From its earliest days, Texas has attracted men and women from across the United States desiring a fresh start in life. Migration first began in the 1820s when the newly created Mexican government permitted American empresarios, or land agents, most notably Stephen F. Austin, to bring settlers into the territory. Waves of immigrants poured in and made their mark on the land. However, during the early 1830s Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna rose to power and asserted totalitarian authority over the province. Outraged at his actions, Texans launched a war of independence in October 1835. News of the revolution spread east like wildfire and fired the imaginations of young Americans keen to cross the Mississippi River and liberate the newly proclaimed Republic of Texas. Among those who joined the fight was a U.S. Army officer from Kentucky. He had already earned a reputation as a warrior on the U.S.’s northern frontier, and in the years following his arrival in Texas he defended his new home from similar perils. His name was Albert Sidney Johnston. This is the story of his gallant service on the Texas frontier.
Long before settling in Texas, Albert Sidney Johnston exhibited the same independent spirit which led others to make the Lone Star State their home. He was born in early February 1803 in Washington, Kentucky to a physician who hoped his son would pursue a future in law. As a boy, however, Johnston heard stirring accounts of the War of 1812 and dreamed of life in the U.S. Navy. In an effort to discourage him, his father sent him to live with his older brother, Josiah Stoddard Johnston, in Louisiana. Albert Sidney became a true gentleman under Josiah’s guidance, but he refused to abandon his military ambitions. He briefly attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky before entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1822. At the Academy, Johnston poured himself into his studies, determined to master each subject rather than simply attain high grades. He excelled in mathematics and tactics and was so adept in martial discipline he became cadet adjutant. He stood eighth in the Class of 1826, and when the time came to pick a branch, Albert Sidney once again surprised everyone by turning down General Winfield Scott’s offer of aide-de-camp in favor of becoming a foot soldier — a second lieutenant in the Second Infantry.
Posted to the remote outpost of Sacket’s Harbor, New York on Lake Ontario, Lieutenant Johnston threw himself into drilling the garrison, but boredom soon set in. Relief came in April 1827 when he was ordered to join the Sixth Infantry stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. Only days after his arrival, he marched north against hostile Winnebago Indians who had attacked and killed settlers along the Wisconsin River. Together with his comrades, he compelled the Indians to negotiate boundaries on their tribal lands and to refrain from future attacks. Back in St. Louis, he spent the next five years on garrison duty, and despite falling in love, marrying, and fathering two children, he chafed at the inactivity. Then in 1832 word came of an Indian uprising led by Sauk and Fox war leader Black Hawk. Alongside General Henry Atkinson, Johnston advanced into Illinois and Wisconsin to subdue the threat. He vigorously pursued the Indians through the summer before catching up and defeating the renegade chief at the bloody August 2nd battle on the Bad Axe River. During the fighting, he showed himself to be a “cool, clear-headed man and an excellent officer,” according to one eyewitness. Soon after returning home, however, tragedy robbed him of all joy. Within three years, he lost his father, his beloved brother Josiah, an infant daughter, and finally his wife. Distraught, he retreated to Louisville, Kentucky where his wife’s family lived. As 1836 began, Johnston found himself without a profession — having resigned from the Army when his wife fell ill — and seeking a new path in life.
At this moment of despondency, Albert Sidney Johnston learned of the fighting in far-off Texas. On March 3, 1836, the day after delegates declared independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas Commissioner Stephen F. Austin arrived in Louisville with word of the revolution and a call for military assistance. Eager to join the noble crusade, Johnston resolved to offer his sword to this bold new republic. He rode south to Louisiana and crossed the Sabine River on July 13th — nearly three months after General Sam Houston routed Santa Anna at San Jacinto, near present-day Houston, Texas. On the 15th Johnston arrived in bustling Nacogdoches in east Texas where he met General Houston and presented him letters of recommendation from Henry Atkinson and other officers attesting to his bravery and skill. Seeing Johnston’s potential, Houston dispatched him to the Texas Army, now under the command of General Thomas Rusk. He joined the ranks as an enlisted man, but by August 5th his talents convinced Rusk to appoint Johnston his adjutant general. He proved so adept at instilling order and discipline among the soldiers that in October Secretary of War John Wharton promoted him to colonel and named him adjutant general of all Texan forces. He held that position only four months before winning promotion to the rank of senior brigadier general — giving him field command of the Texas Army.
In that position, General Johnston faced the daunting task of repelling potential Mexican invasions of the new nation. While Santa Anna had signed a treaty giving Texas independence a year earlier, Mexican authorities still refused to recognize Texas’ sovereignty. Soon after taking command, Johnston learned six thousand Mexican troops were massing at Matamoros on the Rio Grande. The general yearned to attack but was told by President Houston to make Mexico strike first. Though compliant, Johnston did not wholly surrender the initiative. He dispatched cavalry patrols to monitor Mexican movements and drilled his 1,700 men to ensure their readiness. His actions, along with political unrest in Mexico, discouraged the expected invasion. Still, Johnston remained vigilant. In late 1837 he led forty horsemen to the frontier where he reconnoitered the roads and river crossings leading into Texas and secured the southern border against raiders. He was still there in April 1838 when he heard rumors of a Mexican column advancing towards him. Marshaling 200 men, Johnston rode out to meet the enemy, only to discover Mexico’s war with France had disrupted the invaders’ northward march. Subsequent inactivity led him to leave the army, but his faithful service had endeared him to the people of Texas. When Mirabeau Lamar became second president of Texas later that same year, he appointed Albert Sidney Johnston Secretary of War.
