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William Preston Johnston.

Soldier, scholar, poet and educator.

A Sketch of his noble career.

[Died, with mind serene, ‘in perfect peace with God,’ July 16, 1899, at the residence of his son-in-law, Hon. Henry St. George Tucker, ‘Col. Alto,’ Lexington, Va., Colonel William Preston Johnston, President of Tulane University, New Orleans, La.

It may be of interest to note that he died in the same bed in which he was born, at the residence of his maternal grandfather, Colonel William Preston, Louisville, Kentucky, and in the same house in which his first wife expired suddenly, fourteen years before, when seated in the drawing room, while on a visit to the late Judge J. W. Lea, who was also a native of New Orleans.

The so-lamented deceased had for many years proven himself a zealous member of the Southern Historical Society.

He was present, as the delegate from the State of Kentucky, at our Southern Historical Convention, which assembled August 14, 1873, at the White Sulpher Springs.

He was appointed a member of the ‘Committee on Business,’ and reported the vital resolutions framed by the committee.

Their adoption was the reorganization of the Southern Historical Society, its permanent establishment at Richmond, the garnering of invaluable materials of history, and the continuous publication of the important serial of the Society.

Colonel Johnston was appointed by the convention a member of the Executive Committee of the Society.

‘In person Colonel Johnston was tall—over six feet—graceful, elegant in manners, and the most lovable of gentlemen.’

Soldier, lawyer, author, and poet, his crowning glory was as an educator, and an enduring monument to his memory is Tulane University, at New Orleans, Louisiana.

The following sketch is compiled from the New Orleans, La., Times-Democrat, of July 17, 1899.]

While Colonel Johnston's character, mind and learning, together with his executive ability, sufficiently explain his success as an educator, [295] and the success of the institution of which he was, in the eyes of the world, the head and front, it is of interest and importance also to note who and what his ancestors were, and to see in his genealogy a primal explanation of his own eminent ability.

Colonel Johnston was the eldest son of General Albert Sidney Johnston and Henrietta Preston, of Kentucky, through whom Colonel Johnston was related to the late Randall L. Gibson. Josiah Stoddard Johnston, of Natchitoches, United States Senator from this State, was an uncle of Colonel Johnston, being the elder half-brother of General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was a son of Dr. John Johnston, of Salisbury, Conn., and Abigail Harris, his second wife. Dr. John Johnston was the third son of Captain Archibald Johnston, of Salisbury, Conn., a Revolutionary soldier, of Scotch descent, the family settling first in Duchess county, N. Y. He was a foremost man in his day and generation. Edward Harris, father of Colonel Johnston's paternal grandmother, was a captain in the Revolutionary army, originally of Massachusetts, and a pioneer of Kentucky. Henrietta Preston, Colonel Johnston's mother, was a daughter of Major William Preston, United States army, and Caroline Hancock, a descendant of the Hancock and Strother families of Virginia. Major Preston served under Anthony Wayne against the Indians after the Revolutionary war. He was a son of Colonel William Preston, of Virginia, a veteran of the Revolution. General William Preston, of Kentucky, son of Major Preston, grandson of Colonel Preston, and brother of Mrs. Albert Sidney Johnston, was a brilliant lawyer and dashing soldier. He was minister to Spain when the civil war broke out, resigned, and joined his brother-in-law, General Albert Sidney Johnston, who died in his arms. He rose to the rank of General.

William Preston Johnston, eldest son of Albert Sidney and Henrietta Preston Johnston, was born in Louisville, Ky., January 5, 1831. He lost his mother when he was four years of age, and his father shortly afterward cast his fortunes with the young Republic of Texas. He was reared by maternal relations in Louisville, by Mrs. Josephine Rogers, and, after her death, by General William Preston and wife, and he received his earlier education in the schools of that city. Later he attended the academy of S. V. Womack at Shelbyville; Center College, Danville, and the Western Military Institute at Georgetown, Ky. He had always been of a studious disposition, so that at a period when boys are devoted chiefly to play and light study, he was engrossed in reading standard works of ancient and [296] modern history. As a consequence, at Yale he almost immediately took a leading position in his class in scholarship, and was especially prominent for his literary taste and excellence in composition, taking a Townsend prize for English composition; and among many candidates in the final competition, he was assigned the second place— Homer B. Sprague receiving the De Forest and Johnston the Clark prize for an essay on ‘Political Abstractionists,’ i. e., doctrinaires.

