Joseph Eggleston Johnston was born at Farmville in Prince Edward County, Virginia, and was graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, in 1829. Like many other Civil War military figures, Johnston saw action in the Black Hawk War, the Seminole Wars and the Mexican War. He left the service for a number of years and worked as a civil engineer.
Johnston later rejoined the U.S. Army, but resigned in 1861, when appointed a brigadier-general in the Confederate Army; he moved his soldiers rapidly from Harpers Ferry to assist P.G.T. Beauregard at First Bull Run in July 1861. Johnston was given command of the Army of Northern Virginia and faced the forces of George B. McClellan during the Peninsular Campaign in the spring of 1862. He was wounded at Fair Oaks and replaced by Robert E. Lee.
After recuperating, Johnston was sent westward in 1863, to relieve Vicksburg; his effort was a failure due in part to a lack of soldiers and conflicting orders. Johnston was given command of the Army of Tennessee in late 1863, and he did an excellent job of training his disorganized force. However, Jefferson Davis was displeased by Johnsons lack of initiative and replaced him with John B. Hood, in July 1864.
Johnston was restored by Lee to a command in North Carolina in early 1865; shortly thereafter, he assumed command in Georgia where his efforts against the forces of William T. Sherman were described as strategic retreat. After learning of the surrender at Appomattox, Johnston surrendered his army on April 26, 1865, despite orders to the contrary from Jefferson Davis.
In later life, Johnston worked in the insurance business and served a single term as a Congressman from Virginia from 1879 to 1881. He later was appointed a federal commissioner of railroads by Grover Cleveland.
Johnston was a truly talented defensive military leader, but lacked the daring and innovation to become an offensive threat. The tension between Johnston and Jefferson Davis did little to further the Confederate cause.
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