Book Review: The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West

The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West. By Timothy B. Smith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2023. Hardcover, 248 pp. $39.95

Reviewed by Sean Michael Chick

Albert Sidney Johnston is, for many, one of the great enigmas of the Civil War. The Confederacy’s highest ranking field general, he entered the war with a great reputation earned through his exceptional antebellum service, commanding presence, and noble character. His Civil War career was brief but important. He was in charge in the Western Theater when the defeats at Mill Springs, Fort Henry, and Fort Donelson split open the Confederacy. He died at Shiloh trying to reverse those losses, even before the first anniversary of Fort Sumter. Through the years since his death a question has always hovered: had he lived, how would he have turned out?

Johnston’s shadow loomed all the more by 1865. By then his successors, namely Braxton Bragg, John C. Pemberton, Joseph E. Johnston, and John Bell Hood, had all failed. Indeed, Hood in particular failed in essence trying to reverse Johnston’s defeat, pressing the Army of Tennessee to the gates of Nashville, the very city Johnston abandoned in February 1862. And there the army was smashed and never recovered. It is telling that Johnston’s statue and a poem dedicated to him are highlights of the Army of Tennessee Tumulus in Metairie Cemetery.

Speculation about Johnston has not abated. For many, he died seemingly at the cusp of victory at Shiloh. Others point to his capable handling of the Western Theater in 1861. All agree his Mexican War service, while brief, was superb, with him winning laurels at Monterrey. Others though point to his failures before the war, particularly in the Republic of Texas. The only reason he found himself in a desperate fight at Shiloh was that on his watch the Rebels suffered defeats which burst the Confederacy wide open. The other side can then counter he was still learning from his errors.  And after all, had not Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and particularly William Tecumseh Sherman all stumbled in 1861? Since Johnston died when the war was not a year old, supporters and detractors have usually admitted that one can never be certain, even if they lean one way or the other.

Those who knew Johnston, served under him, or fought him were the first to disseminate their opinions. Randall Gibson, who led a brigade at Shiloh, opined “the West perished with Albert Sidney Johnston, and the Southern country followed.” Jefferson Davis agreed and Johnston’s son, William Preston Johnston, produced a biography of his father that, for all its hagiography, was also well written and researched. By contrast, Grant believed Johnston showed no real promise. P. G. T. Beauregard took a middle stance. He respected Johnston’s integrity and courage but did not think him equal to the assignment given to him. Although Timothy B. Smith makes it clear in one passage that he does not personally like Beauregard, Smith’s latest book, The Iron Dice of Battle, follows Beauregard’s line of thought.

The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West is not a traditional biography. The first section provides an overview of Johnston’s life, Smith admitting that on this mark the late Charles Roland’s biography is peerless. These chapters rather add color and context to the man and set up three dominant themes. The first is that Johnston was a methodical chess player who nevertheless would often take great gambles when faced with a life crisis. The second is that he was lenient, even meek, as shown by his refusal to punish a slave who stole from him. Third is Johnston’s impressive moral character. He took responsibility for defeats, was magnanimous, courageous, and commanded respect. These positive traits papered over his weaknesses as a commander. Indeed, they were strengths in the heat of battle, such as at Monterrey and Shiloh. However, his responsibilities in the Western Theater called for military attributes he did not have. One gets the feeling in reading The Iron Dice of Battle that Johnston’s true calling was commanding an infantry division.

For readers biased in favor of Johnston, Smith presents a strong dose of skepticism for them to consider. Smith makes his arguments with personal anecdotes, direct quotations, and an analysis of what Johnston did before, during, and after each important military event in his career. The analysis by Smith is fair though, which is impressive since Smith seems to like Johnston personally, but finds him militarily suspect, although hardly incompetent. The research, as is always the case with Smith, is good. The prose is among Smith’s best. The writing stays tightly focused on the man and the thesis without asides.

Smith makes an argument at the end of the book that might be the best in the work. The Confederacy lacked talented leaders and despite his shortcomings, Johnston was better than most of his peers. Only Lee and Beauregard had consistent success in major independent command. For all of Johnston’s weaknesses, he still had more strengths than his successors. He also had a personal charisma that drew respect from his subordinate officers and inspired the men in the ranks. William J. Hardee had his complaints about Johnston, but unlike the other commanders that followed Johnston, he did not dare intrigue against him. If so, the implication is the Confederacy was doomed because it fought an opponent who not only had greater resources, but one that quickly found generals such as Grant, Sherman, George Thomas, William Rosecrans, and others who won most of their battles in the Western Theater. Sidney Johnston was the best hope, but still represented a long shot.

Of all of Smith’s arguments, his point about Johnston’s leniency is perhaps the weakest when one considers other commanders. His penchant for tolerance was a trait he shared with Lee and Grant. Lee was rarely harsh with subordinates, and arguably kept around too many officers that failed him. Richard Anderson and Cadmus Wilcox turned in spotty performances in 1864, and somehow George Pickett always made his way back to division command. Grant shielded his friends, in particular many incompetent staff officers, who were only rooted out gradually by John Rawlins and James Wilson. Johnston’s “meekness” might have been a strength, at least with better subordinates. Johnston was also not above getting rid of subordinates who failed him. A few days before Shiloh, Johnston removed George Crittenden and William Carroll. Roland believed that Johnston was improving, and the removal of Crittenden and Carroll was evidence of this.

These points come to together well in Smith’s retelling of Johnston’s meeting with his generals on the eve of Shiloh. When Beauregard advised retreat, Johnston listened quietly. As debate continued, Johnston ended the meeting by committing to battle with a dramatic flourish. Johnston was “meek” in so far as he listened and certainly deliberated, but once he decided to attack, there was no going back. Given his courage and character, that decision electrified the army, and while Shiloh was a loss, his Confederates fought with a ferocity and persistence rarely matched during the conflict in the Western Theater. One can still debate Johnston’s abilities had he lived, but as Smith has clearly shown, as a commander Johnston had a duality between the chess player and the gambler that certainly would have defined his actions had he risen to see the sunrise on April 7, 1862.

The Iron Dice of Battle is among the best of Smith’s works. Its analysis and clear prose ranks it with his superb books on the battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Champion Hill. Particularly outstanding are Smith’s thorough examination of Johnston’s strengths and weaknesses, his explanation of how Johnston operated as a commander, and why Johnston made certain decisions.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West

  1. I enjoyed this book as well. Tim Smith’s research offered up some interesting new voices on the early days of the Civil War in the western theater. You also get a full overview of what Johnston was doing or not all the way up to Shiloh. What a hard luck life living in the first half of the 19th century could be.

    Johnston’s relationships with his subordinates Polk, Pillow, and Floyd is interesting. R.E. Lee respected Johnston from afar. Old Bory, who had a quicker mind than Johnston, respected his manhood.

    Long may the what ifs continue.

  2. My daughter got me this work by Dr. Timothy Smith for Christmas 2023. And I must agree: it is the most revealing biography of Albert Sidney Johnston ever written. Especially appreciated was Dr. Smith’s explanation of “what was required to be accepted as a Southern Gentleman,” and the reasons why A. Sidney Johnston fell short of the mark. One comes away realizing that “a man who never achieved the status of Southern Gentleman was doomed to fail in attempts to lead Southern men,” regardless how much West Point education, experience in the affairs of revolutionary Texas, tenure as Secretary of War (for Republic of Texas), and responsibility for development of a crack cavalry unit under his command: the Second U.S. Cavalry.
    Southern Gentleman: lack of this qualification brought General Johnston unstuck. Read Dr. Smith’s book to find out how…

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