In early September 1861 in Richmond, Va., President Jefferson Davis heard the distinctive walk of his friend Albert Sidney Johnston across the floor. Leaving his sick bed, Davis had Johnston brought to his room. Johnston had just survived a harrowing journey across the desert from California to Texas and was now offering his services to the Confederate army.
Davis and Johnston’s friendship dated to their days at Transylvania University and later West Point. In the intervening years, Johnston had made a name for himself as a soldier and leader of men.
Johnston had served as a general and Secretary of War in the Republic of Texas and fought in the Mexican War. In 1855, he was given command of the famed 2nd U.S. Cavalry, which boasted such soldiers as Robert E. Lee, George Thomas, John Bell Hood, William Hardee and Earl Van Dorn. In 1857, he led an expedition against the Mormons in Utah, and had commanded the Department of the Pacific since Dec. 21, 1860.
During this time, Johnston was torn but also duty-bound to remain at his post. His concern was the direction the United States was taking as sectional strife over slavery threatened to tear the nation apart.
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In a letter to a friend, Johnston confided, “The persistent obstinacy of the Republican Party, in refusing to concede anything whatever for the sake of the Union up to the hour of adjournment of the Senate, seems to indicate that the action of the South was based upon a correct understanding of the true sentiments of the North and their unbending character.”
While other Southern states were seceding, Johnston hoped his adopted home state of Texas might once again become a republic. After the battle of Fort Sumter on Apr. 9, 1861, Texas seceded and Johnston’s mind was made up.
Texas had chosen to secede and join the Confederacy. Upon hearing this news, Johnston resigned from the U.S. Army. Honor dictated he remain at his post until a suitable replacement was sent west to California.
During this time, rumors were rampant that sections of California that had Southern sympathies and had been settled by Southerners planned to take over and bring California into the Confederacy. There was even talk of taking the fort of Alcatraz Island and the stockpile of 10,000 guns and 150,000 cartridges of ammunition held there. Federal authorities wrongly assumed Johnston, with his Southern loyalties, was leading this faction.
Attempting to remain neutral even after he was replaced by Edwin Sumner.Johnston moved to a farm in Los Angeles, where he stayed until June 1861. His early hope to remain in peace and out of the conflict was seeing an end as Southerners tried to persuade Johnston to join the cause, even as the North considered him for overall Union command.
The scrutiny was so suffocating that word got out Johnston would be arrested if he attempted to leave California by boat. Stuck in California, Johnston eventually decided to accompany members of the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles in a journey across the southwest desert to Texas.
A ruse was concocted to confuse Federal authorities, who had Johnston under surveillance. It was announced this party would start its journey June 25, 1861, when in reality the trip began June 17.
Two parties of Mounted Rifles departed, taking different routes. Johnston, joined by Lewis Armistead, who would later die at Gettysburg, left Los Angeles heading toward Fort Yuma, Calif.
At Fort Yuma, news reached the Mounted Rifles that members of the fort would defect to their cause and would loot the fort. Johnston talked those with him out of such an endeavor. Johnston maintained they were not yet members of the Confederacy and any action against a Federal installation would be piracy.
After refitting from their first trek across the California desert, Johnston and his band headed for Southern-controlled Arizona before turning toward Texas. During this part of the journey, Johnston had to avoid Federal cavalry and Apache Indians while having little to no water. The journey was brutal but Johnston’s band pressed on.
By the end of July, Johnston had traveled 800 miles to Mesilla, N.M. It would be 700 more miles to San Antonio. During this time, the Federal government ordered Union cavalry to intercept and arrest Johnston but his band was able to evade capture.
Upon reaching San Antonio, Johnston was greeted by cheering Texans relieved the general had safely reached the Confederacy. Although hunted as an outlaw, Johnston was safely in Texas and soon would travel to Richmond.
Upon arriving in Richmond, Johnston met with the president of the Confederacy. Davis had an unflinching confidence in his friend, saying, “I hoped and expected that I had others who would prove generals, but I knew I had one, and that was Sidney Johnston.”
Davis appointed Johnston a full general in the Confederate army, making him commander of the Western Department. Eventually, Johnston raised the Army of Mississippi and defended Confederate lines from the Mississippi River, to the Allegheny Mountains.