The Removal of Joseph E. Johnston: One of the Biggest Mistakes of the Civil War

Apart from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, Joseph E. Johnston was the least deserving of being relieved of command.

By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Debate at the January 2022 Roundtable meeting was: “Apart from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, which Civil War officer was the least deserving of being relieved of command?” Four members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those four presentations .

The firing of Confederate General Joseph Johnston, second only to the immortal Robert E. Lee as a leader and one who successfully commanded armies throughout the war, was not militarily or politically in any way deserved. In fact, it was one of the biggest mistakes of the war. It led to the loss of many lives, the fall of Atlanta, the reelection of Abraham Lincoln, and the destruction of an army, effectively ending the Confederacy’s last hope of winning.

Joseph E. Johnston

The only way the South could prevail against the much stronger United States was by fighting a war of attrition. Attrition – wearing down the North, by gradually taking away its people’s will to continue the fight, their will to win. This was especially true and important in 1864, an election year. Many in the North were ready to quit. Cries of “Let them go” were more and more being heard. And now, these discontents could do something about it by voting against Lincoln. Such thoughts were reinforced when the Democrats’ platform called for a negotiated settlement to the war.

The conservative Johnston, commanding the Army of Tennessee, resisting Sherman’s army in Georgia, knew he was greatly outnumbered and would lose if he took Sherman head on. He also knew his attrition strategy was working, drawing out the war, increasing northern impatience.

Mel Maurer

Was his strategy working? HELL YES IT WAS!

Grant’s siege of Lee’s forces at Petersburg seemed like it could last for years. And Sherman’s pursuit of Johnston’s army was growing more and more desperate as that army refused to engage in a full battle, instead taking defensive positions, briefly fighting, and then slowly moving on. Johnston had protected his army while holding off Sherman, keeping him from Atlanta, creating more and more frustration in the North.

Someone else knew it was working too: Lincoln, as he wrote in a blind memo to his Cabinet in August. Lincoln wrote in that memo, “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.” But Lincoln need not have worried. Jefferson Davis had saved Lincoln’s presidency and lost his own – by firing one of the most respected generals in the war on either side. Davis then replaced him with the recklessly aggressive John Bell Hood, promoting him to his first assignment as commander of an army.

Abraham Lincoln’s blind memo
Jefferson Davis

The army loved Johnston. They hated Hood, a poor leader and one who had sabotaged Johnston in getting his command. General Jacob Cox, who fought against Johnston and Hood, called Davis’ decision, “one of the most controversial of the war.” And it was, because Johnston was doing exactly what needed to be done.

It made no sense, except to Davis, maybe for personal reasons since he just did not like Johnston after feeling offended by him earlier in the war. And Davis, who clearly didn’t realize he was winning the war by not losing it, compounded his mistake by picking someone to replace Johnston who was a complete incompetent.

John Bell Hood

Hood immediately took the offensive, attacking Sherman at Peachtree Creek, which cost him 2,500 men. He then attacked again, losing 5,500 more men, forcing his retreat into Atlanta with a decimated army, an army that could not even defend a short siege. On September 1 Hood left the city to Sherman, assuring Lincoln’s victory.

The disastrous failure of Hood also shows how well Johnston was doing – and how undeserved and how stupid his firing was. Hood then led what was left of his army to two more disastrous battles in Franklin and then Nashville, which destroyed the Army of Tennessee, the only loss of a whole army in the war.

The Confederate cemetery at Franklin, Tennessee—the grim and tragic consequence of Jefferson Davis’ decision to remove Joseph E. Johnston

No, Johnston did not deserve to be replaced – professionally or personally. The Confederate Congress agreed and pressured Davis to restore Johnston to new commanding positions, which he did. Hood, if the war hadn’t ended, would have been court-martialed.

Had Johnston remained in charge, Lincoln may not have been reelected, there would be no Franklin, no Nashville, no Sherman’s March to the Sea, and the Confederacy would have won. As you can see, no other firing in the war was as undeserved as this one.

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