It was September 6, 1861, and in his upstairs bedroom in he Confederate Executive Mansion in Richmond President Jefferson Davis was seriously ill and confined to his bed. The door to the room had been left open to provide relief from the late summer heat and allow the president to hear voices in the downstairs hall. Sometime in the morning, Davis sat up in his bed with a start. The front door of the house had been opened, and the strong, energetic footsteps of a man were echoing through the mansion. Summoning his strength, the Confederate leader exclaimed, "That's Sidney Johnston's step! Bring him up!"
General Albert Sidney Johnston's arrival in New Orleans had been telegraphed to Richmond a few days before, and Davis had been anxiously awaiting his arrival in the Confederate capital. Now that his old friend was actually standing beside his bed, the president was overjoyed.
Johnston was a tall man with deep chest, broad .shoulders,.. and the vigorous, erect carriage of a professional soldier. His light brown hair was greying a little, and his handsome face, deeply bronzed by the sun, was thinly etched with wrinkles. But he looked much younger than his fifty-eight years, and, as always, he gave off an air of total confidence. He had just completed an arduous journey of more than 3,000 miles across the continent, much of it on horseback, but, amazingly, he did not seem the least bit haggard.
Only a week before, Davis had submitted to the Confederate Congress the names and order of rank of five officers whom he wished to commission as full generals in the Confederate Army. He had carefully weighed the qualities,. achievements, and relative ages of the five men. At the top of the list stood Samuel Cooper, adjutant general of the Confederate States Army. Next in order - above Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, and P.G.T. Beauregard - came Albert Sidney Johnston, a veteran of the Black Hawk and Mexican wars, one-time commanding general of the army of the Republic of Texas, and most recently commander of the U.S. Army's Department of the Pacific in far-off San Francisco.
Johnston. and Davis had been friends since the 1820s when the two were students at Kentucky's Transylvania College, and they had maintained close contact ever since. One of the most respected military officers in the United States, Johnston enjoyed the admiration and respect of Northerners and Southerners alike. Before Fort Surnter's fall it had been reported that he would succeed Winfield Scott as general in chief of the United States Army, but in April of 1861, when Johnston's adopted state of Texas took the final steps toward secession, he resigned his commission and surrendered his command to a Northern officer. Now, half a year later, he was standing at the bedside of his old friend and admirer, Jefferson Davis, offering his services to the Confederacy.
It had been a long and dangerous trip from California to Virginia, and an even longer and more difficult journey from the little town of Washington, Kentucky, where he was born in 1803, the son of a country doctor, to the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy. There he was to be entrusted with the highest honor and weightiest responsibility of his long and distinguished career.
Johnston had shouldered responsibility before. Graduated from West Point with the class of 1826 (Jefferson Davis was two years behind him at the academy), he had served with the 6th Infantry in Missouri and as a regimental adjutant in the Black Hawk War before the illness and death of his first wife forced him to resign his commission and retire to a farm near St. Louis in 1835. But within two years he was back in uniform, this time as senior brigadier general and commanding officer of the newly-born army of the Republic of Texas.
He served as Texas's Secretary of War for two years, and in 1846 still wearing the Lone Star uniform, joined Zachary Taylor in the siege of Monterrey, Mexico. Johnston re-joined the United States Army in 1849 and rose steadily through the ranks in the next dozen years- serving first as paymaster of the Department of Texas, then as colonel of the Indian-fighting 2d Cavalry, then as commanding officer of the Department of Texas, and finally as commander of the important Department of the Pacific, headquartered at San Francisco. Everywhere he served, Johnston acquitted himself with distinction, impressing superiors and inferiors alike with his courage, his daring, his resolve, his powers of reasoning and analysis, his unswerving devotion to the highest ideals of the military service.
Shadows of war were already gathering about the nation when Johnston and his family left New York in December 1860 on a steamer bound for Panama and California. Like so many of his fellow Americans, Johnston's feelings about the national crisis were uneasy and ambivalent. As a military officer who had spent most of his adult life in the service of the young and expanding nation, his devotion to the United States was full and sincere. Leading a dangerous and sensitive expedition into the rebellious Mormon country in 1858, Johnston had insisted on unswerving obedience to the national will. "I will call a traitor a traitor," he wrote then, "& have him punished for his treason if I can." He was, however, just as strongly attached to Kentucky, the state that gave him birth, and to Texas, the state he now considered home. He believed in slavery and resented the efforts of "fanatics" in the Republican party to interfere with the institution, but he had little faith in secession as a cure for the South's plight. The threat of a dissolution of the Union might force the Republicans to listen to reason, he believed, but secession itself would inevitably lead to war, and war (whether the South won or lost) could only end in military despotism.
