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General Joseph E. Johnston was in command of Confederate forces at the South's first victory—Manassas in July 1861—and at its last—Bentonville in April 1965. Many of his contemporaries considered him the greatest southern field commander of the war; others ranked him second only to Robert E. Lee. But Johnston was an enigmatic man. His battlefield victories were never decisi General Joseph E. Johnston was in command of Confederate forces at the South's first victory—Manassas in July 1861—and at its last—Bentonville in April 1965. Many of his contemporaries considered him the greatest southern field commander of the war; others ranked him second only to Robert E. Lee. But Johnston was an enigmatic man. His battlefield victories were never decisive. He failed to save Confederate forces under siege by Grant at Vicksburg, and he retreated into Georgia in the face of Sherman's march. His intense feud with Jefferson Davis ensured the collapse of the Confederacy's western campaign in 1864 and made Johnston the focus of a political schism within the government. Now in this rousing narrative of Johnston's dramatic career, Craig L. Symonds gives us the first rounded portrait of the general as a public and private man.


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General Joseph E. Johnston was in command of Confederate forces at the South's first victory—Manassas in July 1861—and at its last—Bentonville in April 1965. Many of his contemporaries considered him the greatest southern field commander of the war; others ranked him second only to Robert E. Lee. But Johnston was an enigmatic man. His battlefield victories were never decisi General Joseph E. Johnston was in command of Confederate forces at the South's first victory—Manassas in July 1861—and at its last—Bentonville in April 1965. Many of his contemporaries considered him the greatest southern field commander of the war; others ranked him second only to Robert E. Lee. But Johnston was an enigmatic man. His battlefield victories were never decisive. He failed to save Confederate forces under siege by Grant at Vicksburg, and he retreated into Georgia in the face of Sherman's march. His intense feud with Jefferson Davis ensured the collapse of the Confederacy's western campaign in 1864 and made Johnston the focus of a political schism within the government. Now in this rousing narrative of Johnston's dramatic career, Craig L. Symonds gives us the first rounded portrait of the general as a public and private man.

48 review for Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Manray9

    Joseph E, Johnston: A Civil War Biography is another worthwhile effort by Craig Symonds. It is a straightforward, even-handed, and well-researched volume assessing Joseph E. Johnston’s storied military career. Symonds doesn’t gloss over Johnston’s numerous shortcomings, his bad judgment or lack of political sensitivity, and he examines well his successes as a battlefield tactician, a leader of men and a builder of armies. Symonds exposes Johnston’s crucial failure to grasp that war is politics b Joseph E, Johnston: A Civil War Biography is another worthwhile effort by Craig Symonds. It is a straightforward, even-handed, and well-researched volume assessing Joseph E. Johnston’s storied military career. Symonds doesn’t gloss over Johnston’s numerous shortcomings, his bad judgment or lack of political sensitivity, and he examines well his successes as a battlefield tactician, a leader of men and a builder of armies. Symonds exposes Johnston’s crucial failure to grasp that war is politics by other means. His purely tactical approach to campaigning on the Virginia peninsula and across Northern Georgia prevented his coming to appreciate the limitations imposed by geopolitical realities upon the prickly Jefferson Davis. Couple this failure with his unwillingness to placate Davis’ delicate ego, and Johnston’s tenure in command was shaky from the start. The peak of Joseph E. Johnston’s career was his Fabian campaign across Northern Georgia in 1864. It was brilliantly executed in the face of enormous odds. Sherman’s forces dominated the field in manpower, war materiel, provisions, and livestock. Johnston adroitly maneuvered his inferior army so as to avoid pitched battles, minimize losses, and maintain his army in the field as a force in being. This is not at all dissimilar to the contemporaneous Overland Campaign conducted by R. E. Lee in Northern Virginia. The major difference was Lee’s willingness to engage in preemptive assaults (Battle of the Wilderness) in vain attempts to forestall Grant’s offensives. Lee was unsuccessful and, like Johnston, was eventually pushed back into his defensive works and inevitable defeat -- but Lee suffered considerable casualties en route to the same end. The campaigns were comparable, but Lee was hailed as a hero and Johnston was castigated for failing to fight. With Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, Craig Symonds makes a valuable contribution to Civil War history by providing a comprehensive portrait of a consequential, but often neglected, figure. “Old Joe” was flawed, but history has not allotted him the credit he deserves. Craig Symonds does.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sean Chick

