July 1862: "...now is the time that tries a good soldier..."

By Joan Fink, Volunteer

Letter from George H. Johnston to Amanda Johnston, 15 July 1862

Letter from George H. Johnston to Amanda Johnston, 15 July 1862

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    Politicians should keep to politics and let the military handle its own affairs. That is the philosophy espoused by Captain George H. Johnston, a Bostonian serving as assistant adjutant general to Brigadier General Henry Naglee, in this 15 July 1862 letter to his wife, Amanda. Writing at the close of the failed Peninsular Campaign, Captain Johnston offers a description of the current state of the Army of the Potomac and his opinion on what must be done in order for the Union to win the war.

    George H. Johnston was born in South Boston in 1832, the son of William and Susanna Caines Johnston. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a glass manufacturer. At the time he joined the First Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a lieutenant in May of 1861, Johnston was the superintendent of the Suffolk Glass Works in South Boston. His older brother William C. Johnston, the Willey referenced in this letter, served alongside him in Company E of the First Massachusetts until April 1862, when George was promoted to captain and transferred to accept an appointment as assistant adjutant general in the U.S. Volunteers.

    In this letter Johnston raises profound military and moral issues that are still relevant today. He notes that he wishes Congress and the President would give more deference to the Union army leadership in the day-to-day decision making of the war and opines that the Confederacy has greater faith in its own military leadership than the politicians in Washington have in the commanders of the Union army (page 3). While Johnston does not specify the source of his negative opinion of Washington “poloticians,” in the summer of 1862, public faith in the Union Army—and particularly in the command of General George B. McClellan—was shaken. President Lincoln summonsed Henry Halleck from the western theater to assume command of the Union Army, which he did on 11 July. At the very same time that General McClellan’s star was falling, General Robert E. Lee was gaining prominence as the so-called savior of Richmond. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederate Army’s principal unit in the field, in June 1862.

    Johnston also references his desire for a draft, stating “they make better soldiers I verily believe than volunteers” (page 2). He was somewhat prescient in thinking that the governors should draft more soldiers, as less than one month later President Lincoln called upon the states to supply 300,000 more men and authorized the governors to draft from the militia if an individual state’s quota could not be filled by volunteers.

    In addition to frankly expressing his political and military views, Johnston also provides Amanda with information relating to the location, movement, and numbers of Union troops. Interestingly enough, the letters and journals kept by members of both the Union and Confederate armies contained surprisingly candid accounts of military operations. Unlike later wars, commencing with World War I, where military leadership took measures to protect classified information from reaching enemy hands, most Civil War soldiers were not subject to censorship in their letters home.

    After the war, Johnston remained in Norfolk, Virginia, for several years, where he was joined by his wife. They later returned to Boston before moving to Minnesota in 1871 where Johnston founded the town of Detroit Lakes. George H. Johnston died in Minnesota in 1889.

    Sources for Further Reading

    The document featured here is one of 50 Civil War era letters from George H. Johnston to his wife contained in the George H. Johnston Letters. Many of the letters are written from Maryland and Virginia, including detailed descriptions of several battles from the Peninsular Campaign, including Fair Oaks, Seven Pines, White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hill.

    A second body of letters from Johnston to his wife is held by the Birmingham Public Library in Birmingham, Alabama. The bulk of this collection covers the later years of the war, focusing on Johnston’s role in the occupation of various coastal areas of North and South Carolina. A microfilm edition of this collection is available to researchers at the MHS (P-132).

    Gallagher, Gary W. The Richmond Campaign of 1862: The Peninsular and the Seven Days. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.