After graduation, he studied law, and received his diploma from the Law School of the University of Louisville, in March, 1853. On the 6th of July, 1853, he was married in New Haven to Rosa Elizabeth Duncan, daughter of John N. Duncan, of New Orleans. He then settled in Louisville in the practice of law, and, except for a short interval, during which he resided in New York, he continued there until the war.

Though not allowing himself to be diverted from his profession by engaging actively in politics, he was always a strong advocate of the principles espoused by the South, and he took an active interest in their maintenance during the period preceding actual hostilities. When the issue, however, culminated in war, he was among the first in his State to cast his fortunes with the South and to raise troops for the Confederate army. Having aided in recruiting and equipping several companies in the summer of 1861, he was appointed major of the 2d Kentucky regiment, but was soon transferred to the 1st Kentucky regiment as major. He was subsequently promoted to be its lieutenant-colonel. This regiment saw its only service in the Army of Northern Virginia, and participated in the early operations on the line of Fairfax Court House and the Accotink. Colonel Johnston's health having broken down from typhoid-pneumonia and camp fever, resulting from the exposure of the field, and his regiment having been disbanded during his illness, he accepted in May, 1862, the invitation of President Davis to become a member of his official family as aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel. He continued to fill this position until the close of the war, his chief duties being those of an inspector-general and a confidential staff officer of Mr. Davis for communication with generals commanding in the field. He was present in the battles of Seven Pines, Cold Harbor, Sheridan's Raid, Drewry's Bluff, and in the lines at Petersburg, and many other important combats. He contributed essentially to the strength of the administration by the high qualifications he brought to his responsible trust and the general confidence reposed in him by his chief and by all who knew him. He adhered with unswerving [297] fidelity to the fortunes of Mr. Davis, and was captured with him in Georgia after the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston. After several months of solitary confinement in Fort Delaware, he was released; and after nearly a year's residence in exile in Canada, returning to Louisville, he resumed the practice of law.

In 1867, while thus engaged, he was invited by General R. E. Lee to the chair of history and English literature in Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va., and removed to that place. This was a position for which he was peculiarly well fitted by the trend of his mind, as well as his scholarly acquirements; and his success in drawing to the institution a class of superior youth from the West and South, and inspiring them with his own high standard of morality, learning and ambition, has been best evidenced in the honorable positions in life attained by those who came under his personal and professional influence. Colonel Johnston remained at Washington and Lee University until 1877, and while there wrote the ‘Life of Albert Sidney Johnston,’ published by the Appletons in 1878. This work is an admirably written biography of the great Confederate chieftain who lost his life on the memorable battlefield of Shiloh, and whose character is one of the grandest and noblest in American annals. Colonel Johnston's life of his father ranked him as one of the best writers in the country, and his style is noted for its vigor and elegance. The judicial character of his work has been attested by many of the most distinguished generals and fairest critics on both sides, North and South.

A high degree of literary excellence is found in his other works, which consist of a number of poems, essays on literary, historical and pedagogical subjects, and addresses. In 1890 he printed ‘The Prototype of Hamlet,’ a series of lectures delivered at the Tulane University, which have been very favorably received by Shakespearian scholars. Owing to the bankruptcy of the publisher at the moment of its issue, this volume was never offered for sale, and only a small number of copies were printed. Its thesis is a paradox which has found favor with many lawyers, but it is not cheerfully accepted by the worshipers of the great bard. Colonel Johnston, however, ranks Shakespeare as the greatest of all writers, and regards the Baconian theory as absurd.

Colonel Johnston has delivered a large number of addresses before various universities and other educational assemblies. These addresses have been widely noticed as giving a correct and vivid picture of what is called the Old South, and also of the conditions in [298] the New South. The manly and earnest tone of the speaker, and his profound philosophical observation, with his estimate of what should be done for Southern civilization, have been much appreciated by political economists in America and in Europe.

During all Colonel Johnston's varied career of lawyer, soldier, professor, public speaker, and university president, he has indulged a strong bent for writing verse, the impulse of a genuine poetic gift. But a certain diffidence and fear of mere mediocrity, with a knowledge of the estimate placed on such productions by practical men, prevented him for a long time from printing his verses, except on rare occasions. In 1894 he printed a collection of his poems, entitled ‘My Garden Walk.’ It was intended chiefly for private distribution and as a memorial for his family and friends. But it has reached a wide circle of readers, and has its circle of admirers, who regard with favor the versatility of the author and his clearness, force and melody of expression.

