Joe Johnston
Professor Ernest Butner (Irish)

        I would like to preface this essay by explaining that as an historian you must adjust yourself to the spirit of investigation. You need to see the forest for the trees. Do not get so caught up in preconceived notions and emotions that you fail to see reality. The what if essays will try to focus on the devil advocacy of the forum involved. To be very honest with my friends I would have to say that I had never given the Pipe Creek Line of defense much thought until I began studying the comments made by Buckshot and others. Each questioned answer brings to mind a new question.
        Joe Johnston is an interesting personality who deserves more study. Hopefully this essay will wet the juices for those who want to learn history as opposed to those who already know history. I will always place myself with the former.

"Joe Johnston gave me more anxiety than any of the others." (US Grant)
"...the most enterprising" of all the Southern generals. (WT Sherman)

        It is likely that when comparing Civil War Generals that the historian cannot make general or specific comparisons between personalities like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. They eventually fought each other, and Grant was the victor. Who was more bold? Who was more the genius? Who had the best instincts?
        When comparing Robert E. Lee with Joseph Johnston comparisons come quickly. One was a bold offensive minded general and the other? And the other was also an offensive minded general who lacked boldness.
        As a strategist Johnston seems to have been dominated by the concepts of Frederick the Great, Jomini, and Napoleon. He rarely strayed from the accepted maxims. Concentration and maneuver-these formed the twin pillars of his strategical thought. Lee on the other hand was more in the Washington or Wellington mold. The ability to grow the flower of victory upon the rock of defeat seemed very much a part of Lee's capability.
        The Confederacy was limited in human resources and with enormous land and sea frontiers to defend, they could not hope to meet Union pressures at every point. Therefore the correct strategy, Johnston contended, was to give ground wherever necessary and to concentrate against the main field armies of the North. This was his strategy at Bull Run, his recommendation for opposing McClellan in front of Richmond, and his basic plan for the defense of the Mississippi, where he hoped to unite General Holmes' troops from Arkansas with Pemberton's army in the vicinity of Vicksburg.
        His strategies ran counter to the policies of the President. His strategies ran counter to the principle of States Rights. Johnstons' plan for Vicksburg would have subordinated the interests of one section to the fortunes of the Confederacy at large, and Davis was unwilling to sacrifice a geographical area in order to bring about the desired concentration.
        Johnston also was a firm believer in mobility. His strategy didn't always coincide with the views of the President. Davis, had placed great value on holding Harpers Ferry in 1861, whereas Johnston would keep the troops there only for as long they could delay General Patterson's advance. He then would transfer them to some point where they could be made useful, which is exactly what he did at First Manassas.
        Johnston regarded trenches as pivots for maneuver and he used them often to help compensate for inferior numbers. "It is important that we should keep in our works only the number of men necessary to hold them, that we may have a strong movable force." This is very much like the strategy employed by Lee at the beginning of the Seven Days battle.
        Johnston's critics have often asserted that he was defensive-minded, that he was not aggressive enough and thought too much about the consequences of defeat and the necessity of retreat. The official records show that this was often due more to circumstances than to any penchant on his part. On several occasions while still in command in Virginia he had pressed Davis for enough reinforcements to permit him to take the offensive. In October 1861, he argued that his army should be increased to 60,000 effectives so that he could "attack the enemy in their own country." Davis proposed instead that "certain partial operations" against Union detachments rather than an active offensive would "exert a good influence over our troops and encourage the people of the Confederate States generally."
        At this same time General Lee was being called the King of Spades and Granny Lee for the constant digging of entrenchments circling Richmond.
         It was Davis who committed Johnston's army to the defensive several months later on the Peninsula. In April 1862, Johnston again brought up the matter of an offensive. In a letter to Lee he pointed out that -- "We are engaged in a species of warfare at which we can never win. It is plain that...McClellan will adhere to the system adopted by him last summer, and depend for success upon artillery and engineering. We can compete with him in neither. We must therefore change our course, take the offensive, collect all the troops we have in the East and cross the Potomac with them, while Beauregard, with all we have in the West, invades Ohio. Our troops have always wished for the offensive...We can have no success while McClellan is allowed, as he is, by our defensive, to choose his mode of warfare."
        Lee's Chickahominy line of defenses was a serious accident waiting to happen. By his own admissions he had constructed the line too close to Richmond. He knew that McClellan's guns would easily reach the heart of the city if his earthen fortifications became the only obstacle in McClellan's path.
        A basic difference between Johnston and Lee was Johnston's thought in terms of an offensive provided he was given the necessary strength. Lee was always willing to commence offensive operations with what he had, if the strategical situation dictated this course of action.
        Johnston was not as bold as Lee. He never felt he was strong enough to seize the initiative during the Vicksburg Campaign and he was unwilling on strategical and logistical grounds to take the offensive against Sherman in Tennessee. His first task was to rebuild the army and restore the morale and self-confidence of the troops after their recent defeat upon Missionary Ridge, and even then there was a great disparity between Johnston's forces and the three armies that Sherman had at his disposal. Should he have at least tried? Who were his tried and true bold leaders who would seek out enemy flanks and make daring maneuvers to attack and destroy? How successful was Lee in doing this following Chancellorsville? However, what if he had at least tried? Or did he?
