to join the Confederate forces, Johnston believed he should also be ranked as the senior officer in the Confederate army. He never forgave Davis for what he considered a supreme insult, and this added significantly to the ill will that existed between the men.
PENINSULA CAMPAIGN, MARCH–JULY 1862
Early in 1862, Johnston was assigned command of what the Confederates at first called the Army of the Potomac but would soon rename the Army of Northern Virginia. Its mission was to defend Richmond against Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.
Once again, Johnston chose to avoid open battle whenever he could, making a series of strategic withdrawals that sorely tested Davis’s patience and nerve. Johnston allowed McClellan to approach within five miles of the capital. At this point, the Confederate president issued an ultimatum to the Army of Northern Virginia commander. “If you will not give battle,” he wrote, “I will appoint someone to command who will.”
Thus goaded, Johnston counterattacked at the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) on May 31 and June 1, 1862. The result was very costly to both sides: 5,031 killed, wounded, captured, or missing among the Union troops, and 6,134 among the Confederates. Johnston halted McClellan’s advance but also fell back on the outer defensive works of Richmond. Among the Confederate casualties was Johnston, who, on the battle’s second day, was hit by a bullet in the right shoulder and then wounded full-on in the chest by a massive shell fragment, which knocked him off his horse. At first, it seemed certain that the wounds were mortal, as Johnston lapsed into unconsciousness. Surprisingly, he rallied, but it would be six months before he would return to a field command.
Davis, who was present on the field, ministered to the stricken general. Despite their deep disagreement on strategy, he showed genuine concern for the man. Yet he also took the opportunity to appoint Robert E. Lee, a far more aggressive general, in his place. Johnston approved of the appointment, partly because he believed that Lee was extremely capable, but also because he understood that Lee would essentially call for the same strategy he himself had advocated. When Lee asked for reinforcements and Davis eagerly complied, Johnston remarked that his wound had been “fortunate” after all because “concentration” is what he himself had “earnestly recommended, but had not the influence to effect. Lee,” he observed, “had made them do for him what they would not do for me.”
VICKSBURG CAMPAIGN, DECEMBER 1862–JULY 4, 1863
During Johnston’s convalescence from his wounds, he became a close friend of Senator Louis T. Wigfall, a leader of the anti-Davis faction in the Confederate Congress. Clearly, Johnston had decided to work politically against Davis, and Davis knew this; nevertheless—and even with his grave doubts about Johnston’s policy of strategic retreat—he was eager for the general’s return to service. Johnston was a popular hero and still highly regarded throughout the army. Davis believed that he could not afford to lose him, and when he was pressured to give Johnston a major command, he complied, assigning him to direct all forces between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.
BATTLE OF YORKTOWN IN THE PENINSULA CAMPAINGN – APRIL 5–MAY 4, 1862
Although Johnston reported to his new assignment early in November 1862, he was still weak and would not be fully fit to command for some more months. He established his headquarters in Chattanooga on December 4, but while this put him with Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, the first problem he tackled was Vicksburg, Mississippi. Pointing out to Davis its strategic importance as the fortress by which the Confederacy controlled the Mississippi River, Johnston called for reinforcing Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton’s Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, whose troops held the town. Davis, however, refused to transfer men from Lee’s theater. Thus, when Grant commenced his siege of unreinforced Vicksburg, Johnston recommended the abandonment of the city, so that Pemberton’s Army of Mississippi could join forces with the Army of Tennessee, outnumber Grant, and drive him off the Vicksburg front. Appalled by the mere suggestion of relinquishing the Confederacy’s “Gibraltar of the West” without so much as a fight, Davis did not bother to argue with Johnston. Instead, he bypassed him, ordering Pemberton to remain in Vicksburg and, from within, hold the city at all costs.
For his part, Johnston saw no reason to sacrifice to a forlorn hope those men still directly under his command. When Grant attacked Jackson, Mississippi, on May 14, 1863, Johnston, massively outnumbered, withdrew from this crucial supply link to Vicksburg. Grant’s troops overran the town and burned it, destroying an important industrial and rail center. The effect on Confederate logistics in the region was obvious. Perhaps even more devastating, however, was the impact on morale, which widely collapsed beyond even Johnston’s ability to rally his troops. Pemberton held on in Vicksburg as long as he could, but the destruction of Jackson made the outcome inevitable. The city fell to Grant on July 4, 1863.
ATLANTA CAMPAIGN, MAY 7–SEPTEMBER 2, 1864
In November 1863, Grant forced Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee out of Chattanooga and into Georgia. Bragg was relieved at his own request, whereupon Jefferson Davis offered his command to Lee, who refused. Senator Wigfall led the political pressure on Davis to give Johnston the command. Although Johnston already had jurisdiction over the Western Theater, heading up the Army of Tennessee would be a genuine field command, not a desk job.
Johnston was pleased to be in the field again, and he devoted much of the winter of 1863–1864 to preparing the army to confront Major General William T. Sherman’s advance from Chattanooga into Georgia and, in particular, Atlanta. Johnston believed the problem was to devise the most effective way to use his inferior numbers against Sherman’s much larger army. As usual, Davis wanted him to make a do-or-die stand, with the objective of keeping Sherman out of Atlanta at all costs. Also as usual, Johnston wanted to retain mobility instead of commit his forces to the static defense of a place. His principal tactic would be to use a portion of his army as a shield to hold Sherman while he counterattacked, whenever and wherever possible, with the rest of the army. In this way, he hoped to grind away at the enemy while wearing down popular will among Northerners to continue the fight. He reasoned that if he could prevent Sherman from taking Atlanta before Lincoln stood for reelection in November 1864, there was a very good chance that the president would be defeated and that the Democrat who entered the White House in his place would offer an acceptable negotiated end to the bloody conflict.
