Confederate Portraits: I Joseph E. Johnston
OPINIONS differ as to the quality of Johnston’s generalship. Let us have the bare, indisputable facts first. After distinguished service with the United States Army, notably in Mexico, he was the highest officer in rank to join the Confederacy, although he was given only the fourth position among the five Confederate generals. His first command was at Harper’s Ferry and in the Shenandoah Valley. Here he outmanœuvred Patterson and appeared at Bull Run in time to assume control during that battle. He himself admits that he was opposed to following up the Confederate victory with a march on Washington. In the spring of 1862 Johnston led the Army of Northern Virginia, and fought the battles of Williamsburg and Fair Oaks. After this, a severe wound kept him inactive through the summer and Lee took his place.
During the first half of 1863 Johnston held a somewhat vague control over the western armies of the Confederacy. Davis hoped that he would defeat Grant and save Vicksburg; but he did neither. After Bragg had been worsted, and had become so unpopular that Davis could no longer support him, Johnston was given the command of the Army of Tennessee, and commissioned to resist Sherman’s advance through Georgia. This he did in slow and careful retreat, disputing every disputable point, inflicting greater losses than he received, and wonderfully preserving the discipline, courage, and energy of his army. The government was not satisfied, however, and preferred to substitute Hood and his disastrous offensive. Early in 1865, when Lee became commander-in-chief, he restored Johnston, who conducted a skillful, if hopeless, campaign in the Carolinas, and finally surrendered to Sherman on favorable terms.
Admirable in retreat and defense, a wide reader and thinker and a profound military student, Johnston was no offensive fighter, say his critics. Among Northern writers Cox, who admired him greatly, remarks, ‘His abilities are undoubted, and when once committed to an offensive campaign, he conducted it with vigor and skill. The bent of his mind, however, was plainly in favor of the course which he steadily urged — to await his adversary’s advance, and watch for errors which would give him a manifest opportunity to ruin him.’ And on the Southern side Alexander’s summary is that ‘Johnston never fought but one aggressive battle, the battle of Seven Pines, which was phenomenally mismanaged.’
Equally competent authorities are more enthusiastic. Longstreet speaks of Johnston as ‘the foremost soldier of the South,’ and Pollard as ‘the greatest military man in the Confederacy.’ The English observer and critic, Chesney, says, ‘What he might have ventured had a rasher or less wary commander been before him, is as impossible to say as it would be to declare what would have been the result to Lee had Sherman taken the place of Grant in Virginia. As things were actually disposed, it is not too much to declare that Johnston’s doing what he did with the limited means at his command is a feat that should leave his name in the annals of defensive war at least as high as that of Fabius or Turenne or Moreau.’
Among Johnston’s enemies, Grant said to Bishop Lay, ‘ When I heard your government had removed Johnston from command, I was as happy as if I had reinforced Sherman with a large army corps’; and to Young, ‘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 Lee.’ Sherman, who should have known, declares that ‘Johnston is one of the most enterprising of all their generals.’ And Ropes, writing in dispassionate study, says that ‘Johnston had as good a military mind as any general on either side.’
Yet, I confess, I wish the man had achieved something. The skill, the prudence mixed with daring, which held every position before Sherman till the last possible moment and then slipped away, without loss, without disaster, cannot be enough commended. Perhaps Stonewall Jackson would have done no more. But I cannot help thinking that Stonewall Jackson would have tried.
No one understands a man better than his wife. Mrs. Johnston adored her husband. He was her knight, her chevalier, her hero, as he deserved to be. But once he was scolding a girl who was attacked by a turkey-gobbler, and neither ran nor resisted. ‘If she will not fight, sir,’ he said, ‘is not the best thing for her to do to run away, sir?’ Whereupon Mrs. Johnston commented, with a burst of her hearty laughter, ‘That used to be your plan always, I know, sir.’
In short, too much of Johnston’s career consists of the things he would have done, if circumstances had only been different.
And here it is urged, and justly urged, that fortune was against him. All his life he seems to have been the victim of ill-luck. Lee was wounded, I think, only once. Johnston was getting wounded perpetually. He himself told Fremantle that he had been wounded ten times. General Scott said of him before the war that he ‘had an unfortunate knack of getting himself shot in every engagement.’ A shell struck him down at Fair Oaks, just as it seemed that he might have beaten McClellan and saved Richmond.
