Joseph E. Johnston
Johnston in uniform, ca. 1862
|Birth name||Joseph Eggleston Johnston|
|Born||February 3, 1807|
Farmville, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||March 21, 1891 (aged 84)|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Years of service||1829-1861 (USA)|
|Other work||Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia's 3rd district|
Joseph Eggleston Johnston (February 3, 1807 - March 21, 1891) was an American career army officer, serving with distinction in the United States Army during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and Seminole Wars. After Virginia seceded from the Union, he entered the Confederate States Army as one of its most senior general officers.
Johnston was trained as a civil engineer at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, graduating in the same class as Robert E. Lee. He served in Florida, Texas, and Kansas. By 1860 he achieved the rank of brigadier general as Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army.
Johnston's effectiveness in the American Civil War was undercut by tensions with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Victory eluded him in most campaigns he personally commanded. He was the senior Confederate commander at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, but the victory is usually credited to his subordinate, P.G.T. Beauregard. Johnston defended the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, withdrawing under the pressure of Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's superior force. He suffered a severe wound at the Battle of Seven Pines, and was replaced by Robert E. Lee.
In 1863, Johnston was placed in command of the Department of the West. In 1864, he commanded the Army of Tennessee against Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in the Atlanta Campaign. In the final days of the war, Johnston was returned to command of the few remaining forces in the Carolinas Campaign. Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman both praised his actions in the war, and became friends with Johnston afterward.
After the war, Johnston served as an executive in the railroad and insurance businesses. He was elected as a Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, serving a single term. He was appointed as commissioner of railroads under Grover Cleveland. He died of pneumonia 10 days after attending Sherman's funeral in the pouring rain.
Johnston was born at Longwood House in "Cherry Grove", near Farmville, Virginia on February 3, 1807. (Longwood House later burned down. The rebuilt house was the birthplace in 1827 of Charles S. Venable, an officer on the staff of Robert E. Lee. It is now used as the residence of the president of Longwood University.) His grandfather, Peter Johnston, emigrated to Virginia from Scotland in 1726. Joseph was the seventh son of Judge Peter Johnston Jr. (1763-1831) and Mary Valentine Wood (1769-1825), a niece of Patrick Henry. He was named for Major Joseph Eggleston, under whom his father served in the American Revolutionary War, in the command of Light-Horse Harry Lee. His brother Charles Clement Johnston served as a congressman, and his nephew John Warfield Johnston was a senator; both represented Virginia. In 1811, the Johnston family moved to Abingdon, Virginia, a town near the Tennessee border, where his father Peter built a home he named Panecillo.
Johnston attended the United States Military Academy, nominated by John C. Calhoun in 1825 while he was Secretary of War. He was moderately successful at academics and received only a small number of disciplinary demerits. He graduated in 1829, ranking 13th of 46 cadets, and was appointed a second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Artillery. He would become the first West Point graduate to be promoted to a general officer in the regular army, reaching a higher rank in the U.S. Army than did his 1829 classmate, Robert E. Lee (2nd of 46).
Johnston resigned from the Army in March 1837 and studied civil engineering. During the Second Seminole War, he was a civilian topographic engineer aboard a ship led by William Pope McArthur. On January 12, 1838, at Jupiter, Florida, the sailors who had gone ashore were attacked. Johnston said there were "no less than 30 bullet holes" in his clothing and one bullet creased his scalp, leaving a scar he had for the rest of his life. Having encountered more combat activities in Florida as a civilian than he had previously as an artillery officer, Johnston decided to rejoin the Army. He departed for Washington, D.C., in April 1838 and was appointed a first lieutenant of topographic engineers on July 7; on that same day, he received a brevet promotion to captain for the actions at Jupiter Inlet and his explorations of the Florida Everglades.
On July 10, 1845, in Baltimore, Johnston married Lydia Mulligan Sims McLane (1822-1887), the daughter of Louis McLane and his wife. Her father was the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a prominent politician (congressman and senator from Delaware, minister to London, and a member of President Andrew Jackson's cabinet). They had no children.
