(February 3, 1807–March 21, 1891)
Frank Everson Vandiver
Was Joseph E. Johnston a military genius or a marplot?* This question almost splintered the Confederate States of America and continues to intrigue historians to this day. His partisans regard him as a brilliant strategist and sound field commander whose talents were stifled by a rancorous chief executive. Foes point to constant retreating, absence of victories, and a petty punctilio to illustrate an almost pathological unwillingness to make decisions. He was, they argued then and now, temperamentally unsuited to be a general. Thus, this enigmatic Confederate general has both attracted and repelled biographers, most of whom have been perhaps overconcerned with his personal flaws rather than with making systematic analyses of his accomplishments. His own Narrative of Military Op erations, which he published near the end of his life, has been regarded with lofty scholarly suspicion and pointed to as an example of the bad taste that characterized so many former Confederates’ efforts to defend their own places in history. Another look at his life and activities as well as how he defended himself could assist in the attempt to reevaluate the wartime career of this important Confederate general.
Except for an occasional aside, in the Narrative, Johnston glossed over his youth and early training. He should not have, for much of the feisty and selfdefensive older figure was formed in the years before the Civil War. What becomes apparent in looking at how he grew up is that Johnston’s Virginia lineage marked him for life. His father, Peter Johnston, had served under “Light Horse” Harry Lee in the American Revolution and had been proud of his service in the making of the country. After the Revolution, Peter married Mary Valentine Wood, a niece of the legendary Patrick Henry, and they settled at the
*In this study of Johnston I have drawn on my 1959 introduction to Johnston’s Narrative for the
Indiana University Press. I thank that press for kind permission to reprint parts of that introduction.
While I have not changed my mind about General Johnston, I have deepened in my appreciation
for the world he inhabited.