    I really wish Symonds had written more biographies. He is a fine writer and a fair judge, taking Johnston to task when needed but also calling attention to his good qualities. This is a hard task with the Confederacy's most controversial soldier. In the old army Johnston was peerless. He was the first West Point graduate to ever become a general but he was jealous of Lee and McClellan. Johnston won few battles but was widely respected. Although he never owned slaves nor had much liking for the i I really wish Symonds had written more biographies. He is a fine writer and a fair judge, taking Johnston to task when needed but also calling attention to his good qualities. This is a hard task with the Confederacy's most controversial soldier. In the old army Johnston was peerless. He was the first West Point graduate to ever become a general but he was jealous of Lee and McClellan. Johnston won few battles but was widely respected. Although he never owned slaves nor had much liking for the institution, he was a loyal Democrat and Reconstruction era white supremacist (although to be fair so were most Northerners). He surrendered the South's last great field army, but wept when he resigned from the army. As Russell Reeder once wrote, he was an enigma. Symonds explains this enigma with great skill. He argues that Johnston was a romantic at heart obsessed with honor. He desired success and promotion, but not at the expense of others. When he felt his honor and reputation questioned, he could become petty and in his later years even mean. The only question I felt unanswered was why Johnston was so indecisive. Symonds will give incidental reasons, but there was something in the man's core that proscribed decisive strategic action.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Heinz Reinhardt

