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Chapter 4: Jefferson Barracks.

  • Zachary Taylor.
  • -- Lieutenant Johnston's military repute. -- anecdote. -- rebuke to a Libertine. -- cholera. -- sickness in his family. -- domestic happiness. -- discussion of plan of life. -- Consults his brother, J. S. Johnston, about resigning. -- his reply. -- curious reflections of a successful politician. -- his Premonitions of civil War. -- another letter. -- death of J. S. Johnston, by steamboat explosion. -- his only son, William. 1832-33. -- Mrs. Johnston's illness. -- Malpractice of the times. -- pulmonary consumption developed. -- Lieutenant Johnston resigns. -- visit to Mountains of Virginia and Atlantic coast. -- return to Louisville. -- Mrs. Johnston's death. -- Mrs. Hancock's account of Albert Sidney Johnston's character. -- he retires to farm, near St. Louis. -- various plans of life. -- brief visit to Washington. -- Determines to embark in the Texan Revolution.

As soon as it was manifest that Black Hawk and the British band were utterly crushed, General Atkinson disbanded the volunteers, and distributed the regulars according to the exigencies of the service. That officer had concluded the campaign, which was really creditable to him, with an enhanced military reputation. Colonel Zachary Taylor, who, after the departure of General Brady, was the second in command, now belongs to history as a victorious general in the Mexican War, and as the twelfth President of the United States. His character and deeds have been weighed and recorded; and, in this connection, therefore, it is only necessary to state the impression he made upon the subject of this memoir. It is true that circumstances contributed to a very favorable estimate of Colonel Taylor by Lieutenant Johnston; but, as a lifelong acquaintance and his matured judgment confirmed this, it may not be without interest as one soldier's opinion of another. Lieutenant Johnston was probably, from the first, kindly disposed to Colonel Taylor, because he was a kinsman of Mrs. Johnston's mother; which [46] tie had been strengthened by long acquaintance, good neighborhood, and mutual kind offices. Colonel Taylor had shown an earnest and active friendship for Mrs. Preston and her family, when circumstances rendered it peculiarly acceptable, especially as surety in settling Major Preston's estate. Moreover, he was always cordial and appreciative to Lieutenant Johnston, both in social and military intercourse; and this conduct had the more weight as he was a bold, open man, whose offices outran his professions. His popular title of “Rough and ready” only did him half justice; for his ruggedness was that of the oak, and he was as ready to help a friend as to strike a foe. Under blunt manners he concealed a warm heart. He was an expert in the practical routine of his profession, and handled his army like a machine with which he was perfectly familiar. He was well acquainted with English history; Hume was his favorite author. General Johnston's sincere and lasting attachment for General Taylor was based upon genuine esteem. He had a high opinion of General Taylor's military ability; and told the writer, when the battle of Buena Vista was impending, that no man had better military instincts, or a more stubborn resolution under adverse circumstances. He saw in him a strong, single-minded, faithful, upright man. General Taylor lacked power of verbal expression, and was impatient of homage and conventionalities. He was tenacious of opinions, purposes, and affections; clear in his perceptions of familiar subjects; and prompt, decided, and thorough, in his actions. Lieutenant Johnston was greatly drawn toward a character so perfect in its massiveness, integrity, and simplicity.

In the Black-Hawk War Lieutenant Johnston was thrown into the intimate relations of camp-life with his brother officers; and the favor in which he was before held by them was increased by his share in the campaign. In a letter to the writer, from Major-General George H. Crosman, United States Army (retired), written in 1873, occurs the following, giving voice to this opinion: “Your father acquired a very high reputation for his wise and successful conduct during the Black-Hawk War.”

Captain Eaton relates a little anecdote of the Black-Hawk War, which it may not be amiss to give in his own language:

On the same campaign an incident happened, illustrating Lieutenant Johnston's keen sense of propriety, his respect for female virtue, and his power of rebuke. One evening, as a group of officers were talking in the tent of one of them, a Lieutenant--, who was of a coarse and vulgar nature, and who was eventually dismissed from the service, said he did not believe in female virtue. Lieutenant Johnston at once arose and said: “Mr.--, you have a mother: and, I believe, you have a sister.” He made no other remark; but the rebuke silenced Lieutenant--, and, vulgar as he was, he hung his, head in shame and confusion. I never knew a man who could give a rebuke with more crushing effect than Albert Sidney Johnston. [47]

His power of rebuke lay in his serenity and benignity. It was clearly seen that it was the sentiment, not the person, that was condemned.

