American Civil War: General Albert Sidney Johnston

Albert S. Johnston
General Albert Sidney Johnston, CSA. Library of Congress

A Kentucky native, General Albert Sidney Johnston was a notable Confederate commander during the early months of the Civil War. After graduating from West Point in 1826, he later moved to Texas and joined the Texas Army where he acted as aide-de-camp to General Sam Houston. Following service in the Mexican-American War, Johnston returned to the US Army and was commanding the Department of California when the Civil War began. He soon accepted a commission as a general in the Confederate Army and was tasked with defending the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Considered one of the finest officers available at the start of the war, Johnston was mortally wounded at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.

Early Life

Born in Washington, KY on February 2, 1803, Albert Sidney Johnston was the youngest son of John and Abigail Harris Johnston. Educated locally through his younger years, Johnston enrolled at Transylvania University in the 1820s. While there he befriended the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Like his friend, Johnston soon transferred from Transylvania to US Military Academy at West Point.

Two years Davis' junior, he graduated in 1826, ranked eighth in a class of forty-one. Accepting a commission as a brevet second lieutenant, Johnston was posted to the 2nd US Infantry. Moving through posts in New York and Missouri, Johnston married Henrietta Preston in 1829. The couple would produce a son, William Preston Johnston, two years later.

With the beginning of the Black Hawk War in 1832, he was appointed as chief of staff to Brigadier General Henry Atkinson, the commander of US forces in the conflict. Though a well-respected and gifted officer, Johnston was forced to resign his commission in 1834, to care for Henrietta who was dying of tuberculosis. Returning to Kentucky, Johnston tried his hand at farming until her death in 1836.

Texas Revolution

Seeking a fresh start, Johnston traveled to Texas that year and quickly became embroiled in the Texas Revolution. Enlisting as a private in the Texas Army shortly after the Battle of San Jacinto, his prior military experience allowed him to swiftly advance through the ranks. Shortly thereafter, he was named aide-de-camp to General Sam Houston. On August 5, 1836, he was promoted to colonel and made adjutant general of the Texas Army.

Recognized as a superior officer, he was named commander of the army, with the rank of brigadier general, on January 31, 1837. In the wake of his promotion, Johnston was prevented from actually taking command after being wounded in a duel with Brigadier General Felix Huston. Recovering from his injuries, Johnston was appointed Secretary of War by Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar on December 22, 1838.

He served in this role for a little over a year and led an expedition against Indians in northern Texas. Resigning in 1840, he briefly returned to Kentucky where he married Eliza Griffin in 1843. Traveling back to Texas, the couple settled on a large plantation named China Grove in Brazoria County.

Fast Facts: General Albert Sidney Johnston

  • Rank: General
  • Service: US Army, Confederate Army
  • Born: February 2, 1803 in Washington, KY
  • Died: April 6, 1862 in Hardin County, TN
  • Parents: John and Abigail Harris Johnston
  • Spouse: Henrietta Preston
  • Conflicts: Mexican-American War, Civil War
  • Known For: Battle of Shiloh

Mexican-American War

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Johnston assisted in raising the 1st Texas Rifle Volunteers. Serving as the regiment's colonel, the 1st Texas took part in Major General Zachary Taylor's campaign in northeastern Mexico. That September, when the regiment's enlistments expired on the eve of the Battle of Monterrey, Johnston convinced several of his men to stay and fight. For the remainder of the campaign, including the Battle of Buena Vista, Johnston held the title of inspector general of volunteers. Returning home at the war's end, he tended to his plantation.

Battle of Buena Vista, 1847. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Antebellum Years

Impressed with Johnston's service during the conflict, now-President Zachary Taylor appointed him a paymaster and major in the US Army in December 1849. One of the few Texas military men to be taken into regular service, Johnston held the position for five years and on average traveled 4,000 miles a year discharging his duties. In 1855, he was promoted to colonel and assigned to organize and lead the new 2nd US Cavalry.

Two years later he successfully led an expedition into Utah to confront the Mormons. During this campaign, he successfully installed a pro-US government in Utah without any bloodshed. In reward for conducting this delicate operation, he was brevetted to brigadier general. After spending much of 1860, in Kentucky, Johnston accepted command of the Department of the Pacific and sailed for California on December 21.

As the secession crisis worsened through the winter, Johnston was pressured by Californians to take his command east to fight the Confederates. Unswayed, he finally resigned his commission on April 9, 1861, after hearing that Texas had left the Union. Remaining in his post until June when his successor arrived, he traveled across the desert and reached Richmond, VA in early September.

The Civil War Begins

Warmly received by his friend President Jefferson Davis, Johnston was appointed a full general in the Confederate Army with a date of rank of May 31, 1861. The second-most senior officer in the army, he was placed in command of the Western Department with orders to defend between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Raising the Army of Mississippi, Johnston's command was soon spread thin over this wide frontier.

A.S. Johnston
General Albert S. Johnston. Library of Congress

Though recognized as one of the prewar army's elite officers, Johnston was criticized in early 1862, when Union campaigns in the West met with success. Following the loss of Forts Henry & Donelson and the Union capture of Nashville, Johnston began concentrating his forces, along with those of General P.G.T. Beauregard at Corinth, MS, with the goal of striking at Major General Ulysses S. Grant's army at Pittsburg Landing, TN.


Attacking on April 6, 1862, Johnston opened the Battle of Shiloh by catching Grant's army by surprise and quickly overrunning its camps. Leading from the front, Johnston was seemingly everywhere on the field directing his men. During one charge around 2:30 PM, he was wounded behind the right knee, mostly likely from friendly fire. Not thinking the injury serious he released his personal surgeon to aid several wounded soldiers. A short time later, Johnston realized that his boot was filling with blood as the bullet had nicked his popliteal artery.

Feeling faint, he was taken from his horse and placed in a small ravine where he bled to death a short time later. With his loss, Beauregard ascended to command and was driven from the field by Union counterattacks the next day. Believed to be their best general General Robert E. Lee would not emerge until that summer), Johnston's death was mourned across the Confederacy. First buried in New Orleans, Johnston was the highest-ranking casualty on either side during the war. In 1867, his body was moved to the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: General Albert Sidney Johnston." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: General Albert Sidney Johnston. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: General Albert Sidney Johnston." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).