While there are plenty of high-ranking veteran generals who served in the Civil War, only one came out as permanently immortalized on a battlefield for a death, rather than a smashing victory. Last week, I shared with you about the battle of Shiloh in April of 1862, but didn’t go into detail about its Confederate hero and martyr, Albert Sidney Johnston.
Described as commanding and dominant, Johnston also had a touch of gentleness and humor about him. This might have been a little hard to imagine when one considers that the man was over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, and fashioned an imposing mustache that added to his somber mien. However, he was not without humor or charisma and won the respect of privates and generals alike. He wasn’t afraid to lead charges and make the hard calls in any engagement. With an impressive resume of battles and leadership positions, he could be dubbed a general, through and through.
He was born February 2nd in Washington Kentucky, the youngest son to Dr. John and Abigail Johnston. Not a lot can be said about his early years, but he began his education at Transylvania University in Lexington, which was Kentucky’s first university. There, he met with the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and struck a lifelong friendship. Davis had nothing but admiration and praise for the man. Later during the war, Davis had said that Johnston was “the greatest solider, the ablest man, civil or military, Confederate or Federal, then living.” Talk about a bromance.
The two later transferred and conditioned their military education at West Point in 1822. Davis was two years behind his buddy. Johnston went on to graduate from West Point in 1826 and ranked eight in his class of forty-one. Upon leaving West Point, he was commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S Infantry.
Three years later, he married Henrietta Preston, who also happened to be the sister of a Kentucky politician and future Civil War general, William Preston. They named their first son – born 1831 – after William and ironically, he would go on to become a colonel and aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis during the war. The young Johnston would later be captured with Jefferson upon the dissolution of the Confederacy and held prisoner for several months in Fort Delaware.
One year after the birth of his eldest, Albert Sidney Johnston was engaged in the Black Hawk War as the chief of staff to General Henry Atkinson. This would be the watershed event of Johnston’s experience fighting Native Americans. During the Black Hawk War, tribes such as the Sauk, Meskwaki, Kickapoo, Ho-Chunk, and Potawatomi rallied behind their leader, Black Hawk, and crossed over the Mississippi River from the Iowa territory (not yet a state) to Illinois (currently a U.S state). This move was misinterpreted as hostile, so the U.S moved against the band of Indians known as the “British Band”. Battles and raids persisted between April and August of 1832 until the final capture and internment of Black Hawk and his band. Abraham Lincoln got his military feet wet as a captain, though he didn’t participate in any battles. Other notable soldiers in the engagement were Zachary Taylor, Jefferson Davis, and Winfield Scott (later Lincoln’s senior military advisor during the Civil War).
Disaster hit the Johnston home in 1834, however, when Henrietta became gravely sick with tuberculosis, also called consumption because of its “consuming” affliction upon the body. While medical advancements have helped us to treat and in most cases cure tuberculosis, there wasn’t a lot a patient from the 19th century could do. Warm, dry climates were often preferred because it was more soothing on the throat. Kentucky couldn’t really be described as the ideal place for a person with consumption. Johnston resigned from the army to take care of his ailing wife, but the disease took her in two years.
That same year, possibly because of his grief and in need of a change of scenery, Johnston moved to Texas. Though the great Lone Star state might have put him far away from his past and history in Kentucky, Johnston was diving headfirst into the Texas Revolution. He enlisted as a private in the Texian Army in the later half of the war, helping the colonists and Tejanos (Texas Mexicans) fight against the Mexican government and Antoine Lopez de Santa Anna. Rights and freedoms for the people of Texas had been slowly taken away and due to an influx of United States immigration into the territory, Santa Anna believed the U.S was trying to instigate a rebellion with the intent to annex Texas. While that didn’t happen right away, The Republic of Texas was founded, along with the Army of Texas, led by Sam Houston.
By August, the former colonel with the U.S army had risen from private in the Texian army to adjutant general as a colonel. That must have been a far more comfortable role for him, and by the beginning of 1837, Johnston had been promoted once again to senior brigadier general. While the Texas Revolution was over and won the previous year, Texas still had a long way to go before animosity between them and Mexico was finished. During this time, Johnston somewhat adopted Texas as his state, claiming his affinity for it over Kentucky in some respects.
