Two classes of men were convinced that Joseph E. Johnston was among the greatest generals of the Civil War: those who served under him and those, including Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, who fought against him. Others, Confederate president Jefferson Davis foremost among them, believed his lack of aggressiveness cost him—and the Confederacy—victory in every campaign he led.

Military historians are divided in opinion. Some hold that, had Johnston received adequate support instead of criticism and interference from Davis, his careful, prudent approach to war-fighting, which substituted maneuver for battle, might have positioned the South to avoid unconditional surrender. Others condemn him in the harshest way they can: by describing him as the Confederate George McClellan.

Joseph E. Johnston was the only general officer of the United States Army to resign his commission and fight for the Confederacy. Fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, the next highest-ranking U.S. Army officer to resign, was a colonel when Johnston had been a brigadier general. In theory, therefore, Johnston was the Confederacy’s senior ranking officer.

But the Civil War killed theories as prodigally as it killed men. Despite a glorious record of combat, Johnston was U.S. Army quartermaster general—in essence, the chief supply clerk—when he left. It was a fact that President Jefferson Davis used to justify listing him fourth behind the other full generals whose appointments he announced in the autumn of 1861. Samuel Cooper (who would never see combat), Albert Sidney Johnston (no relation to Joseph), and Lee were all senior to him. Thus Joseph E. Johnston entered the Civil War angry and unhappy, feeling the weight of insult and injustice, his working relationship with Davis poisoned from the outset, and his credentials—his very fitness—as a combat commander cast into deep doubt.


Like Robert E. Lee, Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born a son of Old Virginia. Lee was the son of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee of Revolutionary War fame, and Johnston the seventh child of Peter Johnston, who had fought under one of Light-Horse Harry’s officers, Major Joseph Eggleston, during the revolution. The boy was born on February 3, 1807, in Longwood House, the seat of Peter Johnston’s Cherry Grove plantation near Farmville.

A prominent planter and a judge, the husband of Mary Valentine Wood Johnston—herself the niece of Patrick (“Give me liberty or give me death”) Henry-Peter Johnston possessed more than enough social prestige and political clout to obtain a nomination for his son’s entry into the U.S. Military Academy in 1825. The young man enrolled, having been given the best of the kind of preparation Old Virginia plantation life could provide: plenty of manly outdoor activity, including hunting (which developed horsemanship and marksmanship), a sense of tradition and stewardship, and a combination of home schooling and lessons at Abingdon Academy that were both elegantly steeped in the classics. Young Joe Johnston’s classmate Robert E. Lee beat him academically at West Point, placing second in the forty-six-member Class of 1829 while Johnston came in at thirteen, but his showing was sufficiently respectable to get him an appointment as second lieutenant in Company C of the 4th U.S. Artillery. And, once in the army, Johnston’s rise was faster than Lee’s. Promoted to brigadier general in 1860, he earned the distinction of being the first West Point graduate to make general officer.


In 1830, Second Lieutenant Johnston was assigned, with Company C, as a coastal artillerist to garrison duty at Fort Columbus, Governors Island, New York. Here he passed an uneventful year before transferring, in August 1831, to Fort Monroe, in southeastern Virginia. He and his company were assigned to reinforce the garrison so that it could resist what was being called Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

Just before sunup on August 22, a slave preacher named Nat Turner led other slaves in an uprising against their master, Joseph Travis, then fanned out into Southampton County, killing every white person unfortunate enough to cross their path. (Among those who narrowly escaped the rampage was fifteen-year-old George Henry Thomas, a Virginian who would fight steadfastly for the Union at Chickamauga, Gettysburg, and elsewhere.) By the time Johnston and Company C arrived at Fort Monroe, Turner had been captured and executed, but his “rebellion” had been the realization of every slave owner’s nightmare. Although his family owned slaves, Johnston professed a moral revulsion to slavery, yet he was retained with the rest of Company C at Fort Monroe largely to ensure that any further uprising could be quickly contained and suppressed. The assignment, in any event, proved to be a pleasant interlude, especially since he was reunited with Lee, with whom he renewed and strengthened the friendship begun at West Point.

In May 1832, Johnston and his company were sent to Illinois, where they were committed to service in the Black Hawk War. As in the case of Nat Turner’s rampage, the army was tasked with putting the lid on another “uprising,” this one led by a Sauk chief, Black Hawk, who refused to accept eviction from his tribe’s traditional hunting grounds east of the Mississippi River and had clashed violently with new settlers along its banks. Johnston was excited by the prospect of the mission, which put him under the command of fellow Virginian Major General Winfield Scott, but neither Johnston nor anyone else in Scott’s command ever faced Black Hawk and his warriors in battle. The entire force was swept by cholera, which killed about half of Scott’s thousand-man command by the time it had gotten as far as Chicago. With only about two hundred “effectives,” including Johnston, Scott pressed on to the Mississippi River, only to learn that Black Hawk and his band had been defeated at the Battle of Bad Axe in August. Having traveled some two thousand miles, barely escaping dread disease, Johnston returned to Fort Monroe.

He remained in this pleasant, placid service until 1836, when General Scott personally requested his service on his staff as he fought the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) in Florida. There were heated skirmishes—Johnston’s first taste of combat—but most of the campaign consisted of futile tramps through miserable swampland in pursuit of an ever elusive enemy.


In 1837, a treaty was signed with the Seminoles, who agreed to withdraw from their ancestral homes in Florida and resettle in Indian Country (modern Oklahoma and parts of adjacent states). With this, the fighting ended, and Johnston, seeing little future in the peacetime military, resigned his commission in March to start a career as a civilian engineer.

