In the spring of 1865, the American Civil War was reaching its conclusion. The blood continued to flow but the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Confederacy was crumbling, its army starving, and the Union troops far outnumbered them in the field.
On April 11, General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Army of Tennessee learned that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox.
To Johnston, that was devastating news. He and Lee knew that any hope that the South had for continuing the war, hinged on their two forces linking up near the North Carolina-Virginia state line. Johnston, who still commanded over 90,000 troops, however, was now outnumbered by his enemy by 18 to 1.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was still harboring delusional ideas of raising a huge army of former deserters, somehow equipping and supplying them — while Confederate troops already in the field were going bare — and defeating the Union.
Johnston knew better, and in a meeting with Davis, tried to persuade the president that their best course of action was to try and get the best possible terms of surrender available to them. Johnston and Davis were never close, their animosity stretching back to the earliest days of the war.
Johnston had been the most senior of the Army generals in the U.S. Army to offer his resignation and fight for the Confederacy. He was a Brigadier General and was the Quartermaster General of the Army in 1861. Davis promoted three other Confederate generals ahead of him and the bad feelings would continue to the war’s end.
Johnston finally convinced Davis that, “it would be the greatest of human crimes to continue the war.” Davis agreed that he could discuss terms of surrender with Johnston’s nemesis, Sherman, who had hounded him through the Atlanta campaign.
At their first meeting, Sherman handed Johnston a cable from Washington announcing that President Lincoln had been assassinated. This shocked Johnston. He believed that “the event was the greatest possible calamity to the South.” He reaffirmed his goal of obtaining the best possible terms of surrender. The first meeting didn’t come to any agreement.
The second meeting on April 18, had Johnston concerned with the surrendering soldiers’ rights. However, Sherman tried to assure him that President Lincoln’s 1863 Amnesty Proclamation and the terms of the Appomattox surrender, which Lee had just signed, allowed for a full pardon of all Confederate soldiers, from privates to the commanding general.
Yet, Sherman had promised more than he was authorized to allow and thus President Andrew Johnson rejected the first terms of surrender. Sherman’s motivation was not to punish the South any further, although his tactics in the Atlanta campaign and the subsequent “March to the Sea” had been brutal. He wished to alleviate the hard feelings of the war and welcome the Southerners back into the Union.
Sherman sent a note to Johnston that, from orders from Washington, hostilities would once again begin on the 26th of April. Johnston, his army deserting by the hundreds every day, tried one last time to get favorable terms. He drafted a letter with terms similar to the one Lee had signed at Appomattox.
Under the terms, Johnston’s forces would cease all hostilities; each brigade could keep 1/7 of its small arms and they would deposit their arms at their respective state capitols. All officers and men were to be paroled and take an oath to not take up arms against the United States. Confederate soldiers could retain their private property and the Union army would provide field, rail and water transportation home to paroled men.
Sherman went one step farther. He issued 10 days’ rations to the starving Confederate troops, as well as horses and mules for them to “ensure a crop.” He also ordered the distribution of food to feed hungry civilians. This magnanimous act was one that Johnston would never forget. He wrote to Sherman that his gesture “reconciles me to what I have previously regarded as the misfortune of my life, that of having you to encounter in the field.”
So, on April 26, 1865, 90,000 Confederate troops under Johnston’s command surrendered.
In an interesting footnote, he and Sherman, such bitter enemies during the war, began corresponding frequently and became friends, dining together whenever their paths crossed in Washington after the war. Sherman, so hated in the South for his campaigns in 1864-65, was never talked badly about in Johnston’s presence.
When Sherman passed away in February of 1891, Johnston was asked to be one of his honorary pallbearers. Although there was a cold rain falling, Johnston marched beside his former enemy’s casket with no hat, despite friends telling him to cover up.
“If I were in his place, and he were standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat,” he said.
Johnston caught a bad cold on that day that quickly developed into pneumonia. He died 10 days later and was buried next to his wife in Baltimore, Maryland.