On February 5th, just six days after his promotion to brigadier general, Johnston found himself in hot water with Felix Huston. He was challenged to a duel for the right to command the entire army. Johnston, for one reason or another, refused to fire on Huston and was shot in the right hip for his trouble. This injury would come back to haunt him at a later engagement.
In December of 1838, Mirabeau Lamar (second president of the Republic of Texas after Sam Houston), appointed Johnston as the Secretary of War for the entire republic. He served in this position for two years, defending the southern border of Texas against Mexican invasion and policing the northern boundaries against hostile Comanches. His experience in the Black Hawk War might have given him a little help in the position. Aggression between the Comanches and Texans persisted until 1841 with brutality displayed on both sides, and this might have played into Johnston’s next move.
In 1840, Johnston resigned from Secretary of War and moved back to Kentucky. During this time, it was said that his two children born from Henrietta were being cared for by relatives. This might have also played a part in how he met his second wife, Eliza Griffin, who was Henrietta’s first cousin. They married in 1843 and did no stay in Kentucky for long. The family moved to Galveston, Texas that same year. In Brazoria County, they founded a plantation that Johnston would later name “China Grove”.
When Johnston moved back to his adopted country, Texas was completely independent from Mexico. However, Johnston belonged to the Republic for only a couple of years until Texas was annexed by the United States in December of 1845. This didn’t settle well with neighboring Mexico because Santa Anna never fully recognized Texas as an independent republic or a state of the union. When Mexico attacked Texas, U.S president James K. Polk declared war.
What did this mean for Johnston? He was going right back into the military after working a plantation. He started off a little better than he did before and came into the U.S army as a colonel with the 1st Texas Rifle Volunteers under General Zachary Taylor. Remember they served together during the Black Hawk War. Still, Johnston was once a Secretary of War and now came in as a colonel again. It must have felt like climbing the later, only to have a few rungs broken underneath you. Just because Johnston was in a position he was severely over qualified for, that didn’t hinder him from being the best solider he could be.
Just before the Battle of Monterrey in September of 1846, the enlistment term for his volunteers was about to expire. Johnston used his leadership and charisma to encourage the men to fight anyway. This became one of the most influential battles of the war where a well-fortified Mexican position was forced back by a lesser U.S force after three days of bloody fighting. Outnumbered by a thousand, the U.S troops under Zachary Taylor won the day and occupied the city over the Rio Grande for two years. Though Taylor received a lot of flak for the battle, the future president of the United States didn’t forget Johnston’s bravery in combat.
After the war, Johnston returned to his plantation and helped to raise his five children (two from Henrietta, and three from Eliza). The army would call him back again in December 1849 when Zachary Taylor, now the 12th president of the United States, commissioned him as a major and a paymaster. For five peace-time years, Johnston made six tours and traveled over four-thousand miles annually. In that time he was stationed at Fort Mason, smack-dab in the middle of the state, and helped to patrol the Indian Territories around Texas. No doubt, he would have had more run-ins with natives from the Kiowa, Lipan Apache, and Comanche tribes.
In 1855, a new president was in control of the country and as before, Johnston was given a new assignment. He was promoted to colonel of the new 2nd U.S Cavalry (a unit that preceded the modern 5th). In this new position, Johnston would play a role that led up to the war between the states.
In 1856, by request of the state, Johnston was sent with a detachment of 1300 men to Lecompton, Kansas. Unlike Texas, Kansas and Missouri became a huge hotbed of pro-slavery and abolitionist terrorism. Both sides were adamant in their beliefs and when it came time for Kansas to vote whether it would be a slave or free state, fights erupted all over the place.
One such attack was feared to come from James Henry Lane, also known as Jim Lane. An ardent abolitionist and politician, he was said to be a commander of the Free Soil militant group. The Jayhawkers, as they were commonly called, were pitted against the Border Ruffians, who were pro-slavery. Johnston played a role in policing what would go down in history as Bleeding Kansas, Bloody Kansas, or the Border Wars. The violence that stretched on until 1861 with Kansas’s initiation as a free state into the union.