Johnston was enthusiastic about the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. He served on the staff of Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott in the Siege of Veracruz, having been chosen by Scott to be the officer carrying the demand for surrender beforehand to the provincial governor. He was in the vanguard of the movement inland under Brig. Gen. David E. Twiggs and was severely wounded by grapeshot performing reconnaissance prior to the Battle of Cerro Gordo. He was appointed a brevet lieutenant colonel for his actions at Cerro Gordo. After recovering in a field hospital, he rejoined the army at Puebla. During the advance toward Mexico City, he was second in command of the "U.S. Regiment of Voltigeurs", a unit composed of light infantry or skirmishers. He distinguished himself at Contreras and Churubusco, was wounded again at Chapultepec, and received two brevet promotions for the latter two engagements, ending the war as a brevet colonel of volunteers. (After the end of hostilities, he reverted to his peacetime rank of captain in the topographical engineers.) Winfield Scott remarked humorously that "Johnston is a great soldier, but he had an unfortunate knack of getting himself shot in nearly every engagement." Johnston's greatest anguish during the war was the death of his nephew, Preston Johnston. When Robert E. Lee informed Johnston that Preston had been killed by a Mexican artillery shell at Contreras, both officers wept, and Johnston grieved for the remainder of his life.
Johnston was an engineer on the Texas-United States boundary survey in 1841; he returned to the area, appointed as chief topographical engineer of the Department of Texas, and serving from 1848 to 1853. During the 1850s he sought his previous rank, sending letters to the War Department suggesting that he should be returned to a combat regiment with his wartime rank of colonel. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, an acquaintance of Johnston's from West Point, rebuffed these suggestions, as he did later during the Civil War, much to Johnston's irritation. Despite this disagreement, Davis thought enough of Johnston to appoint him lieutenant colonel in one of the newly formed regiments, the 1st U.S. Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, under Col. Edwin V. "Bull" Sumner, on March 1, 1855. (At this same time, Robert E. Lee was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry under Col. Albert Sidney Johnston (no relation). In this role, Johnston participated in actions against the Sioux in the Wyoming Territory and in the violence over slavery in the future state, known as Bleeding Kansas. He developed a mentor relationship and close friendship with one of his junior officers, Capt. George B. McClellan. Later McClellan faced him from the Union Army.
In the fall of 1856, Johnston was transferred to a depot for new recruits at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. In 1857 he led surveying expeditions to determine the Kansas border. Later that year, Davis was replaced as Secretary of War by John B. Floyd, a native of Abingdon and a cousin of Johnston's by marriage. He had been a former guardian of Preston Johnston. Floyd made Johnston a brevet colonel for his actions at Cerro Gordo, a promotion that caused grumbling within the Army about favoritism. In 1859, President James Buchanan named Johnston's brother-in-law, Robert McLane, as minister to Mexico, and Johnston accompanied him on a journey to visit Benito Juárez's government in Veracruz. He was also ordered to inspect possible military routes across the country in case of further hostilities.
Brig. Gen. Thomas S. Jesup, the Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, died on June 10, 1860. Winfield Scott was responsible for naming a replacement, but instead of one name, he offered four possibilities: Joseph E. Johnston, Albert Sidney Johnston (no relation), Robert E. Lee, and Charles F. Smith. Although Jefferson Davis, now a member of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, favored Albert Sidney Johnston, Secretary of War Floyd chose Joseph E. Johnston for the position.
Johnston was promoted to brigadier general on June 28, 1860. Johnston did not enjoy the position, preferring field command to administration in Washington. In addition, he suffered from the pressures of the imminent sectional crisis and the ethical dilemma of administering war matériel that might prove useful to his native South. He did not yield to temptation, however, as Secretary of War Floyd was accused of doing.
