Albert Sidney Johnston’s Death and Legacy

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One of the highlights of Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans is the Army of Tennessee Tumulus, the last resting place for a number of veterans of the western armies. The most famous man interned inside is General P. G. T. Beauregard. However, the statue that sits atop it though is not Beauregard, but that of General Albert Sidney Johnston, the highest-ranking field commander in the Confederacy. Beauregard and Johnston had an unusual relationship. In 1867 Beauregard was a pallbearer when Johnston’s body was removed from its New Orleans resting place for reburial in Austin, Texas. Yet, in writing about Johnston’s cemetery statue, Beauregard confessed that it was “a monument to the wrong man.”[1]

Others besides Beauregard have wondered about Johnston’s place in role in the American Civil War. It is both controversial and enigmatic, particularly in the fierce debates over the battle of Shiloh. 

Army of Tennessee Tumulus at New Orleans’ Metairie Cemetery

After Fort Donelson fell, Johnston oversaw the Confederate withdrawal from Kentucky and the poorly organized evacuation of Nashville. His movement towards Corinth, Mississippi, was slow. Meanwhile, Beauregard orchestrated the concentration of Confederate forces at Corinth. When Johnston arrived, he deferred to Beauregard’s judgment, even offering him command of the Army of the Mississippi. Beauregard turned him down, but it was his staff that created the plan of march and attack for Shiloh.

Shiloh was Beauregard’s battle until weather and poor staff slowed the advance. Beauregard wanted to attack on April 4, yet on April 5 the army was still not ready. That same day, Beauregard wanted to retreat because he felt they had lost the surprise. Johnston, who up until then had been fairly passive, declared to Beauregard and the army’s high command that he “would fight them if they were a million.” He later exclaimed “I intend to hammer ‘em!”[1] Shiloh was now in spirit, if not in plan, Johnston’s battle. In many ways, it was his awakening as a field general, for undeniably Johnston was a master of the dramatic gesture. His written proclamation to the army that night was well received, with James R. Binford of the 15th Mississippi declaring it the “best written and most thrilling address I have ever seen.”[2] The 15th Mississippi cheered after hearing the address.

On the morning of April 6, Beauregard again tried to convince Johnston to retreat, but the opening shots of the battle silenced Beauregard. Johnston now decided to split the army’s command with Beauregard. Johnston rode to the front while Beauregard would direct troops to the fighting.

Johnston was unarguably in his element. He directed the fighting against Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss’ division on the Confederate right. During the opening attack on Col. Everett Peabody’s brigade, Johnston rallied troops that fled the field. At Shiloh, his battlefield charisma was unsurpassed. When he caught one man plundering a tent, he reprimanded him, only to then grab a tin cup and declare it is share of the day’s spoils. In gallant fashion he ordered his surgeon, D. W. Yandell, to attend to the wounded of the 18th Wisconsin, declaring “These men were our enemies a moment ago; they are our prisoners now. Take care of them.”[3] Yandell did as ordered.

At around 9:00 a.m., Johnston was unsure where to commit Brig. Gen. John Breckinridge’s three brigades, and he sent confusing messages to Beauregard. At around 10:00 a.m., Johnston told Col. Jacob Thompson of Beauregard’s staff to inform Beauregard could direct troops into the battle as he saw fit. Johnston had abdicated overall direction of the battle. Indeed, Johnston wanted to crush the Union left flank, but much of the army was fed into attacking the right flank instead. In terms of battle planning and management, Johnston and Beauregard were at cross purposes. The attacks also meant that a gap opened between both wings of the army. In addition, most of the army had been committed in the initial attacks. The rest of the Union army was now coming up, including veterans of Fort Donelson. By contrast, nearly every regiment in the Army of the Mississippi was only now getting their first taste of battle.