Upon taking office, Secretary Johnston called for the creation of new infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments to safeguard the republic. He still perceived a threat from south of the border, but as Mexican officials focused on defeating France and quelling internal rebellions, an uneasy peace descended between the two nations. No longer facing threat of invasion, Johnston turned his attention to the hostile Indians roaming the frontier. Unlike President Houston, who sought conciliation with the tribes, both President Lamar and his Secretary of War considered Indians a menace to Texas’ security. This belief heightened in early 1839 when documents were found on a Mexican bandit showing Cherokee Chief Bowles and other eastern tribes were communicating with Mexican officials. In exchange for the Mexicans’ promise of permanent title to their lands, the tribes attacked Texans on Mexico’s behalf. Outraged, Lamar prepared for war just as Chief Bowles agreed to leave in return for compensation for the work he and his people did on the land. Dispatched as a commissioner, Johnston spent days in seemingly fruitless discussions with Bowles before negotiations finally broke down. On July 15th he ordered nine hundred troops against the village.
Marching alongside his men, the Secretary chased the Indians out of camp and along the Neches River. After advancing ten miles, he found Bowles’ warriors dug in along a hillside and immediately ordered an attack. The Texans surged forward as the Indians fired. Fighting raged for half an hour until darkness fell. Johnston intended to resume battle in the morning, but as the sun rose, he saw eighteen Indians were dead and the rest had taken flight. He pursued the enemy and caught up with them by noon. Once again, he launched an all-out attack, and charging ahead of the army, he slashed through the Indian ranks. Within moments, Chief Bowles was killed and the remaining natives were running for their lives. Johnston followed, killing those who resisted and burning their villages. Facing annihilation, the Cherokees retreated to Arkansas. Fearing a similar fate, those tribes allied with the Cherokee submitted to Secretary Johnston and President Lamar. Some agreed to life on a reservation while others sold their land and moved to the U.S.
Word of Johnston’s martial prowess garnered praise in both Texas and the United States, but the Secretary had little time to savor his triumph. Trouble on the western frontier soon claimed his attention. Marauding Comanches had been menacing settlers while he dealt with the Cherokee. He dispatched what soldiers he could to the garrisons at San Antonio and Gonzales and ordered expeditions against the hostile warriors. When the Cherokees were finally defeated, he moved the army to the frontier, forcing the Comanches to sue for peace. Tribal leaders agreed to give up all white captives and to accept limits on tribal land. As negotiations began in March 1840, Johnston sent three companies of infantrymen to San Antonio to protect the commissioners, but he also readied the army in case the Comanches proved duplicitous. His actions proved wise, for the Commanches only brought one white child with them and denied having more. According to Johnston’s orders, the infantry seized the chiefs as fighting erupted between the two sides. War raged throughout the summer and fall before Texas forces dealt the Comanches crippling blows in battles along the Colorado River. Though the victory belonged to him, Johnston was not on hand to see it — he resigned as Secretary of War in March, having grown tired of bureaucratic work.
Despite leaving public office, Albert Sidney Johnston considered Texas his home and his future tied to it. In January 1843 he bought China Grove Plantation, forty miles from Galveston. While anticipating life as a planter, Johnston still yearned to lead men against Mexico and permanently secure Texas’ independence — ending the threat of invasion once and for all. His chance came in 1846 in the wake of Texas’ annexation to the Union. Joining U.S. General Zachary Taylor on the Rio Grande, Johnston became colonel of the First Texas Infantry and joined the march on Monterrey in northern Mexico. During the September 21st battle, he withstood a charge by Mexican lancers and directed a withering fire that emptied saddles and sent the survivors fleeing. With the city’s fall, and his enlistment’s end, he returned home, but rejoined the Army in 1850 as paymaster for the frontier garrisons stretching from Austin to Fort Worth. After five years spent crossing vast prairies to visit each fort, U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed Johnston colonel of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. At the end of March 1856, he also received command of the Department of Texas. In that capacity, Johnston waged offensive operations against the Comanches and other renegade tribes.
He was in the midst of pacifying the frontier when called upon to command an expedition against rebellious Mormons in the Utah Territory, earning promotion to brigadier general during the campaign. He occupied Utah until March 1860 when he took command of the Department of the Pacific, comprising California and Oregon. In San Francisco in April 1861, he learned Texas had seceded. Knowing he could not fight against his adopted homeland, Albert Sidney Johnston resigned from the U.S. Army and offered his services to the Confederacy. On September 10th he accepted command of Confederate Department Number Two, encompassing the entire western front. For seven months, he valiantly defended Kentucky and Tennessee from Union invasion before being driven back into northern Mississippi. On April 6, 1862 he launched a surprise attack on Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s army encamped at Shiloh. While leading an attack against the Union defensive line known as the Hornet’s Nest, a Minie ball severed the popliteal artery just below the right knee, causing Johnston to bleed to death in minutes. News of the loss staggered the nation, but nowhere was his loss felt more than in the state he had dedicated his life to protecting. Initially buried in New Orleans, all knew he “wanted a handful of Texas earth on [his] breast.” On February 2, 1867 he was reburied in Austin’s Texas State Cemetery, where he remains to this day.
By any definition, Albert Sidney Johnston was a true Texan. He dedicated his life to the Lone Star State and embodied the principles so many inhabitants held dear. He came to Texas as a young man seeking a fresh start, but he found so much more. He found purpose fending off the Republic’s enemies, Mexican and Indian alike, and he repeatedly demonstrated daring leadership and battlefield audacity. For his heroism, he received the love of his country and was elevated to the top echelon of Texas heroes. Given such acclaim, Johnston could not turn his back on Texas. When forced to choose between the Union and Texas, he said, “It seems like fate that Texas has made me a Rebel twice.” It was a moniker he proudly bore, regardless of the cost.