CHAPTER THREE: “Defeated Victory: Albert Sidney Johnston’s Death at Shiloh”
by Gregory A. Mertz
Commentary · Images · Additional Resources · Suggested Reading · About the Author
By Brian Matthew Jordan, co-editor, “Engaging the Civil War” Series
Sunday, April 6, 1862 found Cyrus Boyd six hundred fifty miles but a world away from Indianola, Iowa, the dusty crossroads south of Des Moines that he called home. It had been six months since the twenty-four year old with a strong brow and piercing, deep-set eyes answered President Lincoln’s call for troops. Boyd passed very many of those months marking time, anxiously awaiting something that looked like war. On this spring Sabbath, perched atop the sharp bluffs that overlook the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing, the Fifteenth Iowa’s orderly sergeant at long last got his wish. Along with other citizen-soldiers from Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio, at Shiloh, Cyrus Boyd would “see the elephant.”
It should come as no surprise that Boyd and his comrades were little prepared for combat in the Civil War. “Here we were a new Regt which had never until this morning heard an enemies gun fire thrown into this hell of battle—without warning,” he remonstrated, unable to efface in his diary the panic inflicted by that first, “heavy shower of bullets,” or the abject horror he felt upon spying “the first man shot.”
Cyrus Boyd’s remarkable diary—edited for publication, excerpted in primary source readers, and cited routinely by historians—betrays something of the process by which ordinary soldiers processed the war’s human realities. Boyd’s is an account that deftly conveys shock and confusion, marvel and horror. But on April 7, even this remarkably literary correspondent conceded that “no pen can tell, no hand can paint no words can utter the horrors of last night.”
On April 6, the Iowan’s account dutifully reported the news, harvested from enemy prisoners, of General Albert Sidney Johnston’s demise. Military historians have and will continue to debate the effects of Johnston’s mortal wounding on the battle—and the war as a whole. And so long as they figure Johnston an especially capable leader, Shiloh will always be something of a “turning point.” Yet Shiloh has another reason to command our attention: the very reason it annexed men like Cyrus Boyd.
War at once subjects men to inhumanity and remarkable acts of compassion; to moments of abject horror, but also exhilaration; to the tedious and the mundane, but also the wild and the fantastical. Still, for each soldier, there is one moment, it seems, that towers above the rest in significance. For Cyrus Boyd, that moment was coming face to face for the first time with the destructive force of the Civil War at Shiloh. For him, the battle on the banks of the Tennessee would always be something of a “turning point,” irrespective of how historians assigned meaning to the fight.
Toward the end of his account, Boyd offered a gruesome inventory of the sights he’d seen: “pieces of clothing and strings of flesh” hanging from trees; body parts, dead horses, and human debris littering the field; “swollen bodies…already filling the air with a deadly odor.” This last item seemed particularly ironic: “The trees are just bursting into leaf and the little flowers are covering the ground—but their fragrance is lost in the pall of death which has settled down on this bloody field.”
Each fall, when I teach the Civil War lecture course to my undergraduate students at Sam Houston State University, we approach Shiloh through Boyd’s eyes. It is often the first time in the course that students set aside their preconceived (and often romanticized) ideas about the Civil War and its combat. We talk about how Shiloh replaced Bull Run as the bloodiest battle, and then pivot back east, to another campaign—the Seven Days—that inflicted casualties on an unbelievable scale. For me, it is important that the students consider what the war was already becoming by April 1862. If they remember nothing else about Shiloh, they at least recall the shock that they felt when hearing his account read aloud. As I reflect on it now, I realize that this day is something of a “turning point” in the course.
I like to think that somewhere, a Hawkeye orderly sergeant is nodding in approval.
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By Christopher Kolakowski, Chief Historian, Emerging Civil War
Shiloh is a watershed in many ways, as Greg Mertz correctly points out in his essay. The battle’s 23,600 casualties are well known as surpassing all American losses in all American wars from 1775 to that point. But the battle was the first in a string of bloody battles that made up a very costly war. Shiloh held the title as America’s bloodiest battle for ten weeks, when the Seven Days Battles surpassed it with 26,000 casualties. The 28,000 men killed, wounded, captured, and missing at Antietam and Munfordville on September 17, 1862, remains the costliest 24 hours in American history. By the time 1862 ended, Second Manassas and Stones River both equaled or passed Shiloh in terms of human cost.
The river of blood kept flowing into the next year. Within 150 days, the three bloodiest battles of the Civil War (Chancellorsville, April 27-May 6, 1863; Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863; and Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863) all occurred. Cumulatively, they totaled 118,000 casualties, a concentrated bloodletting unequaled in U.S. military history until 1918. The casualty lists lengthened with the addition of smaller battles like Brandy Station, Port Hudson, Tullahoma, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Add in the 29,000 Confederates surrendered to Grant at Vicksburg, a larger number than he took at Appomattox, and the number increased further. The total American casualties for the 210 days from May 1 to November 30, 1863, roughly equal the American losses for the three years of the Korean War.