Nor was it wounds only. Johnston had a vigorous frame, yet bodily illness would sometimes hamper him just at a crisis. On the voyage to Mexico Lee was enjoying himself, keenly alive to everything that went on about him.
‘ I have a nice stateroom on board this ship,’ he writes; ‘Joe Johnston and myself occupy it, but my poor Joe is so sick all the time I can do nothing with him.’
And external circumstance was no kinder than the clayey habitation. ‘It seemed Johnston’s fate to be always placed on posts of duty where extended efforts were necessarily devoted to organizing armies,’ writes his biographer. He was always in time for toil, for discipline, for sacrifice. For achievement he was apt to be too late. It is surprising how often the phrase recurs in his correspondence. ‘It is very unfortunate to be placed in such a command after the enemy has had time to prepare his attack.’ ‘I arrived this evening, finding the enemy in full force between the place and General Pemberton, cutting off the communications. I am too late.’ ‘It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman.’ At the greatest crisis of all, after retreating a hundred miles to draw his enemy on, he at last made his preparations with cunning skill for a decisive stand which should turn retreat into triumph — too late. For the order arrived, removing him from the command and robbing him once more of the gifts of Fortune.
It was from Davis that this blow came, and Davis, or so Johnston thought, was Johnston’s ill-luck personified. Certainly, nothing could be more unfortunate for a general than to have the head of his government prejudiced against him from the first. It was for this reason, in Johnston’s opinion, that commands were given him when it was too late to accomplish anything, and taken away when he was on the brink of achieving something great. It was for this reason that necessary support was denied, and necessary supplies were given grudgingly; for this reason that his powers were limited, his plans criticized, his intentions mistrusted. In the list of Destiny’s unkindnesses, as summed up by one of the General’s admirers, the ill-will and illtreatment of Davis, and Davis’s favorites, figure so prominently that other accidental elements seem of minor account. ‘If there is such a thing as ill-fortune, he had more than his share of it. He never had the chance that Lee had. If he had not been wounded at Seven Pines, a great victory would have crowned his arms with substantial results. If he had not been betrayed at Jackson, he would have joined Pemberton and captured Grant’s army. If he had not been removed at Atlanta, he would almost certainly have defeated Sherman.’
When I survey this portentous concatenation of ifs, I ask myself whether, after all, Fortune deserved the full blame in the matter. You and I know scores of men who would have been rich and great and prosperous, if — if — if — And then a little reflection shows us that the if lies latent, or even patent, in the character or conduct of the men themselves. It would be unjust and cruel to deny that many cross accidents thwarted Johnston’s career, that inevitable and undeserved misfortunes fell between him and glory. Yet a careful, thoughtful study of that career forces me to admit that the man was in some respects his own ill-fortune, and injured himself.
Take even the mere mechanical matter of wounds. Johnston may have got more than his share of blindly billeted projectiles. But every one agrees that his splendid recklessness took him often into unnecessary danger. One of his aides told Mrs. Chesnut that he had never seen a battle. ‘No man exposes himself more recklessly to danger than General Johnston, and no one strives harder to keep others out of it.’ This is surely a noble quality, but it is apt to mean ill-luck in the matter of damages.
Some of Johnston’s other qualities were less noble and, I think, bred illluck with no adequate compensation. In the original cause of the quarrel with Davis, Johnston probably had right on his side. The Confederate generals were to have ranked according to their position in the United States Army. In that Army Johnston stood highest. But Davis placed him below Cooper, A. S. Johnston, and Lee. Davis had, as always, ingenious arguments to support this procedure. Johnston thought the real argument was personal preference, and he was probably right. At any rate, he did not like it, and said so.
Further, there was a radical difference between President and General as to military policy, throughout the war. Johnston believed that the true course was concentration, to let outlying regions go, mass forces, beat the enemy, and then more than recover what had been given up. Davis felt that the demoralization consequent upon such a course would more than outweigh the military advantages.