General Atkinson dropped down the river to Prairie du Chien, on August 3d; and, having delayed there until the 25th, proceeded to Rock Island. In consequence of the movement of cholera-infected troops from Chicago to that point the pestilence broke out there, and carried off a number of victims. Lieutenant Johnston was attacked, but recovered after severe suffering. Lying upon the floor, he was wrapped in heavy blankets, drenched with vinegar and salt, and then dosed with brandy and Cayenne pepper; the Faculty must decide whether he recovered in consequence or in spite of the treatment. The doctors yet disagree as to the mode of cholera propagation. Lieutenant Johnston, from his own observation, inclined to the belief that cholera might be averted, from isolated places at least, by strict quarantine.

Lieutenant Johnston, on his return to Jefferson Barracks, found that the absence which had proved so fruitful to him in professional experience had been a season of sore trial to his wife, whose delicate nervous organization had been too severely taxed for her strength. An infant daughter, born in April, was, as the mother's record has it, “on June 28th, supposed to be dead, but was, by God's mercy, restored to us.” The child was in her coffin ; but Mrs. Benton, thinking she detected signs of life, by a hot bath and other remedies brought her to life, and she still lives. The following extract, from a letter to her mother, explains how the seeds of the malady that cost Mrs. Johnston's life were sown:

I am still afflicted with the sickness of both my children. Between physical fatigue and mental anxiety for my children, for you, and for my good husband, I am scarcely myself. I try to be cheerful. God alone knows how it will all terminate! I have been busy to-day, making up flannel for my husband, and writing to him. I have so bad a cold that I can't be heard when I speak, and I am often fatigued and sick.

Her husband's return, safe from the war and the epidemic, the recovery of her children, and the soothing hope of a less exciting life, relaxed this grievous mental strain. Mrs. Johnston's constitution was naturally good; but, in the change from the mountains of Virginia, where she was born and passed a good deal of her girlhood, to the neighborhood of Louisville, then in bad repute for malarial fevers, her health had been injured, and again still more by a three years residence on the banks of the Mississippi. But, although her enfeebled system was thus laid open to the inroads of disease, its approaches were so insidious that the apprehensions which had been aroused were lulled into a fatal security. In the happy illusions of the moment her [48] imagination pictured a long and tranquil existence, in which the alarms of war should be exchanged for the peaceful delights of a country home. She urged her husband to resign from the army; and her lively and affectionate representations would easily have effected their purpose but for a conflict of duties and sentiments that alternately swayed him. No traits were more strongly marked in the character of Albert Sidney Johnston than his powerful domestic affections and his love for Nature in all her aspects, but especially as seen through the coloring of a rural life. On the other hand-so strangely are our qualities mingled-he felt the desire, the power, and the call, to achieve something great, useful, and memorable. Never was a man more deeply conscious that he was born into the world not for himself, but for others; and that, whosoever else might fail, on him, at least, lay an obligation of public duty, to which self must be sacrificed. He recognized the duty to return in service the gift of an education received at West Point. He saw, too, that the habits of life and thought, the associations, studies, and aspirations of ten years, would be difficult to lay aside. As no public emergency required his services, and as the call of domestic duties seemed, therefore, the more urgent, his conclusion was to yield to the wishes of his wife, and choose some other occupation, in which he would not be separated from her. Yet, consenting, he delayed, for it was hard to abandon his chosen career. In this state of mind he took counsel with his eldest brother, on whose prudence and good feeling he knew that he could rely.

The reply of Senator Johnston is written in the most affectionate strain, and discusses the subject in all its bearings, but space permits only a few extracts, which, as indications of the writer's character, as well as for their general value, may prove interesting:

Washington, January 12, 1838.
My dear brother: I received your letter with great pleasure, since it renews a correspondence that had been, on your part, for a considerable time neglected.