When his native state, Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Johnston resigned his commission as a brigadier general in the regular army, the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer to do so. He would go on to state, " I believed like most others, that the division of the country would be permanent; and that ... the revolution begun was justified by the maxims so often repeated by Americans, that Free government is founded on the consent of the governed, and that every community strong enough to establish and maintain its independence, has a right to assert it. Having been educated in such opinions, I naturally determined to return to the State of which I was a native, join the people among whom I was born, and live with my kindred, and if necessary, fight in their defense."
He was initially commissioned as a major general in the Virginia militia on May 4, but the Virginia Convention decided two weeks later that only one major general was required in the state army and Robert E. Lee was their choice. Johnston was then offered a state commission as a brigadier general, which he declined, accepting instead a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army on May 14. Johnston relieved Colonel Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson of command at Harpers Ferry in May and organized the Army of the Shenandoah in July.
In the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), July 21, 1861, Johnston rapidly moved his small army from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce that of Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, but he lacked familiarity with the terrain and ceded tactical planning of the battle to the more junior Beauregard as a professional courtesy. At midday, while Beauregard was still unclear about the direction his Union opponent was taking in the battle, Johnston decided that the critical point was to the north of his headquarters (the Lewis house, "Portici"), at Henry House Hill. He abruptly announced "The battle is there. I am going." Beauregard and the staffs of both generals followed his lead and rode off. Johnston encountered a scattered unit, the 4th Alabama, all of whose field grade officers had been killed, and personally rallied the men to reinforce the Confederate line. He consoled the despairing Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee and urged him to lead his men back into the fight. (General Bee's exhortation to his men was the inspiration for Stonewall Jackson's nickname.) Beauregard then convinced Johnston that he would be more valuable organizing the arrival of reinforcements for the remainder of the battle than providing at-the-front tactical leadership. Although Beauregard managed to claim the majority of public credit, Johnston's behind-the-scenes role was a critical factor in the Southern victory. After Bull Run, Johnston assisted Beauregard and William Porcher Miles in the design and production of the Confederate Battle Flag. It was Johnston's idea to make the flag square.
--Johnston's letter to Jefferson Davis, September 12, 1861 
In August, Johnston was promoted to full general--what is called a four-star general in the modern U.S. Army--but was not pleased that three other men he had outranked in the "old Army" now outranked him, even though Davis backdated his promotion to July 4. Johnston felt that since he was the senior officer to leave the U.S. Army and join the Confederacy he should not be ranked behind Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee. Only Beauregard was placed behind Johnston on the list of five new generals. This led to much bad blood between Johnston and Jefferson Davis, which would last throughout the war. The crux of Davis's counterargument was that Johnston's U.S. commission as a brigadier general was as a staff officer and that his highest line commission was as a lieutenant colonel; both Sidney Johnston and Lee had been full colonels. Johnston sent an intemperately worded letter to Davis, who was offended enough to discuss its tone with his cabinet.
Johnston was placed in command of the Department of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of the Potomac on July 21, 1861, and the Department of Northern Virginia on October 22. From July to November 1861, he was headquartered at the Conner House in Manassas. The winter of 1861-62 was relatively quiet for Johnston in his Centreville headquarters, concerned primarily with organization and equipment issues, as the principal Northern army, also named Army of the Potomac, was being organized by George B. McClellan. McClellan perceived Johnston's army as overwhelmingly strong in its fortifications, which prompted the Union general to plan an amphibious movement around Johnston's flank. In early March, learning of Union offensive preparations, Johnston withdrew his army to Culpeper Court House. This movement had repercussions on both sides. President Davis was surprised and disappointed by the unannounced move, which he considered a "precipitate retreat." At about this time, Davis moved to restrict Johnston's authority by bringing Robert E. Lee to Richmond as his military adviser and began issuing direct orders to some of the forces under Johnston's ostensible command. On the Northern side, McClellan was publicly embarrassed when it was revealed that the Confederate position had not been nearly as strong as he had portrayed. But more importantly, it required him to replan his spring offensive, and instead of an amphibious landing at his preferred target of Urbanna, he chose the Virginia Peninsula, between the James and York Rivers, as his avenue of approach toward Richmond.
