‘I Loved Him More Than My Own Heart:’ The Mexican War Claims the Life of Joseph E. Johnston’s Nephew

When historians discuss Civil War generals and their role in the Mexican War, they typically use phrases like “the training ground,” “the proving ground,” or “the dress rehearsal.” They focus also exclusively on the combat experiences and military lessons the generals acquired in the war and applied during the Civil War, glossing over the grief they experienced due to the death of a comrade, a friend, or a relative, and how the loss affected them.[1] The harrowing experience of losing someone close evoked deep emotional reactions in many future generals, notably General Joseph E. Johnston.

On August 19, 1847, a Mexican cannonball crushed Second Lieutenant John Preston Johnstone’s leg during the Battle of Contreras. All in Major General Winfield Scott’s army lamented his death that evening, but none more than his Uncle Joe.[2]

Fifteen years before, Joseph E. Johnston’s brother, Charles C. Johnston, fell into the Potomac River while in Alexandria, Virginia, and likely struck his head, causing him to lose consciousness and drown.[3] Charles’ death left his two children, John (or Preston), and Elizabeth (or Lizzie), orphans. Cousin John B. Floyd and his wife, Sally, adopted Lizzie, while Preston pursued a military career like his uncle.

Johnston during the Mexican War. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

Johnston did not have children, so Preston filled the void. “I wish you, my dear boy, to regard me as not a formal old uncle, but as a brother,” he reminded Preston while at West Point. “[L]et your intercourse with me be free and unrestrained, as if we were of the same age.”[4]

Johnston, a lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Voltigeurs, did not find out about his nephew’s death until the following morning. Captain Robert E. Lee had been standing near Preston when he was mortally wounded and had the solemn duty of breaking the news of Preston’s death to his West Point classmate and friend. Lee recalled that Johnston’s “frame shrunk and shivered with agony” when he told him his nephew had been killed. Lee said he “wept to witness his grief.”[5]

“Our brave boy has fallen,” Johnston wrote to his brother, Beverley, nearly a week after Preston was killed. “I have never before known the full bitterness of grief,” he lamented. “For I loved him more than my own heart. His profession made him peculiarly mine. Nobody else could love him as I have done.”

“It has broken high & well founded hopes—& terminated an affection most tender & most deserved,” he continued. “[It] will be remembered most sadly for many a year to come.”[6]

For a man who had faced enemy bullets without fear, there was one foe for which Johnston shrank: Preston’s younger sister, Lizzie.[7]

“I have tried repeatedly to write to his sister,” Johnston told Beverley, “but can not.”[8]

Johnston finally mustered the courage to write his niece five months after Preston’s death.

Lee and Johnston in 1870. Johnston reportedly never forgot the sympathy Lee showed him when his nephew was killed. (Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

“I have long intended to write to you,” he confessed to Lizzie. “[I] have attempted several times to do so, but have failed in those attempts—partly from weakness—yielding to the pain I felt—& I have postponed partly too, in the hope that time, whom the Almighty’s mercy has made the mitigator of human grief, might strengthen you.”

Even though nearly half a year had passed by, he still felt too emotionally fragile to provide comfort.

“He had taken too firm a hold of my heart,” Johnston said, “for the time that has elapsed since he fell, tho’ passed in the midst of death, to have softened in any degree the sense of bereavement in me.”

While his suffering was only eased by the words of praise for Preston’s bravery and conduct, the sympathetic remarks from comrades also tormented Johnston by reminding him of what he had lost.

“Oh no one who had not Pres to love knows how one man may love another,” he told Lizzie. “Next to you on earth, this loss is mine.”

He looked forward to Preston’s future distinction, bright smile, tender and gay spirit, and company to cheer him up in old age, but an enemy cannonball ruthlessly robbed him of lifelong happiness.

“These broken hopes,” he said, “can never be forgotten.”[9]

Preston Johnstone’s grave at Green Mount Cemetery. (Shawn Ward)

Dabney H. Maury, a fellow Confederate general, and veteran of the Mexican War, recalled visiting Johnston shortly before he passed away in the spring of 1891. Maury said the old general spoke of the death of his dear nephew, reliving the agony he felt when Lee’s news shattered his world 40 years before.[10]

Nearly four years before his death, Johnston went to Baltimore, Maryland, and had two graves dug at Green Mount Cemetery — one for his wife, Lydia, and one for himself. Preston rested under a fine marble slab close by.

Forty years before, Johnston had arranged for his nephew’s remains to be disinterred from his grave in Mexico and shipped to Baltimore in charge of his brother-in-law, Second Lieutenant George McLane.

“I will not leave them in the ground trodden by a base degraded race,” he remarked to Beverly, “nor in a spot I could not hope to see again.”[11]

Likewise, he expressed to Lizzie that “I couldn’t bear that a Mexican foot should tread over them or that they should be left far from any hearth of his own family.”[12]

Preston’s body arrived to the U.S. on the steamship Edith in February 1848, and Johnston purchased a plot for his nephew three months.[13] Johnston undoubtedly found comfort knowing that he rested in perpetuity roughly 200 yards away from his beloved nephew’s grave.[14]

Johnstone’s epitaph. (Shawn Ward)

Johnston wasn’t the only Civil War general to lose a comrade, friend, or relative in Mexico, or who felt grief, depression, or anguish as a result. After the death of Second Lieutenant William T. Burwell at the Battle of Molino del Rey on September 8, 1847, Second Lieutenant Ralph W. Kirkham, a U.S. brevet brigadier general during the Civil War, wrote to Burwell’s brother about the intimate relationship the two had shared and the agony he felt at his sudden death. The Springfield Republican published Kirkham’s moving letter and asked its readers, “How many such private histories lay buried on the fields of Mexico?”[15] The answer is many. In many instances, tales of loss and grief during the Mexican War, such as Johnston’s, Kirkham’s, and others, and have been overshadowed by the drama and carnage of the Civil War.