Colonel Johnston published, in 1896, what might be considered a supplement to this volume, under the title of ‘Pictures of the Patriarchs, and Other Poems.’ This little book of verse contains, in addition to the titular portion, a second part of devotional verse and new versions and paraphrases of some of the Psalms. It is deservedly very popular with the many who respond to its spiritual melody.

But although Colonel Johnston is a distinguished literateur, his chief work has been done as an educator. In 1880 he accepted the presidency of the Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, and thoroughly reorganized and re-established that institution, which had been for some time in a chaotic state, and had only thirty-nine students when he took charge of it. When, in 1883, Paul, Tulane, the great philanthropist, made to Louisiana his princely gift, Colonel Johnston was requested by the administrators of the Tulane educational fund to organize and take charge of the institution to be founded. The result was the merging, in 1884, of the University of Louisiana into the Tulane University, which in all its branches stands as the greatest University in the Southwest. Colonel Johnston's administration as president is broad and conservative. He has endeavored to build up an institution in which the theory of an ideal university should be adapted to actual existing conditions. He has encouraged all literary, scientific and artistic societies, and his enlightened course in that direction has been of immense advantage to New Orleans. The university is now doing a great work. It embraces [299] law and medical departments, a woman's college, a college of arts and sciences, and one of technology, a worthy monument indeed to the munificent founder and the efficient organizer.

Washington and Lee University in 1877 conferred upon him the degree of Ll.D., and he has for a number of years been one of the regents of the Smithsonian Institution.

In character he is all that the record of his life bespeaks—simple, direct, gentle, yet firm, sincere, conscientious and unswerving in the discharge of every duty, and unwavering in friendship, brave and serene in misfortune and bereavement. He is a communicant of the Episcopal Church and a God-fearing man without cant.

Colonel Johnston's first wife died on October 19, 1885. She was one of the rarest and noblest of women. In April, 1888, Colonel Johnston married Miss Margaret Avery, a lady of culture and refinement, a member of one of the best Louisiana families. Colonel Johnston's only son, Albert Sidney Johnston, died in 1885, aged twenty-four. He has had five daughters. Three survive. Henrietta Preston, wife of Hon. Henry St. George Tucker, of Staunton, Va., for four sessions a member of Congress from that district; Rosa Duncan, married to George A. Robinson, of Louisville, Ky., and Margaret Wickliffe, married to Richard Sharpe, Jr., of Wilkesbarre, Pa. His eldest daughter, Mary Duncan Johnston, died unmarried *November 25, 1893. His youngest daughter, Caroline Hancock Johnston, married Thomas C. Kinney, of Staunton, Va., and died July 26, 1895. Mr. Kinney is, through his mother, a direct descendant of Benjamin Harrison, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Colonel Johnston and Tulane University.

For the past fifteen years Colonel Johnston has been a conspicuous object in the public view of New Orleans, standing as he did at the head of the greatest educational system in the South—a system because of the carrying out of his big ideas of what Tulane University should be.

Under the guidance of Professor Jesse, the University of Louisiana was a splendid academy for young men—an institution where they could get, so far as the financial status of the institution permitted, a fine classical training and a thorough education in mathematics. Called to the presidency of the embryo college when, through the beneficence of Paul Tulane, the future glowed with promise, Colonel [300] Johnston assumed charge under auspicious conditions, but conditions which might easily have been negatived and nullified by incapable management. Instead, following Colonel Johnston's suggestions, carrying out his general ideas, expanding on the lines that his mind recognized as the ones of permanent expediency, the academy grew into a college, and the college into a system of colleges, crowded with fine university facilities for post-graduate studies.

While never radical, Colonel Johnston was always progressive in educational matters. His advanced ideas and his foresight, however, were always tempered by enough conservatism to avoid such tentative efforts as come to naught. No departure that he instituted proved a failure. Here and there details of original plans were modified, sometimes by expansion, sometimes by contraction, but the rule was that his mind foresaw well, and his counsel proved always to be that of one who was wise in his own vocation.

A broadly and thoroughly educated man, he was especially a literary scholar, a critic of great ability, a writer of force, elegance and clearness. His prose and poetry both commend themselves to capable judges, and have been widely read with much of both pleasure and profit to the readers.

It is often the case that men of particular bent deem that in which they themselves excel as the thing, the vocation or the faculty of highest importance. With Colonel Johnston, however, this rule did not hold true. He recognized literature as his particular forte, but he was free from narrowing, hampering hobbies, and he knew that literature was but one of the arches in the magnificent temples of learning. Less ornate branches of knowledge, he knew, were equally valuable, in many ways of more direct present importance; and being an educator, not a book-worm, a teacher as well as a scholar, a leader in his own day as well as a follower through the delightful roads cut for the human mind by the master intellects of past generations, he kept his mind fixed always on the standard of practical utility as well as that of finish and elegance, and from the day that he assumed the chair of president of Tulane, he put forth his every effort to make the institution one of value in every way.

