Monday, October 21, 2013

The Greatest of All Fallen Stars - Albert Sidney Johnston (1862)

When war seemed inevitable Army Commander-in-Chief General Winfield Scott, 75, knew that he would not be able to lead the Union forces. The best man to do that was Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862), universally considered the nation’s most experienced and accomplished soldier. Johnston’s loyalty, however, lay with his adopted state of Texas, and it was while wearing the uniform of the Confederacy that he achieved his special status, the only American general to hold flag rank in three armies: Republic of Texas, United States, and Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis, his close friend from West Point days, said of him, “I hoped and expected that I had others who would prove generals, but I knew I had one, and that was Sidney Johnston.”

Appointed to West Point from his native state of Louisiana, he was an 1836 honors graduate (8/35) and served in the prestigious post of Cadet Adjutant. After service in the Second Seminole War, he resigned his commission to take care of his terminally ill wife. When she died he went to Texas to farm and joined the revolutionary army of the Republic of Texas as private, but rose within a year to be its commander and senior brigadier but not before fighting a duel with his predecessor, in which he was severely wounded. He served as secretary of war for the Republic of Texas, and also clashed with Sam Houston. He led the 1st Texas Rifles during the Mexican War.

Largely due to the urging of Zachary Taylor, Johnston rejoined the U.S. Army and on April 2, 1856, was promoted Colonel of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. It was a legendary outfit. Serving under Johnston, was his deputy, Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, the two senior squadron commanders were Major George “Rock of Chickamauga” Thomas and future Confederate Corps Commander, Major William Hardee. Among the junior officers was Lt. John Bell Hood. Johnston later led the bloodless Morman Expedition, for which service he was brevetted brigadier general.

After waiting to be officially relieved, he resigned a final time from the Army and traveled to Richmond overland in 1861. His friend, now President Davis, named him the second senior (to Samuel Cooper) general in the Confederate Army with responsibility of the Western Theater. He established a thin defensive line, which stretched from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains. Determined to break the line was a man desperate to redeem his reputation, Ulysses S. Grant. When Sam Grant did that, and took Forts Henry and Donelson, Johnston was forced to abandon Kentucky and most of Tennessee and withdraw into northern Mississippi. There, he concentrated his forces and waited.

On April 6, 1862, attacking out of the woods at dawn, he took Grant’s army by surprise in its camp at Pittsburg Landing, near a church called Shiloh, from the Hebrew meaning "Peace". Driving deep into the rear, the breakthrough was slowed by looting, but by late morning Johnston believed he had won a great victory. “We are sweeping the field,” he told Beauregard, “and I think we shall press them to the river.” Union soldiers were making a stand along a line that became known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” There was also hard fighting in a peach orchard and Johnston himself led the final charge that drove the Union defenders out of it. Shortly afterward he was hit in the leg by a Minnie ball which severed his femoral artery. Having sent his surgeon to tend to group of wounded Federal prisoners, he bled to death for lack of quick medical attention.

Beauregard took over and the next day Grant rallied at the banks of the river and saved his army, helped by the command disruption caused by Johnston’s death and the timely arrival of Union general Don Carlos which forced a confederate withdrawal. Grant’s appraisal of the man he had twice defeated, “My judgment now is that he was vacillating and undecided in his actions.” Had Johnston been alive on the morning of April 7, Grant’s opinion might have been more respectful.

Cadets at West Point during the first half of the nineteenth century knew the lessons of Napoleon well. Johnston had done one of the most difficult things: mounted an offensive from a defensive position. Cut down at the pinnacle of his career as a soldier, and believing that he had won a great victory, Albert Sidney Johnston, the most senior American general ever killed in action, died for lack of a tourniquet.


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