His West Point training stood him in good stead as he studied civil engineering, and by the end of 1837, he was employed as a contract topographic engineer aboard a small U.S. Navy survey craft commanded by Lieutenant William Pope McArthur. The peace brought by the treaty with the Seminoles proved fleeting, and, on January 12, 1838, at Jupiter, Florida, Seminole warriors set upon Johnston and the survey party he led. In the exchange of fire that followed, Johnston would later claim to have accumulated some thirty bullet holes in his clothing, and one bullet deeply creased his scalp, excavating a scar he would carry for life. One sailor in the survey party later reported that the “coolness, courage, and judgment” Johnston “displayed at the most critical and trying emergency was the theme of praise with everyone who beheld him.” Indeed, Johnston seems to have been exhilarated by this close brush with violent death. Although he was earning far more as a civilian engineer than as a military officer, he immediately resolved to return to the army.

In April, Johnston traveled to Washington, D.C., where he was commissioned a first lieutenant of topographic engineers on July 7. On that very day, he received an additional brevet to captain in recognition of his valor—though as a civilian—at Jupiter.

In 1841, Johnston was assigned as an engineer on the Texas–United States boundary survey, then returned to the East as the head of a coastal survey. While surveying near Baltimore, he met Lydia McLane, the daughter of Louis McLane, who had been a congressman and a senator from Delaware and had served in Andrew Jackson’s Cabinet as secretary of the treasury and secretary of state. Although she was fifteen years his junior, Johnston courted her, and they married in July 1845.

U.S.-MEXICAN WAR, 1846–1848

At the outbreak of the war with Mexico in April 1846, Johnston wasted no time requesting a combat assignment. General Scott welcomed him to the engineer staff of his Southern Army, which was preparing for its spectacular amphibious landing at Veracruz and an overland march to Mexico City. His fellow engineer officers were P. G. T. Beauregard, George B. McClellan, and the ranking member, Robert E. Lee. Once the Veracruz campaign was under way, Scott assigned Johnston to command a regiment known by the Napoleonic name of voltigeurs (literally “vaulters,” called such in Napoleon’s armies because they were trained to vault onto the rump of cavalry horses and ride double with cavalrymen in order to move quickly on the battlefield). In Scott’s army, the voltigeurs were elite reconnaissance-skirmishers who operated far in advance of the main force. They were tasked with ascertaining enemy troop dispositions and, when possible, engaging and holding the enemy until the main force could arrive. In recognition of their elite status, they were issued special gray uniforms to distinguish them from blue-clad conventional troops.

In the opening phases of the Veracruz campaign, at the head of the voltigeurs, Johnston was wounded twice in combat but recovered in time to participate in the principal battles en route to Mexico City, including Contreras (August 19–20, 1847), Churubusco (August 20), Molino del Rey (September 8), and Chapultepec (September 12–13), where he was wounded by musket fire no fewer than three times as he led his men up the slope of this hill topped by a fortified “castle” on the outskirts of Mexico City. Having already been brevetted to lieutenant colonel for his earlier valor, Johnston was specially cited by General Scott as a “great soldier,” the general wryly adding that he had the “unfortunate knack of getting himself shot in nearly every engagement.”


His multiple woundings did nothing to sate Johnston’s appetite for violent combat, and when, after the war, he returned to military engineering, this time as chief topographical engineer of the Department of Texas from 1848 to 1853, he found the tedium at times intolerable. Seeking more action, he transferred from the engineers to the cavalry in 1855, only to ponder resigning his commission in 1857 as his friend McClellan had done.

But he stuck it out. In 1858, he was transferred to Washington, then served for a time in California, returning to Washington, where, in 1860, he was promoted to brigadier general and named Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army on June 28. His ambition was to use this new position, in which he was responsible for managing much of the military budget, as a springboard to becoming the senior officer of the entire army. With this ambition uppermost in his mind, he did his best to try to ignore the developing secession crisis. Whatever was happening throughout the South, he resolved to do his duty to the United States and its army as long as he wore the uniform. He was hardly what the press at the time called a “fire eater”—a vehement advocate of secession. He despised slavery, and he rejected the argument many Southerners were making, that the right to secede from the Union was implied by the Constitution. In any case, whether it was a right or not, he opposed secession. Yet he came to the conclusion, as did Robert E. Lee and other sons of Old Virginia, that Virginia was his “country” and that he owed his loyalty first and last to it. He determined that he would share the fate of his state, whatever it might be.

Winfield Scott, his old commanding officer, a fellow Virginian, begged Johnston to remain loyal to the U.S. Army. When he saw that he was not getting through, that Johnston did not intend to allow his army loyalty to trump his allegiance to Virginia, Scott turned to Lydia McLane Johnston, who was a Baltimorean, not a Virginian. When she explained to General Scott that her husband would never “stay in an army that is about to invade his native land,” Scott took a fallback position, asking her to persuade him to leave the U.S. Army if he must but not to join “theirs.” In fact, Lydia Johnston believed that Jefferson Davis would “ruin” her husband, but she knew it was hopeless to try to persuade him not to rally to the defense of his “country,” his Virginia. As soon as the state seceded on April 17, 1861, he presented his resignation to General Scott, leaving behind him in Washington virtually all that he owned, save for the sword his father had carried in the American Revolution.


Johnston arrived in Richmond on April 25 and called on Governor John Letcher to offer his services. Letcher told him that Robert E. Lee had arrived just four days earlier, at which time he appointed him commander of the state’s troops. After quickly consulting Lee, he offered Johnston command of state troops in and around Richmond. It was, Johnston recognized, a vital assignment, since Richmond, though not yet the capital of the Confederacy, was the capital of the South’s principal state and a key industrial and transportation center. As such, it was sure to be a prime target for Union attack. What is more, the city’s defenses were chaotic, and the situation cried out for someone to take charge. Johnston possessed the powerful command presence required to pull everyone into line.

