Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond

Recent writers, using more reliable sources, have revised that opinion, and as a result his reputation has precipitously declined

Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond

In the Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, Richard M. McMurry concludes his entry on General Joseph E. Johnston with a bold assertion: "Johnston's reputation has probably changed more drastically than that of any other Confederate general. For decades historians who based their work on postwar memoirs praised his military abilities. Recent writers, using more reliable sources, have revised that opinion, and as a result his reputation has precipitously declined." Now comes Steven H. Newton, who has set himself to the task of re-elevating Joe Johnston's sagging reputation.

General Johnston played five starring roles on the Civil War stage: as co-commander (with P.G.T. Beauregard) in the Southern victory at the First Battle of Manassas; as head of the largest Confederate army in the East during the period from Manassas to Seven Pines on the Virginia Peninsula; as Western theater commander during the Vicksburg campaign; as the initial defender against Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in the Atlanta campaign; and, finally, as head of a last gasp defense against Sherman in the Carolinas in 1865. In Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond, Newton investigates the second of these roles--the general's command of the force that became known as the Army of Northern Virginia--and declares Johnston not guilty.

Not guilty of what? Newton frames the prosecuting historians' main charge against Johnston (in addition to his being an indifferent strategist and a poor military administrator) this way: "That he was a man temperamentally incapable of committing himself to offensive battle." Terming this characterization a caricature, Newton wants us to believe that whatever may be said about Johnston's generalship after he left the Old Dominion, it did not stem from his time in command in Virginia. By whichever standard it is measured, concrete results or credible performance, he writes, "Joseph Johnston's defense of Richmond fares quite well."

Newton focuses on a three-and-a-half-month period, from mid-February 1862, when debate began about evacuating Johnston's army from Manassas, to May 31, when Johnston was seriously wounded in the fighting at Seven Pines outside Richmond and command of his army passed to General Robert E. Lee. Only by extracting this block of time from the larger Peninsula campaign, writes Newton, can Joe Johnston escape being "hopelessly obscured in the long, deep shadow of Lee." Newton knows this period backward and forward. Johnston's defense of the capital was the subject of his doctoral dissertation, and he has written three articles on aspects of that defense as well as a book titled The Battle of Seven Pines. He has turned up the materials for a wholly new portrait of Johnston as Richmond's defender in 1862.

According to Newton, the latter-day historians pressing down most heavily on General Johnston's reputation include Richard M. McMurry, Steven E. Woodworth, Joseph T. Glathaar, Albert Castel, and William C. Davis. Yet a close reading of the narrative and notes suggests that the historian whom Newton most wants to indict for unfairness to Joe Johnston is none other than the godfather of Confederate historiography, Douglas Southall Freeman.

This is part of a trend. In recent years, Freeman's magisterial pronouncements on icons of the Confederacy have been increasingly challenged. The first to be challenged, of course, was Freeman's Lee, and now each publishing season brings a new Lee critic out of the woodwork. Then it was Freeman's interpretation of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet that came under revisionist assault. Now in this volume we are presented with a view of Joe Johnston different from that offered us more than half a century ago in Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command. (Historian Clifford Dowdey is also taken fiercely to task here for his portrayal of Johnston, but as Newton points out, Dowdey simply took Freeman's Johnston pronouncements and ran wild with them.)

Certainly the Joe Johnston that emerges from a reading of volume one of Lee's Lieutenants--sloppy as an administrator, churlish on the subject of rank, too often at odds with President Jefferson Davis, quicker to retreat than to fight--is the Joe Johnston that McMurry and his followers have adopted. These traits of his on the Peninsula, so carefully delineated by Freeman, form the background when Johnston's Vicksburg and Atlanta commands are examined.