Neither was a man to give up his own opinion. Neither was a man to compromise. Neither was a man who could abandon his own view to work out honestly, heartily, successfully, the view of another. ‘They were too much alike to get along,’ says Johnston’s biographer; ‘they were each high-tempered, impetuous, jealous of honor, of the love of their friends, and they could brook no rival. They required absolute devotion, without question.’
You see, we begin to get a little more insight into Johnston’s ill-luck. Not that Davis was free from blame. To appreciate both sides, we must look more closely into the written words and comments of each. It is a painful, pitiable study, but absolutely necessary for understanding the character of Johnston.
Davis, then, was inclined to interfere when he should not. He had his own ideas of military policy and was anxious to have them carried out. Johnston was not at all inclined to carry out the President’s ideas, and having urged his own at first with little profit, became reluctant to communicate them, and perhaps even a little to conceive them. Davis’s eager temperament is annoyed, frets, appeals. ‘Painfully anxious as to the result in Vicksburg, I have remained without information from you as to any plans proposed or attempts to raise the siege. Equally uninformed as to your plans in relation to Port Hudson, I have to request such information in relation thereto as the Government has a right to expect from one of its commanding generals in the field.’ Again, ‘I wish to hear from you as to the present situation, and your plan of operations, so specifically as will enable me to anticipate events.’
When Johnston’s replies are evasive or non-committal, Davis’s attitude becomes crisply imperative. ‘The President instructs me to reply,’ he writes through Cooper, ‘that he adheres to his order and desires you to execute it.’ No tact here, no attempt at conciliation or persuasion. Sometimes the tone is injured, hurt, resentful: ‘While some have expressed surprise that my orders to you were not observed, I have at least hoped that you would recognize the desire to aid and sustain you, and that it would produce the corresponding action on your part.’ Sometimes it is brusque to roughness: ‘I do not perceive why a junction was not attempted, which would have made our force nearly equal in number to the estimated strength of the enemy, and might have resulted in his total defeat under circumstances which rendered retreat or reinforcement for him scarcely practicable.’
The President rates his second in command as if he were a refractory school-boy. ‘The original mistakes in your telegram of 12th June would gladly have been overlooked as accidental, if acknowledged when pointed out. The perseverance with which they have been insisted on has not permitted me to pass them by as mere oversights.’ ‘It is needless to say that you are not considered capable of giving countenance to such efforts at laudation of yourself and detraction of others.’
‘ The language of your letter is, as you say, unusual, its insinuations unfounded, and its arguments utterly unbecoming from a general in the field to his superior.’
As I read this sort of thing, I cannot help being reminded of Captain MacTurk’s joyous comment, ‘Oh, crimini, if these sweetmeats be passing between them, it is only the twa ends of a handkercher that can serve the turn — Cot tamn! ’
And now, how much reason and excuse did Johnston give for such treatment? Abundant. Really, when I remember Davis’s keen and fiery disposition, I am less surprised at the things he did say than at those he did not. It is not so much any one word or speech in Johnston’s case as the constant tone of criticism, of disapproval, of fault-finding, of actual sullenness and ill-temper.
To begin with, Johnston was jealous, even of Lee; and it is a psychological curiosity that such jealousy should have coexisted with a profound and lasting affection. ‘I might [accomplish something] if I had Lee’s chances with the Army of Northern Virginia.’ ‘After his operations in the Wilderness, General Lee adopted as thorough a defensive as mine, and added by it to his great fame. The only other difference between our operations was due to Grant’s bull-headedness and Sherman’s extreme caution, which carried the army in Virginia to Petersburg in less than half the time in which Sherman reached Atlanta.’ And the feeling is even more marked in regard to Jackson. ‘General Johnston said that although this extraordinary man did not possess any great qualities as a strategist, and was perhaps unfit for the independent command of a large army, yet he was gifted with wonderful courage and determination. He was much indebted to General Ewell in the Valley Campaign.’
It was not unnatural for Johnston to think these things. It would have been better if he had not said them.
When it comes to Davis’s friends and favorites, the jealousy and irritability are more marked still. Thus Johnston writes to Secretary Randolph, whom he really admired: ‘Your order was positive and unconditional. I had no option but to obey it. If injustice has been done, it was not by me. If an improper order was given, it was not mine. Mine, therefore, permit me to say, is not the one to be recalled or modified.’
