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WORTHY OPPONENTSWILLIAM T. SHERMAN JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON
By Edward G. Longacre
Rutledge Hill PressCopyright © 2007 Edward G. Longacre
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe School of the Soldier
Joseph Eggleston Johnston came from a large family-nine boys and one girl-whose American progenitor had emigrated from Scotland to the colony of Virginia in 1726. Joseph was the eighth son of Peter Johnston, who quit his college studies upon the first drumbeat of the American Revolution to serve in the patriot army of Nathanael Greene. By war's end, Peter, then all of seventeen, was a hard-bitten lieutenant in the mounted brigade of "Light Horse Harry" Lee, future father of Robert E. Lee. Returning to his family's home near Farmville, in Prince George County, the young veteran met, courted, and wed Mary Valentine Wood, a niece of the orator and statesman Patrick Henry. Through his bride, Peter acquired relatives who hailed from "many of the most prominent and influential families in the South, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains region."
Peter's prospects for success in life were further strengthened when he returned to his books and took up the study of law. In quick succession he was admitted to the local bar, developed a thriving legal practice, and was elected a judge of the general court. Dissatisfied with the central Virginia circuit assigned to him, he swapped duties with a colleague and moved his rapidly expanding family to the equally burgeoning village of Abingdon, in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. There, eight miles above the Tennessee border and less than sixty miles from Kentucky, Peter established a small estate centered around a two-story log house that he christened "Panecillo." Although the countryside was thinly settled and the way of life primitive, even for the era, Panecillo became a gathering spot for local barristers, magistrates, and other public officials. At the time the house went up, Joseph Johnston, who had been born at the family's former residence in Prince George County, was in his fourth year.
Relatively little is known of Joseph's youth and adolescence. His most recent biographer notes that he and his siblings "grew up amidst the contradictory influences of the Appalachian frontier and Abingdon society. Like other Abingdon boys, they learned to ride, to shoot, and to cope with the rough and tumble life of the frontier where courage and boldness were particularly admired." An earlier chronicler, Joseph Johnston's nephew Robert Morton Hughes, asserts that from boyhood Joseph was imbued with martial ambitions. This inclination had been nurtured by the pride his father took in his military service, which was reflected in the boy's name: Joseph Eggleston had been the elder Johnston's unit commander during the War for Independence.
Peter Johnston's pride was shared by other veterans who lived in the area, several of whom had fought under Gen. William Campbell at King's Mountain. Indeed, the Abingdon country abounded in reminders of that celebrated engagement, for which one of the hills the town occupied had been named. The old soldiers never seemed to tire of reliving their war experiences, and they were especially loquacious when an impressionable youth was within earshot. As Hughes observes "the effect of such narrations on a boy naturally addicted to military matters, especially when reenforced by [the] not less daring exploits of his father, may well be imagined. Young Johnston soon had the boys of the neighborhood, hardly less zealous than himself, organized into an 'army,' as he termed it; and he was chosen as their 'general,' with one of his brothers as 'colonel.'" Hughes adds that "the combined strength of the general and colonel was sufficient to insure and enforce that obedience which is the foundation of discipline."
Obedience and discipline were cardinal virtues of young Joseph, who gave the impression of wisdom and maturity beyond his years. Although never grave or melancholy, even as a youth he assumed an aura of dignity and decorum that may have reflected his father's position in the community. Joseph honed his fund of self-control whenever he and his brothers accompanied their father on the hunt, one of Judge Johnston's favorite pastimes. The quest for the abundant deer and the occasional bear might consume days at a time; often it carried the hunters many miles from home, across the mountains into Tennessee or deeper into the wilderness of their own state. Joseph never grew too fatigued or bored to give his fullest attention to his role in the proceedings; if the game eluded the hunters, it was through no fault of his.
According to Hughes, Joseph and his brothers took an active part in the hunt "even before they were large enough to handle the long rifle which was the favorite arm of the pioneer." Under their father's tutelage, they learned to load, shoot, and respect firearms, with which they quickly became comfortable as well as conversant. Because he preferred to be a "driver"-flushing the game rather than waiting for it to be flushed-Joseph also became a proficient horseman. Although he grew up slight of build and somewhat below medium height, his affinity for the rugged life gave Joseph a deceptively powerful physique. In later life, his constitution would help him not only withstand the hardships of military service but survive several wounds received in action.
