In April 1870, Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, both 63 years old, gray and grizzled, sat for a photographer in Savannah, Ga. Lee had about six months to live, Johnston nearly 21 years. In two of three poses from the session, including the one reprinted at right, Lee looks directly across a small table at the man he considered a nearly lifelong friend, while Johnston avoids eye contact by focusing on some papers next to Lee’s hand. I always have believed these images to be very revealing about the two men. Lee engages Johnston forthrightly, as one would a friend; Johnston seems reluctant to reciprocate. Perhaps that was the case because Johnston had nourished a deep envy of Lee for years and worried that the truth might flicker across his eyes if he met Lee’s gaze directly.
The two men’s careers frequently intersected. Both graduated from West Point in the Class of 1829—Lee stood second and entered the engineers; Johnston ranked 13th and joined the 4th Artillery. Both earned brevets for gallantry to major, lieutenant colonel and colonel during the war with Mexico. Johnston was second in command of the Voltigeurs regiment during heavy fighting around Mexico City, and Lee served on Winfield Scott’s staff. Lee ended his antebellum service as colonel of the 1st Cavalry, a line rank Johnston never achieved, though he was named brigadier general of the Quartermaster Corps in June 1860. When both joined the Confederate Army in 1861, Lee ranked third among the full generals—behind Samuel Cooper and Albert Sidney Johnston—and Johnston fourth.
His position junior to three other Confederate officers sent Johnston into a fury that poisoned his relationship with Jefferson Davis and affected his entire Confederate military service. Unable to rise above what he considered a professional slight, he seemed to relish every opportunity to revisit it. This preoccupation with rank surfaced long before 1861. In 1843 Lee noted his friend’s concern for advancement. “Joe Johnston is playing Adjt. Genl. in Florida, to his heart’s content,” observed Lee with no hint of disapproval: “His plan is good[;] he is working for promotion. I hope he may succeed.”
Three years later, as Scott’s remarkable campaign against Mexico City came to a close, Lee wrote about Johnston with humor and affection. Johnston had been wounded during the assaults against Chapultepec (he seemed to suffer wounds on almost every battlefield, noted Scott), and Lee described his friend as “fat ruddy & hearty.” “I think a little lead, properly taken is good for a man,” he suggested playfully: “I am truly thankful however that I escaped all internal doses, & only re[ceive]d some external bruises, contusions & cuts.”
Although Lee regretted being assigned to desk duty as head of Virginia’s state forces early in the Civil War, he applauded Johnston’s successes in the field. After First Bull Run, where Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard shared highest Confederate honors, Lee hastened to congratulate his friend. “I almost wept for joy,” he wrote Johnston on July 24, “at the glorious victory achieved by our brave troops on the 21st.”
Johnston never managed to muster equivalent generosity of spirit regarding Lee. Serendipity in the form of a Federal artillery round at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862, cost Johnston command of the army defending Richmond and elevated Lee to the position in which he would become the most famous and important Confederate. As Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia to a series of victories in 1862 and 1863, Johnston recuperated and eventually ended up in the Western Theater, where he found opportunities to deprecate his friend’s accomplishments in the East. Although there’s no evidence that Lee knew the depth of “Old Joe’s” bitterness toward him, others surely did, including Robert Garlick Hill Kean, who monitored and commented on many aspects of Confederate military affairs from his position in the Bureau of War in Richmond. On April 12, 1863, Kean wrote of both Johnston’s obsession with rank and antipathy toward Lee, “He is a very little man, has achieved nothing, full of himself, above all other things, eaten up with morbid jealousy of Lee and of all his superiors in position rank, or glory.”
Narrative of Military Operations, Directed, During the Late War Between the States, by Joseph E. Johnston, General, C.S.A. (1874) betrays Johnston’s animus toward Lee. In defending his Fabian strategy against William Sherman during the Atlanta Campaign, for example, Johnston manifested sarcasm and envy regarding Davis and Lee. “I supposed that my course would not be disapproved by him [Jefferson Davis],” observed Johnston archly, “especially as General Lee, by keeping on the defensive, and falling back toward Grant’s objective point, under circumstances like mine, was increasing his great fame.”
No source better illustrates Johnston’s attitude toward Lee than Robert M. Hughes’ General Johnston (1893). The work of the general’s approved biographer, this book not surprisingly praises its subject. Sensitive to the fact that Johnston’s retreats and failure to win dramatic victories had inspired criticism from the Confederate people, Hughes reflects some of Johnston’s attitude toward Lee in a passage that combines distortion and mean-spiritedness: “With the general public, during and since the war, the commander whose lot it was to organize armies for others and relinquish their leadership just as they became veterans who could win Fredericksburgs and Chancellorsvilles, obtains but little credit. The public imagination must be inflamed by the brilliancy of actual combat, and thinks little of the strategy which secures equal results without bloodshed, except to ridicule and condemn it.”
Hughes got one thing right—many Confederates deplored Johnston’s penchant for retreating. As one young South Carolina woman wrote in 1865: “The last news from Johnston was that he retreated to Raleigh. This arch-retreater will probably retreat till perhaps he retreats to Gen. Lee, who may put a stop to this retrograde movement.” Such unflattering comparisons to Lee during and after the war proved particularly galling to Johnston. I wonder if, as the old men sat opposite one another in Savannah and the photographer arranged his shot, years of imagined unfairness weighed on Johnston’s mind.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.