The highest-ranking officer killed in the American Civil War was born today in 1803. Now WE know em
Albert Sidney Johnston was born February 2, 1803 in Kentucky as the son of a doctor.
His father soon moved the family to Texas, and Albert would grow up to call Texas his home.
Albert was sent back to Kentucky to attend Transylvania University in Lexington where he was a fellow student of Jefferson Davis.
Albert was appointed to the United States Military Academy, joined two years later by Jefferson Davis.
In 1826, Albert graduated West Point 8th out of 41 cadets with a commission as a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry.
In 1829 Albert married Henrietta Preston, sister of Kentucky politician and future civil war general William Preston.
In 1832, Albert served as chief of staff to Brig. General Henry Atkinson during the Black Hawk War.
During 1834, Albert’s wife Henrietta became ill, he resigned his commission and returned to Kentucky to care for her and his son William Preston Johnston. He moved his family back to Texas where Albert took up farming. Henrietta died two years later of tuberculosis.
When the Texas War of Independence broke out against Mexico on October 2, 1835, Albert enlisted as a private in the Texas Army.
One month later, when his skills became noticed, Albert was promoted to major and became aide-de-camp to General Sam Houston. The war ended April 21, 1836.
On August 5, 1836, Albert was named Adjutant General as a colonel in the Republic of Texas Army. Then on January 31, 1837, Albert became senior brigadier general in command of the entire Texas Army.
General Felix Huston challenged Albert to a duel for the command of the Texas Army and he accepted. On February 7, 1837, Albert refused to fire on one of his own, receiving a shot to the pelvis. Felix Huston assumed command of the Texas Army.
On December 22, 1838, Mirabeau B. Lamar, the president of the Republic of Texas, appointed Albert his Secretary of War. His initial challenge was to provide defense of the Texas border against Mexican invasion.
Then in 1839, Albert turned his attention toward a campaign against native Indians in northern Texas.
By 1840, Albert had decided to return to Kentucky and resigned his commission.
In 1843, Albert married Eliza Griffin, moved back to Texas, and settled down on a large plantation he named China Grove.
The Mexican-American War broke out April 25, 1846, with Albert joining General Zachary Taylor as a colonel of the 1st Texas Rifle Volunteers.
By mid September 1846, the enlistments of Albert’s volunteers ran out just before the Battle of Monterrey. He managed to convince a few volunteers to stay and fight as he himself served as the inspector general of volunteers and later fought at the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista.
When the war ended February 2, 1848, Albert retired to his plantation.
On March 4, 1849, Zachary Taylor took office as the President of the United States. President Taylor appointed Albert to the U.S. Army as a major and was made a paymaster in December of 1849.
Albert served in that role at Fort Mason for more than five years, making six tours, and traveling more than 4,000 miles annually on the Indian frontier of Texas.
In 1855 President Franklin Pierce appointed Albert the colonel of the new 2nd U.S. Cavalry (the unit that preceded the modern 5th U.S.), a new regiment that Albert organized.
As a key figure in the Utah War, Albert led U.S. troops who established a non-Mormon government in the formerly Mormon territory from which he received a brevet promotion to brigadier general in 1857 for his service.
Albert spent 1860 back in Kentucky until December 21, when he sailed for California to take command of the Department of the Pacific.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Albert was the commander of the U.S. Army Department of the Pacific in California. Like many regular army officers from the South he was opposed to secession, but resigned his commission soon after he heard of the secession of his adopted state Texas. It was accepted by the War Department on May 6, 1861, effective May 3.
On April 28 Albert moved to Los Angeles where he had family and remained there until May when, suspected by local Union Federalist authorities, he evaded arrest and joined the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles as a private, leaving May 27.
Albert participated in their trek across the southwestern deserts to Texas, crossing the Colorado River into the Confederate Territory of Arizona on July 4, 1861.
Albert then set out on a cross-country journey to the Confederacy’s capital of Richmond, Virginia.
September 3, 1861, two days before Albert arrived in Richmond, the majority of Kentuckians had sided with the Northern Union.
Confederate command in Western Theater
On September 10, 1861, Albert was assigned to command the huge area of the Confederacy west of the Allegheny Mountains, except for coastal areas. Then, he became commander of all the Confederacy’s western armies in the area often called the Western Department or Western Military Department.
After this appointment, Albert immediately headed for his new territory. He was permitted to call on the governors of Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi for new troops, although this authority was largely stifled by politics, especially with respect to Mississippi.