He writes to Benjamin, whom he did not admire at all: ‘ Let me suggest that, having broken up the dispositions of the military commander, you give whatever other orders may be necessary.’ As for Pemberton, who disobeyed him, and Hood, who supplanted him, he has no belief in their capacity, or patience with their blunders. When notified that Hood was to supersede him, he lost his dignity with the lamentable sentence in an official despatch: ‘Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency.’ And shortly after he again became Hood’s superior he notified him as follows: ‘After reading your report as submitted, I informed General Cooper by telegram that I shall prefer charges against you as soon as I have leisure to do so.’
When it comes to Davis himself, the tone is no more amiable or conciliatory. The long, vigorous, and eloquent letter, written in regard to the question of rank which originated the trouble, deserves to be studied in every line. This was one of those which Davis considered insubordinate. It is insubordinate, in spite of its logic and its nobility; and its significance is increased by Johnston’s own confession that he waited for a night’s reflection, before sending it. ‘ If the action against which I have protested is legal, it is not for me to question the expediency of degrading one who has served laboriously from the commencement of the war on this frontier, and borne a prominent part in the only great event of that war, for the benefit of persons [Lee and A. S. Johnston] neither of whom has yet struck a blow for the Confederacy.’ The spirit is wrong, not such as becomes a man ready to give more than his life, his own self-will, for a great cause.
The same spirit continues and intensifies to the very end. Davis may have provoked it. He did not create it. And who can wonder that it harassed him past bearing? No quotation of a line here and there can give the full effect of the wasp-stings which Johnston’s school-boy petulance — I can call it nothing else — was constantly inflicting. ‘I request, therefore, to be relieved of a merely nominal geographical command.’ ‘Let me ask, for the sake of discipline, that you have this rule enforced. It will save much time and trouble, and create the belief in the army that I am its commander.’ ‘ If the Department will give me timely notice when it intends to exercise my command, I shall be able to avoid such interference with its orders.’
Doubtless also, Johnston’s attitude reacted upon the officers about him. He was an outspoken man, and those who loved him were not very likely to love the President. An exceedingly interesting letter of Mackall’s, printed in the Official Records, gives some insight into the condition of things I refer to. ‘Pemberton is everything with Davis, the devout,’ writes Mackall, ‘his intelligence is only equaled by his selfsacrificing regard for others.’ And again: ‘The people won’t stand this nonsense much longer. Mr. Davis’s game now is to pretend that he don’t think you a great general. He don’t tell the truth, and if he did, as all the military men in the country differ with him, he will be forced to yield.’
Any commander who tolerates this sort of thing from a subordinate, tacitly, more than tacitly, admits that he shares the subordinate’s opinion.
The sum of the matter is that Johnston had allowed himself to fall into the fatal frame of mind of supposing that Davis’s action was constantly dictated by personal animosity toward himself. Such a belief, whether wellfounded or not, was sure to breed a corresponding animosity and to paralyze both the General’s genius and his usefulness. Nothing shows this better than Johnston’s remark to S. D. Lee (recorded by Captain Colston), when Lee congratulated him on his restoration to command in 1860 and on Davis’s promise of support: ‘ He will not do it. He has never done it. It is too late now, and he has only put me in command to disgrace me.’
While the war was actually going on, this mutual hostility of President and General was controlled to some extent by the necessary conventions and civilities of official intercourse. It is both curious and pitiable to see the restraints of decency covering such obvious distrust, dissatisfaction, and dislike. Davis was always the more diplomatic. Further, I think he shows a deeper sense of the immense interests involved, and the necessity of making sacrifices for them, than Johnston does. Indeed, for a long time he was ready to meet Johnston half-way, if Johnston would have gone his half. Even after their preliminary squabble about rank, so late as June, 1862, at the time of Johnston’s wound, the President writes, ‘General J. E. Johnston is steadily improving. I wish he were able to take the field. Despite the critics, who know military affairs by instinct, he is a good soldier, never brags of what he did do, and could at this time render most valuable service.' Much later still, real, almost pathetic kindness is mingled with reproof and recrimination: ‘I assure you that nothing shall be wanting on the part of the government to aid you in your effort to regain possession of the territory from which we have been driven. . . . It is my desire that you should communicate fully and freely with me concerning your plan of action, that all the assistance and cooperation may be most advantageously afforded that it is in the power of the government to render.’