Being an active youth, he experienced his share of childhood bumps and bruises-a fall from a cherry tree when quite young left him with permanent facial scars-but at age ten he suffered an injury that could have crippled him for life. Accompanying his father and brothers on a hunt several miles west of Abingdon, the boy undertook to demonstrate to a family slave named Robert his understanding of how a cavalry charge was conducted. He led Robert some distance from the rest of the party, then bade him dismount and, rifle in hand, take position as if to defend himself against a mounted attack. Hughes relates the upshot: "Joseph thereupon withdrew the horse to a sufficient distance to obtain the necessary impetus, and thundered down upon the stationary square. The horse, however, not being equally interested in the experiment, sheered off just before reaching the infantry, and did it so suddenly that his rider was thrown forward.... In the fall his leg was broken, the ends of the bone coming through the flesh."
The boy lay quietly and without complaint while Robert went for Joseph's father and brothers. Neither then nor during the several-mile journey back to town, during which his brothers took turns carrying him upon their backs, did the victim give voice to his suffering. Upon obtaining medical aid, however, he found that his ordeal had only begun. The first doctor to treat him set the broken bone improperly, forcing a second, more competent, physician to reset it. Hughes observes that "the manner in which a boy of ten, in a time when anesthetics were not known, endured the operation[s] without a tear or groan, and his patience under the three months of suffering which followed, showed his fortitude." Already the judge's son had learned well the importance of upholding one's honor and that of his family. One of the most effective ways was to accept misfortune without flinching, bemoaning one's fate, or betraying weakness. Joseph Johnston would be confronted by adversity time and again through the course of his life. While his critics would not always agree, in every instance he would strive to replicate the equanimity he had shown as a child, lying on a makeshift operating table with his thighbone protruding through the skin of his mangled limb.
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Joseph's father was determined that his offspring develop intellectually as well as physically. He and his wife tutored the children until they were old enough to attend the local academy, of whose board of trustees the judge was a prominent member. It was observed that from the first day he set foot in a classroom Joseph did well in his studies. The classical education he received at the Abingdon Academy influenced him through the rest of his life. Along with military texts, his personal library would include works of classical literature, which he perused whenever time permitted, even in the midst of active campaigning.
By the time he was ready for higher education, it had become a fixed fact in his family that Joseph should matriculate at West Point. His father's prominence in legal and political circles, and the numerous professional connections he had made during his years on the bench, facilitated the obtaining of an Academy appointment for his son. It came through in the spring of 1825 through the agency of U.S. Sen. James Barbour of Virginia and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. On March 3, 1825, only hours before Calhoun resigned his cabinet post to take the oath as vice president of the United States, the celebrated statesman signed the appointment and forwarded it to the judge's son.
Joseph spent the next three months boning up on his studies in order to pass the qualifying examination that would admit him as a member of the next cadet class. By late June he was ready to start the tortuous journey to New York's Hudson River Valley, site of the nation's finest engineering school, then commencing its twenty-fourth year of instruction. Although eager to embark on the career he had long ago chosen for himself, Joseph left home under tragic circumstances. Mary Wood Johnston, who had long been in fragile health, lay dying; she would succumb to an unidentified disease within days of Joseph's departure, causing him to wonder "how is it possible for me to bear the loss of such a mother, the best, the tenderest, and the most virtuous, with other than the greatest anguish?"
By stage, train, and steamboat the heavy-hearted youth crossed his state, then traveled up the Atlantic seaboard via Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. At any of these dazzling places Joseph, like other incoming cadets from small towns and isolated villages who had never ventured far from home, may have spent some days sightseeing. But as soon as he arrived at West Point, his pleasure seeking ended. He was thrown into the jarring routine of summer encampment, which preceded every academic year; he found it hectic and arduous, composed of hours on the drill plain and demanding physical exercises. When summer ended and the cadets moved into barracks, life became somewhat more predictable and less strenuous. It was occasionally made almost intolerable, however, by the hazing heaped upon the plebes by their elders, some of whom took fiendish delight in making their classmates' lives miserable. Still, as he had when breaking his leg on the hunt, Joseph endured the experience with a stoicism and self-restraint that impressed his fellows just as his dignified bearing and vigorous physical application impressed his instructors on the drill plain.