In early April 1862, McClellan, having landed his troops at Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, began to move slowly toward Yorktown. Johnston's plan for the defense of the Confederate capital was controversial. Knowing that his army was half the size of McClellan's and that the Union Navy could provide direct support to McClellan from either river, Johnston attempted to convince Davis and Lee that the best course would be to concentrate in fortifications around Richmond. He was unsuccessful in persuading them and deployed most of his force on the Peninsula. Following lengthy siege preparations by McClellan at Yorktown, Johnston withdrew and fought a sharp defensive fight at Williamsburg (May 5) and turned back an attempt at an amphibious turning movement at Eltham's Landing (May 7). By late May the Union army was within six miles of Richmond.
Realizing that he could not defend Richmond forever from the Union's overwhelming numbers and heavy siege artillery and that McClellan's army was divided by the rain-swollen Chickahominy River, Johnston attacked south of the river on May 31 in the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks. His plan was aggressive, but too complicated for his subordinates to execute correctly, and he failed to ensure they understood his orders in detail or to supervise them closely. The battle was tactically inconclusive, but it stopped McClellan's advance on the city and would turn out to be the high-water mark of his invasion. More significant, however, was that Johnston was wounded in his shoulder and chest by an artillery shell fragment near the end of the first day of the battle.G.W. Smith commanded the army during the second day of the battle, before Davis quickly turned over command to the more aggressive Robert E. Lee, who would lead the Army of Northern Virginia for the rest of the war. Lee began by driving McClellan from the Peninsula during the Seven Days Battles of late June and beating a Union army a second time near Bull Run in August.
Johnston was prematurely discharged from hospital on November 24, 1862, and appointed to command the Department of the West, the principal command of the Western Theater, which gave him titular control of Gen. Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee and Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton's Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. (The other major force in this area was the Trans-Mississippi Department, commanded by Lt. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes, stationed principally in Arkansas. Johnston argued throughout his tenure that Holmes's command should be combined with Pemberton's under Johnston's control, or at least to reinforce Pemberton with troops from Holmes's command, but he was unable to convince the government to take either of these steps.)
The first issue facing Johnston in the West was the fate of Braxton Bragg. The Confederate government was displeased with Bragg's performance at the Battle of Stones River, as were many of Bragg's senior subordinates. Jefferson Davis ordered Johnston to visit Bragg and determine whether he should be replaced. Johnston realized that if he recommended Bragg's replacement, he would be the logical choice to succeed him, and he considered that a field army command was more desirable than his current, mostly administrative post, but his sense of honor prevented him from achieving this personal gain at Bragg's expense. After interviewing Bragg and a number of his subordinates, he produced a generally positive report and refused to relieve the army commander. Davis ordered Bragg to a meeting in Richmond and designated Johnston to take command in the field, but Bragg's wife was ill and he was unable to travel. Furthermore, in early April Johnston was forced to bed with lingering problems from his Peninsula wound, and the attention of the Confederates shifted from Tennessee to Mississippi, leaving Bragg in place.
The major crisis facing Johnston was defending Confederate control of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which was threatened by Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, first in a series of unsuccessful maneuvers during the winter of 1862-63 to the north of the fortress city, but followed in April 1863 with an ambitious campaign that began with Grant's Union army crossing the Mississippi River southwest of Vicksburg. Catching Lt. Gen. Pemberton by surprise, the Union army waged a series of successful battles as it moved northeast toward the state capital of Jackson. On May 9, the Confederate Secretary of War directed Johnston to "proceed at once to Mississippi and take chief command of the forces in the field." Johnston informed Richmond that he was still medically unfit, but would obey the order. When he arrived in Jackson on May 13 from Middle Tennessee, he learned that two Union army corps were advancing on the city and that there were only about 6,000 troops available to defend it. Johnston ordered a fighting evacuation (the Battle of Jackson, May 14) and retreated with his force to the north. Grant captured the city and then faced to the west to approach Vicksburg.
