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Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics by Charles P. Roland

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  • Brett Schulte
    Charles P. Roland. Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky; Revised Edition (February 2001). 384
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 5, 2007
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      Charles P. Roland. Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics.
      Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky; Revised Edition
      (February 2001). 384 pp., 16 maps, notes, index.. ISBN: 0-81319-000-2
      $19.95 (Paperback).

      The University Press of Kentucky reissued Charles P. Roland's
      impressive biography of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston in
      2001, and readers will be glad they did. It is telling, writes
      historian Gary Gallagher in a new Foreword, that no new biography of
      Johnston has come out in almost 40 years. Roland's balanced,
      entertaining, and informative work still stands as the standard
      account of this martial man's life. In telling Johnston's story,
      Roland emphasizes his devotion to duty no matter how distasteful the
      assignment. Time and time again, whether in Texas, Utah, or
      Tennessee, Johnston was faithful in discharging his duty despite any
      personal misgivings with those in authority. Many thought Johnston
      would run for President of the eponymous three republics, Texas, the
      United States, and the Confederate States. In all cases, Johnston
      declined, preferring military duty as the best way to help whatever
      cause he was then involved with. As of early 2007, Roland's study is
      and will remain for the foreseeable future the standard work on Albert
      Sidney Johnston's life.

      Albert Sidney Johnston was born in Kentucky in 1803, the son of a
      practicing doctor who originally hailed from New England. Despite
      these Yankee roots, Johnston would become a thoroughly southern man.
      Johnston initially enrolled at Transylvania University in Lexington,
      Kentucky, and he later attended West Point. Johnston counted future
      Confederate President Jefferson Davis as one of his close friends
      while at the military academy. Johnston was a good student and
      finished eighth overall, requesting a commission in the infantry.
      Johnston seemed to be attracted to the most active areas all his life,
      first participating in the Black Hawk War in 1832, then moving on to
      the newly created Republic of Texas in the 1830's. Johnston became a
      General an d commanded Texas' main army after she had won her
      independence from Mexico. While in Texas, Johnston eventually found
      himself in a feud with prominent Texan Sam Houston, a situation which
      would endure even after Texas joined the United States. From Texas,
      Johnston also participated in the 1846-48 War with Mexico, first as a
      Colonel of volunteers and then as an honorary aide. After the Mexican
      War, Johnston became chief paymaster of the Department of Texas, and
      also unsuccessfully ran a plantation in that state. His job entailed
      long, lonely journeys away from his family, a situation that finally
      ended when Johnston was placed in command of the famed 2nd United
      States Cavalry. While in this position, Johnston commanded an
      expedition to Utah to possibly fight a war with the Mormons in 1857.
      Johnston's treatment of the Mormons was impeccable, though he
      disagreed with their way of life. Later, Johnston became commander of
      the Department of California, and was at this post when the Civil War
      broke out. Johnston, who identified strongly with Texas, decided to
      join the Confederacy as soon as the Lone Star state seceded.

      Johnston was soon appointed as one of the five senior generals of the
      Confederacy, and his experience was so extensive that his personal
      friendship with Jefferson Davis never even factored into the equation.
      Davis considered Johnston to be the finest general he had available,
      and assigned him to command the entire western theater from eastern
      Kentucky to western Arkansas. What Davis didn't give Johnston enough
      of was men and materiel. He was expected to cover this massive amount
      of territory with less than 60,000 men initially, facing over twice
      that number in Union troops. Johnston's attempts to defend the easter
      expanse of this department failed when one of his strong points at
      Forts Henry and Donelson was taken. Not only did Johnston fail to
      hold the forts, but he also lost 15,000 badly needed men in the
      process. Roland rightly criticizes Johnston's actions during this
      time frame. To Johnston's credit, he managed to hold together his
      army through a long and demoralizing retreat which saw the loss of all
      of Kentucky and most of Tennessee including Nashville. Johnston and
      P. G. T. Beauregard now called in reinforcements from across the
      Confederacy in an attempt to overwhelm Grant's Army of the Tennessee
      at Pittsburg Landing. At the height of the attack, Johnston was hit
      and his boot heel torn partially from the boot. Johnston seemed fine,
      but in reality an artery had been nicked and the general bled to death
      in a short while. Johnston was never given the chance to achieve
      greatness, argues Roland, so we cannot honestly say what might have
      been regarding his development. Men such as Grant learned from their
      early mistakes; whether or not Johnston would have done the same is
      open for speculation.

      Johnston spent most of his adult life in and around the military in
      one form or another, so this biography is naturally enough concerned
      with a lot of military matters. Roland moves equally well in military
      and non-military discussions of Johnston's life. His portrayal of
      Johnston's family and the general's inability to house all of his
      children in one home due to his financial situation was especially
      touching. That Roland's book still stands as the standard account of
      Johnston's life testifies to his mastery of the subject. From
      Johnston's days as a cadet at West Point to the various campaigns for
      different countries Johnston found himself in, Roland covers all
      aspects of Johnston's life in a consistently fair manner, giving the
      man's failures (mainly financial) and successes (mainly military)
      equal attention. Roland ultimately concludes that Johnston handled
      his military commands with aplomb throughout the antebellum years, and
      he was possibly on his way to this same success in the Civil War
      before his life was cut short at Shiloh.

      The maps in this book were standard for their time (1964), and I was
      actually pleasantly surprised by most of them. They serve their
      intended role of familiarizing the reader with the situation without
      being too vague or too few in number to make a difference. Roland
      uses the footnote method at the bottom of each page, a process which
      works better for me in terms of actually looking through the notes at
      the pertinent point in the text rather than at the end of a chapter or
      at the end of the book. Roland's bibliography is extensive and uses
      quite a few manuscript collections as the foundation of his research.
      Johnston's letters to and from family, friends, and acquaintances are
      used to especially good effect. The index is functional and serves
      its intended purpose quite well.

      Charles P. Roland's biography of Albert Sidney Johnston continues to
      stand as the only modern work of the general. The quality of the book
      will insure that it stays this way for the foreseeable future. Those
      readers interested in biographical works on the Civil War's leaders
      would do well to have a copy of Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of
      Three Republics on their shelves. No portion of Johnston's life, from
      his military and personal affairs, his financial failures and military
      successes, is left uncovered. This biography of Johnston can also be
      seen as a microcosm of the difficult choices facing men who had
      previously or were then serving in the United States Army in 1860.
      For many of these men, their state was more important to them than
      their country. This biography was also mentioned in several Civil War
      periodicals as one of the 100 best books written on the Civil War, a
      sentiment which is pretty close to the mark. Albert Sidney Johnston:
      Soldier of Three Republics will appeal to students of antebellum
      America almost as much as students of the Civil war, for most of
      Johnston's life was spent in those pre-war years. Considering the
      relatively low price and solid account of Johnston's life, this
      biography belongs in every Civil War buff's collection.

      (Note: Special thanks goes to Hap Houlihan at The University Press of
      Kentucky.)
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