In the early afternoon, the Confederate attacks stalled, and Johnston again sprang into action. At 1:30 p.m., Johnston prepared a force to crush the Union’s left flank. While Johnston and his staff assembled the infantry, Breckinridge confessed his men would not attack. Johnston rode up and said, “Men of Missouri and Arkansas, the enemy is stubborn. I want you to show General Beauregard and General Bragg what you can do with your bayonets and tooth picks [bowie knives].”[4] Johnston even clanked his tin cup along their bayonets, shouting, “These must do the work.”[5] It was stirring stuff, and Johnston was in his element as a romantic front-line officer.

Johnston attack led the attack with the words “I will lead you!”[6] Such was the enthusiasm that Breckinridge joined in, as did Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris, who led the 45th Tennessee into battle. The attack crushed the left flank.

Johnston continued to play the part of a brave general, and even when wounded—likely by his own men—he told Captain Lee Wickham, “We will go where the firing is heaviest.”[7] The wound, though, was mortal. His leg had been nicked, and he was bleeding profusely. Brought down from his horse, he died at 2:30 p.m., surrounded by his staff. Yandell would have likely saved him. Johnston’s gallantry, which animated his troops, was also the cause of his death. His staff wept before moving his body to the rear.

Johnston’s death caused little delay in the fighting. Beauregard had a good grasp of the battle, which had been waged without Johnston’s overall direction since at least 10:00 a.m. Yet, it is telling the news of Johnston’s death was kept hidden. He had already proven himself as a model of the gallant general, and news of his death—when it finally leaked out—was greeted with sorrow.

After the battle was lost, some averred that Beauregard failed to follow up Johnston’s victory. Few contemporary scholars support this assertion. Yet, the myth of the “Lost Opportunity” is based in a core of truth. On April 6, Johnston proved he was good at tactical management and inspirational leadership. Although unlikely, Johnston may have found the means to break Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s final line. Although studded with artillery, Grant’s men were suffering from low morale and were tired and disorganized. Few things are certain in war, and Shiloh itself had opened with the unlikely prospect of an entire Rebel army camping within a mile of the enemy and not being detected, so perhaps a Confederate victory could have been possible under Johnston’s leadership. Johnston’s primary modern biographer, Charles P. Roland, has certainly argued so.

Regardless, Johnston’s death was not a turning point at Shiloh. Arguably, Shiloh was lost before the opening rounds of musket fire. The best day to attack was April 4 or even April 5. On the night of April 6, however, more than 15,000 fresh Union troops arrived, mostly from Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. With these men, Grant was able to counterattack on April 7. Whether or not the battle was won or lost without Buell is debatable. At Corinth and Stones River, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans won defensive victories without major reinforcements. Grant had the luxury of fresh troops, and could therefore an unambiguous victory. While Johnston was bleeding to death, so were his last narrow chances to win Shiloh.

If Johnston had lived after the loss at Shiloh, he may have resigned or asked for reassignment. Morale had been low before the battle. Although Johnston showed some gift for working with subordinates, many of his generals questioned his ability. Beauregard both then and later derided him for being sloppy and unperceptive. Major General William J. Hardee was critical in his letters. Colonel St. John Richardson Liddell thought that without a victory Johnston would appear as a “hopeless [i]mbecile.”[8] Given his rank and Jefferson Davis’ friendship, Johnston was unlikely to be out of command, but his reputation and confidence would be forever impaired. Given his gallant nature, he may have even asked for a demotion just for the chance to lead troops in the field. If that happened, it might have been for the best. Johnston would have unquestionably made a great division commander.

Rating Johnston’s generalship is a bit like rating James Garfield’s presidency. Both were in command just long enough to deserve comment (unlike Francis S. Bartow and William Henry Harrison), but too short to draw hard conclusions. Johnston showed a mastery of tactics, including a proclivity for flank attacks, unlike the frontal assaults favored by Gen. Braxton Bragg and Grant. In terms of inspiring troops, he had no equal in either army. However, he showed no aptitude for strategy, planning, and logistics before Shiloh. When not confronted with the enemy, he was vacillating. Although beloved by many officers, others felt he lacked the brains for high command.

