« Today in the Petersburg Campaign | Main | The Journal of Military History »

Review: Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics

Charles P. Roland. Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky; Revised Edition (February 2001). 384 pp., 16 maps, notes, index.. ISBN: 0-81319-000-2 $19.95 (Paperback).

The University Press of Kentucky reissued Charles P. Roland's impressive biography of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston in 2001, and readers will be glad they did.  It is telling, writes historian Gary Gallagher in a new Foreword, that no new biography of Johnston has come out in almost 40 years.  Roland's balanced, entertaining, and informative work still stands as the standard account of this martial man's life.   In telling Johnston's story, Roland emphasizes his devotion to duty no matter how distasteful the assignment.  Time and time again, whether in Texas, Utah, or Tennessee, Johnston was faithful in discharging his duty despite any personal misgivings with those in authority.  Many thought Johnston would run for President of the eponymous three republics, Texas, the United States, and the Confederate States.  In all cases, Johnston declined, preferring military duty as the best way to help whatever cause he was then involved with.  As of early 2007, Roland's study is and will remain for the foreseeable future the standard work on Albert Sidney Johnston's life.

Albert Sidney Johnston was born in Kentucky in 1803, the son of a practicing doctor who originally hailed from New England.  Despite these Yankee roots, Johnston would become a thoroughly southern man.  Johnston initially enrolled at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and he later attended West Point.  Johnston counted future Confederate President Jefferson Davis as one of his close friends while at the military academy.  Johnston was a good student and finished eighth overall, requesting a commission in the infantry.  Johnston seemed to be attracted to the most active areas all his life, first participating in the Black Hawk War in 1832, then moving on to the newly created Republic of Texas in the 1830's.  Johnston became a General an d commanded Texas' main army after she had won her independence from Mexico.  While in Texas, Johnston eventually found himself in a feud with prominent Texan Sam Houston, a situation which would endure even after Texas joined the United States.  From Texas, Johnston also participated in the 1846-48 War with Mexico, first as a Colonel of volunteers and then as an honorary aide.  After the Mexican War, Johnston became chief paymaster of the Department of Texas, and also unsuccessfully ran a plantation in that state.  His job entailed long, lonely journeys away from his family, a situation that finally ended when Johnston was placed in command of the famed 2nd United States Cavalry.  While in this position, Johnston commanded an expedition to Utah to possibly fight a war with the Mormons in 1857.  Johnston's treatment of the Mormons was impeccable, though he disagreed with their way of life.  Later, Johnston became commander of the Department of California, and was at this post when the Civil War broke out.  Johnston, who identified strongly with Texas, decided to join the Confederacy as soon as the Lone Star state seceded.

Johnston was soon appointed as one of the five senior generals of the Confederacy, and his experience was so extensive that his personal friendship with Jefferson Davis never even factored into the equation.  Davis considered Johnston to be the finest general he had available, and assigned him to command the entire western theater from eastern Kentucky to western Arkansas.  What Davis didn't give Johnston enough of was men and materiel.  He was expected to cover this massive amount of territory with less than 60,000 men initially, facing over twice that number in Union troops.  Johnston's attempts to defend the easter expanse of this department failed when one of his strong points at Forts Henry and Donelson was taken.  Not only did Johnston fail to hold the forts, but he also lost 15,000 badly needed men in the process.  Roland rightly criticizes Johnston's actions during this time frame.  To Johnston's credit, he managed to hold together his army through a long and demoralizing retreat which saw the loss of all of Kentucky and most of Tennessee including Nashville.  Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard now called in reinforcements from across the Confederacy in an attempt to overwhelm Grant's Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing.  At the height of the attack, Johnston was hit and his boot heel torn partially from the boot.  Johnston seemed fine, but in reality an artery had been nicked and the general bled to death in a short while.  Johnston was never given the chance to achieve greatness, argues Roland, so we cannot honestly say what might have been regarding his development.  Men such as Grant learned from their early mistakes; whether or not Johnston would have done the same is open for speculation.

Johnston spent most of his adult life in and around the military in one form or another, so this biography is naturally enough concerned with a lot of military matters.  Roland moves equally well in military and non-military discussions of Johnston's life.  His portrayal of Johnston's family and the general's inability to house all of his children in one home due to his financial situation was especially touching.  That Roland's book still stands as the standard account of Johnston's life testifies to his mastery of the subject.  From Johnston's days as a cadet at West Point to the various campaigns for different countries Johnston found himself in, Roland covers all aspects of Johnston's life in a consistently fair manner, giving the man's failures (mainly financial) and successes (mainly military) equal attention.  Roland ultimately concludes that Johnston handled his military commands with aplomb throughout the antebellum years, and he was possibly on his way to this same success in the Civil War before his life was cut short at Shiloh.

The maps in this book were standard for their time (1964), and I was actually pleasantly surprised by most of them.  They serve their intended role of familiarizing  the reader with the situation without being too vague or too few in number to make a difference.  Roland uses the footnote method at the bottom of each page, a process which works better for me in terms of actually looking through the notes at the pertinent point in the text rather than at the end of a chapter or at the end of the book.  Roland's bibliography is extensive and uses quite a few manuscript collections as the foundation of his research.  Johnston's letters to and from family, friends, and acquaintances are used to especially good effect.  The index is functional and serves its intended purpose quite well.

Charles P. Roland's biography of Albert Sidney Johnston continues to stand as the only modern work of the general.  The quality of the book will insure that it stays this way for the foreseeable future.  Those readers interested in biographical works on the Civil War's leaders would do well to have a copy of Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics on their shelves.  No portion of Johnston's life, from his military and personal affairs, his financial failures and military successes, is left uncovered.  This biography of Johnston can also be seen as a microcosm of the difficult choices facing men who had previously or were then serving in the United States Army in 1860.  For many of these men, their state was more important to them than their country.  This biography was also mentioned in several Civil War periodicals as one of the 100 best books written on the Civil War, a sentiment which is pretty close to the mark.  Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics will appeal to students of antebellum America almost as much as students of the Civil war, for most of Johnston's life was spent in those pre-war years.  Considering the relatively low price and solid account of Johnston's life, this biography belongs in every Civil War buff's collection.

(Note: Special thanks goes to Hap Houlihan at The University Press of Kentucky.)


TrackBack URL for this entry:


Thanks for the helpful review. It's striking how uniformly impressed all of Johnston's colleagues and contemporaries were by him. I believe that some have suggested that, ironically, Jefferson Davis' great faith in Johnston and conviction that Johnston's arrival solved the problems in the west contributed to Davis' failure to respond adequately to Johnston's requests for men and materiel.


You're very welcome. This one was a very interesting read. If I recall correctly, about the only two people Johnston didn't impress were Sam Houston, and Felix Huston. He fought a duel with the latter in 1837 that might have caused his death at Shiloh. Some specualted that the nerve damage caused in that duel resulted in Johnston being unable to feel the wound at Shiloh.


Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)