        Sherman, McPherson, Schofield, and Thomas together were a competent team that gave unified direction to the Union efforts in the West, and under the circumstances it is difficult to see what Johnston might have done except to delay Sherman's advance as long as possible and hope for an opportunity to counterattack under favorable conditions. At Cassville he saw his opening, but his plans were frustrated by the faulty decision of a subordinate, and Sherman presented Johnston with no further opportunities. Compare the list of the western Federal generals with the list that Lee had to contend with in the Spring and summer of 1864. Grant, Meade, Sigel, and Butler. Is it possible to make a comparison? Oh well, what if?
        Johnston's strategy at Vicksburg had been thwarted by Confederate engineers and the overall established philosophy that believed fixed fortifications held by large armies could defend against maneuvering armies and well constructed ironclad river gunboats.
        Once it had become apparent that Grant's army had bypassed the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg and was in position to invest it, Johnston tried to extricate Pemberton's army. "The usual error of Confederate engineering had been committed there. An immense intrenched camp requiring an army to hold it, had been made instead of a fort requiring only a only a small garrison.(J. Johnston)" Repeatedly he ordered Pemberton at Vicksburg and Gardner, commanding the garrison at Port Hudson, to evacuate their works in time to save the troops and unite with the forces under his immediate command so that together they might assume the offensive.
        Davis, however, was determined to hold Vicksburg under any circumstances and as a result both Vicksburg and Pemberton's army were lost to the Confederacy. What if Johnston would have brought his troops forward to Vicksburg? Would they have been captured along with the rest of Pemberton's command? Could they have been successful in wresting Vicksburg away from Grant's maneuvering army? What would have happened if the Arkansas troops under General Holmes would have been placed under Johnston's immediate command when there was still time to act? And was it Johnston's fault that they were not?
        Johnston's own plans for defending Atlanta the following summer, had he been retained in command, called for Georgia state troops to man the defenses while his field army maneuvered to strike Sherman's exposed flank as he approached.
        His lack of boldness is what really caused Johnston's downfall. It is hard to believe that he would have divided his forces in the face of a superior enemy as Lee had done at both Second Manassas and Chancellorsville. He probably would not have remained to fight McClellan at Antietam. Johnston would have remained true to his principles of war, which had saved him on many occasions but which in these three cases might have deprived him of achieving half so much as Lee. Although a careful analysis of what was achieved by those battles can create some interesting thought.
        Was the Confederate army in position to wreak havoc on a very disrupted and disorganized Federal Army following Second Manassas? This was a great victory for the Confederate nation...what did it accomplish? Chancellorsville may be considered Lee's greatest victory. Possibly the boldest move of the war split a Confederate army not once but twice. The maneuver sent the Federal Army fleeing ingloriously back across the Rappahannock. What was the cost? What did the great victory accomplish? Boldness at Antietam...Emancipation Proclamation. Assured no help from abroad.
        Boldness can be dangerous, and hindsight generally tells us if it was worth it. But if you do not try...what do you accomplish?
        On the other hand, What if Pope had blocked Thoroughfare Gap and then concentrated to overwhelm Jackson's isolated corps, as he should have done? What if McClellan had made the most of his immense strength at Antietam by coordinating his assaults against Lee? What if Hooker had listened to his corps commanders and realized that Jackson's flank attack had achieved only one success, that being the rout of the Eleventh Corps? Would Lee have gone down in history as a rash or even a foolish general and Johnston's wounds at Seven Pines would have been felt by nearly everybody in the Confederacy in a much different light? What If?
        Johnston was one of the best prepared professional soldiers to enter the Confederate service. He had served with each of the three combat arms, and with the Topographical Engineers and as Quartermaster General. And yet he accomplished little.
        "...bald quiet Joe Johnston, the little precise Scotch-dominie of a general, stubborn as flint, in advance not always so lucky, in retreat more dangerous than a running wolf. (Stephen Vincent Benet')"
        There are few Wellingtons, Washingtons, Cromwells, Marlboroughs, born. All of these men possessed the boldness, instinct, and character to grasp victory from certain defeat. All had smaller armies facing larger ones, all figured out how to be victorious. Lee learned a great deal from Napoleon, but he also understood the philosophy of the men listed, for they won while facing tremendous odds. Napoleon lost when he should have won. Johnston was unable to make the comparison, nor could he shift his beliefs.
        What if Johnston's strategy would have been allowed to mature? What was inherently wrong with his ideas of fixed fortifications held by small garrisons making allowances for armies to pivot from? Was he right in his feelings that it would take an army strengthened by 60,000 new faces to make an effective invasion of the North? Did Lee's failures at Gettysburg and Antietam prove that theory correct? What if?
        Johnston was a product of West Point thought. He was a product of the system. Like many soldiers of his day, he found that the principles which had guided him in the past were no match for the new principles that guided his opponents. Antiquated ideas concerning fixed fortifications held by large armies, national needs being placed in a subordinate role to state's rights, a failure to take charge of the whole, and a very interesting and destructive relationship with the President all led to Joe Johnston's downfall. The flower of victory did not grow from the rocky soil at Johnston's feet.
Source: From the papers of the late Dr. Ernest Butner

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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