That said, as Charles Roland has pointed out, Johnston was still learning. Grant and Lee both lost their first battles. William Tecumseh Sherman did poorly at Bull Run, George Thomas was uninspired at Perryville, and James Longstreet was hardly better at Seven Pines. “Stonewall” Jackson’s first outings in independent command were failures. All six of them proved to good generals despite some uneven early showings. The generals of the Civil War were learning on the job and Johnston was no different.

The legacy of Johnston is hard to pinpoint, but in one regard, his death signaled the fall of Beauregard, who had quarreled with Davis and was in a precarious position. The mix of defeat and Johnston’s death likely forever poisoned relations between Beauregard and Davis. It was unfortunate. At Bull Run, Beauregard’s best talent was battlefield heroics. Despite some missteps before Shiloh, he showed he was becoming a good field general.

Davis, looking for a chance to replace Beauregard, was given his chance when Beauregard foolishly took medical leave without permission in June 1862. Beauregard went on to prove to be one of the few consistent winners in the Confederacy, with success at Charleston, Drewry’s Bluff, Ware Bottom Church, and most impressively at Petersburg. Yet, he was constantly passed up for command of the Army of Tennessee.

It was Johnston who got the postbellum glory. He fit perfectly into the milieu of a dead hero, and became a part of the Lost Cause pantheon. The legend began in New Orleans, where he was first buried. Even after his body was moved, locals decorated his former tomb. Davis continued the legend with his fawning praise of Johnston in both print and speeches.

Beauregard was not so lucky. In 1914, the eloquent Gamaliel Bradford, Jr., observed that Beauregard “lived in an atmosphere of dreams unrealized, of marvelous things that General Beauregard would have done, if only the thoughtless world would have stood by admiring and watched him do them.” Bradford preferred “the last heroic sacrifice of Sidney Johnston” to Beauregard’s dreams of victory.[9] Many still do.


[For more on the impact of Albert Sidney Johnston’s death, read Greg Mertz’s essay “Defeated Victory: Albert Sidney Johnston’s Death at Shiloh” in Turning Points of the American Civil Warpart of the “Engaging the Civil War” Series.]

[1] Daniel, 128.

[2] Smith, 73.

[3] Smith, 139.

[4] Daniel, 217.

[5] Smith, 188.

[6] Smith, 188.

[7] Daniel, 226.

[8] Daniel, 44.

[9] Bradford, 120.

[1] Williams, 318

Daniel, Larry J. Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Smith, Timothy B. Shiloh: Conquer or Perish. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2014.

Williams, T. Harry. P. G. T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955.

8 Responses to Albert Sidney Johnston’s Death and Legacy

  1. I have heard before that Albert Sidney Johnston was shot by his own men but I have never read anything definitive concerning the incident. I’m assuming after reading this article that we are positive now he was shot accidentally by his own men?

    1. The up coming “Turning Points of the American Civil War” based on his getting shot by a rifled bullet. The only men with rifles at that area were Confederates.

  2. “Grant and Lee both lost their first battles.” What? Belmont? Not much of a win or a loss, but usually considered a win for Grant.

    1. The idea that Belmont was a “win” has long struck me as ludicrous. Grant was driven from the field and his men fell back in disarray. Later rewrites and lies turned it into a victory.

      The Rebels considered it a win, even calling it “the Bull Run of the West.” It was hyperbole, but they had no doubts about who won while Grant had to make extensive justifications.

  3. I believe that ASJ could have become the “western” Robert E. Lee – not because he was a military genius, he wasn’t – but because he might have had the personality to actually inspire the men and officers of the Army of Tennessee. Bragg was a failure there, and while Joseph E. Johnston was liked by many of the rank and file, he was not capable of harmonious relations with either the govt or his corps commanders. ASJ might well have been the difference.

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