Many historians criticize Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston for what they say was a timidity and reluctance to engage the enemy in battle.
Yet on Saturday, as more than 200 people gathered to re-dedicate a 100-year-old, larger-than-life statue of the general that sits in downtown Dalton, patriots and historians alike focused on his devotion to the men he lead during the War Between the States and his character on and off the battlefield.
“To those folks (who criticize Johnston), I would like to point out they weren’t there,” said John Fowler, director of Dalton State College’s Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia. “Hindsight is always 20/20.”
When Johnston took control of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in Dalton in December 1863, it was nothing more than an armed mob, Fowler said. He said he transformed his forces, through training and ensuring they were properly equipped, into a group of soldiers. The criticism leveled by historians — mostly after 1970, Fowler said — stems from Johnston’s refusal at times to make a stand and his propensity to retreat. He was removed from command at one point by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In defending Dalton, Johnston eventually withdrew toward Atlanta as Union forces under Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman tried to outflank him. Johnston was relieved of duty in Atlanta by Davis. However, Johnston later regained command before he surrendered to Sherman in 1865 in the Carolinas.
Dalton marked the beginning of the Atlanta Campaign, and Fowler said those events marked a turning point in the war.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington said the fact that it was a turning point shows Dalton’s significance to the area and to Georgia as a whole.
“He was the first man (of prominence) to really understand that,” Pennington said of Johnston’s strong defense of Dalton.
The Bryant M. Thomas chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy were responsible for bringing Johnston’s statue to Dalton in 1912. The Pvt. Drewry R. Smith chapter had the statue refurbished for the 100th anniversary, contracting Gordon Ponsford, whom chapter president Melissa Burchfield said has restored numerous other historic monuments and statues.
Brenda Johnston, who is married to a man who is distantly related to Johnston, said the general has been overly criticized in films about him and by historians.
“I think Joseph done a very good job because if I was in that situation, I would have retreated too,” she said.
George Johnston Sr., Brenda’s father-in-law, said he isn’t as much of a history buff as his son George Johnston Jr., who is a re-enactor, but he has gained a level of respect for Johnston after learning about him. Johnston died from pneumonia in 1891, roughly three decades after the war, but he contracted the illness shortly after being a pallbearer at a funeral in which, out of respect, he refused to wear a hat. The funeral was Sherman’s.
“I’ve got people I don’t like, but I don’t know if I’d be the pallbearer (for them),” Johnston Sr. said. “I’d have to hesitate.”
Fowler said Johnston was born in Virginia and was a career army man, serving in the then-small United States Army before the Southern states seceded. Like many of his time, he found religion during the war, Fowler said, at least partly because his wife urged another officer to help him convert. Where he failed on the battlefield, he was a success in other areas, organizers said.
“There is absolutely no criticism,” said Fowler, “that can be leveled against the general on how he handled his troops off the battlefield.”