Narrative of Military Operations during the Civil Warby Joseph E. Johnston
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During the Civil War, one of the tales that was often told among Confederate soldiers was that Joseph E. Johnston was a crack shot who was a better bird hunter than just about everyone else in the South. However, as the story went, Johnston would never take the shot when asked to, complaining that something was wrong with the situation that prevented him from being able to shoot the bird when it was time.
The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it was aptly used to demonstrate the Confederates’ frustration with a man who everyone regarded as a capable general. Johnston began the Civil War as one of the South’s senior commanders, leading the ironically named Army of the Potomac to victory in the Battle of First Bull Run over Irvin McDowell’s Union Army. But Johnston would become known more for losing by not winning. Johnston was never badly beaten in battle, but he had a habit of strategically withdrawing until he had nowhere left to retreat. When Johnston had retreated in the face of McClellan’s army before Richmond in 1862, he finally launched a complex attack that not only failed but left him severely wounded, forcing him to turn over command of the Army of Northern Virginia to Robert E. Lee.
Johnston and Confederate President Jefferson Davis had a volatile relationship throughout the war, but Johnston was too valuable to leave out of service and at the beginning of 1864 he was given command of the Army of Tennessee. When Johnston gradually retreated in the face of Sherman’s massive army (which outnumbered his 2-1) before Atlanta in 1864, Davis removed Johnston from command of the Army of Tennessee and gave it to John Bell Hood.
Johnston has never received the plaudits of many of the South’s other generals; in fact, there are only a couple of monuments commemorating his service in the South. Yet Johnston was a competent general who fought in some of the most important campaigns of the Civil War, and it’s often forgotten that it was his surrender to Sherman weeks after Appomattox that truly ended the Civil War. Johnston did so over Davis’s command to keep fighting, incurring his wrath once more. Having dealt with each other, Sherman and Johnston became friends after the war, and when the elderly Johnston served as a pallbearer at Sherman’s funeral, he contracted an illness that eventually killed him.
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