While he threw himself into the work of military organization in Richmond, Johnston waited for the results of the Virginia Convention, which would decide on the final membership of the state army’s officer corps. Two weeks after his arrival in Richmond, Johnston was disappointed to learn that the convention had decided that Lee would be the only major general. When Letcher rushed to offer Johnston an appointment as brigadier general, he turned it down. Although he had left the U.S. Army to defend his home state, he now offered his services to the Provisional Confederate Army. It was not a decision based on Confederate nationalism but on a perceived command opportunity. Although the Confederate army offered nothing higher than the brigadier rank, Johnston understood that the Congress was about to pass a resolution elevating all brigadiers to full generals. He accepted the lower rank with the understanding that it would soon be raised.

After Johnston was formally commissioned on May 14, President Davis dispatched him to relieve Thomas J. Jackson as commanding officer at Harpers Ferry. Fifty-four-year-old Joseph E. Johnston was a distinguished and distinguished-looking officer, famed for combining valor with calm dignity and a compelling, charismatic personal presence. Davis hoped that he was just the man to work miracles at Harpers Ferry, but the president was about to learn that Johnston was not in the miracle business. Two days after arriving at his new command, he sent Davis a message declaring his opinion that Harpers Ferry could not be held against an enemy attack, at least not with the relatively small force he had available.

It was hardly what Davis or the Congress wanted to hear.

Johnston’s recommendation was to pull back from Harpers Ferry—let the Union have it—and instead use the freed-up resources to defend the Shenandoah Valley whenever and wherever required. Without a shot having been fired, Johnston was already proposing retreat. It rankled. However, in the end, Davis and his War Department agreed to allow him to pull back as far as Winchester, which he did behind a skillfully deployed cavalry screen that prevented Union forces from seeing where he had gone.

The maneuver would prove emblematic of Johnston’s strategic thinking. It would also ignite a debate about his fitness for command that would endure throughout the war.

For traditional military thinkers, like Davis, nothing was more important than holding and defending territory. Johnston, in contrast, believed that preserving the ability of an army to maneuver preserved its ability to fight, to do damage to the enemy army. Instead of tying down an army to a particular place, Johnston was willing to trade territory for maneuverability. From the beginning, he believed that defeating the Union states in straight-up warfare was impossible. The North had more people, more industry, more money. If, however, the South could stay in the fight, bleeding the North, the Confederacy just might outlast the Union will to continue the war. It was the lesson of the American Revolution, his father’s war. General Washington had well known that the puny Continental Army could not hope to defeat the military forces of the British nation, but if it could stay in the fight, it stood a chance of stretching the war will of British people and politicians just beyond the breaking point.

The question was this: Did Johnston’s vision of the nature of the Civil War demonstrate a truly advanced grasp of big-picture strategy? Or was he just insufficiently aggressive to defend the “sacred soil” of the Confederacy and bring the fight to the enemy?




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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.



Soviet military hero of World War II.

A member of the Communist Party from 1938, Alexander Mikhailovich Vasilevsky was born in the village of Novo-Pokrovka, now Ivanovo Oblast. He graduated from military school in 1914. He served as a junior officer in the tsarist army during World War I. From 1918 to 1931 he commanded a company, then a battalion, then an infantry regiment in the Red Army. From 1931 to 1936 Vasilevsky held executive posts in combat training organs within the People’s Commissariat of Defense and Volga Military District. From 1937 to 1941 he served on the General Staff, from 1941 to 1942 as deputy chief, and from 1942 to 1945 (during World War II or the Great Patriotic War) as Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces and concurrently, deputy people’s commissar of defense of the USSR.

By mid-1937, Stalin’s Great Purge eliminated a significant number of senior military commanders, vacating a number of positions on the General Staff. To his amazement, Vasilevsky was appointed to the General Staff in October 1937 and held “responsible for operational training of senior officers.” In 1938, he was made a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (a sine qua non condition for a successful career in the Soviet Union); in 1939, he was appointed Deputy Commander of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff, while holding the rank of divisional commander. While in this position he and Shaposhnikov were responsible for the planning of the Winter War, and after the Moscow peace treaty, for setting the demarcation line with Finland.

By June 1941, Vasilevsky was working around the clock in his General Staff office. On June 22, 1941, he learned of the German bombing of several important military and civilian objectives,[38] starting the Great Patriotic War. In August 1941, Vasilevsky was appointed Commander of Operations, Directorate of the General Staff and Deputy Chief of the General Staff, making him one of the key figures in the Soviet military leadership. At the end of September 1941, Vasilevsky gave a speech before the General Staff, describing the situation as extremely difficult, but pointing out that the northern part of the front was holding, that Leningrad still offered resistance, and that such a situation would potentially allow some reserves to be gathered in the northern part of the front.

In October 1941, the situation at the front was becoming critical, with German forces advancing towards Moscow during Operation Typhoon. As a representative of the Soviet General Staff (STAVKA), Vasilevsky was sent to the Western Front to coordinate the defense and guarantee a flow of supplies and men towards the region of Mozhaisk, where Soviet forces were attempting to contain the German advance. During heavy fighting near the outskirts of Moscow, Vasilevsky spent all of his available time both in the STAVKA and on the front line trying to coordinate the three fronts committed to Moscow’s defense. When most of the General Staff (including its chief Marshal Shaposhnikov) was evacuated from Moscow, Vasilevsky remained in the city as liaison between the Moscow Staff and the evacuated members of the General Staff. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev described Vasilevsky as an “able specialist” even so early in the war. On October 28, 1941, Vasilevsky was promoted to Lieutenant General.

