Joseph E. Johnston was born near Farmville, Virginia and named for Maj. Joseph Eggleston, under whom his father had served during the American Revolution. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829 and was appointed 2nd lieutenant in the 4th US Artillery. He resigned from the army briefly in 1837, but after being wounded in the Second Seminole War while working as a civilian topographical engineer in Florida, he rejoined the army in April 1838 and was appointed 1st lieutenant of topographical engineers. After receiving two brevet promotions during the Mexican War, he was appointed brigadier general and Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army on June 28, 1860.
Johnston was the highest ranking officer to resign his commission in the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. In May 1861, he was appointed major general in the Virginia militia and, subsequently, brigadier general in the Confederate army. Following the First Battle of Manassas in July, he was promoted to full general in August. He commanded the Confederate Army of the Potomac (later renamed the Army of Northern Virginia) in the Peninsula Campaign (March-July 1862). On June 1, 1862, after being wounded, he was replaced in command by Gen. Robert E. Lee. After recuperating, Johnston was given command of the Department of the West. He presided over Confederate losses at Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and during the Atlanta Campaign. Never a favorite of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Johnston was replaced on July 17, 1864 by Gen. John Bell Hood.
Early in 1865, at the insistence of Lee, Johnston was placed in command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, as well as the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. His task was to check Union general William T. Sherman's advance into the Carolinas. Outnumbered and overwhelmed throughout the Carolinas Campaign, Johnston suffered defeat at the Battle of Bentonville (March 19-21) and surrendered his force on April 26 at the Bennett farm near Durham.
After the war, Johnston settled in Savannah, Georgia and became involved in the insurance and railroad business. He returned to Virginia and settled in Richmond in 1877, serving in the U.S. Congress from 1879 to 1881. He later served as a commissioner of railroads during the administration of Pres. Grover Cleveland. In his postwar years, he became a defender of Sherman and served as a pallbearer at Sherman's New York City funeral. It was during that funeral that he contracted pneumonia, to which he finally succumbed on March 21, 1891.