This vast human destruction burned these battles into the national psyche forever. It is no accident that Chickamauga-Chattanooga, Vicksburg, Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg are among the first battlefields preserved and the most extensively monumented by veterans. They also rank among the most visited battlefield parks today. The bloodletting, which started in earnest at Shiloh, also inspired a national search for meaning, answered in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November 1863.
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Historian Sean Chick, currently at work on a biography of P. G. T. Beauregard, reflects on “Albert Sidney Johnston’s Death and Legacy” through the lens of Johnston’s second in command.
Albert Sidney Johnston appears in bas relief on the Confederate memorial Defeated Victory on the Shiloh battlefield. While the monument was intended to commemorate the deaths of 10,000 Confederate soldiers, Johnston’s death loomed largest. (credit: Chris Mackowski)
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Serving in the U.S. Army in California when the Civil War broke out, Albert Sidney Johnston returned to Texas by crossing the Arizona desert (a scene depicted by artist Adalbert John Volck in this 1864 sketch). With feats like that, it’s little wonder Johnston became larger than life. Biographer Charles P. Roland called him the “soldier of three republics” (the Republic of Texas, the U.S.A., and the C.S.A.). (credit: Library of Congress)
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A monument at Shiloh National Military Park marks the location of Johnston’s mortal wounding. From the National Park Service: “This monument is one of five on the Shiloh battlefield that were erected in 1902 by the United States government to pay tribute to and mark the spot where the highest ranking officers were killed in the Battle of Shiloh. At each corner of the concrete base is a pyramid of 8″ shells and in the center is a 30 pdr. Parrott tube mounted vertically bearing a bronze plaque with the inscription and capped by a 12 pdr. shell.” (credit: Chris Mackowski)
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Following his wounding, Johnston was taken to a ravine about 100 yards away where he quietly bled to death (top). An aluminum War Department marker on the site tells the story of Johnston’s death (above). (credit for both: Chris Mackowski)
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Initially buried in New Orleans, Johnston was reinterred in the Texas State Cemetery in 1867. (credit: The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)
“When Sidney Johnston fell, it was the turning point of our fate; for we had no other hand to take up his work in the West.” — Jefferson Davis
In the spring 2012 issue of the Civil War Trust’s magazine Hallowed Ground, an article titled “The Turning Point of Our Fate” addressed Johnston’s death. You can read it here. The Trust also has a bio page about Albert Sidney Johnston here.
For more ECW stories about Shiloh, visit here.
You can visit Shiloh National Military Park online here.
· Allen, Stacey D. Allen. Shiloh: Blue & Gray Magazine Civil War Sesquicentennial Edition (Blue & Gray Enterprises, 2010)
· Cunningham, O. Edward. Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith (Savas Beatie, 2007)
· Daniel, Larry J. Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War (Simon & Schuster, 1997) This well-written and easy-reading book takes an approach that ties in with our “turning points” theme (as suggested by its subtitle).
· McDonough, James Lee. Shiloh: In Hell before Night (University of Tennessee Press, 1977)
· Timothy B. Smith, Shiloh: Conquer or Perish (University of Kansas Press, 2014). Also highly recommended are Smith’s two books of essays on Shiloh: The Untold Battle of Shiloh and Rethinking Shiloh.
· Sword, Wiley. Shiloh: Bloody April (Morningside, 1983)
· Woodworth, Steven E. The Shiloh Campaign, Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland Series (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009)
For a closer examination of Albert Sidney Johnston, specifically:
· Johnston, William Preston. The Life of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, Embracing His Services in the Armies of the United States, the Republic of Texas, and the Confederate States (State House Press, Austin Texas, 1997)
Written by General Johnston’s son, the biography is understandably supportive of his father’s controversial decisions and is critical of Beauregard’s conduct of the Battle of Shiloh after his father’s death. The book benefits from William Preston’s Johnston’s access to family knowledge that no other biographer could contribute to the general’s profile. The author was himself a soldier, bringing a military analysis, and the volume fortunately quotes numerous pertinent accounts in their entirety, especially relative to incidents at Shiloh.
· Roland, Charles P. Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics (The University Press of Kentucky, 2001)
A thoroughly researched and well-written biography of the Confederate Army commander at Shiloh, which is balanced with criticism of Johnston when justified while touting his many attribute. Roland concludes that his reputation as one of America’s top soldiers at the outbreak of the Civil War was deserved, but concedes that his short-lived experience at high command leaves us pondering just what the impact of his loss to the Confederacy would be.
According to Greg: “These two biographies; Smith’s book on Shiloh as a balanced view of Johnston at Shiloh and the best book on the battle; Sword’s book for a very favorable look at Johnston at Shiloh; and McDonough’s book at being harshly critical of Johnston at Shiloh would offer the most comprehensive views.”
About the Author
Gregory A. Mertz has worked for the National Park Service for thirty-five years and is currently the supervisory historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. As a boy growing up in what is now Wildwood, Missouri, he traveled with his Boy Scout troop to the Shiloh battlefield every spring to hike one of the six trails there. He has written several articles for Blue and Gray Magazine, is the founding president of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table, and is a former vice president of the Brandy Station Foundation. His forthcoming book on the battle of Shiloh, Attack at Daylight and Whip Them, will be published as part of the Emerging Civil War Series in 2018.