Since California was a free state, Johnston took steps before leaving for San Francisco to dispose of the two black slaves he owned. He sold his young female slave to his son for $1,200, and when his young male slave (named Ran) expressed a wish to accompany him to California, he gave him freedom but bound him by contract to an additional five years of service.
The three-week voyage to California was rough, and Johnston's second wife, seasick most of the time, reached San Francisco "much reduced & feeble." But, the harrowing passage was soon forgotten in the family's enthusiasm for their new home. The schools, Johnston found, were good, and the climate was mild and salubrious. "The weather here is like the October weather in Kentucky," he wrote his son on January 17. "This is a climate that would suit you, the air is bracing at all sea-sons." Mrs. Johnston was charmed by San Francisco, the surrounding countryside, and the demographics. "There are the fewest number of free negroes," she wrote her uncle on March 3. "One hardly ever sees one here in the streets, that is a good feature in the population for where the darkey is in any numbers it should be as slaves."
Taking charge of his new command, Johnston found that his quartermaster was suffering from a chronic shortage of funds. He wrote Washington, urging that money in the San Francisco Mint be made available for his use. Meanwhile, settlers in the remote northwestern corner of California were complaining of Indian out-rages. Johnston anticipated no extensive uprising but took prompt steps to protect the white settlers, ordering small parties of troops to scout the area between the sea and the mountains and promptly punish any Indians found guilty of wrongdoing.
But the deepening national crisis occupied more of Johnston's time and o energy than his local problems. Each day brought further news of the widening split between the North and the South. Johnston followed these reports with sadness and foreboding. Months after hotter heads had given up any hope of preserving the Union, he clung to the belief that the Republicans would back down, that the South would find some honorable basis for coexistence with the North, that the Union would in the end be preserved. Late in February when a crowd of Union supporters held a large meeting in San Francisco, Johnston applauded them, writing a friend in the War Department in Washington: "I would that there were no other sentiments within the broad expanse of our country."
But there were "other sentiments" in the South, in the North, and in California. There is no doubt that the great majority of California's population favored the Union, but there was a substantial pro-Southern minority in the state. During the early months of 1861, a small number of Confederate sympathizers joined two secret societies, the Knights of the Golden Circle and the Knights of the Columbian Star, whose purpose was to further the Confederate cause in California. Members of these societies believed that the best way to accomplish their purpose was to sever the military ties that bound California to Washington and carve a "Pacific Republic" out of the western states and territories.
Knowing that Johnston was a Southerner,
some of these Confederates hoped to enlist him in their ranks.
If they could capture Fort Point and Alcatraz Island, the two
principle defensive bastions on San Francisco Bay, and could disable
the naval yard at Mare Island and seize the army arsenal at nearby
Benicia, they believed they could cripple Union defenses in the
West. According to one of these plotters, a committee of three
South-ern sympathizers visited Johnston in his San Francisco headquarters
in the hope that he would give them some
information that would help them with their plot. But when the meeting had barely begun Johnston surprised them all by saying:
There is something I want to mention. I have heard foolish talk about an attempt to seize the strongholds under my charge. Knowing this, I have prepared for emergencies, and will defend the property . of the United States with every resource at my command, and with the last drop of blood in my body. Tell that to all our Southern friends.
In the meantime, rumors of a Southern conspiracy had reached the ears of California's Governor John G. Downey, who called upon Johnston to inquire about the safety of the arms at Benicia. In what Downey later remembered as an "impressive manner," the general replied:
Governor, I have spent the greater part of my life in the service of my country, and while I hold her commission I shall serve her honorably and faithfully. I shall protect her public property, and not a cartridge or a percussion-cap shall pass to any enemy while I am here as her representative.