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Before the current psychosis infecting the body politic, Confederate Army commanders were often lauded as members of the pantheon of American military heroes. Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Patrick Cleburne, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, Richard Taylor, and many others were hailed as some of this nations greatest warriors. Typically absent from this list, however, is Joseph E. Johnston. In the immediate years following the War, until around the time of his passing in the 1890's, Joe John Before the current psychosis infecting the body politic, Confederate Army commanders were often lauded as members of the pantheon of American military heroes. Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Patrick Cleburne, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, Richard Taylor, and many others were hailed as some of this nations greatest warriors. Typically absent from this list, however, is Joseph E. Johnston. In the immediate years following the War, until around the time of his passing in the 1890's, Joe Johnston was usually placed alongside Lee and Jackson as one of the three top Southern commanders of the War Between the States. In the current day, however, Johnston is largely an afterthought, if he is even mentioned at all outside of a few chapters here and there. Partly that is because Johnston only really commanded in one, large, set piece engagement: Seven Pines, and that was a draw. Johnston's military history in the War Between the States is as a commander often in charge of grander strategic decision making, or of a grand campaign (Atlanta, the Peninsula) rather than as a leader in individual battles. And, for better or worse, the historiography of the Civil War is still hyper focused on set piece battles. As Symonds' showcases in this excellent biography of an oft ignored American General, Johnston was one of the very first truly modern American military commanders. The book covers Johnston's early days, and from the start Johnston's life was one geared towards soldiering. He graduated with high marks from West Point, where he befriended fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, and developed a life long sense of competitiveness with Lee. He served in both the Seminole and Mexican Wars, and also did frontier duty. Throughout Johnston was always known as a competent, oft times brilliant, but very ambitious young officer. Though his military career was mostly successful (he was frustrated with the slowness of promotions, and often despaired that his life was going nowhere), he had severe difficulties in romance, not getting married until his later thirties. His wife, Lydia, who was the love of his life, was quite a bit younger than Joe, (if I remember correctly she was around 15-18 years his junior; even today not all that uncommon, especially in the South) and yet despite their differences in age, they were strenuously devoted to each other. As the bio shows, the two had a very close, very passionately loving marriage, and they were the very best of friends with each other. Sadly, poor Lydia always suffered from health maladies, having a weak constitution, and she was often quite ill. As a result, not for lack of trying, the two never had children. However, this shared pain only seemed to draw the two even closer to each other. Lydia is mentioned often in the book, as she was the only person who her husband really felt comfortable truly being relaxed around. And she was his closest confidant, a trusted advisor, and most ardent public defender. When the War came, Johnston sided with his people of the South, and was one of the nascent Confederacy's first full rank Generals. Even here, however, Johnston showcased the dark side of his personality: his ambitious and combative nature. He had a habit of taking offense easily, and rarely dismissing a grudge. Though it seemed as though he and Lydia never even had a raised voice moment with each other, so close was their relationship, it also seemed that Johnston rarely met a superior, or a fellow officer, that he didn't at some point come into conflict with. Part of it could have been his diminutive stature, part of it was Southern cultural upbringing in regards to masculinity, part of it was just that Joe was a highly sensitive, ambitious man and he held his own honor in high esteem. Regardless, it meant that the one man, more than any other, Johnston needed to get along with, was one that he never did: President Jefferson Davis. The early poisoned relationship between the General and the President is a large segment of the story that is the life of Joseph E Johnston. Lasting throughout the War, and carrying on well into the ends of both of their lives, the personal animosity between Johnston and Davis can be said to be one of the facets that helped doom the Confederate bid for Independence. Despite their vituperative conflict, Johnston was appointed on five separate occasions to be in command of either field forces involved in crucially important operations, or overseeing strategically vital areas. Firstly, Johnston was the first Confederate commander in the Shenandoah. In the summer of 1861, Johnston played a successful cat and mouse game with Federal General Robert Patterson, slipping away to ride the rails to join Beauregard's forces outside Manassas to help win the First Battle of Manassas alongside the Bull Run. Then Johnston commanded the main Confederate Army in Virginia, what would become the Army of Northern Virginia. When McClellan launched his grand Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, Johnston strategically repositioned his Army to the Peninsula, waging a slow fighting withdrawal against the massively superior Federal forces. After having concentrated a large enough force around Richmond, Johnston took the opportunity to strike an isolated Union Corps on the western bank of the Chickahominy, inaugurating the Battle of Seven Pines. That Battle was a draw, and a bloody one, and Johnston would be severely wounded in the fighting on the first day. And although his ultimate aim of defeating the Army of the Potomac in detail was a failure, the ferocity of the Southern blow sapped the momentum from McClellan's drive, and psychologically put Little Mac on the back foot for the remainder of the campaign. Following a long convalescence, Johnston was placed in Departmental Command in the West. However, Davis routinely undermined Johnston's authority, and the severe command chaos that resulted helped doom the Confederate defense of Vicksburg and the Mississippi River. In late 1863 Johnston was back again in Army command. This time he was placed in command of the Army of Tennessee, and it is this tenure of that he is most remembered for. Taking command of a disheartened, demoralized, disorganized force, Johnston worked wonders and by the time of the spring 1864 campaign season, the AoT was a trim, eager, and ready fighting force. One thing this book makes clear, is that Johnston had a natural ability to connect to his men, and like Lee and McClellan, Johnston was a General who was not only respected and admired, he was downright loved by the men who served under him. When Sherman marched his massive forces south towards