One day in late January 1865, a child was born in Virginia as the Confederacy lay on its deathbed. News traveled to the defensive lines in front of Richmond, where a senior staffer in the Army of Northern Virginia learned he had a son.
Lt. Col. Sam Johnston, 31, decided to name the boy after Gen. Robert E. Lee. He did so with personal knowledge of Lee the man, for he had long been part of the commander’s military family. Johnston notified the general of his intent.
Lee, proper and refined even as his army and country was in tatters after four years of bloody war, set aside his cares and penned a personal note to Johnston on Feb. 25, 1865, “I appreciate the high honor you pay me, in proposing to call your son after me.” He added, with characteristic humility, “I would suggest for him a better name, that of his own father, whose virtues & merits I earnestly pray he may imitate. Should he be able to attain them he would enjoy the only happiness enjoyed by mortals, that of being beloved & useful.”
In context, Lee’s words of praise represent more than best wishes for a newborn child. They also suggest that Lee held Johnston in high esteem, even after his involvement in one of the enduring controversies of the Battle of Gettysburg—the July 2 reconnaissance of Little Round Top.
Born in Fairfax County, Samuel Richards Johnston was a civil engineer in Alexandria, Va., before the war. According to one report, he happened to be on a train headed south out of Alexandria when news of Virginia’s secession reached him. He stopped the train, hurried home and became a first lieutenant of a militia company, the Fairfax Cavalry, or Washington’s Home Guards. The unit mustered for Confederate service as Company F of the 6th Virginia Cavalry.
Johnston proved a capable officer. His engineering experience and leadership abilities as a scout captured the attention of Brig. Gen. JEB Stuart, who brought him on to his staff on detached duty as a volunteer aide-de-camp in early 1862. The rest of Johnston’s year was a whirlwind of activity. He left the cavalry in April, and joined the engineers. By June, he had risen to lieutenant and member of Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s staff. In August, he advanced to captain and joined Gen. Lee. His future looked bright.
Then came Gettysburg. During the wee hours of the second day, Lee ordered Johnston to reconnoiter the federal left. He set out about daybreak with Longstreet’s engineering officer and a small escort for what became a three-hour tour. Upon his return, Johnston reported his findings to Lee, assuring him that he made it to Little Round Top and found it unoccupied.
As it turns out, the Union had, by this time, established a signal station on Little Round Top, and thousands of troops encamped nearby. Johnston failed to note any of these details—at least they were not reported in official reports or other surviving correspondence. Many historians have concluded that Johnston’s reconnaissance was faulty, among them Karlton D. Smith, a park ranger at Gettysburg.
In his 2006 paper, “To Consider Every Contingency,” Smith explained, “It is this writer’s belief that Johnston did not get to Little Round Top as he claimed but instead was on the slopes of Big Round Top. There were also plenty of Federal troops in the area between the Round Tops and the Emmitsburg road for Johnston to see.”
Smith goes on to point out that the Lost Cause ideology that emerged immediately following the war held Longstreet personally responsible for the loss at Gettysburg.
Johnston was also held to account in the Lost Cause mythology, though not nearly to the same extent as Longstreet. There can be no question that the intelligence gathered during Johnston’s reconnaissance painted an inaccurate picture of the true state of affairs on the Union right flank and influenced the early thinking of Lee. It is unclear however, if the report had any serious impact on the rapid-moving events that unfolded later in the day.
Johnston’s post-Gettysburg military career indicates that the reconnaissance left no permanent tarnish as far as his peers and superiors were concerned. He played an active and effective role during the withdrawal from Gettysburg, and earned two more promotions, including lieutenant colonel in September 1864. Johnston commanded a section of the defensive works along Longstreet’s front when his son was born on Jan. 27, 1865
Lee’s reply to Johnston’s plan to name his baby boy after the general also indicates that no animosity existed between them.
Lee’s suggestion also touches on a family tragedy. In 1860, Johnston’s newlywed wife, Mary, gave birth to their first boy. He was given Johnston’s name. The boy died at age 3 in December 1863. Lee was perhaps not aware of the child’s death, knew it and made the suggestion in light of the fact, or had forgotten the tragedy as he was blinded by his own humility. Whatever the reason, Lee informed Johnston, “As it is known you desire to call your boy after me, unless too late you must name him Robert Edward Lee.”
Robert Edward Lee Johnston grew up and fulfilled Lee’s best wishes. He became a successful physician in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he died in 1909 at age 44. He outlived his father, who had died a decade earlier after an engineering career in New Jersey.
References: Karlton D. Smith, “To Consider Every Contingency,” Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Capt. Samuel R. Johnston, and the factors that affected the reconnaissance and countermarch, July 2, 1863, Papers of the 2006 Gettysburg National Military Park Seminar, National Park Service; Gen. Robert E. Lee to Lt. Col. Samuel R. Johnston, Feb. 25, 1865, Dave Batalo Collection; New York Tribune, Dec. 25, 1899; Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), March 18, 1861; Samuel R. Johnson and Sam R. Johnston military service records, National Archives; Krick, Staff Officers in Gray: A Biographical Register of the staff Officers in the Army of Northern Virginia; Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 5; Freeman, R.E. Lee; A Biography, Vol. III; Alexandria Gazette, Sept. 15, 1909.
Dave Batalo of Richmond, Va., is a retired nuclear engineer who has collected Civil War artifacts since the mid-1970’s. Today he specializes in cased images of identified Virginia soldiers, which became his main area of focus in 2011.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.