On September 13, 1861, in view of the decision of the Kentucky legislature to side with the Union after the occupation of Columbus, Albert ordered Brig. Gen. Felix Zollicoffer with 4,000 men to occupy Cumberland Gap in Kentucky in order to block Union troops from coming into eastern Tennessee.
Albert’s initial call upon the governors for more men did not result in many immediate recruits but he had another, even bigger, problem since his force was seriously short of arms and ammunition even for the troops he already had.
As the Confederate government concentrated efforts on the units in the East, they gave Albert only small numbers of reinforcements and minimal amounts of arms and material. He could only keep up his defense by raids and other measures to make it appear he had larger forces than he did, a strategy that worked for several months.
In fact, Albert’s tactics had so annoyed and confused Union Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman that he became somewhat unnerved, overestimated Albert Johnston’s forces, and had to be relieved by Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell on November 9, 1861.
Battle of Mill Springs
Eastern Tennessee was held for the Confederacy by two unimpressive brigadier generals appointed by Jefferson Davis, Felix Zollicoffer, a brave but untrained and inexperienced officer, and soon to be Maj. Gen. George B. Crittenden, a former U.S. Army officer with apparent alcohol problems.
On January 19, 1862, brigadier general Felix Zollicoffer’s ill-prepared Confederates, after a night march in the rain, attacked the Union force with some initial success. As the battle progressed, Zollicoffer was killed, Crittenden was unable to lead the Confederate force since he was probably intoxicated and the Confederates were turned back and routed by a Union bayonet charge, suffering 533 casualties from their force of 4,000.
After this Confederate defeat at the Battle of Mill Springs, Davis sent Albert Johnston a brigade and a few other scattered reinforcements, as well as Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who was supposed to attract recruits because of his victories early in the war and give Albert a competent 2nd in command.
Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Nashville
Even before Albert arrived in Tennessee, construction of two forts had been started to defend the Tennessee River and the Cumberland River which provided avenues into the State from the north. Both Fort Henry and Fort Donelson had been sited in Tennessee, however, in order to respect Kentucky’s neutrality and were not in ideal locations.
Fort Henry on the Tennessee River was in an especially unfavorable low–lying location commanded by hills on the Kentucky side of the river.
Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, although in a better location, also was not well–sited, had a vulnerable land side and did not have enough heavy artillery for its defense against gunboats.
Maj. Gen. Polk ignored the problems of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson when he took command and, after Albert Johnston took command, Polk at first refused to comply with Albert’s order to send an engineer, Lt. Joseph K. Dixon, to inspect the forts.
Albert wanted Major Alexander P. Stewart to command the forts but President Davis appointed Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman as commander instead. Then, in order to prevent Polk from dissipating his forces by implementing his proposal to allow some men to join a partisan group, Albert ordered Tilghman to send Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow and 5,000 men to Fort Donelson.
Pillow took up a position at nearby Clarksville, Tennessee and did not move into the fort itself until February 7, 1862.
Alerted by a Union reconnaissance on January 14, 1862, Albert ordered Tilghman to fortify the high ground opposite Fort Henry, which Polk had failed to do despite Albert’s orders. Tilghman also failed to act decisively on these orders, which in any event were now too late to be adequately carried out.
Gen. Beauregard arrived at Albert’s headquarters at Bowling Green on February 4, 1862 and was given overall command of Polk’s force at the western end of Albert’s line at Columbus, Kentucky.
On February 6, 1862, Union Navy gunboats quickly reduced the defenses of Fort Henry, inflicting 21 casualties on the small remaining Confederate force.
Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman surrendered the 94 remaining officers and men of his approximately 3,000-man force which had not been sent to Fort Donelson before U.S. Grant’s force could even take up their positions.
Albert now knew he could be trapped at Bowling Green if Fort Donelson fell, so he moved his force to Nashville, the capital of Tennessee and an increasingly important Confederate industrial center, beginning on February 11, 1862.
Albert also reinforced Fort Donelson with 12,000 more men, including those under Floyd and Pillow, a curious decision in view of his thought that the Union gunboats alone might be able to take the fort. He did order, however, the commanders of the fort to evacuate the troops if the fort could not be held.
The senior generals sent to the fort to command the enlarged garrison, Gideon J. Pillow and John B. Floyd, squandered their chance to avoid having to surrender most of the garrison and on February 16, 1862, Brig. Gen. Simon Buckner, having been abandoned by Floyd and Pillow, surrendered Fort Donelson.
Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest escaped with his cavalry force of about 700 men before the surrender. The Confederates suffered about 1,500 casualties with an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 taken prisoner. Union casualties were 500 killed, 2,108 wounded, and 224 missing.