The Battle of Moscow was a very difficult period in Vasilevsky’s life, with the Wehrmacht approaching close enough to the city for German officers to make out some of Moscow’s buildings through their field glasses. As he recalls, his workday often ended at 4 a.m. Moreover, with Marshal Shaposhnikov having fallen ill, Vasilevsky had to make important decisions by himself. On October 29, 1941, a bomb exploded in the courtyard of the General Staff. Vasilevsky was slightly wounded but continued working. The kitchen was damaged by the explosion, and the General Staff was relocated underground without hot food. Nevertheless, the Staff continued to function. In December 1941, Vasilevsky coordinated the Moscow counteroffensive, and by early 1942, the general counteroffensive in the Moscow and Rostov directions, further motivated in his work by the return of his evacuated family to Moscow. In April 1942, he coordinated the unsuccessful elimination of the Demyansk pocket, the encirclement of the German 2nd Army Corps near Leningrad. On April 24, with Shaposhnikov seriously ill again, Vasilevsky was appointed as acting Chief of Staff and promoted to Colonel General on April 26.

As a senior officer, Vasilevsky met frequently with Joseph Stalin. During one of these meetings, Stalin asked Vasilevsky about his family. Since Vasilevsky’s father was a priest and thus a potential “enemy of the people,” Vasilevsky said that he had ended his relationship with them in 1926. Stalin, surprised, suggested that he reestablish his family ties at once, and help his parents with whatever needs they might have.

Upon instructions from the Supreme Command Headquarters, Vasilevsky helped to elaborate many major strategic plans. In particular, Vasilevsky was among the architects (and participants) of the 1943 Stalingrad offensive. He coordinated actions of several fronts in the Battle of Kursk and the Belorussian and Eastern-Prussian offensive operations. Under Vasilevsky’s leadership, a strategic operation aimed at routing the Japanese Kwantung army was successfully carried out between August and September of 1945.

Increasingly, after the German invasion of June 1941, officers with world-class military skills, who either emerged unscathed by Stalin’s purges or were retrieved from Stalin’s prisons and camps, came to the fore. Vasilevsky was among these men. Although Stalin was loath to trust anyone fully, this innate distrust did not prevent him from tapping the resources of his most talented military strategists during World War II. In the first year of the war, when the USSR was on the defensive, Stalin often made unilateral decisions. However, by the second year, he depended increasingly on his subordinates. As Marshal Vasilevsky has recalled,

He came to have a different attitude toward the General Staff apparatus and front commanders. He was forced to rely constantly on the collective experience of the military. Before deciding on an operational question, Stalin listened to advice and discussed it with his deputy [Zhukov], with leading officers of the General Staff, with the main directorates of the People’s Commissariat of Defense, with the commanders of the fronts, and also with the executives in charge of defense production.

His most astute generals, Vasilevsky and Georgy Zhukov included, learned how to nudge Stalin toward a decision without talking back to him. While serving as a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party between 1952 and 1961, Vasilevsky also held the post of first deputy minister of defense from 1953 to 1957. Twice named Hero of the Soviet Union, he was also twice awarded the military honor, the Order of Victory, and was presented with many other orders, medals, and ceremonial weapons. He retired the following year and died fifteen years later.

Helmut von Moltke the Elder

Born: October 26, 1800

Died: April 24, 1891

Prussian Chief of General Staff

Understood as the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew, a World War I Commander. Helmuth von Moltke ended up being the architect of Prussian military supremacy in mid-19th century Europe. The son of an impoverished aristocratic Army Officer, he had been brought up in Denmark. Particularly different from the traditional, boorish type of Prussian officer, Moltke was an intellectual with quiet manners and considerable literary talent. He progressed within the Prussian army because Prussia had recognized the requirement for intelligent and professionally capable Staff Officers, and because his cultured manner made him an eligible bachelor, attracting the favor of the royal family. During the first four decades of Moltke’s career, Prussia was at peace and his only firsthand experience in combat occurred in 1839 when he was sent to serve the Ottoman Empire, and he commanded the Turkish artillery in a battle against Egypt.

As chief of the Prussian General Staff in 1857, Moltke revealed impressive energy and drive through radical involvement in organization, planning, and training. However, his personal status, and that of the General Staff, was at first very uncertain. In 1864, when Prussia went to war with Denmark, Command ended up being entrusted to an 80-year-old General who ignored Moltke’s procedure for the conduct of operations. When Moltke was allowed to take control, he brought the war to a swift, successful conclusion. In the process he won the confidence of King Wilhelm I. In 1866, when a major war broke out with Austria, Moltke was free to act as the Commander-in-Chief, using royal decree to issue orders to Army and Divisional Commanders who outranked him in terms of formal social and military hierarchy. Despite his success, some Officers still resented receiving instructions from a man who they regarded as an obscure military bureaucrat.

The rapid defeat of Austria made Moltke a celebrity, and left his authority unquestionable. The war showed his ability to combine prepared planning with a keen appreciation of the chaotic reality of conflict. The key to precious triumph lay within the efficient mobilization of almost 300,000 men and their gear by railway and trains. This was in line with precise timetables drawn up because of the railroad section of the General Staff. This enabled Moltke to seize the initiative from the outset.

Moltke planned for the three armies to maneuver separately, then come together to destroy the Austrian forces in a decisive battle. He understood the need for flexibility and did not attempt to control the campaign at length. His crisp, clear written instructions – early on in the war sent by telegram from Berlin – always allowed commanders a measure of freedom to exercise their own initiative. Likewise, he relied upon the inner circle of his General Staff to make independent judgments in accordance with his strategy.