Johnston had in fact taken decisive steps to strengthen army defenses in California, increasing security forces at all installations on the bay and trans-ferring large stores of arms and ammunition from Benicia to Alcatraz. Johnston ordered the commander at Alcatraz to defend his post against attempts to seize it "from whatever direction such efforts may be made." He further ordered all his commanders to watch boats and passengers in the harbor for any attempt to take the island fortress unaware.
Bold and forthright ;hough Johnston's actions were, he was far from happy about them. He explained his feelings to Downey:
There is no man in the Union more sorely afflicted than I am at the occurrences now taking place. I do not know yet what position Texas may take. I have long been identified with Texas, her interests and public men, and her action may control my future destiny, but in any event I shall give her due notice, and turn over intact my department to my successor.
Though Downey had no doubts about Johnston's loyalty, there were some in San Francisco who did, or said they did. A whispering campaign soon spread across the city. Johnston, said the whisperers, was in league with the Southern plotters, waiting for a propi-tious moment to throw in with them and surrender his strongholds to the "Pacific Republic." From San Fran-cisco, the whispers quickly swept across the continent to Washington, where they reached the ears of Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and General in Chief Winfield Scott. Scott knew Johnston too well to suppose that he would do anything dishonorable, but he feared that the Texan's enemies might use the "San Francisco plot" as an excuse to re-place him with one of their own.
To head off such a move, Scott dispatched Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner to San Francisco with orders to relieve Johnston of all duties in California and send him back to Washington for a new assignment. Sumner arrived in San Francisco at the end of April and found Johnston's command in good order. The Texan was quite willing to surrender his command but not to return to Washing-ton. Two weeks earlier (after Sumner's departure from the East but before his arrival in California), news of Texas's secession had reached San Francisco, and Johnston had used the occasion to send his resignation to Washington. It was to take effect as soon as his successor arrived in California.
Now free of all obligations to the Army, Johnston pondered his future. His wife's brother owned a large tract of land near Los Angeles. Thinking that he might buy a plot of his own somewhere in southern California, Johnston headed down the coast with his family. The weather in Los Angeles was so pleasant and the soil so fertile that Johnston seriously contemplated making his home there. But news reports from the East kept him in a constant state of excitement. The people of the North had reacted with unexpected anger to the fall of Fort Sumter. Lincoln was calling for 75,000 volunteers, and Johnston's old friend, Jefferson Davis, was attempting to raise a comparable Confederate force. The more he thought about the crisis, the more determined he was to try to help resolve it. After a month of soul-searching, Johnston decided that he would have to cast his lot with his adopted state. "It looks like fate," he told his wife, "twice Texas makes me a rebel."
At first he planned to sail to New York and from there make his way south into Virginia. Then he learned that the War Department had issued an order for his arrest if he attempted to leave California. Even if he escaped arrest in California, he could expect to be taken into custody in New York. In the midst of this dilemma he learned that a group of southern Californians sympathetic to the Confederacy had recently been organized into a volunteer company under the leadership of a man named Alonzo Ridley. Finding that Ridley's volunteers were planning to march overland to the Confederacy, Johnston asked if he might accompany them. Ridley was delighted at the prospect of traveling with so eminent an officer and enthusiastically offered his company as Johnston's personal escort. Always modest, the Texan said he would prefer just to march as one of the troops.
Knowing that Union soldiers might pursue him, Johnston let it be known that he planned to leave Los Angeles on June 20. In fact, he left the city in the early morning hours of June 16. Traveling on horseback with his black servant, Ran, at his side, he made his way south to Agua Caliente, about thirty miles east of San Diego, where he rendezvoused with Ridley's company. The Southerners then marched boldly into the forbid-ding Mojave Desert. They touched the Colorado River at Fort Yuma, then followed the Gila River into present-day Arizona. Looking back for pursuing soldiers and ahead for menacing Indians, the party pushed on. It was midsummer, and temperatures soared to 120 degrees in the shade. Though Johnston was close to sixty, he bore the rigors of the journey well, and his courage and forti-tude did much to inspire his younger comrades. Near Yuma, Captain Ridley ordered one of his men to ride back along the road to carry water to a straggler whose horse had broken down. Nervous and exhausted, the man refused to obey. As tempers rose, Johnston quietly announced that he would go. A dozen men now stepped forward to volunteer, and the disciplinary crisis was over.
