Albert Sidney Johnston, a Confederate commander of the Western Department, became the highest ranking officer on either the Confederate or Union side to die in combat, when he was killed at the Battle of Shiloh, during the American Civil War.
Albert Sidney Johnston was born in Washington, Kentucky on February 2, 1803. He was the youngest son of Dr. John Johnston and Abigail Harris Johnston. Johnston received private schooling as a youth before entering Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. While enrolled there, he may have become acquainted with future United States Secretary of War and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
United States Military Academy
In 1832, Johnston received an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Two years later, Davis also received an appointment to West Point and the two men developed a friendship that benefited Johnston throughout his career. Johnston graduated from the academy in 1826, ranked eighth in his class of forty-one cadets. Upon graduation, he received the rank of brevet second lieutenant and served in the 2nd U.S. Infantry.
During his early military career, the army stationed Johnston at Sackett’s Harbor, New York and at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. While in Missouri, Johnston met Henrietta Preston, the sister of future Civil War General William Preston, The couple married on January 20, 1829. The marriage produced two daughters and a son, William Preston Johnston, who later served in the Confederate Army.
Black Hawk War
Johnston served as chief of staff to Brevet Brigadier General Henry Atkinson during the Black Hawk War in Illinois in 1832. Two years later, Johnston’s wife contracted tuberculosis, cutting his military career. Johnston resigned his commission on April 22, 1834, to care for his wife, and he took up farming in Missouri. After his wife died a little over one year later, Johnston moved to Texas.
Texas Revolution and Duel Injury
In 1836, Johnston enlisted as a private in the Texas Army and took up arms against Mexico during the Texas War for Independence. On August 5, 1836, after the war had ended, Commander-in-chief Thomas Jefferson Rusk appointed Johnston as adjutant general of the Army of the Republic of Texas. Six months later, on January 31, 1837, Johnston replaced Felix Huston as the senior brigadier-general in command of the army. A disgruntled Huston challenged Johnston to a duel. Johnston accepted and received a severe gunshot wound to the pelvis during the encounter. The wound injured Johnston’s sciatic nerve, causing him to lose some feeling in his right leg for the rest of his life. On December 22, 1838, Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar appointed Johnston Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas. One year later, Johnston conducted the last campaign against the Cherokee Indians in northeast Texas.
In 1840, Johnston returned to Kentucky. On October 3, 1843, he married Eliza Griffin, a cousin of his first wife, and the couple returned to Texas, where they purchased China Grove, a plantation in Brazoria County. Johnston’s second marriage produced six more children.
Mexican-American War and Service in the American West
During the Mexican–American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848), Johnston served under General Zachary Taylor as a colonel with the First Texas Rifle Volunteers, and he fought at the Battle of Monterrey (September 21–24, 1846) and the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22–23, 1847). On December 2, 1849, Johnston returned to the U.S. Army as a major and as a paymaster, serving in the American West. He commanded the Department of Texas from 1856 to 1858. In 1857 and 1858, Johnston participated in the Utah War, an armed confrontation between Mormon settlers in the Utah Territory and the United States Army. When that event concluded, he commanded the Department of Utah from 1858 to 1860. On December 21, 1860, Johnston took command of the Department of the Pacific in San Francisco, California.
Johnston’s adopted home state of Texas seceded from the Union on February 1, 1861. Two months later, on April 9, 1861, Johnston resigned his commission from the United States Army. The War Department accepted his resignation on May 6, effective May 3. During that same month, Johnston joined the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles as a private and began a long and arduous overland trip back east. Upon reaching the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia in September, the Confederate Congress approved President Jefferson Davis’s nomination of Johnston as a full general, effective May 30, 1861, making him the second-highest-ranking officer in the Confederate Army. Davis then appointed Johnston as commander of the Western Department, comprising the entire Confederacy west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Commanding the West
Upon assuming his command, Johnston went to work organizing the Confederate forces in the West. His most pressing challenge was trying to defend a three-hundred-mile front stretching from the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachians to the Mississippi River.
On October 28, 1861, Johnston assumed command of the Army of Central Kentucky. Outnumbered by Northern foes roughly two-to-one, he consolidated his forces at Bowling Green, Kentucky, the heart of his defensive line. During the winter, however, his position became untenable when Fort Henry and Fort Donelson fell into Union hands. Johnston evacuated Bowling Green on February 13, 1862, and fell back to Murfreesboro, near Nashville, Tennessee. Pressed by Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, Johnston evacuated central Tennessee and retreated farther south to Corinth, Mississippi, where he joined forces with General P. G. T. Beauregard’s Army of Mississippi. Johnston’s withdrawal from Tennessee enabled Buell to occupy Nashville on February 25, making it the first Confederate state capital to fall during the Civil War.
Battle of Shiloh
Believing that Johnston should have stood his ground, Tennessee delegates to the Confederate Congress, along with the Southern press, called for Johnston’s removal. President Davis, however, stood by his man. Undoubtedly stung by the mounting criticism, Johnston determined to go on the offensive. He and Beauregard determined to strike Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of West Tennessee, encamped at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee before it merged with Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which was moving west. On the morning of April 6, 1862, Rebel troops started the Battle of Shiloh by launching a surprise attack on Grant’s soldiers who had failed to construct adequate defensive fortifications. In the ensuing confusion, many of the Yankees fled in panic. Others recovered, formed battle lines, and mounted some resistance. Gradually, the Rebels drove the Union soldiers back to a defensive position behind Shiloh Church.
As the Rebels pressed their advance, the Federals made a stand at a position since popularized as the “Hornet’s Nest,” prompting Johnston personally to lead a successful charge by the 45th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. During the melee, Johnston sustained a bullet wound to his right leg that went unnoticed. The bullet, however, nicked an artery and Johnston’s boot slowly filled with blood. A short time later, Tennessee Governor found Johnston slumped in his saddle. According to Harris:
I instantly put my left arm around him pulling him to me saying ‘General, are you wounded?’ He said ‘yes, and I fear seriously.’ Capt Wickham . . . and I lifted him from his horse, laid him upon the ground. I took his head in my lap. He never spoke after answering my question though continued to breathe for 25 or 30 minutes.
Although Harris and others tried desperately to save Johnston, he soon bled to death.
After Johnston expired, Harris had the general’s body wrapped and removed to his field headquarters. Beauregard assumed command of the Confederate forces. A Union counterattack the next day, April 7, forced Beauregard to withdraw to Corinth, Mississippi. Near there, Johnston’s body lay in state for several hours at the home of Colonel William Inge before being sent to New Orleans for burial. In 1867, Johnston’s body was re-interred at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
Johnston was the highest-ranking officer on either side to die in combat during the Civil War.
After the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote:
When Sidney Johnston fell, it was the turning point of our fate; for we had no other hand to take up his work in the West.