As for Johnston, he is the military subordinate of this personal enemy of his. He knows his duty. He will be submissive, he will be obedient, he will be respectful, if it costs his own ruin and his country’s. The study of his efforts is painfully interesting. Before the rupture had become chronic, they were successful, and his tone rises to real nobility: ‘Your Excellency’s known sense of justice will not hold me to that responsibility while the corresponding control is not in my hands. Let me assure your Excellency that I am prompted in this matter by no love of privilege, of position, or of personal rights as such, but by a firm belief that under the circumstances what I propose is necessary to the safety of our troops and cause.’ Later, I imagine him clenching his fist as he writes words in themselves as submissive and respectful as could be desired. ‘I need not say, however, that, your wishes shall be promptly executed.’ ‘That suggestion [of mine] was injudicious. It is necessary of course that those should be promoted whom you consider best qualified.’ ‘I will obey any orders of the President zealously and execute any plan of campaign of his to the best of my ability.' ‘I beg leave to suggest — most respectfully — that there is but one way by which the government can without injury to discipline, give the orders, — the mode prescribed by itself, — through the officers commanding armies or departments.’
Then the war came to a disastrous end, and everybody was free to abuse everybody else. Davis and Johnston both wrote books and said what they thought with lamentable outspokenness. Yet even here, after a careful weighing of both sides, I feel that Davis appears better, I mean as regards tone and spirit, leaving aside all judgment on the merits of the case. True, he can be savagely bitter, with all the energy of his flowing rhetoric, as in his book: ‘Very little experience, or a fair amount of modesty without any experience, would serve to prevent one from announcing the conclusion that troops could be withdrawn from a place or places without knowing how many were there.’ And still more aptly, in the very able paper which he prepared for the last session of the Confederate Congress: ‘My confidence in General Johnston’s fitness for separate command was now destroyed. The proof was too complete to admit longer of doubt that he was deficient in enterprise, tardy in movement, defective in preparation, and singularly neglectful of the duty of preserving our means of supply and transportation, although experience should have taught him their value and the difficulty of procuring them.’
This is harsh; inexcusably, most foolishly so. But at least, even in harshness, Davis preserves his dignity, betrays no conscious personal spite, and gives the impression of aiming only at the general welfare, however he may misjudge and misunderstand.
With Johnston these things are less clear. Not that he is ever anything but nobly patriotic in intention, but he broods so much over his injuries, is so ready to distort circumstance and accident into malevolence, that sorrow for his country’s woes seems sometimes lost sight of in satisfaction at his enemy’s discomfiture. I have re-read and re-read his book, and every reading deepens the impression of pity for splendid gifts so blighted, for great opportunities, not so much military as moral, thrown away. One or two or five quotations can not go far to justify this impression. It springs quite as much from what is unsaid as from what is said. Yet some quotation we must have.
To begin with, Johnston writes admirably: a clear, vigorous, logical style, which makes every point tell; bites, stings, lashes, if necessary. His vigor and brevity give the impression of absolute truth, and no one can suspect him of ever intending anything else. Indeed, his biographer declares that in all his statements he is singularly scrupulous and accurate. More careful critics have denied this. Thus his deduction of Sherman’s losses from the burials in Marietta Cemetery has been shown to be altogether wrong, because many of those burials were of soldiers who never belonged to Sherman’s army at all. Again, General Palfrey, usually so impartial, declares, ‘The more I study Johnston’s writings, the more cause I find to mistrust them. I like to believe in him; but I cannot do so absolutely, for I find that he permits himself great freedom in asserting what he does not know to be true.’
The freedom and looseness of statement spring from Johnston’s dogmatic temper, from his energy and decision, his practical incapacity for seeing more than his own side and point of view; and the dogmatism and the energy lend double bitterness to the slurs which he is constantly flinging at the man who had been his leader, for better and for worse, and who — at least, so it seems to me — should have been respected for the sake of a great cause and a vanished ideal.