At Yuma and again near Tucson, the marchers received reports that straggling Union troops were in the vicinity. Anxious to show their mettle in battle, the men pleaded for an opportunity to attack the Federals and their posts. Johnston argued against any such attempt, pointing out that neither he nor any of Ridley's volun-teers had yet received Confederate commissions, and if they attempted to attack without proper authority they would be no better than pirates at sea.
Much of the marchers' route passed through Apache country. Union troops had recently been withdrawn from the area, leaving the Indians free to renew their decades-old war on the whites. On two occasions, John-ston and his companions came on the charred remains of stage coaches, their hapless passengers brutally massacred by the Apaches. The scenes were chilling, but the knowledge that General Johnston was an old and experienced Indian fighter gave his companions the courage to push on.
As they approached El Paso, Johnston prepared for a possible confrontation with Union troops. Fort Fillmore, located eight miles above the Texas town, was known to be garrisoned with a Federal regiment, and Johnston had reason to believe that the regiment would be waiting for him. If the Federals attacked, it was agreed that the bulk of Ridley's men would hold them off while the general and two companions escaped through the desert to Mexico.
The regiment, however, did not appear, and the marchers were able to proceed safely into Mesilla, where they joined a contingent of Texas state troops under Colonel John Baylor. At Baylor's urging, Johnston took temporary command of the Texans. He waited in Mesilla for over a week, hoping to intercept a column of Federals marching from New Mexico to Fort Fillmore but when the Federals did not appear, he decided to push on. "Great events are transpiring," he wrote his wife, "and we feel called on to hurry."
He left Mesilla on August 8 for El Paso, traveled by stage to San Antonio, then pushed on to Houston, where officials sought to honor him with a banquet and reception. Johnston was too impatient to tarry. Unable to proceed by sea because of the Federal blockade of the Gulf, he traveled overland to New Orleans and boarded a train bound for Richmond. Arriving in the Confederate capital a few days later, he promptly made his way from the station to Jefferson Davis's home at 12th and Clay streets.
From San Antonio to New Orleans to Richmond, Southerners everywhere had greeted Johnston with enthusiasm. Quarreling and bickering had already broken out among Jefferson*Davis's generals, threatening to undermine the South's military effort before it had really begun. Albert Sidney Johnston's sudden emergence from the western desert promised to remedy those deficiencies and to bring daring and courage and experi-ence to an army that badly needed those qualities.
From throughout the South messages poured into Richmond urging that Davis give Johnston an important assignment- preferably somewhere in the Mississippi Valley, where his vast western experience could be put to good use. Already a citizens' committee from Memphis had petitioned that Johnston be. named over-all Confederate commander in the West. Major General Leonidas Polk, ranking Confederate officer in the Mis-sissippi Valley, had written Davis urging Johnston's appointment as western commander. But the president needed no urging. On September 10, Johnston was given command of Military Department Number 2, embracing Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and western Mississippi, as well as the vast and undefined "Indian country" west of Missouri and Arkansas. Without delay, Johnston left Richmond for his new headquarters in Tennessee. Arriving in Nashville on September 14, he was greeted by a large and cheering crowd.
If Johnston's admirers could have peered into the future, if they could have foreseen that in only seven months he would lead Confederate troops to a brilliant near-rout of Grant's Union army at Shiloh, they would have exulted. If they could have foreseen the general's own death on that same battlefield at Shiloh, and the tragic set of circumstances that would, at the last moment, turn Southern victory into Southern defeat, they would have bowed their heads in sorrow. But all that lay in the future. For now, they could, do little more than echo their chief executive's estimate of the dashing man who had so unexpectedly emerged from the desert to take command of their western army. "He came," Jefferson Davis later recalled, "and by his accession I felt strengthened . . . I hoped and expected that I had others who would prove generals; but I knew I had one, and that was Sidney Johnston."
Attorney Brian McGinty, an avid writer of
historical articles, is a native of California and currently resides
in San Francisco. For more reading on General Johnston he recommends
The Life of General Albert Sidney Johnston (1878) by William
Preston Johnston, and Charles P. Roland's Albert Sidney Johnston,
Soldier of Three Republics (1964).