However, his involvement wasn’t lengthy and by 1857, Johnston found him halfway across the country in another territory that hadn’t been annexed yet. Another uprising/rebellion was taking place in Utah with a different religious faction led by Brigham Young. In what was called the Utah Expedition, U.S forces were sent to the territory by current president James Buchanan. Fearful that the U.S troops were there to force them out, the Mormons retaliated. Though there was never any official battles fought, about as many died during the Utah War as Bleeding Kansas (about 270). For his services in controlling these violent tensions in Utah, Johnston was promoted to brevet brigadier general.
He continued his services until 1858, and then returned to Texas until 1860 when he was given a new deployment to The Department of the Pacific. Johnston and his family uprooted themselves and moved to Los Angeles, California. Right around this time is when the bottom began to fall out for the Union and in December of that same year, states began to secede and form their own government under Jefferson Davis.
Like many southern generals, Johnston did not approve of secession. Perhaps his time fighting against Mexico had something to do with this belief. But his loyalty won out, as it did for many other generals and politicians. When Texas seceded from the Union in May of 1861, so did Johnston. He resigned his commission from the army for the second time in his life, and tried to stay low. He narrowly avoided arrest under rumors of Confederate sympathy by Union officials, but proved them right by enlisting as (you guessed it) a private in the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles out of Warner’s Ranch.
Johnston, along with thirty pro-Confederate officers and civilians trekked across deserts, crossed the Colorado River and Arizona territory, into Texas, onto New Orleans, and then to Richmond, Virginia. The whole journey was said to be something like a long, drawn-out celebration march. Noted for his bravery and successes in countless battles in the few wars he served, there was a lot of fanfare for Johnston. Plus, the Confederacy was still high on their victory at Manassas in mid-1861.
By the time Johnston came to Richmond and found his old West Point pal in charge of the whole dog and pony show, he had already been given the commission as a full-fledged general. The order was backdated for May 30th, but Congress approved it on August 31st. He was one of eight to receive this title and only adjutant general and inspector general Samuel Cooper outranked him.
Davis have Johnston command of what was called Confederate Department Number 2, which stretched from Texas to the Appalachian Mountains. Johnston was in charge of defending Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri from several Union commanders such as Fremont, Anderson, Hunter, Sherman, Buell, Halleck, and Grant. Thus would begin his infamy as a Civil War general.
However, it might have been doomed from the start, no matter how much Davis or his soldiers idolized him. Reinforcements, volunteers, and supplies were scarce due to the war department’s focus in the eastern theater in Virginia. He was forced to stretch 40,000 troops across all of these states and still somehow hold a sturdy defensive line. The struggle might have been a little easier if his home state of Kentucky hadn’t such a majority of Union supporters that allowed Grant to sweep through into Tennessee so easily.
It also didn’t help that Eastern Tennessee, also pro-Union, was put under the defense of Felix Zollicoffer (an untrained and unexperienced commander) and George Crittendon (an alcoholic). One defining incident took place along the upper Cumberland River, where Zollicoffer had foolishly set himself up for a Union attack from George Thomas (The Rock of Chickamauga in 1863). In the engagement, Zollicoffer was killed, Crittendon was cited for potential negligence when he failed to lead, and the Union pressed on through Tennessee. The debacle at Mill Springs got the attention of Davis. A fresh detachment of reinforcements were given, along with P.G.T Beauregard, the Cajun commander who had won the Confederacy vital victories at Fort Sumter and Manassas. It was thought that the arrival of the war hero would bolster morale and gain more volunteers for Johnston.
What it really did was scare the Union into pressing even harder down the Tennessee River. Losses at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, both potentially avoidable failures, had tarnished Johnston’s reputation along with the mess from Mill Springs. Incompetent commanders and ill-positioned fortifications allowed footholds into the Confederacy. Calls for removal and public criticism abounded because Johnston wouldn’t openly admit these failures to the newspaper. He would have rather let the populace blame him for the loss than the Confederacy as a whole.
As he retreated to Corinth with Beauregard, however, he vowed that he would not suffer another defeat. With more troops coming in to help reinforce his next strike against Grant, he told his men “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River”.
Grant was making another push toward a vital railroad hub at Corinth that would allow him access into parts of the Confederacy. There, he could cut supplies and communication lines that would cripple the rebel government. Johnston decided to head him off on the Tennessee border before he could make it to Mississippi. Though all the forces were against him, weather, command confusion, delay after delay, and near-insubordination among his troops, the battle at Shiloh Church would be his vindication. “I would fight them if they were a million,” he told his subordinates when retreat was offered just days before. His bravery encouraged them to press on with the failed surprise attack.