‘Under such circumstances his accusation is, to say the least, very discreditable.’ ‘It is not easy to reconcile the increase of my command by the President, with his very disparaging notices of me.’ ‘Such an occurrence [explosion of buried shells] must have been known to the whole army, but it was not; so it must have been a dream of the writer.’ ‘These are fancies. He arrived upon the field after the last armed enemy had left it, when none were within cannon-shot, or south of Bull Run, when the victory was “ complete ” as well as “assured,” and no opportunity left for the influence of “his name and bearing.” ’ ‘ As good-natured weakness was never attributed to Mr. Davis as a fault , it is not easy to reconcile the assertions and tone of this letter with his official course toward me.’ ‘I was unable then, as now, to imagine any military object for which this letter could have been written, especially by one whose time was supposed to be devoted to the most important concerns of the government.... As I had much better means of information on the subjects of this paper than its author, it could not have been written for my instruction.’
Oh, the pity of it, the pity of it, Iago! ‘Had Johnston been less sensitive to an affront to his personal dignity,’ says Mr. Rhodes, ‘had he been in temper like Lee, and had Davis shown such abnegation of self as did Lincoln in his dealings with his generals, blame and recrimination would not have been written on every page of Southern history.’
‘No man was ever written down except by himself,’said Dr. Johnson. Johnston wrote his book to clear his fame, and behold, it condemns him. One sentence of large forgiveness in face of calamity, one word of recognition that Davis and Seddon, however misguided, however erring, had done their best to serve the same great cause that he was serving, would have accomplished more for his lasting glory than all his five hundred pages of bitter selfjustification. The colossal element in Johnston’s ill-luck was just simply Joseph E. Johnston.
And now comes the puzzle. It appears that in all ordinary intercourse this man was one of the most amiable, most companionable, most lovable of human beings. Undisputed evidence gives him a list of attractive qualities so long that few can equal it.
That he was brave goes without saying, with a delightful bravery that goes anywhere, and does anything, and makes no fuss. He was always ready to lead a charge or to cover a retreat. He had an enchanting, quiet courage, such as we timid spirits can lean upon, as upon a wall. Read the account of his behavior when he was so severely wounded at Fair Oaks. ‘Reeling in his saddle, he said, “Quite extraordinary! It’s nothing, gentlemen, I assure you; not worthy of comment. I think we ought to move up a little closer. If a surgeon is within call, and not too busy, — at his convenience, perfect convenience, — he might as well look me over.” If some one of his staff had not caught him, the general would have fallen from his horse.’
Read also the playful confession with reference to kerosene lamps. Only perfect courage can so trifle with itself. ‘Some kind of a patent kerosene lamp was sent me as a present, and the donor lit it, explaining to me the method of working it. Such was my nervousness, I never knew he was talking to me. Later, after somebody had extinguished the lamp, I tried to reason out to myself what a poltroon I was. We get hardened in time; but I assure you, nothing would ever induce me to light or extinguish a kerosene lamp. I really envy you, madam, as possessing heroic traits, when you tell me you feel no alarm when in the presence of a kerosene lamp. But I am, by nature, an arrant coward. An enemy, armed with kerosene lamps, would drive me off the field. I should be panic personified.’
And Johnston was absolutely frank, outspoken, straightforward, too much so for his own good, but charmingly so. He gave his opinion of things and people so that you knew where to find him whether you agreed with him or not. How neatly does Colonel Anderson portray him with a touch. ‘“I think the Scotch the best,” the General quickly rejoined, with the slight toss of the head with which he sometimes emphasized the expression of an opinion he was ready to do battle for.’ There was no cant about him, no rhetoric. I would not say, or imply, that the abundance of religious language in Southern reports and orders is ever insincere. But I sometimes tire of it. Johnston is very sparing in this regard. What he does say is evidently solemn and heartfelt.
The General’s honesty and uprightness are delightful also. He was no politician, but his political convictions were as loft y and constant as they were simple. He followed Virginia. That was enough. ‘Nothing earthly could afford me greater satisfaction than the fulfillment of his [Davis’s] good wishes by this army striking a blow for the freedom and independence of Virginia.’