Given the dwindling resources of the Confederacy, it was perhaps a reasonable strategy, but it would require continual strategic retreat toward Atlanta, and this Davis could not accept. He sent Bragg, whom he had appointed his military advisor, to tell Johnston in no uncertain terms that the mission of the Army of Tennessee was to recapture the state whose name the force bore. Johnston replied that the army was too small and too depleted for that. Thus the stage was set for a strategic debate that continues to this day. Was Johnston’s policy of strategic retreat the best available approach to an all-but-hopeless situation? Or was he simply afraid to commit to aggressive, decisive battle?
As it happened, strategic retreat failed to have the effect Johnston hoped for. As he fell back toward Atlanta, he repeatedly set up strong defensive positions by which he intended to wear Sherman down. But Sherman proved to be a sophisticated tactician, who did not oblige Johnston by battering his forces against the Confederate defenses. Much as Grant did with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Sherman found ways to sideslip and maneuver around the positions Johnston took. To avoid being flanked, Johnston was repeatedly forced to pull up stakes and fall farther back on Atlanta. To be sure, his defensive stands were taking a toll on Sherman, but Johnston was also losing men, and while Sherman could replace his losses, Johnston could not. Moreover, Atlanta, the prize his retreat strategy put at risk, was not, in the end, an expendable piece of “territory.” It was a mighty industrial center and the central rail hub of the entire Confederacy. It was one of the engines that drove the war.
Johnston fought defensively at Dalton, Georgia, evacuating it on May 13 and falling back on Resaca, where he established a strong defensive position. Sherman had nearly one hundred thousand men available, Johnston about sixty thousand. He inflicted perhaps as many as five thousand casualties on Sherman’s superior forces in a battle spanning May 13 to 15, suffering 2,800 killed, wounded, missing, or captured before withdrawing to Adairsville and fighting a brief battle there on May 17 before falling back again. He turned to fight at Cassville on May 20, then retreated, fighting battles at New Hope Church on May 25, Pickett’s Mill on May 27, and Dallas on May 28. Casualties mounted on both sides; then, for the first three weeks of June, the opposing armies maneuvered more than fought.
It was astounding that Johnston had managed to stay in the fight against two-to-one odds. From his point of view, this was an achievement that offered the best hope the Confederacy had for something better than total defeat and unconditional surrender. Davis did not see it this way, however, and Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, one of Johnston’s corps commanders, fed the president’s discontent with a series of letters complaining that Johnston was a defeatist who was keeping his corps from making an impact against Sherman.
Although Johnston won a significant victory against Sherman at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, inflicting three thousand casualties while suffering no more than a thousand himself, his strategic retreat to the mountain had put Sherman just seventeen miles from Atlanta’s center, with Union troops menacing the city from the west as well as the north.
Davis once again dispatched Bragg to assess the situation. When he returned to Richmond, he told the president to relieve Johnston without delay. Davis was more than ready, and Hood replaced Johnston on July 17, 1864.
Where Johnston was cagey, always looking to preserve his army so as to remain in the fight, Hood was the bluntest of blunt instruments, impulsive, impatient, aggressive. Sherman was overjoyed when he heard that Hood had replaced Johnston. He knew the fight would be fierce, but he also knew that it would at last be decisive. Hood lost Atlanta to Sherman on September 2, then went on to lose much of the Army of Tennessee fighting at the Battles of Franklin on November 30, 1864, and Nashville on December 15 and 16.
Johnston’s departure from the Army of Tennessee had been sorrowful. Two of his subordinate generals, William Joseph “Old Reliable” Hardee and William Whann Mackall, went so far as to request to be relieved. Davis might have been more than ready to give up on Johnston, but most of the army and a majority of the Southern people were not. When Georgia “howled” under the scourge of Sherman’s March to the Sea, a popular outcry arose for the return of Joe Johnston. Davis could not bring himself to approach the general personally but instead reinstated him via Robert E. Lee, who personally asked his old friend to assume command of what was now called the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, as well as the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia.
Johnston accepted, but vast as the new commands sounded, there was really very little to take charge of. Only the Army of Tennessee, depleted as it had been under Hood, remained a considerable military force. Johnston used it at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, on March 19 to 21, 1865, managing to catch part of Sherman’s army by surprise before he was overwhelmed by superior numbers—Sherman fielded sixty thousand men, Johnston twenty-one thousand—and retreated first to Raleigh and later to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he planned to make a stand.
But there would be no battle. Instead, word having reached him of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Johnston met with Davis and his Cabinet in the bedroom of a quiet Greensboro house as the members of the Confederate government paused in their flight from Richmond. P. G. T. Beauregard was present as well. Davis admitted that the situation was “terrible,” but he expressed his opinion that “we can whip the enemy if our people turn out.”
Johnston held his tongue until Davis prodded him. “My views, sir,” Johnston said at last, “are that our people are tired of war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight.” He told the president that the men of his army were “deserting in large numbers” and in the wake of “Lee’s surrender . . . regard the war as at an end. . . . My small force is melting away like snow before the sun, and I am hopeless of recruiting it.”
Davis solemnly turned to Beauregard. Usually given to rhetorical extravagance, he spoke simply: “I concur in all General Johnston has said.”
With this, Johnston secured the president’s permission to negotiate with Sherman, the two meeting at a farm called the Bennett Place outside of Durham. They held three sessions together, on April 17, 18, and 26, 1865, at the conclusion of which Johnston formally surrendered the Army of Tennessee as well as all Confederate forces still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. In total, it was a much larger force than what Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, nearly ninety thousand soldiers.