By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015-2016, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the April 2016 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
In 2012 the sports website Bleacher Report published its choices for the best player ever to play for each National Basketball Association team. The choices for some teams, such as the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, are obvious. But for other teams, such as the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, it is difficult to choose the best player in that team’s history, because those teams had an abundance of great players. If a similar endeavor were done for Union Civil War generals by state, Ohio would fall into the latter category, because there would be some question about whether to choose Ulysses S. Grant or William Tecumseh Sherman, since a compelling case can be made for either one of them. It can be argued that Grant should belong to Illinois, since Grant gave his place of residence as Galena, Illinois when he and his son checked into the Willard Hotel in Washington. But Grant’s birthplace is in Ohio, which means that Ohio can legitimately lay claim to Grant, similar to Illinois laying claim to Barack Obama, while Obama can also be claimed by his place of birth, Hawaii. If Ohio is allowed to claim Ulysses Grant, then choosing between Grant and Sherman as the best Union general from the Buckeye State is not easy. But the decision is not as difficult for Ohio’s best Confederate general. Depending upon the criteria that are used to classify someone as being “from Ohio,” there are five and perhaps six Confederate generals who were from Ohio. (After the text of this history brief, the names of the Confederate generals from Ohio are listed along with a brief description of each of them.) Among these five (or six) Ohio Confederate generals, the strongest case can be made for Bushrod Johnson as the best, if for no other reason than the extent of his military contributions to the Confederate cause, although Johnson’s record is by no means unblemished.
Rust Johnson was born on October 7, 1817 in Belmont County, which is in southeastern Ohio, and which holds the distinction of being the first county in the United States to elect a woman sheriff (although this occurred long after the Civil War in 1976 when Katherine Crumbley was elected sheriff). Based on Bushrod Johnson’s background, he was an unlikely person to serve in the military, and even more unlikely to do so for the Confederacy. Johnson and his family were Quakers, and they were also abolitionists. Johnson and his uncle actively helped escaped slaves reach freedom via the Underground Railroad. Despite his family’s pacifist beliefs, Johnson successfully pursued an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy and graduated in 1840 at number 23 in a class of 42, a class that included William Tecumseh Sherman, George Thomas, and Richard Ewell. After graduation, Johnson served in the Second Seminole War in Florida and then in the Mexican-American War, where he served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. It was during his time under Scott that Johnson received the first blemish on his military record. Johnson was serving as a commissary officer, and he devised a scheme to sell government goods for personal profit. After his scheme was discovered, Johnson was forced to resign from the army in 1847.
Four years later in 1851, Johnson obtained a position as an instructor at the Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky. A year later Johnson married Mary Hatch, and the following year the couple had a son, Charles, who was physically and mentally handicapped and remained an invalid his entire life. In 1855 the Western Military Institute merged with the University of Nashville, and Johnson and his family moved to Nashville. Three years later in 1858 Johnson’s wife Mary died, which made Johnson a widower at the age of 41 and left him to take care of Charles by himself with the help of a nanny whom he hired.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Johnson was a prominent resident of Nashville, and he chose to rejoin the military in June 1861 to support the cause of the land that had become his home. Johnson’s first assignment was at Fort Donelson, and he was instrumental in the construction of the fort. Promoted to brigadier general in January 1862, Johnson commanded a division during the battle of Fort Donelson, where he led a successful assault on the Union right. After the surrender of Fort Donelson, Johnson managed to escape, and he then commanded a brigade at Shiloh, where he was seriously wounded by an exploding artillery shell. Johnson recovered from this wound in time to serve at Perryville and Stones River.
On June 24, 1863, Bushrod Johnson’s brigade became one of the first Confederate units to face Spencer repeating rifles at an engagement known as the battle of Hoover’s Gap, which was part of William Rosecrans’ Tullahoma campaign. Three months later Bushrod Johnson had his greatest day in the Civil War at Chickamauga. Johnson had been placed in command of a provisional division under James Longstreet, who had been sent with two divisions to reinforce Braxton Bragg’s army. On the second day of the battle of Chickamauga, Johnson’s troops spearheaded the attack that struck through the gap that Rosecrans mistakenly created in the Union lines. Johnson said of the attack, “The scene now presented was unspeakably grand. The resolute and impetuous charge, the rush of our heavy columns sweeping out from the shadow and gloom of the forest into the open fields flooded with sunlight, the glitter of arms, the onward dash of artillery and mounted men, the retreat of the foe, the shouts of the hosts of our army, the dust, the smoke, the noise of fire-arms—of whistling balls and grape-shot and of bursting shell—made up a battle scene of unsurpassed grandeur.” After Johnson’s troops pierced the Union lines, the Union army was saved by Johnson’s West Point classmate, George Thomas.