‘ I drew it [his father’s sword] in the war not for rank or fame, but to defend the sacred soil, the homes and hearths, the women and children, aye, and the men of my mother, Virginia, — my native South.’
After the war, when he was a candidate for Congress, his standpoint was as elementary — and as honorable. Some of his followers had tried to explain away his tariff attitude, for the sake of winning votes. ‘Gentlemen,’he said, ‘this is a matter about which I do not propose to ask your advice, because it involves my conscience and personal honor. I spoke yesterday, at Louisa Court House, under a free-trade flag. I have never ridden “ both sides of the sapling,” and I don’t propose to begin at this late day. That banner in Clay Ward comes down to-day, or I retire from this canvass by published card to-morrow.'
Perhaps the finest tribute to his moral elevation comes from a generous enemy. ‘I recorded at the time,’says Cox, writing of the surrender, ‘my own feeling that I had rarely met a man who was personally more attractive to me than General Johnston. His mode of viewing things was a large one, his thoughts and his expression of them were refined, his conscientious anxiety to do exactly what was right in the circumstances was apparent in every word and act, his ability and his natural gift of leadership showed in his whole bearing and conduct.' And in illustration of his scrupulous conscientiousness Cox adds that, when the General learned that one of his staff had retained a little cavalry guidon of silk in the form of a Confederate flag, he sent for it at once and passed it over to the Union officers, as the colors were supposed to be surrendered.
Johnston was as simple, too, as he was upright and honest, cared nothing for display, parade, or show, lived with his men and shared their fare and their hardships. ‘There was only one fork (one prong deficient) between himself and staff, and this was handed to me ceremoniously as the guest,’says Fremantle. ‘While on his journey to Atlanta to assume command of the second army of the Confederacy, he excited universal remark by having an ordinary box-car assigned to himself and staff, instead of imitating the brigadiers of the time and taking possession of a passenger-coach,’ says Hughes.
Even as regards Johnston’s jealousy, his sensitiveness to personal slights, and to the advancement of others, it is curious to note that this does not seem to have been owing to any inordinate ambition. He himself says that he did not draw his sword for rank or fame; and General Gordon tells us that he was not ambitious. This is doubtless exaggerated. All soldiers, all normal human beings, are ambitious, and like rank and fame, when they can get them honestly. But I find no shadow of evidence that Johnston was devoured by Jackson’s ardent fever, or ever dreamed long dreams of shadowy glory and success. His attitude in this connection recalls what Clarendon says of the Earl of Essex: ‘His pride supplied his want of ambition, and he was angry to see any man more respected than himself because he thought he deserved it more.' I believe that he was even capable of the highest, noblest, self-sacrifice, so long as it was not enforced, but voluntary; and that he was always ready to act upon his own fine saying, ‘The great energy exhibited by the Government of the United States, the danger in which our very existence as an independent people lies, requires sacrifice from us all who have been educated as soldiers.’
What is most winning about Johnston, however, in fact, quite irresistible, is his warmth of nature, his affection, his feminine tenderness, doubly charming in a man as strenuously virile as ever lived. His letters, even official, have a vivacity and personal quality wholly different from Lee’s. He loved his men, watched over them, cared for them, praised them. ‘I can find no record of more effective lighting in modern battles than that of this army in December, evincing skill in the commanders and courage in the troops.' He has the most kindly words for the achievements of his officers. Of Stuart he writes, ‘He is a rare man, wonderfully endowed by nature with the qualities necessary for an officer of light cavalry. Calm, firm, acute, active, and enterprising, I know no one more competent than he to estimate the occurrences before him at their true value.’ And to Stuart: ‘How can I eat or sleep without you upon the outpost?’ Of Longstreet: ‘I rode upon the field, but found myself compelled to be a mere spectator, for General Longstreet’s clear head and brave heart left me no apology for interference.’
With his equals in other commands he was amply generous, where they did not represent Davis. Thus he writes of Bragg: “I am very glad that your confidence in General Bragg is unshaken. My own is confirmed by his recent operations, which, in my opinion, evince great skill and vigor. It would be very unfortunate to remove him at this juncture, when he has just earned, if not won, the gratitude of the country.’
