Bushrod Rust Johnson was born in Belmont County, Ohio on October 7, 1817. Johnson and his family were Quakers and abolitionists who actively took part in the Underground Railroad.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Despite his family’s pacifist beliefs, Johnson secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy, where he was a classmate of future Union generals William T. Sherman and George Thomas. Johnson graduated from the academy in 1840, twenty-third in his class of forty-two cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, the army commissioned Johnson as a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Infantry and sent him to Florida, where he took part in the Second Seminole War (1835 to 1842). Later, he also served in Kansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Missouri. In 1844, army officials promoted Johnson to first lieutenant.
Like many future Civil War officers, Johnson gained valuable combat experience in the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848). He served under General Zachary Taylor at the Battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterrey. He also served under General Winfield Scott as acting assistant commissary during the Veracruz campaign.
While serving as a commissary officer, Johnson hatched a scheme to sell government property for his personal gain. When officials discovered his plan, Johnson resigned from the army in 1847.
With his army career ruined, Johnson received a teaching position at the Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1851. He eventually became the headmaster and part-owner of the school.
In 1852, Johnson married Mary Hatch. One year later, the couple had a mentally and physically challenged son named Charles, who remained an invalid throughout his life. That same year, WMI closed because an epidemic claimed the lives of two students. In 1854, Johnson moved to Nashville and merged WMI with the University of Nashville. Bad luck followed him, however, as his wife died in 1858.
When the Civil War began, Johnson received a commission as a colonel in the Provisional Army of Tennessee on June 28, 1861. One week later, officials commissioned him as an engineer in the Confederate Army.
Confederate leaders assigned Johnson to northern Tennessee, where he was instrumental in the construction of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. On January 24, 1862, Johnson received a promotion to brigadier general. Two weeks later, on February 7, officials placed him in charge of Fort Donelson until Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow took command two days later. During the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862), Johnson led a successful assault on the Union right flank. When the fort fell to federal forces, Union soldiers captured Johnson, but he escaped.
Injured at the Battle of Shiloh
A few weeks after his escape, officials placed Johnson in command of a brigade in the Army of Mississippi, comprising the 17th, 23rd, 25th, 37th, and 44th Tennessee Infantry Regiments, and the Jefferson Artillery from Mississippi. While leading his brigade during the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), the concussion caused by an artillery shell severely wounded Johnson.
Army of Tennessee Service
After Johnson recovered from his injury, officials assigned him to the Army of Tennessee, serving under General Braxton Bragg. He led his brigade at the Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862) and the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863). Johnson also took part in the Tullahoma Campaign (June 24-July 3, 1863), during which Union Major General William S. Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland drove Bragg’s army out of middle Tennessee.
Battle of Chickamauga
Johnson achieved his greatest military success at the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19-20, 1863). Six days prior to the battle, officials placed Johnson in command of a provisional division in the Left Wing of the Army of Tennessee. On the second day of fighting, Johnson’s division spearheaded a Rebel assault that smashed through the Union right just as it was withdrawing. The panic-stricken Yankees fled in disorder, creating a quarter-mile-wide gap in the federal lines. Johnson’s men took hundreds of prisoners and captured nineteen guns and a federal store train.
After the Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Confederate officials disbanded Johnson’s provisional division. They returned Johnson to the command of his Tennessee brigade. During the autumn of 1863, Johnson led his brigade during General James Longstreet’s unsuccessful Knoxville Campaign.
Bermuda Hundred Campaign
When Longstreet returned to the Eastern Theater in the spring of 1864, Johnson accompanied him. Placed in command of a division of the Army of Northern Virginia, Johnson served under General P. G. T. Beauregard during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign (May 1864). Cited for his performance at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff (May 15, 1864), Confederate officials promoted Johnson to major general, effective May 21.
Battle of the Crater
As the Army of the Potomac closed in on the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864, Johnson’s division served in the trenches surrounding Petersburg, Virginia. On July 30, 1864, federal troops detonated an underground mine beneath Johnson’s section of the Rebel defenses. The explosion created a huge crater and a temporary hole in the Confederate line. Following some immediate confusion, Johnson’s men quickly recovered, killing and capturing hundreds of northern soldiers while filling the gap in the Rebel lines. Although the federal scheme failed, Johnson’s lackadaisical leadership during the Battle of the Crater earned him the disapproval of General Robert E. Lee.
Relieved of Command
When the Confederate defenses around Petersburg and Richmond began to crumble in 1865, Johnson led his division during the Rebel defeats at the Battle of White Oak Road (March 31, 1865) and the Battle of Five Forks (April 1, 1865). Five days later, federal forces mauled the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek (April 6, 1865), prompting General Robert E. Lee to exclaim, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” The Rebel army suffered over 7,500 casualties, including the capture of nine generals. Johnson and several other Confederate generals who took part in the battle managed to save themselves. Displeased with Johnson’s performance during the action, Lee relieved Johnson of his command on April 8, one day before Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Following the war, Johnson returned to Nashville and resumed his career in education. He and fellow Confederate General Kirby Smith secured a contract to operate Montgomery Bell Academy and the collegiate department of the University of Nashville. He became co-chancellor of the University of Nashville in 1870. Johnson’s failing health, coupled with the university’s financial problems, prompted him to retire to an Illinois farm in 1875. For the next five years, Johnson continued to care for his son.
Johnson died on September 12, 1880, and he was buried at Miles Station Cemetery in Macoupin County, Illinois. In 1975, his remains were re-interred beside the grave of his wife at the Old Nashville City Cemetery in Tennessee.