Was Albert Sidney Johnston a good general?

He didn’t have a chance to really show his stuff as he was killed in the first major battle he fought in the Civil War. So I’m wondering about what impact he would have had if he had lived.

He was highly regarded by his peers. He had a generally good record in minor wars before the Civil War. Davis had confidence in him, which was not the case with a lot of other generals.


A lot of generals who had good pre-war records ended up being mediocrities in the Civil War. Johnston’s early campaigns in the war had not gone well and he had made some questionable decisions (although you can argue that the problems he faced were due to bad subordinates and a lack of troops). His decision to attack at Shiloh was questionable. And while Davis favored Johnston, he sometimes was a poor judge of a general’s ability; his support for Bragg demonstrates this.

To avoid any confusion, I want to note I am talking about Albert Sidney Johnston here, not Joseph Johnston.

Yeah, I think the jury is out. It was a fairly common defensive argument by the Southern schools of the war to argue that his premature death was a mortal blow and if he had only survived “things might have been different.” Which, y’know - maybe.

But I’m a little skeptical that one more quality general would have been a tide-turner given the Confederacy’s material inferiority. That is assuming he was quality. He probably was at least decent:
1.) He was certainly highly aggressive. This can be a bad thing, but given the Confederacy’s particular weaknesses that made a war of attrition an unlikely strategy, it was probably beneficial. He was kind of an early war bizarro George McClellan - very aggressive but stuck with a half-trained and under-equipped army.
2.) He was charismatic, high energy and led from the front. This ended up killing him. But is often a positive characteristic in terms of army morale and pre-radio arguably had some limited tactical c&c advantages.
3.) His general strategy leading up to Shiloh was sound. If you’re fighting from an overall material disadvantage better to break up the enemy armies piecemeal before they have a chance to concentrate superior force against you. Weather and general logistic collapse conspired against him, but the initial notion was good.

Of course one man’s bold is another’s foolhardy ( witness Charles le Téméraire, the perfect example of an over-aggressive idiot). His lack of caution at Shiloh is maybe arguable since once committed retreating like Beauregard advised might not have been the best idea either. As it was they still achieved some initial surprise. But it also may be a sign that he would have just been a bludgeoner. And the Confederacy had another aggressive (tactically, if not necessarily strategically), highly capable general in Lee and it availed them nought in the end.

I just don’t think there is enough evidence to suggest he was a lost savior for the Confederacy. He simply died too early and before we have enough of a career record to make a firm assessment of his true ability. He certainly showed flashes of promise, but IMHO that’s about all we can say.

A good point. The Confederates had Lee and other good generals. It’s hard to see how A.S. Johnston would have offered them something they didn’t have.

He fought, to his death, in defense of racism and slavery – how can such a person ever be considered “good”?

You know how it is though - someone can do well in the minors and fall flat when they’re brought up to the Show.

My middle school Texas History teacher seemed to think he was. But in retrospect, my middle school Texas History teacher was also a southern apologist/Lost Cause type, so… grain of salt and all that.

This is actually a difficult question. Many scholars of the war consider him over-rated, along with most of Jeff Davis’ friends. At the same time, he was faced with a truly awful position and had to deal with deep incompetence among his subordinates. To sum up:

*He had a truly vast military theater, but he lacked the troops even to guard it.
*The mistakes of Pope in Kentucky turned that state against him, and he had to deal with the Mississippi flanking his left position. Fortunately Thomas could never manage an advance (his career in a nutshell) securing the right flank, but Johnston didn’t know that.
*Mistakes in the initial siting of forts Henry and Donelson would make them untenable, although this was not recognized at the time. Later on, what should have been strong positions blocking a Union advance fell far too easily.

As a result, Johnston was, or critically, should have been, in an impossible position flanked on left and right and facing a superior force in the center. He had no choice but to retreat from Nashville, gather his forces, and attack desperately. In truth, his position was not quite as bad as it seemed largely because Gen. Henry Halleck was effectively hamstringing the Union cause. Still, he was badly outnumbered and the Confederacy needed to buy time desperately.

In that sense, gambling everything at Shiloh was more than reasonable, and in the event it worked fairly well. Had almost any other general other than Grant been in charge of the Union forces, the result probably would have been a half-panicked retreat. (Although, to be fair, had almost any other general other than Sherman happened to have been on the front there probably would also have been no surprise.)

Additionally, while Johnston has often been criticized for his actions during the battle, and he did act more as a martial cheerleader rallying troops and pushing them forward than a battle commander, he did this deliberately knowing his strengths. Instead of leaving control of the battle in the air, he made sure that it was in the capable hands of Gen. Buckner - who did in fact make numerous on-the-fly decisions and effectively controlled the tactical picture that first day. It is true the Confederates were unable to win, but they inflicted a great deal of damage on the attack.

Moreover, in defeat they achieved much of the strategic goal anyhow. Halleck, already nervous, took command personally and more or less halted the Union war effort in the West until he could inch his way to Corinth. He then broke up his army and distributed it poorly, delaying a unified western command through most of 1862. Shiloh therefore bought the Confederacy an entire year before the Union was able to really advance further.

Do you seriously not understand that a word can have multiple meanings?

I have heard that Johnston did recognize at the time that the sites were poor. But by the time he assumed command and was able to see the locations, a lot of construction had already been invested into those sites. So Johnston decided to keep with those sites rather than start all over at other sites. Especially when the alternatives weren’t all that much better.

I think Johnston deserves credit for maneuvering so the battle started with a narrow front. This meant both sides were limited in how many troops they could crowd into the frontline and negated the numerical advantage the American forces had.

There’s the famous exchange between Sherman and Grant after the first day of battle, when the Confederates had caught the American forces by surprise and inflicted numerous casualties. Sherman said "Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant responded “Yes” but then he added, "Lick ’em to-morrow, though.”

He would have been the dope who was hammered by Grant.
Dying was probably the best thing he could do for his legacy.

I know of no meaning of the word “good” that would cover a fanatical slavery advocate.

The above is from a quick google search on the word “good”. Oddly enough, words can have more than one meaning. I get the point you’re trying to make, but…

Whatever else he may have been, Johnston was not a secessionist. Like many officers of the regular army, he opposed it, though he was a slaveowner IIRC. However, when his home state seceded, he went with it. As far as I can tell, he was no fanatic, though I admit uncertainty as to whether he was a slavery advocate or not.

I disagree. David Farragut, Sam Houston, Andrew Johnson, Winfield Scott, George Thomas; these were southerners who were not secessionists.

Somebody like Johnston may have been a reluctant secessionist. But when he had to make the choice, he chose the secessionist side.

The question was whether he was “good” at his job, being a general - in that definition the word has no moral component at all. You can substitute skilled (but one can be a skilled but fatally flawed general like Leopold von Daun) or competent (but competent generally isn’t as strong a superlative) or any of a number of other rough synonyms if it gives you less cognitive dissonance. But “good” works well as a very general descriptor of someone who is an important addition to a workforce.

you obviously did not read the actual question, instead bringing in PC attitude–the question was about his MILITARY prowess, not political/social standing

I think this thread has been successfully derailed off topic.

I’m not sure why anyone feels the need to denounce slavery a hundred and forty-five years after it was abolished.