Ohio-born Confederate General Bushrod Johnson was not a man to know much luck. He had been forced to resign from the Old Army during the Mexican War to avoid scandal; he went on to teach at the Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky, eventually rising to become its Superintendent only to have it shut down soon after; after marrying, his son was born with severe heath issues and was mentally challenged. Johnson persevered and reopened the WMI near Nashville—only to have tragedy hit again in 1858, when his wife, Mary, died, leaving him alone to take care of their son, Charles. Johnson had to hire a nanny to take care of Charles as he continued to administer WMI until the outbreak of war in 1861. With most of his students flocking to the colors of their rebelling state, Johnson threw his lot with them.
Johnson would prove to be a brave though not brilliant commander, gaining command of a brigade of men from his adopted state, going through the battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, and the Tullahoma Campaign. On the eve of the battle of Chickamauga, fortune seemed to smile on him, and he was given temporary command of a division. In the ensuing battle, he led it through all three days. He was on the receiving end of the first shot of the fight and then, on the final day, he was positioned in the front line of Longstreet’s fabled breakthrough, which he described as “a scene of unsurpassed grandeur….” It was possibly the happiest moment of his life.
After Chickamauga, Johnson and his command would be carried away to Virginia with Longstreet’s Corps. Finding himself again a stranger in a strange land, he found it hard to adjust to the new army he found himself in. Though he was promoted to major general and permanent command of a division, it now seemed luck shunned him again. On July 30, 1864 he found himself in command of the section of the line just south of the Crater and, in view of General Lee, showed hesitation and indecision in the fight, thus giving all the laurels to General William Mahone and putting himself in a bad light with Lee.
From then on he seemed unable to do anything right, finally culminating in the disaster along the muddy banks of Sailor’s Creek on April 6, 1865. Johnson’s command was crushed in the fighting, and as his men fled from the field, he joined them.
Johnson wasn’t alone in his flight, though. Fellow division commander George Pickett and their corps commander, Richard Anderson, also made their escapes—though many of their men did not (three of Johnson’s four brigade commanders were captured).
In the aftermath of the fight, Johnson naively sought out Lee, who was observing the wake of the disaster. Lee did not look at him, but “all he did was move his right hand to the rear in a gesture of biting reproach” and said to him, “General, take those stragglers to the rear, out of the way of Mahone’s troops, I wish to fight here.” Johnson sullenly did as he was told.
Then approaching Lee again, Johnson told the commander that he thought his whole division was destroyed. Almost as he finished, General Henry Wise rode up; Wise commanded the only brigade of Johnson’s Division to escape the debacle, having led them out of the jaws of the Union encirclement. Wise, smoke besmirched, saluted Lee and asked for food for his men. Lee directed him to nearby wagons as Johnson looked on, then told Wise to take command of what was left of Johnson’s Division.
Johnson now found himself truly alone as the army disintegrated around him. With no other options, he continued to follow his men.
Johnson faced one last humiliation, though. On April 8, facing the end of his army, Lee took the time to dismiss three officers from service: Richard Anderson, George Pickett, and Bushrod Johnson.
Johnson received his parole at Appomattox Courthouse on April 10 and wrote his report for his final campaign, and then it was done. The luckless Johnson headed back to Tennessee with the shadow of being relieved by Lee at the eleventh hour of the Confederacy.