The bullet hit the old man in the right shoulder, but the impact was so slight it left him in the saddle, instinctively still controlling his horse. His staff agreed it was a spent round - meaning that like most wounded on battlefields, General Joe Johnston (above) was not the intended target. The sheer volume of metal and wood and rocks traveling at supersonic and near supersonic speeds on a battlefield are intended not so much to kill as to strip away the veneer of a rational God and replace him with the harsh deity of chaos. This weary bullet was not strong enough to do that. That would come next.
In the fading light of a frustrating Saturday, 31 May, 1862, General Joseph Eggleston Johnston paused on a low hill just west of the Fair Oaks Station on the Richmond and York Railroad, to get a final look at the carnage before nightfall. With their backs against the rebel capital of Richmond, Johnston's 60,000 man army had turned on the ponderous 100,000 man Army of the Potomac.
But in attempting to crush the Yankee flank along Nine Mile Road and drive the invaders into the rain swollen Chickahominy River, the rebels had bungled the assault. Johnston was seeking to assess what needed to be done tomorrow to finish the job. He never got the chance.
A staff colonel warned that blue clad skirmishers seemed to be edging closer. The prim Johnston dismissed the potential for death saying, “There's no use in dodging. When you hear them, they have passed.” As soon as those words left his lips the random lead plowed into the General's shoulder. When his staff rushed to support him they unintentionally held him up upright just as a shell exploded to his front, sending spinning shards slamming into his chest and thigh. The same shell killed Private George Pritchard of Captain Robert Stribling's battery - the probable intended target - just unlimbering a few yards south of the General's position.
Johnston was knocked from his horse, the fall breaking his arm, his right shoulder blade and two ribs. He was carried from the field blood soaked and unconscious. He awoke briefly to the bitter reality of Jefferson Davis' false compassion and the schadenfreude sympathy from the President's military adviser, General Robert Edward Lee.
Then darkness again embraced him. By the time Johnston awoke from surgery in a Richmond Hospital, Davis had appointed Lee the new commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Johnston was an extra general.
Conscious of losing his spot in the minuet of musical chairs for command, the 56 year old Johnston (above) reported as fit and ready for duty just 4 months later. He was far from fully recovered - he would never fully recover from these wounds - but Davis found just the spot for his least favorite general.
He exiled Johnston to the newly created Department of the West, headquartered in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On paper Johnston was to coordinate the operations of 46 year old Braxton Bragg's 35,000 man Army of Tennessee, at Murfreesboro (above), just south of Nashville, and 54 year old Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton's 40,000 man Army of Mississippi.
Once in Chattanooga, Johnston found the two commands were 600 miles apart, with no direct rail or even telegraph connection between them, which meant they could not support each other. But when Johnston suggested a restructuring, Secretary of War Brigadier General George Randolph, said no.
Shortly there after, Johnston realized that he was really dealing with his old enemy Jeff Davis (above), and the President was undermining him. In the normal chain of command, Bragg and Pemberton reported to and received orders from Johnston and Johnston reported to and receive orders from the War Department in Richmond. But both Bragg and Pemberton were communicating directly with President Davis, who often issued them orders without informing Johnston. When Johnston complained he was supported by Randolph. And when Davis refused to stop interfering, Randolph resigned. But all that accomplished was that Davis got a new “malleable” Secretary of War – James Seddon, and the confusion got worse.
Next, Johnston suggested he be given authority over 58 year old General Theophilus Holmes's Trans-Mississippi Department, including Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. In response, Davis (above) mocked him - first Johnston complained his department was too big, and now he wanted to make it even bigger? The answer was no. Johnston then requested that Holmes transfer 20,000 men to Pemberton in Vicksburg. But Holmes was an old friend of the President's, and the answer again was no.
In late December of 1862, the 40,000 man Federal Army of the Cumberland under Major General William Rosecrans, marched 40 miles from Nashville to Murfessboro, and slammed into Bragg's Army of Tennessee. After four bloody days, which killed or wounded one third of the soldiers on both sides, Bragg felt forced to retreat 35 miles south to the railroad town of Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Braxton Bragg's subordinates went into rebellion, calling the brooding Bragg (above) a fool and a coward and demanding his removal. In February Davis ordered Johnston to Tullahoma to remedy the situation.