The climactic struggle of Koniggratz on July 3, 1866 was almost a tragedy, when the last of Moltke’s three armies failed to arrive until halfway through the day. Triumph was finally achieved with their aid, after which Austria sued for peace. When Prussia went to war with France in 1870, Moltke ensured that his Army was the best-trained in Europe, and that its officers and NCOs were imbued with a shared ethos and tactical doctrine. France’s mobilization was a shambles, while Prussian mobilization was faultless. Overcoming temporary confusion and errors as his armies advanced into eastern France, Moltke issued continuously altering orders to meet the quickly developing situation.

By remaining versatile, Moltke was able to lure the courageous but disorganized French field armies into traps at both Metz and Sedan, from which they would not escape. With the surrender of Paris after an extended siege in January 1871, Moltke was recognized as the architect of a military victory that soon made a Prussian-led Germany the dominant power in Europe. The battle at Koniggratz led to 44,000 Austrian casualties, compared with only 9,000 on the Prussian side.

Field Marshal von Moltke before Sedan

The Battle of Sedan

Moltke and his staff traveled with the Royal Headquarters of the Prussian King, Wilhelm I. They kept up with the movements of the 3rd Army under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, as well as the Army of the Meuse under Crown Prince Albert of Saxony. Both Crown Princes acted upon Moltke’s orders, although he permitted them broad scope to decide just how these orders were carried out. Moltke was unclear of the intentions of the French. At first, he assumed that MacMahon would fall back toward Paris, and in response prepared to march westward. On August 25, after studying reports in French newspapers and with proof provided from his own cavalry patrols, Moltke decided that MacMahon must have embarked upon a march northeast to join up with Bazaine. Recognizing an unmissable opportunity for a decisive victory, he ordered his armies to travel northward. Using his men assertively to keep in range with the enemy, he was able to catch up with MacMahon, who was crossing the Meuse River near Sedan on August 30.

The following day, Moltke believed that the French would attempt to escape. In order to prevent this, Moltke sent fresh troops across the river both east and west of the French Army – the path northward was blocked by the Belgian border. As the French remained passively inside Sedan, Moltke caught them in a trap.

At dawn on September 1st, Moltke’s armies, outnumbering the French with 200,000 men to 120,000 men, were in place to attack. By early afternoon they had completed the encirclement of Sedan and begin assaulting the French defenses. Although the battle was intense and casualties high, Moltke had no doubt that the end result would be victory. Watching proceedings from a hilltop alongside King Wilhelm, Bismarck, and other dignitaries, Moltke did not issue a single written order that entire day until the battle was over, leaving his Army and Corps Commanders to do their jobs and force the French to surrender.

MacMahon’s dilemma was whether to try to link up with Bazaine’s army or to fall back toward Paris. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, who had joined MacMahon at Chalons, urged withdrawal westward. But MacMahon had chosen a long march around the Prussian flank to meet Bazaine, who he optimistically assumed to be breaking out of Metz. MacMahon’s army was not prepared to execute a maneuver on such a grand scale – they had no maps of the terrain, previously having assumed to be battling in Germany. Slowed by logistical difficulties, they were additionally confused by their Commander’s hesitation.

On the evening of August 27, MacMahon issued orders to turn toward Paris, and then cancelled this command the next early morning. Inexplicably failing to send his cavalry patrol in the direction of the Prussian armies, MacMahon ended up being ignorant of their strength and their position. The unexpected clash with the Prussians on August 30 resulting in the French being forced to complete the hasty, panic stricken crossing of the Meuse. To rest and regroup his weary forces, MacMahon allowed them to stay in Sedan, the fortress town where much-needed food and ammunition were to be found. He could still have made a fighting escape to the West on August 31, but did nothing, while Moltke’s armies crossed the Meuse unopposed. MacMahon designated September 1 as a rest day, but at 4 AM the Prussians launched an attack. MacMahon was wounded early on by an artillery shell. In a debacle typical of the confusion in the French camp, he was forced first by General Auguste Ducrot, and then by General Emmanuel de Wimpffen, to get authorization from the government in Paris. It made no difference who gave the orders, because French military doctrine ultimately determined that there would be no retreat. Prussian artillery dominated the battlefield. Attempts to break out by cavalry and infantry showed immense bravery but could not succeed. Napoleon III humanely insisted on a surrender to save lives. More than 100,000 French soldiers were taken prisoner.

Yi Sun-sin

Born: April 28, 1545

Died: December 16, 1598

Korean Admiral

Yi Sun-sin was originally an Army Commander who earned his reputation fighting Manchu nomads on Korea’s northern border. After a period out of power, he was made Commander of the Cholla Naval District. Faced with the looming threat of a Japanese invasion, Yi took vigorous measures to prepare his fleet for war. He began collecting supplies and improving the equipment on his ships. Alongside the cannon armed warships – known as panokseon, which formed the core of his fleet – he built a number of geobukseon (turtle ships), whose upper decks were enclosed in iron plates. Yi’s task as an Admiral was to maneuver these gun platforms so that his cannons – firing solid shot and incendiary rounds – destroyed the lighter Japanese warships, while avoiding being boarded by the well-armed Japanese soldiers. Yi achieved this by exploiting his superior knowledge of the sea currents and channels around the Korean coastline.

Yi is credited with 23 victories against Japan. His greatest triumph during the first invasion was the engagement at Hansando, in August 1592, where the Japanese ships had been lured into an encirclement from which only a handful escaped. Success earned him jealousy at the Korean courts, however. Yi was arrested, tortured, and relegated to common soldier. A severe naval defeat during the Second Japanese Invasion quickly brought Yi’s reinstatement as Admiral.

There are many factors to consider in why Admiral Yi was so successful against the Japanese. Admiral Yi took a vested interest in his men and ensured that his soldiers, supplies, and his ships were well-maintained. He expended all efforts to replace them when necessary. The turtle ship also played a significant role in his victories. He expertly navigated them against the Japanese because he had knowledge of the Korean coast and knew the sea tides and used the terrain and weather to his advantage. Like most great leaders, he was charismatic and excelled at motivating his soldiers and sailors. He treated them with respect and dignity and in return earned their loyalty.