Not only should the law and medical colleges maintain the unexcelled reputation that their graduates for many years had given them, but the classical proclivities of the youth of the South, so far as Tulane could affect them, should have every encouragement to grow and every facility for growth. Science should be brought from the upper realms, and, by means of practical application, chained to the [301] every-day service of man. All knowledge should be made to serve the ends of humanity—not, indeed, reduced to the standard of utility, but given aspects and bearings and trained directions that should appeal even to those who hold that nothing is desirable unless it be of practical present usefulness.

One of the first forward steps of the new Tulane was the establishment of the manual training school, at first almost entirely an adjunct of the high school department, since abolished. The scope of the manual training school was rapidly extended, and to-day the university confers the degree of bachelor of science upon mechanical and electrical engineers from the college of technology. The literary and classical courses have grown into a splendidly equipped college of arts and sciences, graduating bachelors of art, and in the university, graduates of Newcomb and Tulane study together for the higher degrees of M. A. and Ph. D.

To the outside world there seems to be but little immediate bond between Tulane and Newcomb, but to the man whose memory is honored as president of Tulane University is due in large measure the existence of the H. Sophie Newcomb College for young ladies, one of the colleges in the university. Colonel Johnston never lost an opportunity to urge upon people of wealth identified with New Orleans to give of their means to the cause of education, and it was his influence with Mrs. Newcomb, whom he had known from her infancy, that probably determined her upon a college for young women as the best memorial for her lamented daughter. Colonel Johnston's modesty forbade him to speak of the extent to which the establishment of Newcomb College was due to him, and it was almost a secret until some of Mrs. Newcomb's relatives in Kentucky brought frivolous proceedings against Colonel Johnston for influencing Mrs. Newcomb to divert her wealth into such channels as to deprive them of all prospects of dividing it among them.

Colonel Johnston's idea was to build up a great university, made of many colleges, and to have on every hand preparatory schools feeding the colleges. Fifteen years president of Tulane, he lived to see his plans sufficiently materialized to guarantee the complete ultimate fruition of his hopes, and in the last days of his life he had the joy of knowing that his unselfish efforts for the good of others had been rewarded with ampler and quicker success than it is the lot of most men to enjoy.

In 1884, Tulane was almost an experiment. Between the president and the administrators the completest harmony always existed. [302] They were foremost business and professional men. He was a scholar, but an eminently practical one. Education was his life work, the one absorbing object of his days and nights, and he was for fifteen years the inspiration that enabled the corporate power embodied in the board of administrators to move forward and upward, gaining new strength with every effort, and greatly increased power with every new success. Tulane, in growing great under the presidency of Colonel Johnston, had, obedient to his ideas, uplifted all the schools and academies of this section. The ambition of principals and assistants in private preparatory schools, is to have their pupils admitted to the freshman classes of Tulane and Newcomb without entrance examinations. The Boys' High School scholarship stimulates both students, pupils and teachers in that school. Tulane, throbbing with its own life and ambition, proved a vitalizing influence throughout the entire educational system of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, sometimes lifting up, sometimes helping to do so, never without some influence.

“The noblest profession a man can follow,” Colonel Johnston used often say to his students, ‘is to educate others. It is not the most profitable financially, but it is the most gratifying in many respects.’

Ashley D. Hurt, a brilliant Greek scholar and a Greek poet, was placed in the Tulane faculty at the suggestion of Colonel Johnston, and Prof. Hurt's successor in the chair of Greek is a man, still young, whose education was received at Tulane, and whose scholastic attainments, especially in Greek, have attracted widespread attention. Tulane is sending out into the world many splendidly-equipped educators, and they in turn send students to Tulane; and along the lines mapped out by Colonel Johnston, Tulane University works out its own destiny and that of a people.

An illustration of his devotion to the university, and also of his will-power, was given at the last commencement exercises. He had suffered much and had been under severe physical strain. He was at the time unfit to be on the platform, but it was commencement, and he must be where his heart was—with his graduates. He could barely hold up during the exercises, and his condition was painfully apparent to the audience.

Glowing tributes to the memory of Colonel Johnston from Judge Charles E. Fenner, President of the Board of Administrators of Tulane University; the venerable man of God, Benjamin M. Palmer, D. D., and others, have been published.

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