Joe Johnston's Nov 62-July 63


Sergeant Major
Nov 12, 2016
In November of 62 J Johnston is put in over all command of 3 departments. Good decision, bad decision or a good decision poorly executed.


First Sergeant
Sep 13, 2007
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England
Joseph Eggleston Johnston had not fully recovered from his wounding at Seven Pines when he declared himself fit to serve again. Johnston was a workaholic and never content in idleness at the best of times, but he had been forced to sit impotent and invalid in Richmond as the war was fought in his abscence and could stand the inaction no longer - and, it must be said, professional jealousy of Lee of somewhat of the motivating factor.

He wanted to get back in the field and command an army, but he was well aware that there was no way he could return to command in Virginia - however much he longed to. He might have hoped for command of the Army of Tennessee or the Army of Mississippi but instead he got command of the Department of the West - a large theater with scant rescources unable to exploit interior lines against their more numerous and better supplied foe (due, in part, to the poor quality of Southern Railroads).

This was not a happy assignment for him. Everything he had done in military career to that point had geared him towards field command, and, while he was competent enough a staff office to handle the more mundane aspect of office work, he much prefered to be in the field surrounded by soldiers than in an office surrounded by paper.

Being Commander of the Department of the West nominally made him the direct superior of Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee and of John Pemberton and his Army of Mississippi, and it may have been Davis's intention that Johnston could take control of either at his discretion, but such an arrangement did not sit well with Johnston's sense of military etiquette - if he were to swoop in and take charge of either Army he would be completely undermining the authority of the Army Commanders and making it impossible for them to do their jobs in his absence - and his personal sense of honour meant that he could never undertake the role in the manner Davis intended

Furthermore, the practice of Officers in the West recieving orders directly from Richmond and the President continued after the Department Commander's Office had been activated, without even consulting or notifying Chattanooga first, which in practice meant that the authority of the Department Commander was never truly established along with his office. This resulting in Johston as the Department Commander spending most of his time doing Quartermasterly work.

Johnston had wanted to rearrange his new command. He felt that it was impractical for Bragg and Pemberton to be expected to come to each other's aide due to the sheer size of the theater and that troops travelling between Mississippi and Tennessee would either be in transit or arrive too late in a moment of crisis to be of any help. He wanted to arrange it into two different commands - one in the Mississippi Valley where a Commander could be appointed to control Confederate forces on both sides of the river, and the other being Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia aimed at supporting the AoT - but he never managed to convince Davis of the merits of it.

All in all, it was not a good use of Johnston's talents to put him in an office role largely removed from front-line service - he was unhappy in the role, and he felt he had been put in a very professionally awkward position where he had no real authority, and couldn't really do anything as Davis retained the real power in the West and wouldn't let Johnston make changes - and it would have been a better of use of him to return him to the field in command of an Army, a role to which he was better suited than that of a desk jockey.

Also, if Davis had not been prepared to relinquish the power and authority over the Western Theater to a Department Commander - as his issuing of orders without consent or notification would indicate - then he should not have created the Department Commander's Office to begin with.

So, in summary, it was a bad decision and one which was executed poorly.


Jul 28, 2015
New York City
So, in summary, it was a bad decision and one which was executed poorly
Yes, I agree with that conclusion. The western command was too vast and its disparate Armies of Tennessee and Mississippi had very different needs and responsibilities. Johnston was put in an untenable position (perhaps even knowingly by Davis?), and while given nominal authority over Bragg and Pemberton, the reality was that Johnston would not overstep their respective jurisdictions as army commanders. To make matters worse, the War Department tied Johnston's hands further when ordering him to take direct command over the defenses of Vicksburg, another indication that Johnston's Departmental status was being interfered with. But Johnston's recommendation that trans-Mississippi troops under General Holmes be transferred to beef up Pemberton's forces were ignored and overruled by Davis, as was Johnston's directive to Pemberton to save his army rather than the citadel.


May 2, 2006
In general:
  • It was a good idea to try to create some unity of command out in the area between the mountains and the Mississippi.
  • Joe Johnston was the third-highest ranking officer in the Confederate Army after Samuel Cooper and Robert E. Lee. Cooper is clearly not the man for the job and Robert E. Lee is clearly going to stay in Virginia. Johnston is the logical man for the position.
  • Johnston's attitude, once appointed, is a major impediment to the success or failure of the appointment.
  • Davis' tendency to allow the chain of command to be bypassed by talking directly to Johnston's subordinates and issuing orders to them was a big problem. (Just as it was when Lincoln, Stanton and various Confederate Secretaries of War did it.)
  • Johnston's tendency to withhold information from Davis and drag his feet when he wanted to was a big problem. (Just as it was with McClellan, Rosecrans, etc. on the Union side, or with Beauregard, etc. on the Confederate side.)
  • The contentious relationship between Davis and Johnston (going back to when Davis was US Secretary of War in about 1855) was a big problem. So was Johnston's alignment with Davis political enemies in the Confederacy. Their personalities were a big part of it -- but it appears that Davis made major efforts to work with Johnston between spats, while Johnston remained suspicious and uncooperative throughout.
  • Johnston probably created a difficulty by reporting himself ready for duty before he was fully recovered from his wound. He had a history of being wounded before the Civil War and was restless recuperating. Possibly Davis thought that this high-echelon command would allow him to be useful while completing his recovery. As things worked out, Johnston's health became an issue over the Winter/early Spring.
  • Johnston seems to have been unhappy with his position and unwilling to do what was needed to make this appointment work. He found fault to complain about and did not exert himself to cleaning up the problems in his area when he could have, so the problems continued and, in some cases, festered.
  • I wonder to what extent Davis did this to avoid solving the problems in the western Confederate command. Was he passing the buck on the mess in the AoT (Bragg/Polk/Hardee/etc.)? Trying to have his cake and eat it too by establishing Johnston in command without the self-discipline to support him as the boss? Did he expect Johnston to straighten it out while leaving Davis above the mud-slinging? Did Davis lack the self-control to tell the Polks of the army not to contact him directly?
  • Given the opportunity to exert control, Johnston seems to have passed it up. He could have relieved Bragg. He could have taken control of the AoT when Bragg was unavailable. He could have gone to Vicksburg and exerted personal control.
The general concept of a single commander was a good one. The implementation flopped. Davis and Johnston both look to have had a share in that -- but I would blame Johnston a bit more than Davis. Beyond that, the task that needed to be done the most was probably knocking heads together out in the command-chains below Johnston, telling Bragg/Polk/Hardee/etc. to stop this back-biting and work together -- or be relieved of their command. Davis may not have had the stomach for that. Johnston either did not or would not do it.

In some ideal world, the Confederacy probably would have resolved this before Johnston ever took the command, in a personal meeting between Davis and Johnston before he left Richmond. They needed to have a stark discussion of how things would work before Johnston was appointed, to define limits, goals, and areas of authority. Maybe neither of them could do that. In the end, the exercise in improving the command situation failed miserably.


Feb 20, 2005
Davis should have been much more forceful in making the announcement to Generals like Pemberton, Bragg and Corps and Department commanders.
That should have included instructions for them to report to Johnston and certainly not to Richmond.
Likewise, Johnston should have been given a much clearer understanding of his command.
The concept had potential and risks, but it was doomed by poor implementation.