Johnston began to move his force west to join Pemberton when he heard of that general's defeat at Champion Hill (May 16) and Big Black River Bridge (May 17). The survivors retreated to the fortifications of Vicksburg. Johnston urged Pemberton to avoid being surrounded by abandoning the city and to join forces with Johnston's troops, outnumbering Grant, but Davis had ordered Pemberton to defend the city as his highest priority. Grant launched two unsuccessful assaults against the fortifications and then settled in for a siege. The soldiers and civilians in the surrounded city waited in vain for Johnston's small force to come to their rescue. By late May Johnston had accumulated about 24,000 men but wanted additional reinforcements before moving forward. He considered ordering Bragg to send these reinforcements, but was concerned that this could result in the loss of Tennessee. He also bickered with President Davis about whether the order sending him to Mississippi could be construed as removing him from theater command; historian Steven E. Woodworth judges that Johnston "willfully misconstrued" his orders out of resentment of Davis's interference. Pemberton's army surrendered on July 4, 1863. Along with the capture of Port Hudson a week later, the loss of Vicksburg gave the Union complete control of the Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in two. President Davis wryly ascribed the strategic defeat to a "want of provisions inside and a general outside [Johnston] who would not fight."
The relationship between Johnston and Davis, difficult since the early days of the war, became bitter as recriminations were traded publicly about who was to blame for Vicksburg. That Johnston never wanted this theater command in the first place, difficulty in effectively moving troops due to lack of direct rail lines and the vast distances involved, lack of assistance from subordinate commanders, Pemberton's refusal to abandon Vicksburg as suggested, and President Davis' habit of communicating directly to Johnston's subordinates (which meant Johnston was often not aware of what was going on) all contributed to this defeat. Davis considered firing Johnston, but he remained a popular officer and had many political allies in Richmond, most notably Sen. Louis Wigfall. Instead, Bragg's army was removed from Johnston's command, leaving him in control of only Alabama and Mississippi.
While Vicksburg was falling, Union Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans was advancing against Bragg in Tennessee, forcing him to evacuate Chattanooga. Bragg achieved a significant victory against Rosecrans in the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20), but he was defeated by Ulysses S. Grant in the Battles for Chattanooga in November. Bragg resigned from his command of the Army of Tennessee and returned to Richmond in the role as military adviser to the president. Davis offered the position to William J. Hardee, the senior corps commander, who refused it. He considered P.G.T. Beauregard, another general with whom he had poor personal relations, and also Robert E. Lee. Lee, who was reluctant to leave Virginia, first recommended Beauregard, but sensing Davis's discomfort, changed his recommendation to Johnston. After much agonizing, Davis appointed Johnston to command the Army of Tennessee in Dalton, Georgia, on December 27, 1863.
Faced with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's advance from Chattanooga to Atlanta in the spring of 1864, Johnston conducted a series of withdrawals that appeared similar to his Peninsula Campaign strategy. He repeatedly prepared strong defensive positions, only to see Sherman maneuver around them in expert turning movements, causing him to fall back in the general direction of Atlanta. Johnston saw the preservation of his army as the most important consideration, and hence conducted a very cautious campaign. He handled his army well, slowing the Union advance and inflicting heavier losses than he sustained.
Sherman began his Atlanta Campaign on May 4. Johnston's Army of Tennessee fought defensive battles against the Federals at the approaches to Dalton, which was evacuated on May 13, then retreated 12 miles south to Resaca, and constructed defensive positions. However, after a brief battle, Johnston again yielded to Sherman, and retreated from Resaca on May 15. Johnston assembled the Confederate forces for an attack at Cassville. As his troops advanced, an enemy force of unknown strength appeared unexpectedly on his right flank. A skirmish ensued, forcing the corps commander, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, to halt his advance and reposition his troops to face the threat. Faced with this unexpected threat, Johnston abandoned his attack and renewed his retreat. On May 20 they again retreated 8 miles further south to Cartersville. The month of May 1864 ended with Sherman's forces attempting to move away from their railroad supply line with another turning movement, but became bogged down by the Confederates' fierce defenses at the Battle of New Hope Church on May 25, the Battle of Pickett's Mill on May 27, and the Battle of Dallas on May 28.