Atlanta, Johnston fought one of the most brilliant operations of the entire War. Often derided as nothing more than a series of retreats, Johnston always stayed one step ahead of Sherman, always blocked the most vital routes with his smaller forces, and inflicted several sharp, bloody, tactical reverses on the Federals. However, he did withdraw. And though he made numerous plans to strike Sherman a telling blow, failures from subordinates, and Federal skill of their own, always put paid to Johnston's plans. Increasingly frustrated at what was viewed in Richmond as an unwillingness to stand and fight, Davis relieved Johnston in early July, replacing him with John Bell Hood in command of the Army. Ever since Johnston has been castigated by the vast majority of military historians in America (he tends to fare better with foreign historians) as an incompetent and given the nickname 'Retreatin' Joe'. This is an incredibly unfair analysis of what he was able to accomplish with a force outnumbered nearly 2-1 throughout the Campaign. For one, Johnston was, like Lee, a man capable of intuitively setting up on excellent defensive ground. Sherman largely looked to avoid a direct confrontation with the Southerners, precisely because Johnston was able to choose ground to defend that was a tremendous force multiplier, negating the Northern superiority in men and material. During the occasions when Johnston was able to bait Sherman into an armed confrontation, or when the two sides clashed, the Army of Tennessee inflicted a roughly two to one loss ratio on the Federals. Johnston's ability to use his armed host as also an engineering force, a skill that equaled Lee's, he bogged Sherman down into trench warfare around both New Hope Church, and Kennesaw Mountain. This frustrated Sherman so severely that Sherman determined to hit the Rebels head on along their positions on Kennesaw Mountain; and paid dearly for it. Johnston laid several plans to trap a portion of Sherman's force and allow the Southerners to concentrate superior force at the point of contact and overwhelm their foes. However, one must bear in mind that Johnston often decided to rely upon Hood, a Corps commander at the time, to launch the offensive movements. And, each time, Hood dropped the ball. That said, it must be said that the Yankees were too skillful, possibly, to be trapped in such a fashion. Nevertheless, the charge that Johnston never sought a direct confrontation with Sherman, is blown away by Symonds' narrative and analysis. And lastly, Johnston took command of the shattered remnants of the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina, and in it's last battle, Johnston launched an offensive on a portion of Sherman's advancing force in March 1865, at Bentonville, and won yet another tactical victory. Even so, Bentonville was strategically empty, and Johnston would end up surrendering the Army to Sherman just a few weeks later. Johnston's postwar life was tainted by the row caused by the publishing of his memoirs. Johnston carried forward his war with the Davis Administration into the post War period, as well as clashed with other former Confederate Generals. This is clearly the worst aspect of his character, and he diminished his own reputation as a result. That said, he still retained the loyalty of his men, and his adoring wife, Lydia. When Lydia died, over a decade before Joe himself reposed, Johnston was so heartbroken that he could not bring himself to utter even her name or else he would entirely breakdown. His grief over Lydia showcases just how close and deep was their relationship and their love for each other. Truly a great American romance. Johnston would outlive most of his generation. He would attend the funerals of Grant and Sherman, and at Sherman's funeral, where he was a pallbearer (a lesson to be learned, former foes uniting as brethren in the ranks of fellow warriors), he contracted pneumonia. The illness would take his life. Hopefully he was reunited with his beautiful young Lydia. His own funeral would be one attended not by the greats of the War, for they were mostly themselves already no longer among the living, but by his men. Soldiers of the Army of Tennessee, themselves greying now, carried his casket, and attended his funeral in large numbers (some former Union foes did as well), and they gave him the epitath that would have pleased him the most save had Lydia said it: Goodbye old fellow, we loved you, for you made us feel like men. He was a tremendous figure, a very good General, and one of the more intriguing personages of the War. Craig Symonds has written a wonderful biography, and it is one I highly recommend.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Craig Symonds provides one of the more balanced views on one of the most contested generals in the Civil War. While the debate still rages about Johnston as either tactically inept or a military genius, Symonds steps around it to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the man and points more in the direction of genius than inept. Johnston fought well during the Peninsula campaign and one the first battle of Bull Run. He was the most senior military man to leave the Union to join the confederacy Craig Symonds provides one of the more balanced views on one of the most contested generals in the Civil War. While the debate still rages about Johnston as either tactically inept or a military genius, Symonds steps around it to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the man and points more in the direction of genius than inept. Johnston fought well during the Peninsula campaign and one the first battle of Bull Run. He was the most senior military man to leave the Union to join the confederacy and Davis political choices started a rift that would plague the confederacy throughout the war. His wounding at the battle for the Peninsula removed him from command of the Army of Northern Virginia and set the stage for Robert E. Lee's ascension. Johnston in order to avoid the political debates in Richmond was sent by Davis to the west and placed in the command of the scattered armies where although the Confederates mocked and complained of his command decisions that lost Vicksburg and Murfreesboro his enemies praised his decisions to Washington that Johnston kept the war going years longer than it should have in the west. The Confederates did not have enough men to properly defend the vast territory they were trying to. Johnston would face a rearguard action from Tennessee to Georgia where he would continue to check Sherman's famous march to the Sea. He was relieved by the confederacy before the assault on Georgia and stayed without a command through the fall of Savannah. Finally as options ran out he took command of forces in North and South Carolina to check Sherman's ability to meet up with Grant. Here he was successful in slowing Sherman down and continued fighting three days after Lee surrendered making him the last confederate Army to surrender. Overall this is an excellent biography about a complex solider who was in many of the important campaigns of the civil war. This book also details his time at west point, in Mexico, and fighting Indians before moving on to the Civil war. For those interested in Civil War history this is one not to miss.