His turtle ships had stronger hulls than the Japanese ships of that period. They were also capable of carrying at least 20 cannons which were useful in broadsiding. He personally led development of additional types of cannons that proved useful in battle. In 1597 Admiral Yi led his ships into battle at Myeongnyang against the Japanese fleet of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Admiral Yi brought with him at least 12 panokseon warships, and they faced off against the considerable naval force of the Japanese, which numbered 133 warships and at least 200 logistical ships.

The Japanese Navy had arrived in the Yellow Sea and sent out an advance scouting party. They soon staged a surprise attack, but were driven off. A second scouting party later launched another nighttime attack, but Yi repelled them again.

All ships were ordered to return to the Japanese Fleet when they received reports that there was Korean resistance in the area. They began to amass their fleet. Admiral Yi did not want to fight a major sea battle in such a vulnerable position, so he withdrew his forces and concealed his ships on the northern side of the strait. Positioning his ships in the strait gave him a tactical advantage. The narrow strait prevented his small group of ships from being flanked by the massive Japanese Fleet. The roughness of the currents also made it exceedingly difficult for the Japanese ships to maneuver and close in. This forced the Japanese to attack in smaller groups.

Early on the morning of October 26th, the Japanese fleet began to deploy around the bay at the end of the strait. The crews of Yi’s other ships were survivors of a recent naval battle under the command of a different Admiral, and were shaken by the numerically superior Japanese fleet. It is recorded that for a time only Admiral Yi’s flagship was engaged in combat. He advanced alone but soon his example of bravery drew out the other ships one by one. His warships fired both cannon and arrows and were careful to avoid Japanese boarding attempts, as this was their primary tactic of the period. Several Japanese vessels attempted to come alongside the Korean ships but were driven off or sunk with concentrated fire. The tide in the strait soon reversed. The panokseon dropped their anchors while the Japanese ships were pushed back by the tide and soon began to smash upon one another. The Japanese ships clustered and crashed, forming a target rich environment for the Korean ships. The strong tides prevented Japanese sailors from swimming safely to shore and many drowned while attempting to escape their sinking vessels. By the end of the battle, records show that nearly thirty Japanese vessels were damaged or destroyed. The defeat was crushing to the morale of the Japanese and caused difficulties in resupplying their ground forces. The victory had the opposite effect for the Korean ground forces who had previously been fighting a losing front. When word spread of Admiral Yi’s victory, spirits ran high.

While this battle demonstrates the strategic prowess of Admiral Yi, this victory alone failed to slow or stop the Japanese campaign in Korea.

During the final struggle of the war at Noryang in November 1598, Yi was shot by a Japanese arquebus and died on the deck of his ship. Admiral Yi Sun-sin is considered a national hero and is celebrated by statues in a number of Korean cities, including Seoul.


Born: April 2, 742

Died: January 28, 814

Frankish King and Emperor

Charles the Great was the son of Pepin, the first king of the Carolingian empire. Pepin’s domains at his peak of power covered most of present-day France, in addition to Belgium and areas of Germany. The single ruler of this particular extensive kingdom from 771, Charlemagne was above all a war leader, expected to take his army on campaign every year. He is reckoned to have undertaken 30 campaigns in person in the course of his sovereignty – to maintain his authority, expand his domains, and forcibly spread the Christian faith.

Charlemagne had no standing army and no bureaucracy, however he achieved a high degree of organization and the assembly and supply of his forces. His chief nobles, the counts, were responsible for raising the various soldiers which he needed, with equipment for each and every man. The warriors brought some food with them, while extra supplies were requisitioned from landowners. The Army typically assembled in the spring season and summer and fought in the autumn. Charlemagne continuously gathered intelligence on the domain in which he intended to fight and normally prepared careful plans. He usually divided his forces in two or more columns when advancing into hostile territory, presumably mainly because a smaller sized body of men would find it easier to contend with the difficulties of movement and supply. Charlemagne’s horse cavalry were his essential troops. Retainers of the Frankish nobles, the armored horsemen were obliged to show up prepared for military service when required by the king. Armed with a lance, sword, as well as shield, they fought mounted, relying on stirrups and high-back saddle to maintain a stable seat in combat. Pitched battles were unusual, campaigns commonly comprised of skirmishes, assaults on bastioned settlements, resisting or avoiding ambushes, and much laying to waste towns and countryside. Although in the first quarter century of his sovereignty Charlemagne commanded his army in person, he was not a ruler renowned for prowess in face-to-face combat. His real qualities lay in his authority, organization, willpower, and ruthless persistence.

Charlemagne fought several wars in opposition to typically inferior resistance around his extensive borders, but even so success was certainly not assured. He faced challenging opposition from insurgents and his resources were overstretched against a variety of opponents. The campaign in which Charlemagne trampled over the Lombard kingdom of North Italy in 773 – 74 exemplified unhesitating military action. After marching across Alpine passes in columns, the Franks who emerged on the north Italian plane were too numerous for the enemy to take on. Charlemagne came to a halt at the Lombard capital, Pavia, and laid siege to the city until it capitulated. Even though further campaigns in Italy against Lombards and Byzantines were needed, a political arrangement he imposed held firm, establishing Frankish control of the northern half of Italy. Campaigning in Iberia turned out to be more challenging. Virtually all of Spain was subjected to Muslim rule, and divisions between the Arabs and the few small Christian states that did exist gave Charlemagne an opportunity to step in. But the resulting journey in northern Spain in 778 was one of the most unfortunate disasters of his career.