Following the battle of Chickamauga Johnson was returned to brigade command and remained with Longstreet for Longstreet’s failed attempt to capture Knoxville, Tennessee. In the spring of 1864, when Longstreet returned to the eastern theater, Bushrod Johnson and his brigade remained with him. In the East, Johnson and his brigade participated in the Bermuda Hundred campaign, where Johnson performed well. Eventually Johnson, now in command of a division, took part in the siege of Petersburg on the receiving end of Ulysses Grant’s unrelenting pressure. The Union mine that was detonated to begin the battle of the Crater exploded under Bushrod Johnson’s section of the Confederate lines. Johnson received another blemish on his military record because of his sluggishness in mounting a response to the Union assault that followed the detonation of the mine.
After Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia evacuated Petersburg, Bushrod Johnson and his division were part of the Appomattox campaign. During Lee’s flight to his ultimate defeat, Johnson received another blemish on his military record and in so doing contributed to the depletion of the Army of Northern Virginia. Four days after Lee’s army left Petersburg, that army suffered the disastrous defeat at Sailor’s Creek. During this battle, Johnson’s division and the division of George Pickett comprised the Confederate troops whose panicked retreat led Lee to mournfully exclaim, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” Many men of Johnson’s division were captured, and there is evidence that Johnson abandoned his command on the field. Two days after the battle of Sailor’s Creek, Lee relieved Johnson, Pickett, and their corps commander, Richard Anderson, which brought Bushrod Johnson’s Confederate military career to an end. Bushrod Johnson’s battlefield action in the Confederate army began when he faced Ulysses Grant at Fort Donelson and ended facing Grant in the Appomattox campaign.
Following the Civil War, Bushrod Johnson returned to teaching at the University of Nashville, where he was named co-chancellor in 1870. Johnson was also reunited with his invalid son and took care of him until his own life ended. In 1875 Johnson retired due to failing health, and he and his son moved to that part of the United States from which Johnson had fought to separate the Confederate states. Johnson did not return to the state of his birth, but moved to the Land of Lincoln, to a farm in southwestern Illinois. Johnson died five years later on September 12, 1880, less than one month shy of his 63rd birthday. He was buried in Miles Station, Illinois, in other words, in the region of the U.S. in which he was born, but not in the region of the U.S. which came to be his home. Johnson’s remains were eventually moved to Nashville, the place where he spent much of his adult life, but this did not occur until 1975, which was the year before the Ohio county in which Johnson was born became the first U.S. county to elect a woman as sheriff. Johnson’s remains were reinterred next to his wife in Nashville City Cemetery. Also buried in this cemetery is Johnson’s West Point classmate, Richard Ewell. After spending 95 years in a grave far from his wife and far from his home, Bushrod Johnson, a Confederate general from the Buckeye State, whose life was an amalgam of largely unknown successes, troubling failures, and painful misfortunes, was finally able to rest in peace.
Had Bushrod Johnson been an NBA player with basketball accomplishments that are equivalent to his Confederate military contributions, no one would rank Johnson as his team’s all-time best player. However, in light of the members on the team of Confederate generals from Ohio, Bushrod Johnson can legitimately be considered the best of that group. It is perhaps surprising that there is more than one candidate for the choice of the best Confederate general from Ohio. However, this fits with Ohio’s tendency to not be uniform in presidential elections. In such elections Ohio is consistently a purple state, which means that Ohio does not regularly belong to either political party. Although Ohio was solidly a blue state in the Civil War, there was still some gray that came from Ohio, and a compelling case can be made that the best Confederate general from Ohio was Bushrod Johnson.
Ohio’s Confederate generals
Charles Clark: Clark was born on May 24, 1811 in Lebanon, Ohio. His military service was in the western theater, and he was a wartime governor of Mississippi. After the war he lived in Mississippi until his death in 1877.
Robert Hatton: Hatton was born on November 2, 1826 in Steubenville, Ohio. He was killed on May 31, 1862 (age 35) at the battle of Seven Pines, which was part of the Peninsula campaign.
Roswell Ripley: Ripley was born on March 14, 1823 in Worthington, Ohio (which is in Franklin County). Ripley fought in the Peninsula campaign and the Seven Days battles and was wounded at the battle of Antietam. After he recovered from his wound, he commanded troops in the Charleston, South Carolina defenses. Following the war he lived for about 20 years in England. After returning to the U.S., he lived in New York City until his death in 1887.
Strahl: Strahl was born on June 3, 1831 in Morgan County (which is in southeastern Ohio). He was killed on November 30, 1864 (age 33) at the battle of Franklin, and he was one of four Confederate generals (including Patrick Cleburne) whose bodies were laid on the porch of the house on the Carnton Plantation.
Philip Luckett: Luckett was born in 1823 in Virginia. He lived for a time as a young adult in Ohio, but spent most of his adult life in Texas, from which state he fought in the Civil War. Luckett’s classification as an Ohioan can be questioned, because he was not born in Ohio and did not live for a long time in Ohio, although due to failing health he moved to Cincinnati after the war to live with relatives and died there in 1869.