Friday, April 13, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 13: Joe Johnston

The US Postal Service book accompanying the Civil War stamps that I've been featuring this month is called The Civil War, 1861-1865: A Collection of U.S. Commemorative Stamps. It is a nice collection of photos and timelines, put together much like the current style in museum historical displays.

Joe Johnston is one of the better known Confederate generals. The book gives the following three-paragraph summary of his life:

When a Yankee shell fragment at the Battle of Seven Pines knocked Joseph E. Johnston out of action in May of 1862, many anxious Southerners feared that the Confederate cause had been dealt an irreparable blow. Johnston was a Confederate hero, and one of the South's finest officers. A War veteran, he was serving as quartermaster general of the U.S. Army when he resigned his commission in April 1861 to serve his native Virginia — one of the highest ranking army officers to cast his lot with the Confederacy. Commanding troops at Harpers Ferry in July 1861, he hurried them to Manassas in time to repulse the Federals at Bull Run and claim victory in the war's first engagement. In the winter of 1862, realizing that his Army of Northern Virginia might be outflanked at Manassas, he skillfully executed a series of tactical withdrawals that blocked General George McClellan's drive on Richmond. But in doing so Johnston drew the ire of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who expected his general to attack, not retreat. Finally, on May 31, with the Federals just 12 miles from Richmond, Johnston launched a counterthrust at Seven Pines. When he fell wounded, Robert E. Lee took command of the army.

Johnston remained a hero to his men, who prized his devotion to their welfare. Privately, Davis may have agreed with the hunting companion of Johnston who contended that in stalking game as in waging war, the general was too fussy, "too much afraid to miss and risk his fine reputation." But such was his stature that Davis continued to rely on him. In late 1863, Johnston took charge of the battered Army of Tennessee and sought to keep William T. Sherman from descending on Atlanta. Johnston rehabilitated the army and responded so alertly to Federal flanking moves that Sherman marveled at his "lynx-eyed watchfulness." But time and again, Johnston was forced to give ground. In July 1864, an exasperated Davis removed him in favor of John Be11 Hood, whose costly attacks failed to save Atlanta.

In February 1865, Johnston resumed command of what remained of the Army of Tennessee. Unwilling to expend lives without hope of victory, he rejected Davis' suggestion that the struggle be prolonged, "Our people are tired of war," he insisted, "feel themselves whipped, and will not fight." The breach between Davis and Johnston never healed, but the general reconciled with his former adversary Sherman, to whom he surrendered. After representing Virginia in Congress in postwar days, Johnston honored Sherman by marching through the rain in his funeral procession — then took to bed with pneumonia and died.
Joe Johnston

That last story has a nice dramatic flair to it: the two old enemies, honoring each other as they unite in death. It was this kind of thing that became part of the lore and ideology of the reconciliation between white Northerners and white Southerners at the expense of African-American citizens, especially in the South, and of the health of democracy.

That doesn't remove the human charm of the story. But this account is unfortunately typical of historical accounts which focus on the war itself, at the expense of the social and political context both before and after thewar. Sherman was a conservative Democrat. And during the latter part of his life, Sherman was actually popular among many Southern whites, because he endorsed the reactionary, anti-democracy, anti-black program of the Southern Redeemers, who successfully overthrow the democratic Reconstruction governments by force and violence.

So when we dwell on such symbolism as Joe Johnston marching in the funeral procession of his old nemesis William Sherman, it's important to remember that they were opponents in war, but later partners in promoting white supremacy and restricting American democracy. It was Sherman and those who agreed with this form of reconciliation among whites at the expense of black citizens and of democracy that were surrendering in those later days. Not a legacy in which to take much pride.

One aspect of Johnston's generalship is worth nothing. Lt. Col. George Bruce wrote of him in 1913 (quoted in Alan Nolan, Lee Reconsidered; 1991):

He came to the sane and correct conclusion that the passion of the Southern people for headlong fighting and great battles with a mortality list of Napoleonic proportions, about equal on each side, and little else to show for them save the deceptive glare of Victory, could have but one ending, - the ultimate defeat of the cause for which they were fought.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the successful commander of the Union armies, said of him, "I have had nearly all of the Southern generals in high command in front of me and Joe Johnston gave me more anxiety than any of the others. I was never half so anxious about [Robert E.] Lee." (Quoted by Brooks Simpson, "Continuous Hammering and Mere Attrition", in The Myth of the Lost Cause, Gary Gallagher and Alan Nolan, eds.; 2000).

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