As part of Confederate History Month, I have been trying to find unique perspectives of historical events. As most history buffs know, the Battle of Shiloh took place in April so today I will focus on that and the mortal wounding of Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnson. I remember reading about Johnston’s death while researching my historical fiction novel, Shades of Gray, but I was still amazed by the events that unfolded that day – April 6, 1862.
On April 3, General Johnston’s forces were at Corinth, as Union Major General Buell was making a forced march to join up with the troops of General U.S. Grant. Johnston decided to give battle before they could unite, so his army was drawn up and the following battle order was read to each command:
“Soldiers of the Army of Mississippi: I have put you in motion to offer battle to the invaders of your country. With the resolution and discipline and 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 you and to despoil you of your liberties, your property, and your honor. Remember the precious task involved; remember the dependence of your mothers, your wives, your sisters, and your children, on the result; remember the fair, broad, abounding land, and the happy homes that would be desolated by your defeat.”
In an issue of the Confederate Veteran, Dr. J.W. McMurray of the 20th Tennessee, recalled, “Many men of rank have told this writer that they never saw Gen. Johnston’s equal in battle in this respect. He sat his beautiful thoroughbred bay, ‘Fire-eater’ with easy command – like a statue of victory. 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, full of the joy of combat, that wrought upon them.”
According to McMurry, Johnston’s words were few. To Gen. Randal L. Gibson, Johnson said, “I hope you will get through safely today, but we must win a victory.” To Col. John S. Marmaduke, he said, “My son, we must this day conquer or perish.” To an Arkansas Regiment, he said, “Today you will wield a nobler weapon than the Bowie knife – the bayonet. Employ it well. Men! They are stubborn; we must use the bayonet.”
Much has been written about the bloody Battle of Shiloh, which was a slaughter on both sides. Corpses littered areas of the battlefield to the extent that, as General Grant described, “it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.”
One Union officer described the scene as the Confederates followed their leader for a final charge: “On they came with a quick step in gallant style, without firing a gun, the Stars and Bars flaunting jauntily in the breeze… as bold and defiant a battle flag as one could wish to meet in battle’s stern array. It seemed almost barbarous to fire on brave men pressing forward so heroically into the mouth of Hell.”
General Johnston passed through the murderous fire seemingly unhurt, though his horse was shot in four places, his clothes were pierced by missiles, and his boot sole was cut and torn by a minie ball.
However, unknown to him and those around him, a minie ball had struck just behind the knee near where he had been wounded earlier in his life from a duel. The earlier injury had caused damage to nerves so that he no longer had feeling in his leg at all times. It wasn’t until he began reeling in the saddle that his men noticed his boot was full of blood, the ball having nicked an artery. While his men hovered over him, Johnston died, though a simple tourniquet likely would have saved his life.
In Confederate Veteran, McMurray writes: “As Gen. Johnston, on horseback, sat there, knowing that he had crushed the arch which had so long resisted the pressure of his forces, and waiting until they should collect sufficiently to give the final strike, he received a mortal wound. It smote him at the very instant when he felt the full assurance that the day was won; that his own conduct and wisdom were justified by results and that he held in his hand the fortunes of war and the success of the Confederate cause.”