Tuesday, October 22, 2013
A MOST ENIGMATIC GENERAL
By Bob Hurst
It is generally acknowledged that there were 425 Confederate generals. There are some historians, as there always are, who have developed their own lists which vary from this listing but I feel confident that documentation supports the 425 as having been appointed and confirmed to one of the four ranks of "general" officer.
Since I was a young boy (elementary school age), I have spent many happy hours reading about this corps of Confederate leaders. My early reading, as you might imagine, was primarily about the brightest stars in the Southern military pantheon – Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Forrest. As I have grown older (much older), I have been able to build a personal library that has allowed me to become familiar, at least nominally, with all 425 of these Confederate warriors.
My study of these men has done nothing but enhance my admiration of this group of Southern gentlemen. Each and every one was a person of accomplishment before becoming a Confederate military leader. One thing this group was not, however, was monolithic.
One might surmise that to have reached this lofty rank each Confederate general must have been an individual with a military background. This was certainly not the case, however. While 125 of the generals were professional soldiers, this was not the largest specific group from which the military leadership was drawn. The legal profession – lawyers and jurists – provided 129 of the Confederate generals. There were 55 generals who were businessmen in their professional life and 42 who were planters/farmers. There were smaller numbers drawn from the ranks of educators, physicians, civil engineers and even ministers; not to mention the one newspaper editor who attained this lofty rank.
Equally as diverse as the occupations of this group were the ages of the corps of general officers. The youngest general, William Paul Roberts of North Carolina, was only 23 years old at the time of his appointment to the rank of brigadier general. At the other end of the scale was Major General David Twiggs of Georgia who was either 70 or 71 years old at the time of his appointment. I am not sure of his exact age since his headstone in the family cemetery near Augusta lists only "1790" as his date of birth.
Another interesting fact about the generals relates to how many were not Southerners. There were Confederate generals who hailed from 11 non-seceding states and from three foreign countries. Surprisingly, nine generals came from New York, six each from Pennsylvania and Ohio, and five from that bastion of South-haters called Massachusetts. Smaller numbers came from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Jersey, Iowa and Indiana.
The non-seceding state that supplied the largest number of Confederate generals (11) was Maryland, but I don’t include the "Old Line State" with the other non-seceding states since that Confederate-friendly state would have seceded had not Abraham Lincoln had more than 50 elected officials arrested and imprisoned to prevent them from voting for secession. I also did not include Kentucky or Missouri since each of those states passed an Ordinance of Secession which was submitted to and approved by the Confederate Congress.
The three foreign countries that supplied generals to the Confederacy were Ireland, France and England.
So what we have are 425 generals fighting for the South coming from 24 states and three foreign countries.
There was even a Confederate general, Frank Crawford Armstrong, who began the War in a Union uniform and actually fought on the Union side at the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run if you’re from the North). He eventually saw the light, however, and resigned from the Union Army in August 1861 and joined the Confederate Army. He had a fine career with the Southern army and eventually was promoted to brigadier general in January 1863. Before the War ended he had served with such luminaries as Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joe Wheeler, Sterling Price, Stephen Dill Lee and James Chalmers.
Now, one would think that with all the variety and diversity within the ranks of the generals that there would be a number of these individuals who only surprisingly ended up as a general officer in the Confederate Army. Undoubtedly there are likely a number of such individuals. There is only one, however, who stands out to me above all others. His name was Bushrod Rust Johnson.
Bushrod Johnson was actually a very good general. On the battlefield he almost always made the right moves. He had a penchant, though, for sometimes doing things that made no sense to others and not infrequently angered his superiors. This is not, though, the primary reason that I think he was the most enigmatic of Confederate generals – that relates to his birth circumstances rather than his military style.
Bushrod Johnson, you see, was born in Ohio into a family of Quakers who were devoted to the concept of pacifism. His family members were also ardent abolitionists who had been active with the underground railroad. It just seems so unlikely (and enigmatic) to me that a northern-born pacifist/abolitionist would end up wearing the uniform of a Confederate and fighting for the Confederacy in a war of northern aggression. Puzzling, confusing, enigmatic – all of these (but his military career makes an interesting story.
Perhaps it was just rebelliousness on his part to leave the strict Quaker life but, for whatever reason, at age 18 Bushrod Johnson applied for and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1840 around the middle of his class and spent the next several years in Louisiana, Florida, Missouri and other western posts.
When the United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, Johnson was assigned to the army of General Zachary Taylor.