In June Sherman's forces continued maneuvers around the northern approaches to Atlanta, and a battle ensued at Kolb's Farm on June 22, followed by Sherman's first (and only) attempt at a massive frontal assault in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, which Johnston strongly repulsed. However, by this time Federal forces were within 17 miles of Atlanta, threatening the city from the west and north. Johnston had yielded over 110 miles of mountainous, and thus more easily defensible, territory in just two months, while the Confederate government became increasingly frustrated and alarmed. When Johnston retreated across the Chattahoochee River, the final major barrier before Atlanta, President Davis lost his patience.
In early July, Davis sent Gen. Braxton Bragg to Atlanta to assess the situation. After several meetings with local civilian leaders and Johnston's subordinates, Bragg returned to Richmond and urged President Davis to replace Johnston. Davis removed Johnston from command on July 17, 1864, just outside Atlanta. "The fate of Atlanta, from the Confederate standpoint, was all but decided by Johnston." His replacement, Lt. Gen. Hood, was left with the "virtually impossible situation" of defending Atlanta, which he was forced to abandon in September. Davis's decision to remove Johnston was one of the most controversial of the war.
Johnston traveled to Columbia, South Carolina, to begin a virtual retirement. However, as the Confederacy became increasingly concerned about Sherman's March to the Sea across Georgia and then north through the Carolinas, the public clamored for Johnston's return. The general in charge of the Western Theater, P.G.T. Beauregard, was making little progress against the advancing Union force. Political opponents of Jefferson Davis, such as Sen. Louis Wigfall, added to the pressure in Congress. Diarist Mary Chesnut wrote, "We thought this was a struggle for independence. Now it seems it is only a fight between Joe Johnston and Jeff Davis." In January 1865, the Congress passed a law authorizing Robert E. Lee the powers of general in chief, and recommending that Johnston be reinstated as the commander of the Army of Tennessee. Davis immediately appointed Lee to the position, but refused to restore Johnston. In a lengthy unpublished memo, Davis wrote, "My opinion of General Johnston's unfitness for command has ripened slowly and against my inclinations into a conviction so settled that it would be impossible for me again to feel confidence in him as the commander of an army in the field." Vice President Alexander H. Stephens and 17 senators petitioned Lee to use his new authority to appoint Johnston, bypassing Davis, but the general in chief declined. Instead, he recommended the appointment to Davis.
Despite his serious misgivings, Davis restored Johnston to active duty on February 25, 1865. His new command comprised two military departments: the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia; he assumed command of the latter department on March 6. These commands included three Confederate field armies, including the remnants of the once formidable Army of Tennessee, but they were armies in name only. The Tennessee army had been severely depleted at Franklin and Nashville, lacked sufficient supplies and ammunition, and the men had not been paid for months; only about 6,600 traveled to South Carolina. Johnston also had available 12,000 men under William J. Hardee, who had been unsuccessfully attempting to resist Sherman's advance, Braxton Bragg's force in Wilmington, North Carolina, and 6,000 cavalrymen under Wade Hampton.
Johnston, severely outnumbered, hoped to combine his force with a detachment of Robert E. Lee's army from Virginia, jointly defeat Sherman, and then return to Virginia for an attack on Ulysses S. Grant. Lee initially refused to cooperate with this plan. (Following the fall of Richmond in April, Lee attempted to escape to North Carolina to join Johnston, but it was too late.) Recognizing that Sherman was moving quickly, Johnston then planned to consolidate his own small armies so that he could land a blow against an isolated portion of Sherman's army, which was advancing in two separated columns. On March 19, 1865, Johnston was able to catch the left wing of Sherman's army by surprise at the Battle of Bentonville and briefly gained some tactical successes before superior numbers forced him to retreat to Raleigh, North Carolina. Unable to secure the capital, Johnston's army withdrew to Greensboro.