I am very happy to hear of your wife, and the interesting family growing up around you, and of the fortunate circumstances of your life. You have no reason to regret your profession, or the military career you have run, since you have been entirely successful, and as useful and distinguished as the nature of the service permits. It has, besides, led you to a happy union, and has given a fortunate direction to your pursuits.

If you should retire now, as you may do under the most favorable and flattering circumstances, you will carry with you your military character and services, which will always be a source of pride and pleasure, as well as of proper consideration, among your friends and countrymen. In the event of war, which is not, however, probable at present, you will be called into service with much higher rank. If you should aspire to political life, your past career will be the highest claim to public confidence and favor. Wherever you go and whatever [49] you do, you will find that it will exert a favorable influence in your intercourse with society.

In all these respects you have gained more than you would in any other profession in the same time; and, taking all the chances of life, you are eminently successful in all that constitutes our happiness here.

After suggesting the various inducements to different occupations, Mr. Johnston advises farming, and adds:

You might connect this with some other pursuits, such as those of a literary or political kind. The former is full of interest and pleasure, but the country-life lacks excitement to keep it up; as to the latter, it is replete with disgust and disappointment.

This last sentence is remarkable, as the utterance of a man of cheerful temper, who, from early manhood to the day of his death, continually advanced in popular favor without a single reverse.

After discussing the advantages and disadvantages of planting in Louisiana, the strong fraternal feeling and confident spirit of the man break out thus:

I can only say I shall be most happy to render you any assistance; and that, with the support of Harris and myself, you could not fail in any enterprise.

He continues:

You think you are too old to study a profession. That is a mistake; you could never read with greater advantage. If you could devote all your leisure to law, history, and literature, it would not only give you excellent habits, good taste, and much valuable information, but would qualify you for any duty to which you may be called. I can, from my own experience, say that books are the source of the purest and most rational pleasures. They are the most durable, and, unlike almost all others, increase with age, as the taste for others diminishes. To a gentleman this taste is essential; in the country it is necessary, to avoid ennui and tedium of life; and this is equally true of both sexes. . . . Military talents are held in high estimation all over the world, less perhaps than they deserve in this country; but no one knows how long we shall be peaceful neighbors. You may live to see not only war among the States, but civil and perhaps servile war, in which all your military skill and experience may be put in requisition.

This seems written in the spirit of prophecy, but it was only the calm reading of the signs of the times by the experienced eye of a veteran statesman.

There are several other letters indicating Mr. Johnston's natural desire that his brother should cast his lot in the community where he himself had been so fortunate and so much honored; still this is not urged upon him unduly. The following extracts are from his last letter to Lieutenant Johnston: [50]

April 25, 1883.
My dear brother: I am now on board the Homer on my way to Louisiana, with my son William. The indisposition of my wife detained me until the 13th, when she was so far recovered as to permit me to leave her.

Since the pacification, all parties seem reconciled to the terms of the compromise. The South is content, and the manufacturers are perfectly satisfied. The country enjoys at this moment an unexampled degree of prosperity, and we can foresee nothing likely to interrupt it for many years. Everything is appreciating in value-stocks of all kinds, lands, lots, houses, manufactures, rents, etc. Property in cities and towns is rising in value. I was glad to see Louisville partaking of the general prosperity; it gives indications of considerable improvement, and will doubtless become a flourishing place. ... It is impossible for one person to advise another wisely with regard to his vocation and pursuits in life. We cannot enter fully into each other's views and feelings. If money was your chief object, you would accomplish your purpose most rapidly in Louisiana; but the climate and slave-property are objections ....

I duly received the account of General Atkinson's expedition. He pursued a wise and prudent policy. If he had hurried on and been defeated, the whole frontier would have been exposed, while the timid and wavering Indians would have joined Black Hawk, and gained possession of the country. It would then have required another year, a more formidable force, and a greater expenditure of money, to conquer them.

I had a conversation with the President, at the meeting of Congress. Hie was, I believe, satisfied with the final results. He thought the general might, in the first instance, have felt the force of the Indians, and, having done so, he would have found himself able to defeat them. Caution is no part of his policy. The general was placed in a position either to suffer defeat by a prompt movement, or censure by a prudent one. The country is entirely satisfied. It must have been a very arduous service, in which you had your share of labor and responsibility.

