Biography gives a rounded view of a complex Gen. Johnston

May 17, 1992|By Vincent T. Fitzpatrick


Craig L. Symonds.


450 pages. $29.95. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was likened to Julius Caesar and hailed, in 1862, as "the only man who can save the Confederacy." But, two years later, having retreated before General Sherman's onslaught in Georgia, Johnston was ignominiously relieved of command of the Army of Tennessee.

His critics had quipped that he would stop retreating only when he reached the Gulf of Mexico. Johnston was, in brief, one of the most enigmatic and controversial commanders on either side during the Civil War.

He had impeccable credentials. When he resigned as Quartermaster General in 1861, he was the highest-ranking officer in the United States Army to join the Confederacy. His soldiers loved him -- "Old Joe," they called affectionately. Both Sherman and U.S. Grant concluded that Johnston, not Robert E. Lee, was their most capable opponent.

The only Confederate general to command both the eastern and western theaters, he engineered the first victory, at Manassas, and the last one, at Bentonville. His army was the last to surrender in the East, 17 days before Lee and Grant had their epic meeting at Appomattox, Va.

On the other hand, Johnston mismanaged Seven Pines, where he was badly wounded, and failed to rescue Pemberton at Vicksburg. He hated Jefferson Davis, whom he found vain and managerial. Davis, in turn, found Johnston uncommunicative, even insubordinate. Their constant wrangling badly hurt the war effort.

Lee, Davis and Stonewall Jackson are immortalized on Stone Mountain, and Lee has been worshiped as few other Americans have -- "a marble man," some have called him. But the Old South has erected only one statue honoring Johnston. He was, writes Craig L. Symonds of the U.S. Naval Academy in this model biography, "idealized by a few, vilified or dismissed by many others, ignored by most."

Of this book's many strengths, perhaps the greatest is Dr. Symonds' judicious treatment of his subject. He offers a rounded portrait of a complicated figure. We see Johnston as a Southern patriot who found slavery a "curse," as a man both generous and petty, and as a commander alternately decisive and Prufrockian in his maddening inability to act.

As its subtitle suggests, the biography focuses upon the Civil War. Having covered Johnston's early years in Virginia, his stay at West Point (he and Lee were classmates), his service in the Indian Wars and in Mexico, and his marriage in Baltimore, the book gracefully details his efforts to save the Confederacy.

The biographer is especially good with military strategy. Johnston believed, for example, that a city, once abandoned, could be recaptured but that a lost soldier could never be replaced. He also insisted upon concentrating his forces, and he constantly called for reinforcements. Such thinking infuriated Jefferson Davis and, to say the least, alarmed the residents of Vicksburg and Atlanta.

Much to its credit, this volume will be intelligible to the general LTC reader and informative to the Civil War buff. I doubt that it will be superseded by another biography.

Johnston's life after the war contained considerable pathos. Unlike Lee, who looked ahead and refused to argue or make excuses, Johnston never forgave what he considered to be appalling treatment by the president of the Confederacy.

In 1874, Johnston published his "Narrative of Military Operations," a self-serving volume that sold poorly and apparently convinced few. One thinks here of Mr. Dick and the head of King Charles I, or perhaps of brave Lord Jim and his futile efforts to refashion the past.

Johnston was buried in Baltimore, in Green Mount Cemetery, in 1891. For all its controversy, his career embodied honor and duty, and immense personal courage -- the best traits of the Lost Cause that harbored such huge hopes after First Manassas and such profound despair four long years later.

Mr. Fitzpatrick is the author of "H. L. Mencken" and co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book." His paternal great-grandfather fought for the Union; Stonewall Jackson married into his wife's family. He lives in Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.