After learning of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, Johnston agreed to meet with General Sherman between the lines at a small farm known as Bennett Place near present-day Durham, North Carolina. After three separate days (April 17, 18, and 26, 1865) of negotiations, Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee and all remaining Confederate forces still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. It was the largest surrender of the war, totaling 89,270 soldiers. President Davis considered that Johnston, surrendering so many troops that had not been explicitly defeated in battle, had committed an act of treachery. Johnston was paroled on May 2 at Greensboro.
After the surrender, Sherman issued ten days' rations to the hungry Confederate soldiers, as well as horses and mules for them to "insure a crop." He also ordered distribution of corn meal and flour to civilians throughout the South. This was an act of generosity that Johnston would never forget; he wrote to Sherman that his attitude "reconciles me to what I have previously regarded as the misfortune of my life, that of having you to encounter in the field."
Johnston struggled to make a living for himself and his wife, who was ailing. He became president of a small railroad, the Alabama and Tennessee River Rail Road Company, which during his tenure of May 1866 to November 1867, was renamed the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad. Johnston was bored with the position and the company failed for lack of capital. He established in 1868 an insurance company in Savannah, Georgia, acting as an agent for the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Company, and within four years had a network of more than 120 agents across the deep South.
The income from this venture allowed him to devote time to his great postwar activity, writing his memoirs, as did several fellow officers. His Narrative of Military Operations (1874) was highly critical of Davis and many of his fellow generals. He repeated his grievance about his ranking as a general in the Confederate Army and attempted to justify his career as a cautious campaigner. The book sold poorly and its publisher failed to make a profit.
Although many Confederate generals criticized Johnston, both Sherman and Grant portrayed him favorably in their memoirs. Sherman described him as a "dangerous and wily opponent" and criticized Johnston's nemeses, Hood and Davis. Grant supported his decisions in the Vicksburg Campaign: "Johnston evidently took in the situation, and wisely, I think, abstained from making an assault on us because it would simply have inflicted losses on both sides without accomplishing any result." Commenting on the Atlanta Campaign, Grant wrote,
For my own part, I think that Johnston's tactics were right. Anything that could have prolonged the war a year beyond the time that it finally did close, would probably have exhausted the North to such an extent that they might then have abandoned the contest and agreed to a settlement.
Johnston was a part owner of the Atlantic and Mexican Gulf Canal Company, a canal project approved in 1876. It was intended to construct a canal westward from the St. Marys River in Georgia to connect with the Gulf of Mexico on the coast of Florida.
Johnston moved from Savannah to Richmond in the winter of 1876-77. He served in the 46th Congress from 1879 to 1881 as a Democratic congressman, having been elected with 58.11% of the vote over Greenback William W. Newman. He did not run for renomination in 1880. He was appointed as a commissioner of railroads in the administration of President Grover Cleveland. After his wife died in 1887, Johnston frequently traveled to veterans' gatherings, where he was universally cheered. In September 1890, a few months before he died, he was elected as an honorary member of the District of Columbia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, and was assigned national membership number 1963.
Johnston, like Lee, never forgot the magnanimity of the man to whom he surrendered. He would not allow criticism of Sherman in his presence. Sherman and Johnston corresponded frequently, and they met for friendly dinners in Washington whenever Johnston traveled there. When Sherman died, Johnston served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. During the procession in New York City on February 19, 1891, he kept his hat off as a sign of respect, although the weather was cold and rainy. Someone concerned for his health asked him to put on his hat, to which Johnston replied, "If I were in his place, and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat." He did catch a cold that day, which developed into pneumonia and Johnston died 10 days later in Washington, D.C. He was buried next to his wife in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.
Johnston statue in Dalton, Georgia, where he took command of the Army of Tennessee
Johnston statue at the location of the Battle of Bentonville, in North Carolina