Meeting “Old Joe” on the Battlefield

OldJoe-DarkSkyThe first time I met Joe Johnston on the battlefield, he was pointing dramatically at something indistinct off in the distance. He was also out of position.

It was a gloomy day. Johnston stood like a silhouette against the clouds, a dark gray man against a slate gray sky.

I was nonetheless pleased to see him. For all the love sculptors have given Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Johnston has registered nary a blip. He was quite literally not one of the Confederacy’s marble men–or bronze or granite or anything else.

Mostly Johnston’s remembered as the guy Robert E. Lee replaced. Sometimes he’s remembered as the guy John Bell Hood replaced. When remembered in his own right, it’s usually for his peevish relationship with Jefferson Davis. It’s not such a shining legacy.

Johnston’s defensive-mindedness was essentially a repeat of George Washington’s philosophy “I don’t have to win; I just have to not lose.” It was the kind of shrewd generalship that was exactly wrong for the political environment of the Confederacy, brimming as it was with offense and bombast.

At Bentonville, Johnston showed that he, too, could be offense-minded when the situation presented itself. It was one of his best moments as a commander, tarnished as it was by his B-team of subordinates who could not execute effectively.

After the war, inspired by William T. Sherman’s personal magnanimity, Johnston devoted himself to reconciliation. Cozying up to the former enemy earned him last enmity from his fellow former Confederates. Johnston never backed down from their challenges, but he also kept his eye fixed forward.

To find the Johnston statue at Bentonville surprised me—pleasantly so. Here was an overlooked commander getting his due where he deserved it. One other Johnston statue exists—in Dalton, Georgia, where Johnston took command of the Army of Tennessee for the first time. It was erected back in 1912. For 98 years, it stood as Johnston’s only monument.

OldJoe-FlagFlyingThe statue in Bentonville was erected in 2010 by Sons of Confederate veterans, although Johnston was not known to have ever visited the spot himself during the battle. At the time of the statue’s creation and installation, though, this was as close as supporters could get Johnston to the actual battlefield. The statue now sits a plot of private property.

Crafted by Carl Regutti, the monument cost around $100,000. A “Walk of Honor” leads from the parking area to the monument, making Old Joe easily accessible to battlefield visitors who wish to pay their respects. The bricks in the walk have been inscribed with the names of soldiers who served in the Confederate army. A plaque on the monument calls “Old Joe” a “Defender of the Southland to the End.”

What I find most impressive about the statue is that it’s life sized and approachable. He’s not mounted on a war horse, cast in larger-than-life dimensions. He’s no marble man. He’s planted firmly on the ground, one foot on a rock to add to the drama of the pose. His gaze fixed resolutely at whatever it is he’s pointing at.

It could be the future

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One Response to Meeting “Old Joe” on the Battlefield

  1. John Maginn says:

    Very much appreciate your commentary. During my study of the ‘Battles for Atlanta’ I sensed a negative assessment of Johnston’s defensive posture ahead of the Sherman juggernaut. He wanted to preserve his Army and hoped to wear down the rising tide against him and his ill-supplied army. I don’t see that Hood did much better. The battle of Franklin stands as the Confederate ‘Cold Harbor’ or worse. I don’t think ‘Old Joe’ would have done that. Some of my friends are at Bentonville this weekend. I’m there in spirit, to be sure!

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