At the end of an unsuccessful foray to Zaragoza, he was leading his military straight back across the Pyrenees in the rearguard when his forces were ambushed and massacred. The death of prominent Frankish nobles in this attack provided material for a well-known medieval epic: The Song of Roland. It was considered embarrassing to have fallen into this sort of trap. Later in his reign, the Franks with success occupied a protective buffer zone south of the Pyrenees, including Barcelona. Most of Charlemagne’s wars were aimed across the open eastern frontier of his domains, most importantly against Saxons. These independent, pagan groups were repeatedly terrorized by Charlemagne’s columns, who were always ready to rebel again when the Franks were distracted. The resistance angered Charlemagne, who is guilty of an appalling massacre of 4,500 Saxons at Verden in 782. The submission of the inspired guerrilla leader Widukind in 785 did not end the opposition, but that marked the point at which it could no longer succeed.

By the 790s Charlemagne had begun to delegate military operations to his sons or to nobles. He was not personally involved in demolishing the nomads who dominated the Danube Valley, but he did plan to construct a canal linking the Rhine and Danube to facilitate the movement of his troops – an engineering undertaking that proved to be well outside the Frank’s engineering capabilities. By 800, when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by the Pope, the age of yearly campaigns was coming to a close, as was his individual command of army operations. It established his kingdom into an empire stretching as far south of central Italy and Barcelona and as far east as the Elbe. To ensure the succession to his throne, Charlemagne crowned his son Louis the Pious as co-Emperor. When Charlemagne died the following year in 813, Louis succeeded him.

John Churchill and Turenne

Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne.

John Churchill.

Early in 1673 King Charles II had to summon his Parliament to ask it for money to fight the Dutch War. He found it in a predictably curmudgeonly frame of mind. The war and the French alliance were unpopular, and the Declaration of Indulgence, which Charles had issued by virtue of his royal prerogative, was seen (perfectly rightly, in view of what we now know of the Treaty of Dover) to be giving encouragement to Roman Catholics. Although Parliament was prepared to grant him funds for the war, it did so at the price of his withdrawal of the Declaration of Indulgence and, even worse from the royal standpoint, passed the Test Act. The Corporation Act of 1671 had already prescribed that all members of corporations, besides taking the Oath of Supremacy, were to take communion according to the rites of the Church of England. The Test Act compelled all office-holders, military or civil, to ‘declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper’, and to take Anglican communion within three months. In 1678 the Act was extended, compelling all peers and MPs to make a declaration against transubstantiation and invocation of saints.

The Duke of York was an early casualty, and resigned all his offices. Prince Rupert headed the commission which took on his work as lord high admiral, and was already at sea with the fleet. He had failed to defeat the Dutch in two clashes in the Schoonevelt, and on 11 August his Allied fleet had the worst of a two-day battle against de Ruyter off Texel. Rupert had never much liked the French alliance, and lost little time in telling his countrymen what they already believed: that the French were useless at sea. Admiral d’Estrées had let him down, and the spectacle of d’Estrées blaming failure on his own second in command (who, in the great tradition of punishing the poorly-connected guiltless, was promptly clapped into the Bastille) made matters worse. The alliance was dead on its feet, but it was not until early 1674 that peace was made, although its terms allowed British troops who were serving as French-paid auxiliaries to remain on the Continent.

While all this was in progress the cabal fragmented, and by the end of the year Charles’s new chief minister was his lord treasurer, Sir Thomas Osborne, known to posterity, by the title he soon acquired, as the Earl of Danby. Parliament, irritated by James’s marriage to Mary of Modena, a Roman Catholic princess, and by the news of his conversion to Catholicism, debated a Bill for securing the Protestant religion by preventing any royal prince from marrying a Catholic without its consent. That summer Charles prorogued it, declaring that he would rather be a poor king than no king, and relying on the attentive Danby to improve his finances.

Charles had sent 6,000 men to France after the outbreak of the Dutch War, and after the conclusion of peace in 1674 much of this force remained in France, now under French pay and command, and connected with Britain only through recruiting. Its plight was made even more bizarre by the fact that the old Anglo-Dutch brigade in Dutch service, its members formally summoned back by Charles in 1672, was still soldiering on, with many of its British-born officers and men having become naturalised Dutchmen. There were awkward scenes in Brussels in 1679 when officers of the Anglo-Dutch brigade tried to find recruits amongst the British battalions that were then leaving for home after their stint in French service.

The British brigade sent to France in 1672 was commanded by the Duke of Monmouth, commissioned as a French lieutenant general, but, much as he enjoyed diverting scrambles like the siege of Maastricht, he exercised no overall command, for the regiments of his brigade were spread out across the Flanders and Rhine fronts. His colonels were, in consequence, very powerful men, and Robert Scott of the Royal English Regiment held his own courts-martial, appointed officers as he pleased, and happily swindled officers and men of their pay. Amalgamations and reductions were frequent, and in early 1674 Bevil Skelton’s Regiment was merged with the Earl of Peterborough’s Regiment to emerge as the 1st Battalion of the Royal English Regiment. On 19 March 1674 a newsletter from Paris announced:

Lord Peterborough’s Regiment, now in France, is to be broken up and some companies of it joined to the companies that went out of the Guards last summer, and to be incorporated into one regiment, and to remain there for the present under the command of Captain Churchill, son of Sir Winston.

His colonelcy, of course, was French, and his English rank did not begin to catch up for almost another year, when he became lieutenant colonel of the Duke of York’s Regiment.

Much of the British brigade was destined to serve on France’s eastern borders against the German coalition forces of the Emperor Leopold I and the Elector of Brandenburg, whose entry into what had begun as a Dutch war reflected the way in which it was tilting out of Louis’ control. The French army on this front was commanded by Marshal Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne. Turenne was arguably the greatest captain of his age, and might have done even better during this war had it not been for his long-standing quarrel with the marquis de Louvois, Louis’ formidable war minister.