The man is even more attractive in his private friendships. ‘One of the purest and strongest men I ever knew,’ says Stiles, ‘and perhaps the most affectionate.’ Few more touching letters were ever written than the one he addressed to Mrs. Lee after her husband’s death. Characteristic of his friendship was its singular demonstrativeness. He embraced and kissed his male friends as tenderly as if they were women. ‘I have said he was the most affectionate of men,’ writes Stiles. ‘It will surprise many, who saw only the iron bearing of the soldier, to hear that we never met or parted, for any length of time, that he did not, if we were alone, throw his arms about me and kiss me, and that such was his habit in parting from or greeting his male relatives and most cherished friends.’
In his domestic relations there was the same tenderness, the same devotion. He adored his wife, and their love was a life-long idyl, diversified, as idyls should be, by sunny mocking and sweet merriment. He had no children; but his nephews and nieces were as near to him as children. When he was told, in Mexico, of one nephew’s death, ‘the shock was so great that he fell prostrate upon the works. . . . Up to the day of his death, forty-four years later, Johnston kept a likeness of his nephew in his room and never failed to look at it immediately after rising.’
With all this, is it any wonder that men loved him and resent bitterly today the inevitable conclusions drawn from his own written words? Bragg wrote, in answer to one of Johnston’s kind letters: ‘That spontaneous offer from a brother soldier and fellow citizen, so honored and esteemed, will be treasured as a source of happiness and a reward which neither time nor circumstances can impair.’ Kirby Smith wrote: ’I would willingly be back under your command at any personal sacrifice.’ Longstreet wrote: ‘General Johnston was skilled in the art and science of war, gifted in his quick, penetrating mind and soldierly bearing, genial and affectionate in nature, honorable and winning in person, and confiding in his love. He drew the hearts of those about him so close that his comrades felt that they could die for him.’
The country trusted him. ‘I discover from my correspondence you possess the confidence of the whole country as you do mine,’ writes a civilian in December, 1863.
The soldiers trusted him. After weeks of falling back, yielding point after point to an encroaching enemy, the evidence is overwhelming that Johnston’s troops were cheerful, eager, zealous, had unbounded belief that he was doing the best that could be done, unbounded regret when they heard that he had been removed. His disciplinary faculty, his grip upon the hearts of men, his power of inspiration, were immense and undisputed. He had the greatest gift a leader can have, magnetism. ‘There was a magnetic power about him no man could resist, and exact discipline followed at once upon his assuming any command.' What the general feeling in his army was is nowhere better shown than in the fine letter written to him by Brigadier General Stevens, after Johnston had been replaced by Hood. ‘We have ever felt that the best was being done that could be, and have looked confidently forward to the day of triumph, when with you as our leader we should surely march to a glorious victory. This confidence and implicit trust has been in no way impaired, and we are to-day ready, as we have ever been, to obey your orders, whether they be to retire before a largely out-numbering foe, or to spend our last drop of blood in the fiercest conflict. We feel that in parting with you our loss is irreparable . . . and you carry with you the love, respect, esteem, and confidence, of the officers and men of this brigade.’
Yet a man so honored, admired, and beloved could write the Narrative of Military Operations! What a tangle human nature is!
If I wished to sum up Johnston’s character briefly, I should quote two passages, both, as it happens, left us by women. Mrs. Chesnut writes, toward the close of the war: ‘Afterwards, when Isabella and I were taking a walk, General Joseph E. Johnston joined us. He explained to us all of Lee’s and Stonewall Jackson’s mistakes. We had nothing to say—how could we say anything?’ When one reads this, remembering what Lee’s position in the Confederacy was, what Johnston’s was and that he was talking to what must have been one of the liveliest tongues in the Southern States, one appreciates why Johnston did not succeed. When one turns to the remark of an officer to Mrs. Pickett, — ‘Lee was a great general and a good man, but I never wanted to put my arms round his neck as I used to want to to Joe Johnston,’ — one is overcome with pity to think that Johnston should have failed.