You will please make my affectionate regards to your wife. Affectionately,

J. S. Johnston.

The next tidings brought the distressing intelligence of this brother's sudden death, by the explosion of the steamboat Lioness. The following extracts from a letter of Judge John Harris Johnston to Albert Sidney Johnston sufficiently narrate the sad event :

My dear brother: Detailed accounts of the dreadful disaster on board the Lioness, in Red River, will have reached you before this time, confirming the melancholy loss of life. The explosion occurred on May 19th, at 5 A. M., at the Recollet Bon Dieu, on Red River. Among others who perished was our much-beloved brother, who, with William,1 had taken passage the evening before for Natchitoches. In one instant, when all on board were unsuspecting, the boat was, by some unaccountable accident, blown to atoms by gunpowder, and between fifteen and twenty-five persons were destroyed. Our brother was instantly killed, and his body was not found for several days. William, who occupied the upper berth in the same state-room, was thrown to the middle of [51] the river, and saved himself on a plank or door. He was severely injured, and confined to his bed for twelve or fifteen days. He is now restored, and able to walk out.

Thus perished, in the fullness of his honors and usefulness, a man who was, in his generation, a diligent and unselfish public servant, and who left a name without reproach. From a notice of his death in the New Orleans Argus, the following is a brief extract:

Those who only knew him as a public man will regret his loss; those who knew him intimately will mourn it. It will be long again before they can meet with the same warm heart and cool head; the same absence of and contempt for profession and pretense; and the same ready performance of all the duties which friendship imposes. Niles's Register says that he was-An able statesman and one of the most useful members of the Senate. He was a gentleman of rare accomplishments-generous, faithful, and kind, of very courteous manners, and possessed of the most liberal feelings; a fast friend, and an honorable opponent.

His son William, mentioned in the foregoing, was graduated at Yale College; and, having begun to practise law at Alexandria, was, at the age of twenty-two, selected for the lucrative office of parish judge, vacated by the death of his uncle, John Harris Johnston. A year later he fell a victim to the climate, leaving a widow and one son. In talents, character, and industry, his promise was worthy of his father. Seven years after Josiah Stoddard Johnston's death, and thirty-five years after his first settlement in Louisiana, not a single scion of all his hardy race remained upon the soil of that State. Death and emigration had done the work.

If Albert Sidney Johnston entertained any serious purpose of making a home in Louisiana, the shock of his brother's untimely end turned him from it. In the winter of 1832-33 great commercial distress in Louisville would have prevented the sale of real estate for such investment. Mrs. Johnston seemed to be recovering her wonted health, and the spring and summer of 1833 were passed happily at Jefferson Barracks, with no greater anxiety than c “a little cholera in St. Louis,” of which Lieutenant Johnston writes to his friend, E. D. Hobbs, of Louisville, “As we have seen it before in its worst form, we will meet it now with a steady front.” This brief and touching minute, in Mrs. Johnston's handwriting, records the beginning of her final malady:

I was taken ill on September 19, 1833, at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. Came to Louisville October 4th. Maria Preston Johnston was born October 28, 1833, and returned to her Maker the 10th of the following August. “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [52]

In Louisville the physicians pronounced Mrs. Johnston's lungs affected, and, according to the prevailing practice, bled her freely and often, and confined her diet to such insufficient nourishment as goat's milk and Iceland moss. Of course, no more effectual way could have been adopted to produce pulmonary consumption in an enfeebled constitution. She was carefully and tenderly nursed by her mother and friends in Louisville, and her husband deceived himself with the hope that travel and a change of climate, and his own untiring care, might restore her. Accordingly, on March 4, 1834, they made a journey to New Orleans, from which they returned the 8th of May. During their stay in New Orleans they were the guests of Dr. Davidson, an eminent physician. While in New Orleans, Lieutenant Johnston took the step at which he had hesitated for eighteen months, and on April 24, 1834, forwarded his resignation of his commission as second-lieutenant in the United States Army. Mrs. Johnston's failing health made her long for the secure quiet of a permanent home; and her husband, anxious to soothe and encourage her, in order to gratify the cherished wish of her heart, bought a farm near St. Louis, with the purpose of engaging in its cultivation. That he did not quit the army without a severe struggle is evident from his letters and actions. He writes to Eaton :

I have this day mailed my resignation, the acceptance of which will be notified to you almost as soon as this will reach you. That I felt some little pain at seeing my letter glide into the letter-box you may judge. I hope, although we shall be separated, we shall not be estranged. I quit my profession and my regiment with lively interest for the welfare of all, and the recollection of strong friendship for very many of the officers of the regiment.