When Field Marshal Lord Wolseley wrote his biography of Marlborough more than a century ago, he concluded that Turenne had been ‘tutor in war’ to the young Jack Churchill. We know that Turenne called him ‘the handsome Englishman’. There is also a story, widely repeated though without a reliable primary source to back it up, that, when a French colonel was forced back from a position, Turenne bet that Churchill, with fewer men under his command, would retake it: he won his money.

On 16 June 1674 Turenne fought the emperor’s army at Sinsheim, roughly midway between Philippsburg on the Rhine and Heilbronn on the Neckar. Both sides were roughly equal in numbers, and the Imperialists were strongly posted behind the River Breusch, on a slab of high ground. Turenne managed to turn both enemy flanks by making good use of unpromising terrain, getting his men onto the plateau by ‘a narrow defile on one side and a steep climb on the other’. Even French sources suggest that it was the disciplined fire of the British infantry that checked the counterattacks of Imperialist cuirassiers. The careful historian C.T. Atkinson noted that Churchill’s regiment was not present at the battle, but it is clear that both Churchill and his fellow colonel, George Hamilton of the Irish Regiment, accompanied Lord George Douglas, who had been sent off to reconnoitre with 1,500 musketeers and six light guns.

Serving as a volunteer, with no formal command responsibility, Churchill would have had the opportunity to see just how Turenne went about his business, and the French army, at around 25,000 men, was small enough for a well-mounted observer to follow its movements closely. The essence of Turenne’s success at Sinsheim was his swift reading of the ground to see what chance it gave him to get at the enemy, and the routes he selected had not been identified by the Imperialists as likely avenues of approach. The French commemorative medal for the battle bore the words Vis et Celeritas (vigour and speed), which might so easily have been Churchill’s own watchwords.

By the time that Turenne had moved south to fight the battle of Ensheim, on 4 October 1674, in weather which worsened from drizzle to a downpour, Churchill’s regiment was indeed present with the main French army. The fight hinged on possession of a little wood on the Imperialist left, eventually carried by the French, though with great bloodshed. Churchill’s men fought their way through it, overran a battery, and cleared the Imperialist infantry from ‘a very good ditch’ which they then occupied, obeying the orders of ‘M. de Vaubrun, one of our lieutenant generals’ to hold that ground and advance no further. ‘I durst not brag too much of our victory,’ wrote our young colonel, ‘but it is certain that they left the field as soon as we. We have three of their cannon, several of their colours and some prisoners.’ Louis de Duras (later Earl of Feversham) commanded a troop of Life Guards at that battle, and was eventually to assume command of the British brigade. He declared that ‘No one in the world could have done better than Mr Churchill could have done and M de Turenne is indeed very well pleased with all our nation,’ and Turenne’s official dispatch paid handsome tribute to Churchill and his men. In his report to Monmouth, Churchill recorded the loss of eleven of his twenty-two officers, but added that Monmouth’s own regiment of horse had fared far worse, losing its lieutenant colonel and almost all its officers killed or wounded, as well as half the troopers and several standards. He was anything but an uncritical admirer of Turenne’s, though, and admitted that ‘half our foot was posted so that they did not fight at all’.

On 5 January 1675 Turenne won the battle that decided the campaign. He pulled back from the Rhine near Haguenau, and allowed many of his officers (including Louis de Duras) to take leave in Paris, giving the impression that he had ended the campaign, for armies usually slunk into winter quarters in October and emerged from their hibernation in April. But in fact he swung in a long fish-hook march round the Vosges, through Epinal and the Belfort gap, to find his opponents relaxed in their winter quarters near Colmar – and what better place to relax, with so much of the golden bitter-sweet Gewürztraminer conveniently to hand? Although the Imperialists managed to rally and face him at Turckheim, he kept them pinned to their position by frontal pressure before sending an outflanking force through the rough country on their left. Turenne took the village of Turckheim after a stiff tussle in which British musketry proved decisive, and went on to drive his opponents from Alsace. In July that year Turenne was killed by a cannonball, a loss that France could ill afford.

The campaign certainly showed Churchill the crueller side of war. In the summer of 1674 Turenne’s men ravaged the Palatinate as they marched through it. This was done partly to obtain supplies and partly to prevent the Imperialists from obtaining them, but also, as Turenne told the Elector Palatine, who complained about the sufferings of his people, because the local populace attacked stragglers and isolated groups, murdering soldiers with the most appalling cruelty. Turenne’s harsh treatment of the Palatinate was not on the same scale as the deliberate destruction of the whole area seven years later, on the specific orders of Louis XIV, but even so the damage was frightful. Archdeacon Coxe quotes a letter written to Churchill from Metz in 1711 in which the widow Saint-Just thanks him because ‘The troops who came and burnt everything around my land at Mezeray in the plain spared my estate, saying that they were so ordered by high authority.’

If there had been any doubts about where John Churchill stood in royal favour, his campaigning under Turenne resolved them. His English lieutenant colonelcy had materialised in early 1675, and three years later he was appointed colonel of one of the regiments of foot to be raised, not this time to support the French, but to help defend the Dutch: the realignment of English foreign policy was now complete. There is, though, no evidence that Churchill’s new regiment was ever actually formed. His colonelcy (carefully dated a day after that of George Legge, who was to be Pepys’s master on the Tangier mission) was simply a device to ensure that John Churchill had ‘precedence and pay equivalent to the very important work he was now called upon to discharge’. He had reached a key break in his career, and was striding out to bridge the narrow gap between soldiering and diplomacy: the young cavalier had come of age.