They collided with Sherman’s troops early in the morning on April 6th, 1862 and pushed the Federal forces back toward Pittsburgh Landing where the army had been stationed. Charging ahead with his troops, rallying them forward with a stolen tin cup he snitched out of a Union camp, victory seemed imminent.
But a final blow was struck and Johnston would not receive his vindication. In the early afternoon of the first day of battle, Confederates were working to push through U.S General Hurlburt’s heavy line of infantry on the far flank of what would be called the “Hornet’s Nest”. Johnston came upon Breckinridge’s men who had recoiled after a failed attack on the gun-supported Union line. Knowing that this ten-acre peach orchard had to be taken for the sake of the complex battle plan he had intended, Johnston did what he did best. He rode to the front of the line, stood up in his stirrups and waved the men on proclaiming, “I will lead you!” And he did. Right into the heat of battle.
After successfully breaking through Hurlburt’s line, Johnston rode back to watch his gray-coated boys celebrate. His uniform was torn, but his eyes were shining as one account was offered. However, Tennessee governor Isham Harris saw the commander reeling atop his horse, Fire Eater.
“General – are you hurt?” he asked. Johnston replied with, “Yes… and I fear seriously.”
Johnston seemed untouched, but with Harris’ support, he was taken behind the battle lines. Taken to a nearby ravine, he was laid down and they inspect him for any wounds. When they took off his right boot, he was too far gone. A bullet had struck him behind the right knee and severed an important artery. He was bleeding out, but Harris had no medical training, so he didn’t know how to set a tourniquet. Johnston, who knew how, had a tourniquet in his pocket but had passed out and was unable to give directions. His own staff physician was off taking care of Confederate wounded and Union prisoners, being previously told by Johnston that “These were our enemies a moment ago. They are our prisoners now. Take care of them.” Little did he know that he would need that same care now.
It was believed that either Johnston ignored the pain of the wound, or his insensibility was partially to blame by the bullet wound to the hip he received from Felix Huston in 1837. It is also suspected that the injury that made him bleed out was inflicted by one of his own men. Not on purpose, of course. Johnston was charging ahead of his soldiers, and through the smoke of battle, it’s hard for any soldier to see more than a few yards ahead of them. The location of the entry being behind his knee, rather than from the front gives evidence to this suspicion. Plus, the bullet was from a Pattern 1853 Enfield rifled. No Union solider at this engagement had an outdated rifle like that, but many of Johnston’s men were given these as standard issue weapons. The term “friendly fire” could be applied here, but the term wasn’t coined until World War II. In the 19th century, it would be considered “shot by his own men”, which was exactly what it was. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson would go out the same way in 1863.
Johnston bled out on the battlefield, but none of his staff could allow the men to know it, lest that damage morale. The dead commander and his wounded horse were taken back to his tent for the rest of the battle. The following day, despite all the ground that was gained by Johnston and Beauregard, Grant’s reinforcements from Lew Wallace and Buell came. At that point, it was a numbers game and the Confederates were forced back to Corinth.
Albert Sidney Johnston was the highest ranking general to ever be killed in battle during the Civil War. Davis remarked after hearing the news of his friend’s death that it was the “turning point of our fate.” This had been said plenty of times about many different battles and deaths during the war, so I don’t personally think that Johnston’s death fully contributed to the downfall of the Confederacy, but it certainly played a role.
He was survived by his wife and six children (the last born in Los Angeles). Albert Sidney Jr., the eldest born of Eliza in Texas, also served in the war but died in 1863 during a ferryboat accident outside San Pedro when he was on home leave. As stated before, his eldest son from Henrietta made it through the war and served alongside Davis until the surrender.
A monument stands at Shiloh National battlefield Park to mark the approximate place Johnston had been shot and killed. Though he was buried in New Orleans until 1867, he is now interred at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. He was finally laid to rest in the state he loved best. A monument and sculpture was designed by Elizabeth Ney in 1905 for Johnston and can be visited to this day.
The Civil War (A Narrative; Volume 1): Fort Sumter to Perryville by Shelby Foote