It seemed clear Davis wanted Johnston to take over Bragg's army. But the infections in Johnston's wounds had flared up again, and he did not feel inclined to extend himself. He reported back that Bragg should be left in charge. Davis was infuriated, but without going to Tennessee himself, there was nothing he could do. So Johnston (above) returned to Chattanooga.
One of Johnston's few accomplishments was procuring the February transfer of the impulsive profligate “terror of ugly husbands", the handsome if diminutive southern coxsman, General Earl Van Dorn (above) from Pemberton's command to Bragg's. The reason for the change was not the potential for genius by the volatile and dapper Lothario, but because the equally volatile Nathan Bedford Forrest had announced he would “...be in my coffin before I will fight again under...” Bragg's cavalry commander, General Joe Wheeler. Wheeler was promoted out of the way, and Van Dorn assumed command at the Cheairs, mansion at Spring Hill, Tennessee, about 30 miles south southwest of Nashville.
On Friday, 10 April, 1863, Van Dorn tested his new command, sending his 2 brigades of horsemen north to poke at the federal outpost protecting Nashville, the new Fort Granger, at Franklin, Tennessee. Van Dorn was not impressed with the results. He lost 137 men to the Yankee's 100, and withdrew to Spring Hall to lick his wounded ego and...
...seek comfort in the arms of the lovely and lonely Mrs. Jessie McKissack Peters, third wife of Dr. George Peters, a retired physician and a member of the state legislature. Luckily she lived less than a mile away, just across the a valley
Later that month Johnston's infection flared up again and he was bedridden when he received a rare telegram from Pemberton on Saturday, 1 May. “A furious battle has been going on since daylight, just below Port Gibson,” Pemberton wrote. “General Bowen says he is outnumbered trebly....”. Johnston forwarded Pemberton's request for help to Richmond, telling Secretary Seddon that any new troops, “...cannot be sent from here without giving up Tennessee.” Seddon did not respond at least to Johnston, and for four days the telegraph lines from Vicksburg dissolved into incoherent static and confusing coded messages. Johnston's pride did not allow him to ask Jefferson Davis if he had heard anything. Finally, on Tuesday, 5 May, Johnston's sent a telegram to Vicksburg, asking for information, and telling Pemberton that his army was more valuable to the Confederacy than the city. But there was still no reply.
Then, on Thursday morning, 7 May 1863, Dr. Peters rode up to the Cheairs mansion (above). The representative often visited Van Dorn's headquarters, to obtain a safe conduct pass when visiting his constituents near the Yankee lines. He was immediately admitted into the General's presence, and a few minutes later reappeared, mounted his horse and cantered off.
A few moments later General Van Dorn, married father of two “legitimate” children and several “illegitimate children”, life long unrepentant womanizer and reprobate and one of the most talented cavalry commanders remaining to serve the Confederate cause, was found slumped over his desk, with a small caliber bullet hole in the back of his skull. He died five hours later, without regaining consciousness.
Doctor Peters rediscovered his affection for the Federal Union when he received asylum behind Union lines in Nashville. He was never charged with the murder of Van Dorn, and later freely moved to other property he owned in Arkansas, where he was eventually joined by his repentant Jessie. Eight months after the murder, Jessie had given birth to a girl. And Doctor Peters raised her as his own. The "affair" provides a glimpse beneath the Victorian mask of southern womanhood and noble Confederate Cavaliers.
Beyond that, Earl Van Dorn's isolated "honor murder" at the age of 42, was as much a waste of life as the other half million southerners who died fighting to keep humans in bondage. The best that might be said of the man was that at least Van Dorn died seeking pleasure in life, not merely the death, dismemberment and enslavement of others. When one southern woman urged the notorious seducer to “let the women alone until the after the war is over”, Van Dorn defended himself, saying “I cannot do that, for it is all I am fighting for."