The first commander of Confederate forces in the Western Theater, Albert Sidney Johnston was born at Washington, Kentucky, on February 2, 1803. Johnston graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1826. While there, he developed a friendship with another cadet, Jefferson Davis.
After serving in several western outposts, Johnston resigned his commission in 1834 to join the revolutionary army of Texas as a private. By 1836 he was the senior brigade commander of the Texas forces. After the admission of Texas to the Union, Johnston rejoined the U.S. Army in 1849 as colonel of the newly formed Second Cavalry, an elite regiment that included some of the best officers in the country. In part, Johnston owed his command position to his reputation as an able officer, but more importantly, to his friendship with the secretary of war, Jefferson Davis.
By 1861 Johnston commanded the Department of the Pacific, but when Texas seceded from the Union, he resigned his commission. Offering his services to the president of the new Confederate States, Johnston received an appointment as a full general in August 1861. The Kentuckian commanded all Confederate forces west of the Allegheny Mountains, an area encompassing approximately two-thirds of the Confederacy.
Johnston assumed the task of defending a three-hundred-mile front stretching from the Mississippi River across Tennessee and Kentucky to the Cumberland Gap. To defend this line against approximately sixty thousand Federal soldiers, Johnston mustered only thirty thousand Southern men.
Despite his tenuous position, Johnston maintained the confidence of Davis and the citizens of the South. His successful prewar career and his martial bearing led many to exaggerate his military capabilities. At age fifty-nine, Johnston stood over six feet tall, with gray-streaked hair and a large mustache. Usually wearing a well-fitted gray uniform, Johnston looked like a general.
In the spring of 1862 Johnston's image as the most capable officer in the Confederacy collapsed, however. When he moved to strengthen the garrison at Bowling Green, Kentucky, General Ulysses S. Grant took advantage of the weak defenses on the western rivers and captured Forts Henry and Donelson. As the Confederate forces retreated south, the state capital of Tennessee fell to the Union army. Tennessee delegates to the Confederate Congress petitioned for Johnston's removal as commander in the West.
Resolving to reclaim the lost territory, Johnston gathered a strong force at Corinth, Mississippi. He planned to strike the Union forces under Grant, then encamped at Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, before they could be reinforced. The resulting battle of Shiloh, April 6 and 7, 1862, was the largest engagement of the Civil War fought to date.
Taking advantage of their initial success, Johnston's forces were driving the Federal soldiers before them when word reached him that one regiment refused to advance. Johnston decided to lead personally this regiment, the Forty-fifth Tennessee Infantry, in a charge against what came to be known as the Hornets' Nest. Johnston led a bayonet charge that drove the enemy back several hundred yards. The general returned to his staff, flushed with excitement, with several bullet holes in his uniform but no visible injuries.
Johnston sent his staff to various parts of the battlefield, but he remained behind the battle line. The first of his staff to return, volunteer aide and Tennessee governor Isham G. Harris, found the general slumped in his saddle. Harris led him to a ravine and laid him under a tree, where Johnston died a short time later. During the charge with the Forty-fifth Tennessee Infantry, a ball had entered Johnston's leg just above his boot and severed an artery. Command of the Confederate forces fell to General P. G. T. Beauregard. The following day, after reinforcements arrived from Nashville, the Federal troops drove the Confederates from the field.
Charles P. Roland, Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics (1964)