Town Crier: Know Joe (part 1)

File/Daily Citizen-News

The statue of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston stands in downtown Dalton.

There's a possibility of no more Joe downtown.

The statue of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston might be relocated to the Huff House on Selvidge Street as soon as somebody comes up with the money for the move. The Huff House makes perfect sense since that is where he was headquartered here in Dalton when the Southern army wintered here in 1863-1864.

The Huff House is currently a history museum. If you haven’t been, you should go. They have a library there as well as actual museum display items of interest. Why, it’s like he’s going back to his old stomping grounds.

Johnston, the general

As a history buff, I knew a lot of his career as a general during the Civil War. He was the highest ranking general in the U.S. Army to resign to fight for the South, or more specifically, for Virginia when the state seceded, as “home” and “home state” sentiment was very strong then — arguably a lot stronger than now. He led the Confederate Army in Virginia, in the Eastern Theater of war and early on was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. It took him six months to recuperate and he was replaced by Gen. Robert E. Lee who went on to fame and victories in the next six months.

Johnston switched to the Western Theater and was involved in the Vicksburg Campaign but failed to rescue the city. Then, after the southern loss of Chattanooga, he was put in charge of rebuilding a defeated Confederate Army holed up for the winter in Dalton.

While in Dalton from about November to April, he rebuilt the army, saw a religious revival sweep through the troops, built massive fortifications that still snake through the countryside around here, let his troops blow off steam with the biggest snowball battle in history, and got himself outflanked which led to the abandonment of Dalton and the Battle of Resaca.

From there he gained a reputation, both admired and glared at, as a master of the strategic retreat as the Northern and Southern armies marched and counter-marched their way to Atlanta. At Atlanta, he was relieved of duty and only put in charge of an army again at the end of the war in the Carolinas. He won the Battle of Manassas (AKA First Bull Run), the first major battle of the war and led the Confederates in the last major battle at Bentonville, North Carolina. A month thereafter he surrendered to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. That’s what I knew about the bronze man downtown.

Johnston, the man

I knew about the general, but I didn’t know anything about the man. Whether despised icon or prideful landmark, there’s a statue downtown. The guy was a real person, after all.

I wondered what his life was like. I checked out “Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography” by author Craig L. Symonds and looked up info on the internet. The book is mainly focused on his Civil War experience but I’m mainly focused on the man’s private life and life before and after the war. So here’s a “Did you know?” about Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Was he a hero or a villain?

Did you know he was from Virginia?

His father was a judge and he grew up in Abingdon in the mountains not far from the Tennessee border. Just a generation before Daniel Boone had explored the area and named it “Wolf Hill” because wolves attacked his dogs there. Johnston was born Feb. 3, 1807 (more than 200 years ago). He was born on the family property dating back to their Scottish ancestor in the 1700s. Johnston was the seventh (but not the youngest) of many brothers and a younger sister with a great age difference between youngest and oldest. One of his brothers was more an uncle to him, it is noted.

In 1811, at the age of 4, his father became a judge and they moved to Abingdon, Virginia. His father, Peter, was a Revolutionary War veteran and had fought with the renowned cavalry force of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s father.

Did you know Johnston and Robert E. Lee had intersecting lives?

Their fathers fought together in the Revolutionary War and it says something about the concept of “independence” and perhaps “Southern independence” that these sons of Revolutionary heroes fought to disband the federal union their father’s fought to establish from individual colonies. They entered the U.S. Military Academy in West Point the same year in the class of 1829 and became lifelong friends and admirers.

Lee always did better in class rankings and grades, but they were the only two Virginians to graduate from the nine who had started together. Johnston said later in life, “In youth and early manhood I loved and admired him more than any man in the world.”

They served together in the Army at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, a coastal fort that had been under construction since 1817 and still wasn’t finished. It was the largest fort in the Western Hemisphere and Lee was working on it as an engineer while Johnston served there as an artilleryman. They served closely together in the Mexican War, both receiving praise for their actions.

Lee replaced Johnston as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. In 1870, after the war, the two friends posed for photographs together in Savannah, Georgia. Lee would die six months later; Johnston would live another 21 years.

More military history

Did you know Joe Johnston participated in the antebellum Indian wars?

President Andrew Jackson was in office and he had a policy of moving all Native Americans west of the Mississippi. Locally, this included the Cherokee and resulted in the Trail of Tears. There were a series of armed conflicts with the Indians all over the country.

Johnston’s unit was called up for the Black Hawk War which took place in the Great Lakes/Detroit/Chicago area. His involvement included long boat trips across ocean, canal and Great Lakes. His men got cholera and perhaps as many as half died, a tragedy of death he could do nothing about. He didn’t participate in a battle — the fight had already been won by local militia troops — but he did witness the signing of the peace treaty and signed it as a witness. It would not be his last involvement in peace treaty signings.

Then, there was a Creek uprising in Alabama. His unit was sent there via Augusta, Georgia, where he marched across Georgia to Central Alabama. He found the geography boring and again, there was no fighting, just endless hours in camp. That winter his letters to his family told of anxiously wanting to leave. But when springtime came he didn’t want to go as he had fallen romantically for a Native American woman. Like soldiers from time immemorial, he had to leave with his orders.

Next were the particularly horrendous Seminole Wars in Florida. Think of Vietnam with muskets. He was sent south and was part of a campaign in Central Florida. He was on the staff of the commanding general Winfield Scott, a hero from the War of 1812, and he thought this would help his career. He finally came under fire in combat in a couple of skirmishes in the swamps.

As a man with ambition, Johnson thought he would not be getting a promotion any time soon and his income at this level was about $800 per year, small pay even then. He resigned from the Army and joined a surveying company since his engineering skills learned at West Point had taught him to be an excellent surveyor and mapmaker.

As fate would have it, he was hired by the Army to go with a military expedition back to Florida to map the Atlantic coast from St. Augustine all the way south to Key West. The commander of the expedition knew the Seminole War was still on and was on the lookout for a fight on the way down the coast. At one spot they discovered where a Seminole village was about six or eight miles from where they had landed onshore.

With a mixed force of sailors and soldiers, and civilian Joe Johnston tagging along, they moved against the village. The sailors included Blacks and whites as the Navy had been taking free Black recruits for years. They stumbled upon the village but the sailors balked at charging. The Seminole warriors formed up and opened fire. The commanders of the Americans were wounded and Johnston took command. The sailors ran, with the exception of two Black sailors that Johnston recruited to carry the wounded commander back to the boat.

Johnston took the handful of soldiers and formed them into a fighting rear guard holding off the pursuing Seminole. It was a running battle through the Florida jungle for about five hours as they retreated back to the boat. For his assumption of command as a former officer, his coolness under fire and his tactical acumen, he was praised in the official military report on the action. This would enhance his reputation and lead to his return to military service in the Army.

Next week: Did you know that Johnston suffered many injuries and wounds? Did you know Johnston fell in love? Did you know Johnston was a successful businessman? Did you know Johnston and Sherman were buddies?

Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.

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