Filson Finds: the Johnston Family Papers

On the Personal Effects of an Old Soldier

By Dr. Barton A. Myers

Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

At the bottom of a large stack of acid-free folders, the very last folder in the Johnston Family Papers that I expected to examine at The Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky that afternoon, was a file labeled simply “Correspondence, 10 May 1862, Ed Munford to Jefferson Davis.” I almost didn’t inspect the file, thinking that it probably did not include some of the documents I was looking for on that day. But, just for the sake of thoroughness, I decided to open it. So, I carefully pulled back the file.

Enclosed was a multi-colored map of Tennessee, bound between two sapphire blue covers and small enough to fit into an officer’s coat pocket, perfect for use on a military campaign. The map, published in 1859 by Charles Desilver at 714 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, included railroads, canals, critical road networks, key towns, and clearly showed Hardin County. Named for Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Hardin, the county in southwestern Tennessee was the scene of the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburgh Landing), site of over 23,000 casualties of war, one of which was the overall Confederate Western Theater commander Albert Sidney Johnston of Kentucky, whose family’s papers I was perusing. On the inside front-flap of the bound map, were a few scrawled lines: the first, “Major Gilmer, C.S.A.,” was almost certainly Major Jeremy Francis Gilmer, who was wounded serving with Albert Sidney Johnston at the engagement and served as Chief Engineer on Johnston’s staff. The map may have been a gift to Johnston from Gilmer in the early days of the campaign. The second line read “A.S. Johnston 3d April 1862” and underneath “En Avant.” French, literally translated as the ballet move “in front,” but more simply into English as “Forward.” This phrase followed Johnston’s carefully written name. Either translation was fitting for the man who carried the map and his destiny. The date was just three days prior to Johnston’s mortal wounding.

Map of Tennessee (c. 1859). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

Map of Tennessee (c. 1859). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

Confederate Battle Flag (c. 1862). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

Confederate Battle Flag (c. 1862). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

Underneath the map, was a small Confederate Battle Flag, handkerchief size, silk, Army of Tennessee pattern. Perhaps the entire packet came safely to its destination wrapped in this simple symbol of nascent Confederate nationhood. Or, maybe a family member wrapped the items lovingly for posterity in the old banner.

 

Margaret and Alberta Johnston (c. 1862). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

Margaret and Alberta Johnston (c. 1862). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

At the very bottom of the pile was a folded card with two hand-tinted pictures inside, photographs of Johnston’s beloved daughters, the attractive older daughter Margaret and the tiny Alberta. Alberta was clutching her “doggie” in the image.

Johnston’s final moments remain controversial. Astride his horse “Fire-eater,” he was in the thick of the fight commanding the attack on the “Hornet’s Nest,” the critical center of the Union battle line that day. Some historians have speculated that a pre-war leg wound sustained in an 1837 duel with Texas Brigadier General Felix Huston may have caused nerve damage that impaired his ability to recognize the seriousness of his Shiloh wound. Others have argued that Johnston’s dedication to his soldiers and/or his excitement about a pivotal moment in the engagement caused his adrenaline to impair his judgment about his own safety. One fact is clear; Johnston had sent off his own personal physician to care for wounded soldiers prior to being shot. The Minié ball, a stray shot, cut behind his right knee, severing an artery and filling his knee-high boot with blood. In the confusing minutes following, Johnston reeled on his horse and was eventually carried to a ravine behind the lines where he expired from loss of blood at half past two o’clock in the afternoon, April 6, 1862.

Lock of Albert Sidney Johnston’s hair (c. 1862). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

Lock of Albert Sidney Johnston’s hair (c. 1862). FOLDER 11, JOHNSTON FAMILY PAPERS, 1798-1943

Astonishingly, in the middle of the neatly stacked folder of items, was a carefully preserved lock of hair, graying, but still primarily light brown, snipped from Johnston’s head after his death. The only explanation for any of the folder’s contents came in a short letter dated May 10, 1862 from the Headquarters of the Western Department then at Corinth, Mississippi written by Major Edward W. Munford of Johnston’s personal staff. The letter was addressed to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and offered heartbreaking gravity and meaning to the pile of seemingly unconnected items.

“Sir, I transmit to you by Col. Burnett a lock of Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston’s hair. The personal relationship between you and himself was not unknown to me. I learned it not alone from his lips. But he gave me for perusal your late private letters to him. The anguish his death has given you is appreciated for I too loved him and this memento is sent not to the President but to the friend. With best wishes for yourself & the Independence of the South.”

The packet of belongings was hand carried to Davis by “Col. Burnett,” according to the note. Henry Cornelius Burnett, who resigned as Colonel of the Eighth Kentucky Infantry in February 1862, having never commanded the unit in the field, was one of the most powerful politicians in Kentucky, representing the first Congressional district in the U.S. Congress when the South seceded. He was later expelled from that body and became one of Kentucky’s two Confederate Senators, serving from 1862 to 1865 in that position, a most important delegate to carry the final personal effects of the great Kentucky-born soldier to his close friend.

When Confederate Major General Albert Sidney Johnston fell, the South lost one of its most experienced soldiers and military administrators and saw the early death of the highest-ranking Civil War commander killed during the entire war. Jefferson Davis made the most profound comment on the loss of his close friend when he considered it with regard to the Confederacy’s fortunes. Diagnosing the severity of the blow, Davis frequently remarked during and after the war that the loss of Johnston “was the turning point of our fate; for we had no other hand to take up his work in the West.” Johnston was dead. He was fifty-nine years old. But, his final, personal effects carried on…For a man whose life was dominated by the fight, whether it be against the Mormon Nauvoo Legion, Native American warriors, Mexican Regulars, or Northerners wearing Union blue, the simple possessions carried by the Confederacy’s second highest ranking general officer, seem somehow fitting for an old soldier’s life.

During the Civil War, A.S. Johnston’s precocious son Colonel William Preston Johnston, who attended Centre College and Yale, served as aide-de-camp to none other than Jefferson Davis, frequently riding horseback for miles with the President and taking his meals with the Confederate cabinet. In 1866, William Preston Johnston’s impressive scholarly credentials and Kentucky connections led President Robert E. Lee to solicit his services as the Chair of History and English Literature at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia (later Washington and Lee University). William Preston Johnston would go on to become President of Louisiana State University and the first President of Tulane University during his long academic career. He would also write the first biography of his famed father. Today, The Filson’s archive still holds the letter from R.E. Lee notifying the people of Kentucky of the appointment of William Preston Johnston to his faculty chair and asking for their financial support of his position. The document connects the lives and legacies of two of the South’s most important Civil War military commanders.

 

Barton A. Myers is Associate Professor of Civil War History at Washington and Lee University and the author of Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861-1865 (LSU Press, 2009), Rebels Against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), and co-editor with Dr. Brian D. McKnight of the forthcoming The Guerrilla Hunters: Irregular Conflicts during the Civil War (LSU Press, 2017).

Please send your own Filson Finds to LeeAnn Whites, Director of Research (lwhites@filsonhistorical.org)

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