Feature lithograph of the Battle of Contreras courtesy of Heritage Auctions (HA.com).


[1] Joy Damousi says that the grief experienced by soldiers during wartime is typically overshadowed by the drama of battle. Joy Damousi, The Labor of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1999), 9. Carol Acton states few scholars investigate combatant mourning and how combatants express or suppress grief and negotiate loss of life. Carol Acton, Grief in Wartime: Private Pain, Public Discourse (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), 106. The sudden loss of a family member during war greatly increases a soldier’s emotional turmoil. See James J. Broomall, Private Confederacies: The Emotional Worlds of Southern Men as Citizens and Soldiers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 79-83. For brotherly loss among British soldiers during the First World War, see Chapter 5 in Linda Maynard, Brothers in the Great War: Siblings, Masculinity and Emotions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020).

[2] Edward C. Boynton to William L. Haskin, January 13, 1876, in The History of the First Regiment of Artillery from Its Organization in 1821, to January 1, 1876 (Portland, Maine: B. Thurston and Co., 1879), 323; Craig L. Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 45. Johnstone was the grandson of Judge Peter Johnston Jr., who served as an officer in “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s Legion during the Revolutionary War. His funeral occurred on September 1, 1847, at the village of San Angel, and he was interred alongside four other officers killed at the Battle of Churubusco. “Lieut. Preston Johnson,” Richmond Commercial Compiler (Richmond, VA), September 23, 1847; “Details of the Battles,” Commercial Advertiser (New York, NY), Dec 7, 1847.

[3] Charles C. Johnston’s wife, Eliza Madison Johnston, died in 1828. Enquirer (Richmond, VA), June 26, 1832.

[4] John E. Johnston to John P. Johnstone, March 23, 1839, in Robert M. Hughes, “Some Letters from the Papers of General Joseph E. Johnston,” The William and Mary Quarterly 11, no. 4 (October 1931): 320. In 1933, Robert M. Hughes, the son of Preston’s sister, Lizzie, wrote, “If he [Joseph E. Johnston] had any special pets among us, his nephew, Preston Johnston, was his earliest one, and his grand-nephew, Ben. Johnston (who lived with him during his residence in Richmond) his latest one.” Robert M. Hughes, “Joseph Eggleston Johnston: Soldier and Man,” The William and Mary Quarterly 13, no. 2 (April 1933): 81.

[5] Captain Robert E. Lee to Catherine Totten, August 22, 1847, in “Interesting from the Army,” Sun (Baltimore, MD), September 22, 1847. Johnston reportedly never forgot the sympathy Lee showed him that day. “I saw strong evidence of the sympathy of his nature the morning after the first engagement of our troops in the Valley of Mexico,” recalled Johnston. “I had lost a cherished young relative in that action, known to General Lee only as my relative. Meeting me, he suddenly saw in my face the effect of that loss, burst into tears, and expressed his deepest sympathy as tenderly in words as his lovely wife would have done.” Armistead L. Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee: His Military and Personal History (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1886), 71.

[6] Joseph E. Johnston to Beverley Johnston, August 25, 1847, in Robert M. Hughes, “Some Letters from the Papers of General Joseph E. Johnston,” 321-22.

[7] Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, 66.

[8] Joseph E. Johnston to Beverley Johnston, August 25, 1847, in Hughes, “Some Letters from the Papers of General Joseph E. Johnston,” 321-22.

[9] Joseph E. Johnston to Eliza M. Johnston, January 12, 1848, in Hughes, “Some Letters from the Papers of General Joseph E. Johnston,” 322-23.

[10] Dabney H. Maury, Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 40-41.

[11] Joseph E. Johnston to Beverley Johnston, in Hughes, “Some Letters from the Papers of General Joseph E. Johnston,” 321-22.

[12] Joseph E. Johnston to Eliza M. Johnston, in Hughes, “Some Letters from the Papers of General Joseph E. Johnston,” 322-23.

[13] Green Mount Cemetery’s grounds superintendent, Shawn Ward, kindly provided Johnstone’s burial records and photos of his grave. “Later and Interesting From Mexico,” Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, GA), February 3, 1848.

[14] “Burial in Baltimore,” Sun (Baltimore, MD), March 24, 1891; Robert M. Hughes, General Johnston (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1893), 288-89.

[15] “The Fall of an Officer in the Mexican War,” Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), November 22, 1848.

4 Responses to ‘I Loved Him More Than My Own Heart:’ The Mexican War Claims the Life of Joseph E. Johnston’s Nephew

  1. Thank you for this very moving article showing that after all, Joseph Johnston was a human being capable of the deepest emotions. Some loses you can never get over.

  2. Lee’s weeping in front of Johnston demonstrates what a superb, empathetic human being his mother had raised. He was never afraid to give way to grief, though often in private, as with the deaths of Jackson and Stuart.

  3. Bravo , excellent I shared with all my military enthusiast friends. Keep up the good work can’t wait to see your next.

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