Editorial Praising Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston
On April 7, 1862, the fierce fighting of the two-day Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee came to an end, with the Federal troops regaining the field and the Confederate army retreating all the way back to Corinth, Mississippi, from where it had started four days earlier with such high hopes. The Southerners’ wildest dreams had almost been realized when their dawn surprise attack on April 6 caught General Grant’s army napping, driving the Federal troops out of their camps and pushing them back several miles to the banks of the Tennessee River.
The Confederate attack, led by Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Albert Sidney Johnston, was a desperate attempt to destroy Grant’s army before it was reinforced by 35,000 men from General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, who were marching 122 miles from Nashville to strengthen Grant’s position. After their smashing success during the first day’s fighting, the Southern army went to sleep the night of April 6 confident victory was theirs; they had only to mop up the remnants of Grant’s beaten, demoralized army in the morning. However, Buell’s men arrived while the Confederates were sleeping, and in the morning it was the reinvigorated Union army’s turn to launch a surprise attack at dawn, forcing the Confederate army to retreat.
The Confederacy suffered three losses at Shiloh. For one, they lost the battle. For another, they suffered a staggering 10,699 casualties. Perhaps their biggest loss of all, however, was the death of General Johnston, killed during the first day’s fighting while leading a charge through a peach orchard.
At the time of his death, General Johnston was considered the South’s greatest general (it was not until two months after Johnston’s death that Robert E. Lee began to distinguish himself). A West Point graduate, Johnston had extensive military experience. He was a Texas Army general during the Texas War of Independence, and a U.S. Army officer in the Mexican-American War and the Utah War. Revisionist historians continue to speculate how the Confederacy’s outcome may have differed in the Civil War if Johnston had not been killed.
A proud man, Johnston had been stung by the severe criticism the Southern press and government hurled at him when his plan for defense in the West came undone. He had pulled two armies out of their fortified positions in Bowling Green and Columbus, Kentucky, fearing they would be cut off by the advancing Union forces. The losses of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River had opened up the interior of the Confederacy to invasion. However, when the Southern press learned of Johnston’s great success in pushing back Grant’s army on April 6 (and before they learned of his death that afternoon and their army’s sharp reversal the following day), they suddenly praised Johnston as a military genius.
A good example is this article, published by the Daily Delta (New Orleans, Louisiana) on April 10, 1862:
Gen. A. S. Johnston’s Strategy
If, seven weeks ago, Gen. A. S. Johnston had abruptly evacuated Bowling Green, Fort Donelson, and Nashville, and, leaving the Tennessee river open to the enemy, fallen back to the line he recently occupied, he would have executed a strategical movement at which the nation would, perhaps, have been almost petrified with astonishment and dismay. The popular mind would doubtless have been wrought to the highest pitch of anxiety. In spite of the most strenuous pleadings of calm and considerate counsels, and by reason, it might have been, of an abstinence from explicit explanation imposed by prudence, numbers of our people would have been plunged into a chaos of inexplicable terror, and, stung by alarm into resentment, would have been bitter and unsparing in their censure of the General who acted so little in accordance with popular expectation and desire.
Strike from the hypothesis thus sketched the voluntary evacuation of Fort Donelson without awaiting the enemy’s attack, add to it the furious contest at that place, and its final surrender along with five or six thousand men and this hypothesis will strictly correspond with the actual movement of Gen. A. S. Johnston in falling back from the line of Bowling Green to the line which his army now occupies.
The movement in question was, there can be no doubt, deliberately resolved on. The resistance at Fort Donelson was only an incident to it. Gen. Johnston was prepared to see the enemy eventually ascend the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. He thought it necessary at last, after holding an immensely superior force of the enemy in check for six months with consummate sagacity and skill, to retire and organize a new line of operations. The fall of Fort Donelson did not materially affect the strategical merits of the movement. The beneficial results involved in its execution justified the temporary embarrassments which might attend it. More than that, it justified—and such was the conviction of the patriotic and magnanimous commander who devised it—temporary exposure to popular misapprehension and popular denunciation. Unhesitatingly did Albert Sidney Johnston pay this price of duty. Solicitude for his military reputation at such a moment would, he nobly conceived, be criminal negligence of the interests of the nation. He manfully took the step which was to inaugurate a new era in the tremendous conflict for the Mississippi, and we now behold its splendid results unfolding.
We now see that while we confronted the enemy in Kentucky, we were unable effectively to fight him and were in a straitened position of defense; but that now, since he has ventured to confront us on the southern boundary of Tennessee, we are able to strike with terrible effect, cut up the enemy’s columns and keep them constantly on the brink of panic. The enemy is drawn to a considerable distance from his base, and can not venture from the Tennessee river without running the risk of annihilation. Should the river fall below the stage of navigation, he would be in the very jaws of death. The enemy’s situation can scarcely be improved by time and action. Ours must prosper with every blow we strike and with every day’s delay to strike on the part of the enemy.
Click here for more articles about the American Civil War.