Dr. John Pintard Davidson, who was then living with his father, says the letter of resignation was reluctantly written and placed in his hands “to mail at noon, if not recalled before that hour,” and that Lieutenant Johnston showed all the signs of great regret in performing this act.

On their return to Louisville, in obedience to medical advice they undertook a journey to the Virginia Springs and the seaboard. On July 15th they embarked on the steamboat Hunter for Guvandotte, with their son, a nurse, a driver, and a carriage and pair of stout horses. From Guvandotte the journey was pursued in the carriage. After visiting the Red Sulphur Springs, esteemed salutary in lung-diseases, they made the round of the watering-places in the mountains, relying more upon exercise in the open air than upon the mineral waters. They also visited some of Mrs. Johnston's relations in that region, especially Colonel James McDowell, in Rockbridge County. During this distant tour he paid a visit to Mrs. Edmonia Preston, at Lexington. The writer then visited a house which forty years later he [53] occupied as a residence for a time. Lieutenant Johnston visited the Peaks of Otter with John T. L. Preston, who later in life was of Stonewall Jackson's staff.

Leaving Cherry Grove, the residence of Colonel McDowell, on the 8th of September, they traveled by carriage, passing through Fredericksburg on the 11th, and reaching Baltimore on the 14th. They spent several days in Philadelphia, in order to consult the eminent Dr. Physick; and, after visiting New York, returned to Louisville, where they arrived on the 21st of October. During their absence their youngest child had died. Mrs. Johnston says: “After much traveling and fatigue I am here again. My babe is in her place of rest, and my dear grandmother 2 living long enough to bless us once more-and die.”

Mr. Johnston devoted the autumn and winter to the care of his invalid wife, whom he tenderly nursed through an almost painless decline. In the spring they removed to Hayfield, about five miles from Louisville, the country-home of Mr. George Hancock, Mrs. Johnston's uncle. Mr. Hancock and his newly-wedded wife did all in their power to cheer these last sad hours. In this kind home, soothed by the unwearying affection of her husband, by her confident religious hopes, and by the ministrations of the Episcopal Church, and invoking blessings on all her loved ones, Henrietta Preston Johnston gradually passed away. She died on the 12th of August, 1835.

The introduction of the following letter from Mrs. Hancock, who was a daughter of Dr. Davidson, and a very constant and cherished friend of General Johnston, needs no apology. As a skillful chessplayer and an enthusiastic florist, she naturally touches upon those points of sympathy:

The long and intimate acquaintance with your father, dating back to my girlhood, and the double tie of kinship (his brother, Judge Johnston, having married my sister), gave me an opportunity to know him well, and to study the many noble qualities of his nature. I am glad the history of one so noble will be given to the world; and I wish I could do justice to the many beauties of his character, that you might place my impression of them on record.

I saw him for the first time in the spring of 1834, when he came to New Orleans with your mother for the benefit of the climate to her feeble health. While the guest of my father, I was struck with his tender devotion to his wife, which caused him soon to resign his position in the army, that he might the better add to her comfort for the few remaining months allotted her on earth; the fulfillment of which I saw most devotedly carried out, for she died at my house in the August of the following year.

