Eliza Griffin Johnston: To Bravely Meet Danger and Tragedy

Eliza Griffin Johnston (Find A Grave)

News traveled slowly, likely a frustrating fact for Eliza Griffin Johnston. However, one spring day in 1862 news arrived in California that changed her life. A battle thousands of miles away and weeks in the past had altered her plans, crushed her hopes, and taken the love of her life. She probably received the first news by private correspondence – maybe on black edged stationery. Before long, the news had been printed publicly on the pages of the Los Angeles Star. Under the heading “News From The South” in the May 24, 1862 edition, his name had been printed: Major General A. S. Johnston.

After details about the battle in a message from Jefferson Davis, these words appeared: “…it is but too true that Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston is no more. The tale of his death is simply narrated in a dispatch from Col. Wm. Preston, in the following words: ‘Gen. Johnston fell yesterday at 2 ½ o’clock, while leading a successful charge, turning the enemy’s right, and gaining a brilliant victory. A Minnie ball cut the artery of his leg, but he rode on until, from loss of blood, he fell exhausted, and died without pain in a few moments. His body has been intrusted to me by Gen. Beauregard, to be taken to New Orleans, and remain until instructions are received from his family.’” [i]

The successful charge and assurance of a painless death did little to ease the sorrow of Mrs. Johnston, a military wife and now war widow still living on the West Coast.

Eliza Griffin Johnston, born December 26, 1821, had survived adversity and hardship most of her life. Orphaned by age five, she lived with a grandmother and uncle during her youth. She probably knew or had heard of her cousin – Henrietta Preston – who married a young West Point graduate and officer, lived at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, and had three children before her death from consumption in 1835. She likely heard her elders discussing the new Republic of Texas and opportunities in the West, but such family news and discussions probably did not make much impression of the young teenager who had a string of devoted beaux by age eighteen.

Talented and pretty, Miss Griffin had an exciting life in Louisville, Kentucky. The arrival of a former U.S. officer, now turned Texan planter, may not have interested her at first. (He was eighteen years older than her.) However, Albert S. Johnson persisted in his courtship and several years later Eliza married him on October 3, 1843, and moved to China Grove Plantation in Texas. Six children joined the Johnston family over the next years: Albert Jr., Hancock, Mary (died), Margaret, Griffin, and Eliza Alberta.

Albert S. Johnston, late 1850’s photograph

Three years later in 1846, the Mexican-American War broke out. Eliza did not want her husband to fight, but the couple eventually reached a compromise: he could join General Zachary Taylor, but promised not to enlist after six months of volunteer service. Johnston’s war experiences were brief and impactful. He helped train volunteers into disciplined soldiers, gained a positive reputation for courage and leadership, and served with Jefferson Davis. In October 1846, he kept his promise to Eliza and returned home, despite the tempting offer of a command position.

The home – China Grove Plantation – created economic hardships for the family. However, the property was more like a wilderness farm than a traditional, iconic plantation. After seasons of growing corn and cotton, the finances were in shambles, and the Johnston Family lost the plantation and owed $8,000. Albert insisted on repaying the debt and held the respect of his neighbors who understood the hardships of farming in that part of Texas.

While Albert struggled with the money problems, Eliza chased after their little ones and managed the household. She “held down the homestead” for the long weeks when Albert was away, fulfilling his new army position and serving as paymaster for the Army Department of Texas with the rank of major.  However, the travel and constant absence from his family wearied Albert; in 1855, through the lobbying efforts of Jefferson Davis and Eliza, Albert transferred to command the 2nd U.S. Cavalry.

Though Eliza had initially disliked the idea of her husband in the military, she came to embrace the opportunities and stability that the military offered him, especially after the family’s financial difficulties. She made the journey from Missouri to Texas with the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, enduring a journey of 750 miles during the winter, in a wagon with her young children.

One of the watercolor flowers by Eliza Johnston

Eliza Johnston kept a detailed journal about her journey and other written records during her life. For the march to Texas, her writing provides valuable details about the military journey. She also enjoyed botany and in her spare time sketched and painted wildflowers in the Lone Star State. Her love of words and the arts brought culture to military outposts and left important sources for researchers.

When the 2nd Cavalry received orders to police Mormon violence in Utah, Eliza – at Albert Johnston’s insistence – took the family to live in Kentucky after he and others explained the increased dangers in that territory. News of Albert’s promotion to U.S. Brevet Brigadier General reached Eliza in 1858, and two years later, he returned to the family after being honorably relieved of command and given extended leave.

Then orders arrived for General Johnston to return to California as Commander of the Department of the Pacific. The army agreed that the family could travel to the new post. Eliza packed the trunks, and the family left New York City on December 21, 1860, traveled to the Isthmus of Panama, crossed, and sailed to San Francisco. Barely settled, news arrived of Texas’s secession, and General Johnston sent in his resignation while rumors swirled that he would hand over the Pacific Department to the Confederacy. His resignation was accepted on May 6, 1861, and Albert made preparations to leave.

Dr. John S. Griffin [date unknown]

The Johnston family moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and stayed with Dr. John S. Griffin – Eliza’s brother. Albert made his brother-in-law promise to look after Eliza and the children, then made his escape to the Confederacy with a small group of Southern sympathizers in June 1861 via the Butterfield Stage Trail.

