The first seven stanzas of this poem are a paen to Joseph Eggleston Johnston, the Confederate general perhaps best known as Robert E. Lee's predecessor at the helm of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Johnston was born in 1807 into a old Virginia family. His father had served as an officer during the Revolutionary War, and young Joe was determined to follow in his footsteps. Graduating thirteenth in the West Point class of 1829, he received a commission in the artillery and saw action during the Black Hawk, Seminole, and Mexican Wars before serving as lieutenant colonel of the 1st U.S. Cavalry (1855-1860) on the frontier and during the Kansas border disturbances.
On June 28, 1860, he was appointed Quartermaster of the U.S. Army, a position he held until April 22, 1861, when he resigned and offered his services to the Confederacy. He was first named a major general in the Virginia forces and was subsequently commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. His first assignment was at Harpers Ferry, where he relieved Thomas J. Jackson as commander. He soon left Harpers Ferry and joined General P.G.T. Beauregard at Manassas Junction, where together they engineered the overwhelming Confederate victory at the Battle of First Manassas in July of 1861. His appointment to head the Department of the Potomac coincided with his appointment to the rank of full general, fourth in line behind Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee. Johnston protested his rank vigorously to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, arguing that he had held a higher rank in the U.S. Army than Cooper, Johnston, or Lee and should be placed ahead of them. In Davis's eyes, however, Johnston had been a staff officer, not a line officer, and he refused to alter his dispositions. Johnston never forgave Davis for what he considered not just a grave injustice but a monumental insult as well, and thus began a feud that would last until war's end.
After Johnston was twice wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines in May of 1861, command of his army was given over to Robert E. Lee, who renamed it the Army of Northern Virginia and led it to glories Johnston likely could never have achieved. When Johnston was pronounced fit for duty six months later, President Davis sent him to command the Department of the West, where his immediate subordinates were Braxton Bragg in Tennessee and John C. Pemberton in Mississippi. Under Johnston's overall leadership, Bragg and Pemberton were defeated at Stones River, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. (In fairness to Johnston, however, his old antagonist Davis tied his hands at every turn, refusing to approve strategies that might have brought about different outcomes.)
In December of 1863, Johnston took over the Army of Tennessee with a mandate to reorganize and go on the offensive. He was doing just that, "skillfully dropping back before [William Tecumseh] Sherman's overwhelming numbers" in front of Atlanta, when Davis relieved him of command and turned the defense of Atlanta over to John Bell Hood, under whose generalship the city was lost.
Johnston reassumed command of the Army of Tennessee in February 1865, after Hood had dashed it almost to pieces at Franklin and Spring Hill. Following a series of losses in the Carolina campaign, Johnston followed Lee's example and surrendered to Sherman on April 26, 1865, despite Davis's orders to continue south.
After the War, Johnston dabbled in the insurance and railroad businesses, served in the U.S. Congress, and wrote about his wartime experiences. He died of pneumonia in 1891 after serving as a pallbearer at Sherman's funeral and standing hatless in the rain.
The remaining stanzas of the poem constitute a plea to the border states of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri to stand with the Confederacy against the Union. The "former bold clan chief" mentioned in the fifth stanza of the poem is Albert Sidney Johnston, Jefferson Davis's favorite general and former Secretary of War for the Republic of Texas, who was killed in the first day's fighting at the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862. So far as is know, he and Joe Johnston were not related.
The "McNiel" referred to in the penultimate stanza is Union General John McNeil, a native of Nova Scotia who worked as a hatter first in Boston and then in St. Louis and served in the Missouri State legislature. He was not well loved by Missourians with Southern leanings after administering a sound drubbing to Confederate forces at Fulton, Missouri, on July 17, 1861.
"A Word With the West"
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Last modified 16-April-2001