He impressed me at first as an austere man, but I found him the kindest and gentlest of friends; a stoic, yet he had the tenderest nature, so mindful of others' feelings, so fearful of saying aught that might offend. In bringing one's duties [54] before a person, it was done in such a way as to make him feel that it was suggested by his own sense of right. He was a close observer of Nature — no one loved its beauties more than he did. His love for flowers was remarkable-the tiniest one did not escape his observation and admiration. I owe much of my knowledge of them to him, and it is now a pleasant thought with me to have him connected in my memory with what I so admire and enjoy. We often played chess together-his knowledge of the game was very thorough. Whenever I was so fortunate as to be the winner, he would fight on to the last, though perhaps the fate of the game might have been long decided, saying, “While I have a man left I will not despair.” Doubtless so he felt in the sacrifice of his life for his country. I feel assured it was not given without due reflection and knowledge of right; for, in all his actions, right prompted him, and they were the result of deep reflection. In the smallest as in the greatest affairs of his life, he took time to deliberate before acting. I was struck with an observation of his (which goes to prove this), when I remarked that he took a good while to write a letter. “Yes,” said he, “I do, for I never put on paper what I am not willing to answer for with my life.” So also, in conversation, he considered well before he spoke.

After the death of his wife, Mr. Johnston first went to his farm near St. Louis, making the home he had prepared in anticipation of happiness his refuge in affliction. He was a man who, alike from temperament and philosophy, shrank from the exhibition or indulgence of great emotion; and to such, in the season of grief, solitude is the most acceptable friend. General Crosman, who was as much in his confidence as any man, says that he was in great distress of mind. He had left his children, who were so young as to require female care, in charge of their grandmother, Mrs. Preston, at Louisville, with a vague intention of carrying out, at whatever cost of feeling, designs formed under such different auspices. But though his habits of self-restraint enabled him to enter mechanically upon this career, they could not counteract the restlessness that urged him toward a life in which activity would produce oblivion. In October, he wrote that he was thinking of building, but that he believed that it would suit him better to go farther West; indeed, he seems to have contemplated establishing, with the consent of the Government, a colony in the country of the Sioux. The next spring this consent was refused, and the project finally abandoned. His wife's family, with kindly solicitude, tried to induce him to return to Louisville and engage in business, and friends proposed various occupations there. He yielded at last to their representations, and went to Louisville in the early part of 1836. His farm, which had served as a retreat, had become distasteful to him as a home and painful as a residence. His plan of life was shattered, and he cast about him for some new avenue for energies that would not be repressed. Had reentrance into the United States Army been possible, his way was plain; but the only method of reinstatement open to him was by the use of political [55] influence, of which he would not avail himself. His friends urged upon him various commercial or manufacturing employments, and his desire to be with his children induced him to weigh well their arguments and schemes, but he concluded that he was unsuited to such a life. He felt that his education, habits, and native qualities, fitted him for a soldier; and, in default of that career, he was inclined to pursue whatever most nearly resembled it. In April he made a journey to Washington City to obtain the consent of the Government to his enterprise in the Sioux country. He spent two or three days in Washington; but, as has been stated, his request was refused. In a letter to his brother-in-law, William Preston, he says:

I had the good fortune on Monday to hear many of our most distinguished Senators address the Senate on the expediency of employing railroads for the transportation of the mail, etc., under the provisions of the bill reported by Mr. Grundy, who supported it in a speech of some length. The remarks of Messrs. Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and Buchanan, of Pennsylvania, were brief, but long enough for a stranger, who only wished to gratify a curiosity with regard to their different styles. . . . The more I see of great men, the more I am convinced that they owe their eminence to a fortunate combination of circumstances, rather than to any peculiar adaptation or fitness for their stations. There is not that wide difference in mental endowment that most persons are apt to conceive; and hence every young man of moderate ability may hope for the same distinction, and should struggle to attain it.

Mr. Johnston returned to Louisville still doubtful as to his future, when an opportunity offered that seemed to open to him such a career as he desired. In March, Stephen F. Austin, commissioner from Texas to the United States, had arrived in Louisville, and made there his great speech, which served as the key-note for the appeals in behalf of Texas. Through him General Johnston's interest was first fully awakened. Subsequently Mr. Dangerfield, the agent of the young republic of Texas, and an enthusiast in that cause, approached him with representations of the heroism and sufferings of the emigrants from the United States to that country, and speedily enlisted his sympathies. He gave freely from his means to assist the revolutionary party in that republic, and, after debating with himself the whole matter, resolved to throw his sword into the cause of Texan independence, in which the stake was the destiny of a people struggling for their birthright of freedom.

1 Senator Johnston's only son.

2 Mrs. Margaret Strother Hancook, who died about this time, at a very advanced age.

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