  5. 4 out of 5

    'Aussie Rick'

    This is one of the best Civil War biographies I have read in some time and I have not seen one better on Johnston yet. The author, I believe, offers a non-baised account of this Confederate leader and writes in a style that just keeps you turning the pages. The book is well researched and very well written, it was a joy to read. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone who enjoys reading a decent history book. Well done to the author.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Steve Schinke

    If you have only read biographies on Lee, Grant, and Sherman, you owe it to yourself to explore Johnston. It gave me a different perspective on the conduct of the war than I previously held. I was vaguely aware of the disharmony and infighting in the Confederate leadership, but this biography highlighted the pettiness and glory seeking that occurred at the highest levels. It has motivated me to explore Jefferson Davis in more detail to determine if he is the egotistical weasel portrayed in this If you have only read biographies on Lee, Grant, and Sherman, you owe it to yourself to explore Johnston. It gave me a different perspective on the conduct of the war than I previously held. I was vaguely aware of the disharmony and infighting in the Confederate leadership, but this biography highlighted the pettiness and glory seeking that occurred at the highest levels. It has motivated me to explore Jefferson Davis in more detail to determine if he is the egotistical weasel portrayed in this book. Overall, it seems to be a fair assessment of Johnston's abilities and character flaws, both of which are abundantly portrayed.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mark Harden

    Good balanced view. Well written.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Steven Peterson

    Joseph Johnston was one of the top ranking generals in the Confederate Army (at the outset, he was one of the five top ranking Generals with others such as Robert E. Lee, Albert S. Johnston, and Samuel Cooper). He is also a controversial figure. His feud with President Jefferson Davis is legendary. He was viewed by many as too timid militarily, willing to give up space rather than fight hard. On the other hand, more friendly analysts have mentioned that, unlike Robert E. Lee, he understood the v Joseph Johnston was one of the top ranking generals in the Confederate Army (at the outset, he was one of the five top ranking Generals with others such as Robert E. Lee, Albert S. Johnston, and Samuel Cooper). He is also a controversial figure. His feud with President Jefferson Davis is legendary. He was viewed by many as too timid militarily, willing to give up space rather than fight hard. On the other hand, more friendly analysts have mentioned that, unlike Robert E. Lee, he understood the value of preserving as much of his army as possible, rather than being bled to death by sanguinary battles with the larger Union forces. In that, some see him as the "anti-Lee." This biography does a good job of describing Johnston's military career, the controversies that he engendered, his accomplishments and his failures. There were certainly high moments: his role at First Manassas (or Bull Run); his skillful retreat before William T. Sherman's much larger army as he fell back on Atlanta (although critics would argue that he was far too unwilling to engage Sherman); his pulling together shattered Confederate forces for a final confrontation with Sherman at the battle at Bentonville. There were low moments: his botched generalship at Seven Pines ranks pretty high. Then, the more ambiguous examples. Was his behavior at Vicksburg visionary (as he sought to save Pemberton's army rather than the redoubt at Vicksburg)? Or disastrous, as he refused to try to fight through the far superior Union forces to relieve Vicksburg during the siege? I think the case can be made that Johnston was far wiser than others in this campaign--but it is also clear that he may not have been vigorous enough in trying to realize his vision. Did he fail in his role as supervising general in the western theater? Or was his role crippled from the outset? Questions without clear answers. In the end, there is much ambiguity about his role in the Civil War. In retrospect, I think that he was one of the more capable Confederate generals and one of the few who understood that bloody conflicts against overwhelming Union forces was suicidal for the Confederate cause. But his prickliness and inability to work with the political directorate (headed by Davis) certainly undermined his efforts. At any rate, this is a sensitive and fair biography of one of the major military leaders of the Confederacy.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Balanced accounting of the subject.

  10. 4 out of 5

    William Earnest

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    Hannah

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    Matt Strohmeyer

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    Joey

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    Sean Till

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    Michael Nachman

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    Joel Manuel

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    Justin

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    an8828

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    Brandon

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    Chris Warren

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    Michael Meder

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