General Bushrod Johnson

After the discussion of the more famous Confederate generals at Fort Donelson, I would feel remiss to leave without posts about the two generals who participated but who are rarely presented: Bushrod Johnson and Lloyd Tilghman.  Today’s post covers Johnson’s biography.

Photo of Bushrod JohnsonBushrod Johnson was born in 1817 and raised as a Quaker in Belmont County, Ohio. During his youth, he worked on the Underground Railroad with his uncle. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1840 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Infantry.  Classmates from the Class of 1840 include opposing generals George Thomas and W.T. Sherman and Confederate generals R.S. Ewell, P.O. Hebert, J.P. McCown. And J. Jordan.

He fought in the Seminole War in Florida and in the War with Mexico.  He saw combat at the battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma and Monterrey. He was then transferred to Gen. Winfield Scott’s army for the Vera Cruz campaign. Instead of being given a combat role, Johnson was appointed acting assistant commissary, but was forced to resign from the Army in October 1847 after (rightfully) being  accused of misappropriation of government property.

Johnson landed a job teaching at Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Ky.  Eventually, Johnson became headmaster and married Mary Hatch. They had a son, Charles, who was an invalid and required continual care. Mary died of “nervous fever” in 1858. Johnson hired a nanny and continued to teach.  In 1855, WMI moved to Nashville where it merged with the University of Nashville. WMI continued as a prep school offering high school instruction. Johnson taught natural philosophy and chemistry at the Western Military Institute and mathematics and engineering at the University of Nashville. During this period he was active in the state militias of Kentucky and Tennessee, rising to the rank of colonel.

After he sent his son to live with family in Ohio, Johnson entered Confederate service on June 28, 1861 as a colonel of engineers in the Tennessee Militia.  A week later this commission was changed to be in the Confederate States Army. He assisted in the layout and construction of Fort Donelson and was promoted to brigadier general on January 24, 1862. Following the fall of Fort Henry, Johnson took command of the garrison of Fort Donaldson and the survivors from Fort Henry, sixteen regiments organized into four brigades.  However, he commanded the army at Fort Donelson for less than a day as the higher ranking Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow arrived that evening.

He commanded his own division at Donelson, but it was Pillow who led the Left Wing (Johnson’s Division and Floyd’s Division of Virginians, now commanded by Colonel Gabriel Wharton) during the attack of the 15th.  The fort and its army surrendered to Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on February 16, 1862, but two days later Johnson was able to escape by simply walking away through the porous Union Army lines.

Johnson commanded a brigade in Cheatham’s Division at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862.  He assumed command of the division when Cheatham was wounded but was himself severely wounded by the concussion of an artillery shell.

After recovering from his injury, he rejoined the Army of Tennessee during the invasion of Kentucky in the summer of 1862.  Here, he commanded a brigade of mostly Tennesseans in a division commanded by his former comrade at Ft. Donelson, Simon B. Buckner.  He led the brigade through most of the battles of 1862-3, serving under Patrick Cleburne after Buckner transferred to command in East Tennessee.  At the battle of Chickamauga and the Siege of Knoxville, he led a provisional division under James Longstreet, consisting of his own brigade and two other western brigades.  His division led the penetration through the Federal lines at Chickamauga which led to the rout of the enemy army.

Promoted to major general on May 21, 1864, Johnson served as a division commander, first during operations against Butler around Petersburg and during the subsequent siege.  South Carolinian troops from Johnson’s Division captured three stands of colors and 130 prisoners in the Battle of the Crater, although Johnson, himself, did not participate in the fight.  His men fought in the last battles of the siege: White Oak Road, Five Forks, and Sailer’s Creek where the Federal cavalry destroyed his own and Picket’s divisions.  Johnson, Pickett and their corps commander, Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson, saved themselves only to be relieved of duty by Lee on April 8, 1865. That was the day before Lee surrendered the rest of his army to Grant at Appomattox.

Following the war, Johnson returned to teaching in Nashville.  He rose to the position of co-chancellor of the University of Nashville in 1870 with former Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith. His health failing, he retired with his invalid son in 1875 to a farm in Brighton, Illinois, where he died in 1880. He was originally buried in Miles Station, near Brighton, but was reinterred in 1975 to Old City Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee, to be next to the grave of his wife, Mary.

Johnson appears to have been a competent general during the first years of the war but seems to have been held back because of a lack of political connections and, possibly residual suspicion over the misappropriation incident. However, it appears that sometime during the Siege of Petersburg, Johnson may have lost hope in Confederate victory.  The battle of the Crater took place while he sat through breakfast, even though one of his brigades was the point of the Federal attack.  Certainly he lost the confidence of Robert E. Lee as a result of that battle.  His performance at Five Forks and Sailor’s Creek showed a lack of initiative but, perhaps, is understandable given the starvation and overwhelming numbers of enemy faced by the Army of Northern Virginia during April 1865.

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