Newton effectively meets or dilutes each of these charges. As a military administrator, we find that Johnston actually did quite well with what Richmond furnished him. In this connection, the incident Freeman used tellingly against Johnston was that during his withdrawal from Manassas in early March 1862, more than a million pounds of meat had to be destroyed. The anecdote that characterizes that day has Confederate troops marching away from Manassas trailed by the overwhelming smell of frying bacon. Newton, however, after digging out of an obscure corner of the Official Records the report of Johnston's commissary officer (something Freeman failed to do), can report the burning of hardly one-sixth of that amount. The operation, writes Newton, "did not merit the scorn it has often received." That Johnston had his army safely behind the Rappahannock River before Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan knew he was gone, and that he carried out this retrograde movement just six days before McClellan had scheduled landing a force to cut off the Confederates' Manassas position, adds considerable luster to Joe Johnston's role as a military administrator.

In the matter of Johnston's ranking among the top echelon of Confederate generals (Johnston thought he should be first; the president put him fourth), Newton points out that Johnston wrote one intemperate letter on the subject of rank to Davis, and the president replied in kind, and that was the end of it during the time of Johnston's Virginia command. In contrast to Freeman, Newton argues that the Davis-Johnston relationship during this period was far less strained than previously thought and that there were genuine efforts at cooperation.

Joe Johnston's role in Confederate strategy on the Peninsula, from Yorktown to Seven Pines, will probably be of most interest to students of the campaign. Freeman and those who have followed his lead have painted Johnston as a single-minded advocate of gathering every Confederate soldier within reach and, without delay, giving up the Peninsula to make any battle for Richmond right at the gates of the capital. The strategic argument here was between Johnston and Lee, whom Davis had named commanding general of Confederate forces.

It is Joe Johnston the strategist who I believe is the most weakly drawn of Newton's portraits. He notes that we do not have all of Johnston's correspondence for this period, but from what he infers from the missing letters he offers the suggestion--but only the suggestion--that Johnston's strategy was more subtle than simply giving up Yorktown and running straight for Richmond. Lee argued for holding Yorktown as long as possible to gain what the Confederacy desperately needed--time to muster forces from elsewhere, time to train those men that they had, and time to gather armaments to meet the grand army of McClellan. It is not entirely clear here what Johnston suggested (or might have suggested) as an alternative strategy to hanging on as long as he could at Yorktown. Newton is explicit, however, in crediting Johnston with knowing exactly when to finally evacuate Yorktown. He only escaped being pulverized by McClellan's siege guns by a matter of hours.

There is another factor in this Johnston-Lee relationship that might profitably have been explored by the author--the contrasting appraisals of General McClellan by the two Confederate generals. Joe Johnston and George McClellan were close friends from antebellum days, when Johnston acted as a mentor to the younger McClellan. From McClellan's private correspondence in 1861-62 it is clear that he had great respect for Johnston. (He also had great respect for another prewar friend, Maj. Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, Johnston's second-in-command on the Peninsula.) This respect was surely a factor in McClellan's extreme caution in approaching Johnston's army and in his monumentally excessive estimate of Johnston's strength. McClellan thought a good deal less of Robert E. Lee, terming him "likely to be timid & irresolute in action."

Johnston in his turn was exceedingly respectful of his friend McClellan and always expected McClellan's generalship would be of the first order. Lee did not share such a view. It was on the Peninsula that Robert E. Lee first displayed that uncanny ability to read his opponent's mind. He took one look at McClellan's almost unseemly haste to commit to a siege at Yorktown and grasped the essence of McClellan the soldier--it was Little Mac who was "timid & irresolute in action." From that moment on, Lee knew what course to shape against McClellan. The contrasting Peninsula strategies proposed by Lee and Johnston drew heavily on their contrasting views of their opponent, and this could have added weight to Newton's analysis.

Seven Pines was a grossly mismanaged battle, but Newton properly points out that this was true of every first battle by every Civil War commanding general. No one got it right the first time. At least Seven Pines rebuts the charge that Johnston was "temperamentally incapable of committing himself to offensive battle." Johnston could hardly wait to take the offensive at Seven Pines. He had drawn McClellan away from his gunboats, two Federal corps were isolated south of the Chickahominy River, and everything was as he wanted it. His offensive did not end with the sweeping victory he sought, but as first battles went, it was not unusual. Steven Newton is quite correct to say that Joe Johnston's defense of Richmond in 1862 "fares quite well" in history's judgment.


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