A much-respected, and conflicted, general of the Confederacy

Joseph Johnston, hero of the first Battle of Bull Run, rests in Green Mount Cemetery

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun
July 30, 2011

Former Confederate Gen. Joseph Eggleston Johnston caught a cold while attending the funeral in New York City for his former Civil War adversary, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, in 1891. A month later, he died in Washington and was buried in a non-military ceremony in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery.

Historians have ranked the native Virginian as second only to his 1829 classmate at West Point, Robert E. Lee, in battlefield prowess during the Civil War.

"Much was expected of him, and much he was destined to perform. He had faults of character … but he was a commander honorable, sleepless, skillful — as near the stature of Lee, perhaps, as any soldier of the South," wrote author James Kendall Hosmer in his book "The Appeal to Arms."


He had fought in the Indian wars and in the Mexican War with Lee, and on the eve of the Civil War had attained the rank of brigadier general and was serving in Washington as the Army’s quartermaster general.

With the outbreak of the war, Johnston found himself conflicted in his sympathies and loyalties. Like Lee, he considered himself first a son of Virginia, and of the U.S. second.

What also added to his personal dilemma was that his father had fought with "Light Horse Harry" Lee, the Revolutionary War hero and father of Robert E. Lee, and that his mother was a niece of Virginia patriot Patrick Henry.

"Officers who consulted with him in the spring of 1861 found him pacing up and down his Washington office in deep thought, his fine head bent forward, his absorption so complete that he had to be addressed several times before he awoke," wrote Allan Nevins in his book, "The War for the Union."

"One visitor heard him mumbling to himself in painful perplexity. Overwrought he exploded with the slightest interruption. Finally, on April 22, when Virginia’s departure was certain, he closeted himself with

[U.S. Secretary of War Simon] Cameron," wrote Nevins.

"’I must go with the South,’ he said, in effect, ‘though the action is in the last degree ungrateful. I owe all that I am to the government of the United States. It has educated me and clothed me with honor. To leave the service is a hard necessity, but I must go. Though I am resigning my position, I trust I may never draw my sword against the old flag.’ He wept, and tears stained his cheeks as he hurriedly left the room," wrote Nevins.

At First Manassas, better known as Bull Run, on July 21, 1861, Johnston arrived from the Shenandoah Valley at Manassas Junction in support of Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard’s 20,000 rebel troops and attacked the Union forces on their flank and rear, ensuring a Confederate victory.

Civil War historian Bruce Catton, in The New York Times Magazine in 1961, wrote that the battle was "a defeat and a humiliation for the Union Army, a gaudy but unprofitable victory for the Confederates, and a grim warning to both sides that the Civil War was going to be no business for amateurs.

"Bull Run ended the period in which it was possible to suppose that the war would be short and easy — the only kind of war which the divided nation in 1861 was prepared to fight. It was the battle that ended many illusions, including the supreme illusion that the nation could fight a civil war without inflicting fundamental change upon itself," he wrote.

The war ended for Johnston 17 days after Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox when he surrendered to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett Place farm, near Durham, N.C.

On the morning of the surrender, the two men met, shook hands, and then went inside the farmhouse. Comfortably seated, Sherman slowly removed a telegram from his pocket. It was from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

He began reading, "President Lincoln was murdered about 10 o’clock last night in his private box in Ford’s Theater. …"

Years later, Sherman wrote that as he read those words, tears welled in Johnston’s eyes.

Sherman was expecting a simple military surrender but Johnston had something quite a bit different on his mind. As they talked over a congenial bottle of whiskey, what emerged was the surrender of all remaining Confederate forces.

The next day, April 18, they signed an agreement that provided for an armistice terminable on 48 hours’ notice. After Confederate President Jefferson Davis balked at some of the provisions of the surrender, he ordered Johnston to disband his troops and escape.

Disobeying orders, Johnston returned to Sherman, where the two men agreed to a military surrender that stated all acts of war were to immediately cease and all arms and property were to be turned over to the United States.

After the war Johnston returned to his wife, Lydia McLane, a daughter of Louis McLane, a Maryland diplomat and politician, who had served in Congress.

She was also a sister of former Maryland Gov. Robert McLane and James L. McLane.

Johnston and his wife, who had no children, settled in Washington, where he was in the fire insurance business and later served as a Democratic member of Congress from 1879 to 1881.

President Grover C. Cleveland appointed him U.S. commissioner of railroads, and he served in that capacity from 1887 to 1889.

When his wife died in 1887, Johnston came to Green Mount Cemetery, selected a gravesite and had two graves dug, for his wife and himself. He then had his bricked up.

When General Sherman died on Feb. 14, 1891, a frail Johnston went to New York City, where he joined other surviving Civil War generals to mourn their comrade as a pallbearer.

"There was another face among them — that of Johnston, the same Joseph E. Johnston who threw himself and his army before Sherman in the march to the sea — the same Johnston who, in 1865, surrendered to the soldier whose corpse he was following in sorrow," observed The New York Times.

The wind was bitter as Johnston stood hatless in the street outside of Sherman’s home on West 71st Street, which could not accommodate the crowd of mourners who had arrived.

"Put your hat on," implored friends, to which Johnston replied, "If General Sherman was here in my place and I was in the casket, he would do the same for me, sir."

The ordeal left Johnston with a cold that probably turned into pneumonia, and on March 21 he died in his Connecticut Avenue home "without suffering the least," reported The Baltimore Sun.

There was immediate pressure from Confederate veterans organizations who clamored for a military funeral, but that was not in accordance with what Johnston ordered. It was to be a funeral "of the simplest sort" and was to be devoid of any military ceremony.

After funeral services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, Johnston’s casket was transported to the Baltimore & Potomac depot and placed aboard a baggage car of a train bound for Baltimore.

When the train arrived at Union Station in Baltimore, there was no official state or city delegation waiting on the platform to meet it.

Mayor Ferdinand Latrobe ordered that the City Hall flag be flown in deference to the memory of the old warrior.

Civilian employees from the funeral home, including one ex-Confederate veteran, served as pallbearers, and Johnston’s casket was conveyed to Green Mount, where it was placed in the mausoleum.

His remains were eventually placed in the grave of his selection, and for the last 120 years he has rested under a large but simple stone engraved with the words that Johnston had been a "Brigadier General U.S.A." and "General C.S.A."

In his memoirs, Sherman wrote that the "ability of General Johnston was recognized, and General Grant told me he was about the only general on that side that he feared."

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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