Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

April 5, 1862: "The eyes and hopes of eight millions of people rest upon you"

"While the troops were deploying for battle... the sun set clear and red beyond the tasseling oaks on tomorrow's battlefield. There was a great stillness in the blue dusk, and then the stars came out. The moon, which had risen in the daylight sky, was as thin as a paring, a sickle holding water but unclouded. I never saw the moon so high, so remote--a dead star lighting a live on where forty thousand men, young and old but mostly young, slept on their arms in line of battle, ready for the dawn attack through the woods before them. God knows what dreams came to them or how many lay there sleepless thinking of home."
Reflections of Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe, Aide-de-Camp on Albert Sydney Johnston's staff, on the night before Shiloh. [From Shelby Foote's novel, Shiloh (Revised edition, New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 25.]

Albert Sydney Johnston

Raid, mud, inexperience, and poor communication had all hampered the march north, but they could not dismay Albert Sydney Johnston. On the evening of April 5, 1862, Johnston was on the eve of his greatest moment. His entire life had been one of service. He could claim to be a general of three republics, as one of his biographers has termed him. He served the United States Army, the army of the Republic of Texas, and now, he was the commander of Confederate forces in the west, one of the highest ranking officers in the entire Confederacy. He even outranked P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederacy's hero of Fort Sumter and [First] Manassas, victories which gave Southerners hope in 1861.

But now, it was spring of 1862. Beauregard's victories seemed long ago. Federal successes at Forts Henry and Donelson had torn the Confederate defenses asunder, sending legions of blue clad Yankees deep into the heart of the South. Using rivers to move into Southern Tennessee, Major General Ulysses S. Grant had as his next target the only form of transportation that was more important than rivers: railroads. Corinth, where the Mobile and Ohio and the Memphis and Charleston Railroads intersected, was the next strategic point where Federal forces had their hearts set on. With over 48,000 Federal soldiers at Pittsburg Landing on the west bank of the Tennessee River, just 20 miles from Corinth, it appeared as though it would be only a matter of time before Grant achieved yet another incredible victory.

Albert Syndey Johnston knew this. Thus, he determined he would not wait for defeat; he would seize the initiative to achieve victory. On April 3, Johnston and Beauregard began moving north with their Army of the Mississippi, over 40,000 strong and full of green recruits with shotguns previously used for squirrel hunting. By the evening of April 5, the Confederates were behind schedule. Their initial plans had called for an attack on April 4th. Those plans were adapted to attacking on the morning of the 5th. Yet, rather than launching an attack on the morning of the 5th, many Confederates were still arriving in their pre-battle positions throughout the day.

On the evening of the 5th, a Confederate council of war saw Johnston, Beauregard, and their leading commanders discussing the prospects for an attack the following morning. After the long and difficult march, Beauregard now felt the odds of surprising the Federals were no longer in their favor, suggesting Grant's army would be "entrenched to the eyes." The Louisiana native was in favor of withdrawing to avoid being defeated by a well prepared enemy.

Johnston would have none of it. After hearing from several of his commanders, including Major General Leonidas Polk, who was in favor of the attack, Johnston proclaimed, "Gentlemen, we shall attack at daylight."

Upon ending the conference, Johnston remarked to Colonel William Preston, his brother-in-law and aide, "I would fight them if they were a million. They can present no greater front between those two creeks than we can; and the more they crowd in there, the worse we can make it for them.... Polk is a true soldier and a friend."

Johnston's enthusiasm for the moment was not his alone. Many Confederates knew the stakes of the battle that would come on the morrow. An array of Confederates in uniforms of grey, butternut, as well as some in shades of blue, with battle flags of different corps varying in style, was truly an amalgamation of Southerners. Men from Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas were preparing to launch a surprise attack on men who they had previously called their countrymen. The attack that would come the following morning would prove to be a landmark event, forever changing the course and flow of American history. That evening, Johnston's battle message was read aloud to the various units of his army, reminding them of the stakes of the upcoming fight:

“I have put you in motion to offer battle to the invaders of your country. With the resolution and disciplined valor becoming men fighting, as you are, for all worth living or dying for, you can but march to a decisive victory over the agrarian mercenaries sent to subjugate and despoil you of your liberties, property, and honor. 
Remember the precious stake involved; remember the dependence of your mothers, your wives, your sisters, and your children on the result; remember the fair, broad, abounding land, the happy homes, and the ties that would be desolated by your defeat. 
The eyes and hopes of eight millions of people rest upon you. You are expected to show yourselves worthy of your race and lineage; worthy of the women of the South, whose noble devotion in this war has never been exceeded in any time. With such incentives to brave deeds and with the trust that God is with us, your generals will lead you confidently to the combat, assured of success.”

The following morning, as Johnston heard the first shots of the battle from Fraley Field, he said to his staff, "Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River." Yet, by 2:30 that afternoon of April 6, 1862, Johnston lay dead under an oak tree near Sara Bell's Peach Orchard.

Throughout the day, Johnston led from the front, channeling different brigades and regiments into battle. His fiery demeanor and courage inspired the men as they went to meet the enemy. During the early afternoon fighting, Johnston found himself leading an attack into one of the hottest parts of the battlefield. After hearing that several Confederate regiments were hesitant to charge the Federal lines near the Peach Orchard, Johnston rode to the front of the 9th Arkansas, clanging a tin cup he took from a Federal camp along the bayonets of the men, proclaiming, “Soldiers, get ready! Soldiers of the 9th Arkansas regiment are you ready to drive the invaders of your country from our soil?” The men responded with a shout: "We are!"

Johnston then told the Arkansas men, " you who boast of using cold steel, don’t waste your ammunition. I will lead you”. According to one observer, Johnston's words were incredibly powerful and effective: “His presence was full of inspiration… his voice was persuasive, encouraging, and compelling. It was inviting men to death, but they obeyed it. But, most of all, it was the light in his gray eyes, and his splendid presence… that wrought upon them.”

Johnston rode forward with the Confederate attack, retiring back behind the lines around 2 p.m. Shortly thereafter, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris, an aide on Johnston's staff, noticed the general leaning in the saddle. Harris asked Johnston, "General, are you wounded?", to which he replied, "Yes, and I fear seriously." 

Harris helped to lead Johnston's horse "Fire Eater" out of the line of fire, bringing the general down into a nearby ravine. After helping him from his horse, Harris and Johnston's staff frantically checked the general for wounds. None were found. By 2:30 p.m., Johnston bled to death from a wound in the back of his knee, severing an artery. His blood and pooled in his knee high boots. Johnston was found to have had a field tourniquet in his pocket when he died; had he used it, he may have lived. Yet, no one discovered the wound, and before they knew it, Albert Sydney Johnston became the highest ranking officer to be killed during the American Civil War.

Johnston's Monument at Shiloh, located where he was found leaning in the saddle.

Site believed to be where Johnston died. Recent studies have suggested that Johnston's death site was in fact a few hundred yards away from this location.

Taken from the Peach Orchard looking southeast, 
Johnston's monument can be seen in the distance on the right side of the picture.

 Johnston's Death is prominently featured and mourned on the Confederate Memorial at Shiloh

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