His study skills and classroom performances were a bit less formidable. During his first year he and the other plebes were subjected to only two courses, mathematics and French, the twin underpinnings of the Academy's engineering curriculum. Johnston distinguished himself in neither subject, although he improved his standing in French as the year progressed. In fact, by diligent application he rose from twenty-seventh place among the 105 cadets who entered the Academy in July 1825 to thirteenth in the forty-six-man class. During that period he was introduced to chemistry, mineralogy, rhetoric, military drawing, and the general science course known as natural philosophy. He performed ably in the pure engineering courses that predominated during his junior and senior years, especially drawing, where he displayed an aptitude for mapmaking that would influence his active-duty career.
He also stood high in the tactics courses to which the cadets were exposed in their final year of study. His academic performance is all the more remarkable considering that the time he could devote to his studies was limited to the daylight hours. A lifelong tendency to night blindness-a relatively common affliction in the nineteenth century, when the prevailing diet, especially that of Southerners, was deficient in Vitamins A and B-prevented him from poring over his textbooks after the sun went down.
One reason for his continued rise was his ability to avoid demerits which, by affecting a student's standing on the role of general merit, influenced his overall ranking. Penalties were doled out-arbitrarily, it often seemed-for a wide assortment of offenses, some quite trivial and without evident application to military service. This draconian code of conduct was the handiwork of the Academy's venerable superintendent, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, for whom discipline was the glue that held the army together. Overall, his system achieved desired results although it took a toll of many cadets who, otherwise well suited to military life and capable of meeting most of the Academy's exacting requirements, received unrealistically low class rankings or washed out due to these black marks, two hundred of which, accumulated during any academic year, provided grounds for instant dismissal.
Joe Johnston never came close to the fatal total. During his first year at the Academy, he was gigged seven times for a total of sixteen demerits. His infractions ran the gamut of the mundane: inattention at drill, failing to police his quarters, wearing his hair too long to suit an inspecting officer. His deportment improved over his third-class year, during which he was cited only three times for punishable offenses. He collected nine and fifteen demerits, respectively, during his junior and senior years-an extraordinary performance. His few transgressions were mainly for visiting classmates after lights-out, indicating that despite the dignified air and the ramrod-straight posture that prompted fellow cadets to dub him "Colonel Johnston," he was sociable and approachable. Many of the associations he formed here lasted a lifetime; some paid career dividends-like him, several classmates would rise to high rank and prominence.
Of these, the majority were of Northern birth, including future Union generals James Barnes, Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, and Catharinus P. Buckingham. Lesser-ranking Northerners also destined for distinction were Sidney Burbank, who attained an unblemished forty-one-year career in the regular infantry, and the military and frontier artist Seth Eastman. Southerners of future note with whom Johnston forged close ties included North Carolina-born Theophilus Holmes from his own class and upperclassmen Albert Sidney Johnston of Kentucky (no relation to him), who was destined for high command in the military forces of three nations including the Republic of Texas; and Leonidas Polk, another North Carolinian who would become an Episcopal bishop as well as a lieutenant general of Confederate troops.
The Southerner with whom Johnston was most often thrown into contact was a fellow Virginian, Robert E. Lee, son of Peter Johnston's Revolutionary War commander. Although they were the only natives of the Old Dominion to graduate with their class, Johnston and Lee were never bosom friends. They were, however, unfailingly cordial and mutually supportive of each other's careers. Lee consistently attained a higher class standing than his classmate-he would graduate eleven places above Johnston on the roll of general merit. He also gained higher rank in the cadet corps, winning the coveted post of class adjutant. For his part, Johnston was promoted cadet sergeant during his second class year and the following summer briefly held the rank of lieutenant, only to lose the promotion for reasons that remain obscure. Perhaps because they were rivals for rank and position, Johnston's attitude toward his fellow Virginian was a combination of admiration and jealousy. That attitude would never change completely, but over time it would moderate. Years after Lee's death, Johnston would offer a more generous assessment of his colleague than any he could have rendered while both men lived:
We had the same intimate associates, who thought, as I did, that no other youth or man so united the qualities that win warm friendship and command high respect. For he was full of sympathy and kindness, genial and fond of gay conversation, and even of fun, that made him the most agreeable of companions, while his correctness of demeanor and language and attention to all duties, personal and official, and a dignity as much a part of himself as the elegance of his person, gave him a superiority that everyone acknowledged in his heart....
Excerpted from WORTHY OPPONENTS by Edward G. Longacre Copyright © 2007 by Edward G. Longacre. Excerpted by permission.
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