Question of the Week: June 8, 2014
At Shiloh, Albert Sidney Johnston put himself in harm’s way trying to redeem a reputation bruised by the fall of forts Henry and Donelson two month’s earlier. Because he put himself in a position no general of his rank should have been in, he was mortally wounded and died on the field. (As the story famously goes, he bled to death with a tourniquet in his pocket.)
He had not been on the field at Henry and Donelson. However, when the forts fell in February, Johnston took the blame as Confederate commander of the Western theater and, therefore, the man responsible for the strategy and security of the region.
But where the losses of Henry and Donelson really Johnston’s fault? Did he really have to put himself in harms way at Shiloh in order to prove something?
4 Responses to Question of the Week: June 8, 2014
This question gave me something to consider as I was traveling today…so thanks for the “food for thought.” I haven’t done a lot of reading about Fts. Henry and Donelson, so I’m not sure whether those were Johnston’s fault. I focused my thinking on the last question: did he have to be in harm’s way to prove something?
Johnston – no matter how innocent he may have been – was “guilt by association” of the failure at the forts. The pressure was on him; there had been a loss when the Confederacy desperately needed another victory. Johnston’s Southern mentality, which was ingrained with ideals of pride and honor, probably compounded the need for success. I think the desire (or necessity) for victory to clear any blame attached to his name is a likely reason why he put himself in un-necessary danger.
Just some thoughts…
The person who decided where to construct Fort Henry neglected to check a flood plain map. The fort surrendered with eight of its seventeen pieces of artillery under water. The loss of Fort Donelson was probably inevitable, but the loss of the garrison was not. A Confederate assault against the Union forces forming an imperfect siege opened the way for 12,000 Rebels to escape, but indecisiveness of the Confederate commanders allowed the Northern troops to plug the escape route. Those 12,000 troops could have made the difference at Shiloh, a month and a half later. Generals John Floyd and Gideon Pillow snuck out of the Fort before surrender because they felt they would be held accountable for their traitorous actions before secession. Floyd, for example, as Buchanan’s Secretary of War transferred arms from northern to southern armories in 1860 to make sure they would be available for Confederate forces after secession. Johnston simply made the same mistake that Stonewall Jackson, John Reynolds and other senior commanders made by being too far to the front during battle to not only get killed, but to be unavailable to direct their entire commands rather than the few soldiers that they encountered in the maelstrom of the battle.
I was talking with a friend about the most “deadly” shot in the Civil War, and this particular one came up pretty quickly. How would Johnston’s not dying have affected the death totals? Another shot that came up for discussion was shooting the other Johnston, putting Lee in charge of Confederate forces in Virginia.
I have to say, however, I am not sure Stonewall’s death could be chalked up to being too far in front during a battle.
A. S. Johnston does carry much of the responsibility for the loss of the two river forts and, with those defeats, the loss of a confederate military frontier along the lower Ohio River and the Kentucky-Tennessee border. He had the responsibility for entire theater but focused on one overland avenue of invasion, leaving all three river avenues for Leonides Polk to fortify and defend. With the loss of Fort Henry, he sends a trio of brigadiers to Fort Donelson to cooperate in a defense, while focusing on the evacuation of his ‘Kentucky’ Army to the south side of the Cumberland.
These decisions were two very serious abdications of his Departmental responsibilities.
He acted more the Departmental commander when concentrating the Confederates at Corinth and insisting (in the face of the united opposition of his subordinate commanders) on the march upon Pittsburg Landing to strike Grant’s Army before it could be joined by the Federal forces marching overland from Nashville.
Yet, he accepted a battle plan that made it impossible for him to exercise effective authority on the battlefield, depriving himself of any reserve to commit at the critical place and time to reinforce success and win a victory. He was reduced to the role of a battleline ‘cheerleader,’ or at best to the role of a brigade commander, encouraging soldiers along, rushing chance-met formations toward the fight, or even leading assault lines into the beaten zone.
His experience in the pre-war years had not given him any chance to develop as more that a rudimentary-level leader of an Army or even an Army level staff officer, and he lacked the imagination of a Grant or Lee to develop into such in the wars first year.
Davis may not have had a better choice for the west, but A. S. Johston was not a good choice to lead in the West.