Over the next two years he was involved in several battles and always performed well. He was not promoted, however, and eventually was placed in charge of a supply base. Perhaps it was caused by boredom in this non-combat setting but, for some reason, he devised a scheme to market government goods which was found out and almost resulted in a court martial. He avoided the court martial by resigning from the military.
He soon took a teaching position at Western Military Institute in Kentucky and by 1852 was co-owner of the school. He also married during this time. In 1854 the school was moved to Nashville and Bushrod Johnson soon became the sole owner of the school which was now an adjunct of the University of Nashville. By mid-1861 the War had begun and the students had left to join various Confederate units. When Tennessee seceded in June of 1861, Bushrod Johnson became a Confederate officer as colonel of engineers.
Initially he spent much time designing and constructing defensive works on the Cumberland River and the Tennessee River. He was also active in drilling volunteers and preparing them for war. For all his efforts in these matters he was rewarded with a promotion to brigadier general on January 24, 1862.
Shortly after this promotion he was assigned to Fort Donelson. He performed well during the February attack on the fort but soon learned that the decision to surrender had been made by two higher ranking officers who had decided to escape before the surrender. Johnson stayed his post until General Simon Bolivar Buckner surrendered the fort. Since the Union forces had no plan for boarding and feeding 12,000 Confederate captives, they began loading them on ships to be sent to northern prisons. General Johnson maintained a stealthy presence during this time and when the last prisoner was boarded he merely walked away from the fort unobserved and escaped.
This brought much criticism his way when his escape was found out. Many labeled his action as dishonorable and others questioned the propriety of his walking away. Personally, I find no fault with his actions and I think this is confirmed by his laudable record in the months following Fort Donelson.
Johnson immediately headed south and by the first week in April he was in command of his own brigade at the Battle of Shiloh. Although Shiloh was a tragic bloodbath, General Johnson and his brigade accounted well for themselves although suffering more than 700 casualties. There was almost one more as Bushrod Johnson had a horse killed under him during the battle. Although Johnson and his men performed well in the battle, he was passed over for promotion.
Later in the year at Perryville, Kentucky, "Johnson’s Brigade" again performed well although General Johnson had five horses shot from under him during the battle. There was certainly no doubting his bravery.
As 1862 drew to a close, General Johnson and his brigade were in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, opposing a large Union force. On December 30 his troops engaged in a surprise attack that had driven the enemy almost three miles back when a rumor began circulating among Confederate troops that they had been out-flanked and were in danger of being torn to shreds. Many began fleeing upon hearing this rumor. Learning of this, General Johnson grabbed a flag and rode among his men personally inspiring them and rallying them out of their retreat.
Although denied the opportunity for a huge victory, Johnson received nothing but praise for his handling of the situation. Again, though, as had become the pattern, he was passed over for promotion despite his sterling performance.
Later in 1863, Johnson and his troops performed well at Chickamauga. Sometime after this, General James Longstreet began a petition campaign to remove General Braxton Bragg from his leadership position. Bushrod Johnson signed the petition and by so doing likely incurred the wrath of the Bragg supporters including President Jefferson Davis.
In May of 1864, Johnson and his brigade were ordered to the Richmond/Petersburg area to help defend that front from attacks from Butler’s forces. Again, Johnson’s Brigade performed admirably and at long last, after receiving strong praise from General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, Bushrod Johnson was finally promoted to the rank of major general to rank from May 21, 1864. The remainder of the War for Bushrod Johnson from that point on was spent in the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee.
Major General Bushrod Johnson was paroled at Appomattox without a command. I have read varying reports of what he did to anger General Lee but have not been able to verify which account is accurate. One thing is certain – he certainly did anger the great man.
After the War, Bushrod Johnson returned to Nashville to become a professor and co-chancellor of the University of Nashville with Edmund Kirby Smith, another famed Confederate general. Because of failing health he retired in 1875 and moved to a farm in Illinois. He died there in 1880 and was buried in Brighton, Illinois. In 1975 he was reinterred in Nashville next to his wife in Old City Cemetery.
From his pacifist/abolitionist Quaker background to his decision to attend the U.S. Military academy; from his outstanding performances in many theaters of war only to be passed over for promotions; from his Northern upbringing to his desire to fight for the Confederacy; from his astuteness of command to his ability to do unexplainable things that irritated superior officers; I truly find Bushrod Rust Johnson to be an enigma. Yes, a most enigmatic general, but a fine one!