In Los Angeles, Eliza waited, enduring her last pregnancy without the support of her husband. Outside the house, her newest hometown clamored with rumors and pro-Southern sympathies while Federal authorities scrambled to maintain presence and authority. Ultimately, the establishment of Camp Drum in 1862 kept Southern California in the Union and out of a true secession crisis.

Eliza’s baby – named Eliza Alberta – arrived on August 30, 1861. Happy family news and announcement of Confederate promotion crossed the continent. Albert Johnston received appointment to command the Confederate Military Department #2 on September 10, 1861 – defending a region that included Indian Territory, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Despite his duties and desperate scramble for troops, Albert wrote to Eliza in December 1861, saying: “You & the children occupy every thought not devoted to business… I was rejoiced to know that you & the dear little ones were all safe & well. I pray God that you have so continued since then.”[ii]

In his last known letter to the family in Los Angeles, General Johnston wrote: “The boys must go on in their studies and be encouraged to read history & other proper works of literature and as far as possible be prepared for the station they will be called on to fill when they are old enough to enter the arena of life… Kiss each boy & each girl. I shall love the youngest better if you give her your own name – May God bless you & them & preserve you free from all harm.”

Safe in California, far from the scenes of war, Eliza and the children waited, preserved from all harm, but about to be personally affected by the distant conflict. In April 1862, Johnston and his army moved from Corinth, Mississippi, and launched an attack near Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh), Tennessee. In the first day’s fighting, General Johnston led units forward and was wounded in the right leg. Thinking the wound was insignificant, he refused medical aid, then alarmed his staff officers when he fainted. They searched desperately for the wounded and spent valuable moments trying to revive him with liquor before realizing the wound in the leg had hit a major blood vessel. General Albert S. Johnston died on April 6, 1862, and was buried in New Orleans, but later reinterred in Austin, Texas.

Widowed, Eliza Johnston stayed in California. Her brother developed Rancho San Pasqual and much of East Los Angeles, and she had a home built on property purchased from him in what is modern-day Pasadena. By 1863, the finished house included nine rooms, and Mrs. Johnston called it “Fair Oaks.” She lived there only briefly, leaving the home in April 1863 after the death of her son, Albert S. Johnston, Jr. Tragically, the young man was among the twenty-six dead after the explosion of Phineas Banning’s steamship S.S. Ada Hancock in San Pedro Harbor.

Eliza Johnston, late in her life. [Find A Grave]

Eliza moved her family to San Francisco and away from the scenes of loss. She stayed in that city until about 1880 when she returned to Los Angeles. Toward the end of her life, Eliza donated some of her possessions to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, including the book of watercolor flowers she had created decades ago for her husband; a collection of nearly one hundred of her paintings was published in 1972 under the title Texas Wild Flowers.

She died in Los Angeles on September 25, 1896. Eliza is buried in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in her final hometown, still thousands of miles from her husband who is buried in Austin, Texas. Part of her obituary pays tribute to her religious faith and influence in California: “Mrs. Johnston was a member of the Episcopal faith, and for years was prominent in that faith. She was of a singularly lovable character, and had many friends, not only in Los Angeles, but throughout the state, who will sincerely mourn her death.”[iii]

On his journey to the Confederacy, Albert S. Johnston had penned a letter to his wife, including these words: “We should not borrow trouble by apprehension of danger in the future, but nerve ourselves to meet them bravely should they come – I am happy that…I can discharge my duty in whatever position fortune may assign me, with equanimity & cheerfulness with the hope that there is much good in store for us… Can I better testify my love for you & my children than by this journey? Love & hope cheer me on to discharge a great duty which may in the end benefit you.”[iv]

Later, Eliza Griffin Johnston may have read those words and questioned them. His pursuit of duty had led to his death on the battlefield at Shiloh. However, as difficult as it was at the time, California was one of the safest places of Eliza and the children. Left behind, she survived the four year war in a place far different than Missouri, Kentucky, or Texas. A place that remained unscarred by actual battle and a place that offered security and the opportunity to raise her children, far from the scenes of war and reconstruction.

Ultimately, Eliza’s choices and life story from young bride and frontier homesteader to military wife, devoted mother, and brave widow, reflected her husband’s belief to “nerve ourselves to meet [danger] bravely.” A principle that he followed until his death and an ideal that she undoubtedly clung to when the tragic news arrived in California from a battleground in Tennessee.

Sources:

Roland, Charles Pierce. Albert Sidney Johnston, Soldier of Three Republics. (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1964).

[i] Los Angeles Star, May 24, 1862. First noted publication in the paper about the Battle of Shiloh and A.S.J.’s death.

[ii] Albert S. Johnston to Eliza Johnston, December 29, 1861.

[iii] Eliza Johnston Obituary, The Los Angeles Herald, Volume 25, Number 362, 26 September 1896.

[iv] Albert S. Johnston to Eliza Johnston, January 6, 1862.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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3 Responses to Eliza Griffin Johnston: To Bravely Meet Danger and Tragedy

  1. Sean Michael Chick says:

    Gorgeous post. I would like it but I am not able to do that when I am logged into ECW.

  2. Larry De Maar says:

    Well done. The rest of the story as Paul Harvey used to say. Love these posts about the wives and families of Civil War soldiers.l

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Thanks, Larry! Sometimes, we can even learn about the guys’ military decisions when we understand their family life details.

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