Albert now, even though he had little choice in allowing Floyd and Pillow to take charge at Fort Donelson on the basis of seniority after he ordered them to add their forces to the garrison, took the blame and suffered calls for his removal because a full explanation to the press and public would have exposed the weakness of the Confederate position.
Albert’s passive defensive performance while positioning himself in a forward position at Bowling Green, spreading his forces too thinly, not concentrating his forces in the face of Union advances, and appointing or relying upon inadequate or incompetent subordinates subjected him to criticism at the time and by later historians.
The fall of the forts exposed Nashville to imminent attack, and it fell without resistance to Union forces under Brig. Gen. Buell on February 25, 1862, two days after Albert had to pull his forces out in order to avoid having them captured as well.
Albert decided to now concentrate forces with those formerly under Polk and now already under Beauregard’s command at the strategically located railroad crossroads of Corinth, Mississippi. Albert’s army of 17,000 men now gave the Confederates a combined force of about 40,000 to 44,669 men at Corinth.
On March 29, 1862, Albert officially took command of this combined force, which continued to use the Army of the Mississippi name under which it had been organized by Beauregard on March 5.
Albert started his army in motion on April 3, 1862, intent on surprising Grant’s force as soon as the next day, but they moved slowly due to their inexperience, bad roads and lack of adequate staff planning.
Johnston’s army was finally in position within a mile or two of Grant’s force, and undetected, by the evening of April 5, 1862.
Battle of Shiloh
Albert launched a massive surprise attack with his concentrated forces against Grant at the Battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862.
As Albert’s Confederate forces overran Grant’s Union camps, Albert seemed to be everywhere, personally leading and rallying troops up and down the line on his horse. At about 2:30 p.m., while leading one of those charges against a Union camp near the “Peach Orchard”, he was wounded, taking a bullet behind his right knee. Albert apparently did not think the wound was serious at the time, and so he sent his personal physician to attend to some wounded captured Union soldiers instead.
It is possible that Albert’s duel in 1837 had caused nerve damage or numbness to his right leg and that he did not feel the wound to his leg as a result. The bullet had in fact clipped a part of his popliteal artery and his boot was filling up with blood.
Within a few minutes, Albert was observed by his staff to be nearly fainting off his horse.
Among his staff was Isham G. Harris, the Governor of Tennessee, who had ceased to make any real effort to function as governor after learning that Abraham Lincoln had appointed Andrew Johnson as military governor of Tennessee.
Seeing Albert slumping in his saddle and his face turning deathly pale, Harris asked: “General, are you wounded?” Albert glanced down at his leg wound, then faced Harris and replied with his last words:
“Yes, and I fear seriously.”
Harris and other staff officers removed Albert from his horse and carried him to a small ravine near the “Hornets Nest” and desperately tried to aid the general by trying to make a tourniquet for his leg wound, but little could be done by this point since he had already lost so much blood.
Albert soon lost consciousness and bled to death a few minutes later.
Harris and the other officers wrapped General Johnston’s body in a blanket so as not to damage the troops’ morale with the sight of the dead general. Albert Johnston and his wounded horse, named Fire Eater, were taken to his field headquarters on the Corinth road, where his body remained in his tent until the Confederate Army withdrew to Corinth the next day. From there, Albert’s body was taken to the home of Colonel William Inge, which had been his headquarters in Corinth. It was covered in the Confederate flag and laid in state for several hours.
It is probable that a Confederate soldier fired the fatal round. No Union soldiers were observed to have ever gotten behind Johnston during the fatal charge, while it is known that many Confederates were firing at the Union lines while Albert charged well in advance of his soldiers.
Albert Johnston became the highest-ranking casualty of the Civil War on either side, and his death was a strong blow to the morale of the Confederacy.
Jefferson Davis considered Albert the best general in the country; this was two months before the emergence of Robert E. Lee as the pre-eminent general of the Confederacy.
Albert Johnston was initially buried in New Orleans. In 1866, a joint resolution of the Texas Legislature was passed to have his body re-interred to the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
Forty years later, the state appointed Elisabet Ney to design a monument and sculpture of Albert to be erected at his gravesite.
The Texas Historical Commission also erected a historical marker near the entrance of what was once Albert’s plantation.
An adjacent marker was erected by the San Jacinto Chapter of the Daughters of The Republic of Texas and the Lee, Roberts, and Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederate States of America.
The University of Texas at Austin has also recognized Albert Johnston with a statue on the South Mall.
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