Captain Samuel R. Johnston was an imposing man in his time. He stood 6 feet 2 ½ inches in height with a dark complexion, hazel eyes and dark hair. Before the war he worked as a civil engineer in Virginia. When the war came he entered the Confederate service on February 10, 1862 as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Virginia Cavalry, but it was his background in engineering that soon made him indispensable. In only two months “Jeb” Stuart was writing that Johnston “possesses remarkable qualifications for the post of military engineer . . . He is sober, indefatigable, and capable.” By June of that year Johnston was on the staff of General James Longstreet as an engineer officer. In August, now promoted to captain, he joined the staff of army commander Robert E. Lee as an engineer. By the time of Gettysburg, Johnston had served with Lee for nearly a year and had his complete confidence as an engineer and a reconnoitering officer.
On the morning of July 2, when General Lee sought to locate the left end of the Union army’s lines for an offensive he was contemplating, it was Captain Johnston he selected to conduct the vital reconnaissance that would establish the enemy position. Johnston
recalled, “About daybreak on the morning of the 2nd, General Lee called me and said he wanted me to reconnoiter along the enemy’s left and return as soon as possible.” With only three or four men, one of whom was Major J. C. Clark, an engineer on General Longstreet’s staff, Johnston set out around 4 a.m. He recalled later that the reconnaissance was “very successful.” When he returned around 7 a.m. he found Generals Lee, Longstreet and A. P. Hill sitting on a log near the Lutheran Seminary holding a map. When Lee saw Johnston he called him over and the captain traced his route on the map where he had made his reconnaissance. “When I got to the extreme right of our reconnaissance on the Little Round Top, General Lee turned and looking at me, said, ‘Did you get there?’ I assured him that I did.” But did he? Historians today generally agree that Captain Johnston’s reconnaissance was flawed. If he made it to Little Round Top how did he completely miss some 8,000 men of the Union 3rd Corps who were bivouacked just north of that hill? Questions remain about just where Captain Johnston went on that fateful early morning reconnaissance on July 2. [S. R. Johnson to Lafayette McLaws, June 27, 1892; S. R. Johnston to Rev. George Petterkin, Dec. ?, 18??, Virginia Historical Society]
This July 2, 150 years later, you can join with Ranger Troy Harman on In The Footsteps of Captain Johnston. Troy will explore the story of Johnston, where he might have gone, and what his reconnaissance meant for General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. You will need to rise early if you want to join Troy – although not quite as early as Captain Johnston. The program meets at 6:30 a.m. on July 2 at the Longstreet Tower on West Confederate Avenue. It will end at 8:30 a.m. at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on South Confederate Avenue, about one mile away. Park along West or South Confederate Avenue on the right hand side of the road but with all four wheels on the road.
In the hours after Captain Johnston’s reconnaissance one of the most furious battles ever fought in North America ensued. When it finally subsided, between 9 and 10 p.m., thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers lay dead, were wounded or prisoners of war. Yet, the battle remained undecided. Despite a severe battering the Army of the Potomac still held all the key terrain on the battlefield. The question at hand was could they stand another day, and was Gettysburg the place to continue the battle? General George G. Meade, who had only been in command of the army for five days, wanted to sound out his corps commanders on both the army’s condition and their thoughts about its position. All were summoned to the tiny farmhouse of the widow Lydia Leister, which served as army headquarters. “That poor little farm house is honored with more distinguished guests than it ever had before, or than it will ever have again, probably,” wrote Lieutenant Frank Haskell, aide to Brigadier General John Gibbon, who attended the council as the acting corps commander of the 2nd Corps.
The decision before the assembled generals was momentous. Not only the outcome of the battle, but possibly the future of their nation rested upon it. Haskell, who was an eyewitness from outside the Leister farm, wrote how “The Generals came in, – some sat, some kept walking or standing, two lounged upon the bed, – some were constantly smoking cigars. And thus disposed, they deliberated . . .” [Frank L. Byrne & Andrew T. Weaver, Haskell of Gettysburg (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1970, 134-135]
We will return to this dramatic moment 150 years later at 9:30 p.m. for the second of our special July 2 Battlefield Experience programs. Rangers Angie Atkinson and John Nicholas will present Stay and Fight: General Meade’s Council of War. Meet at the General Meade equestrian monument on Cemetery Ridge. From there the program will make its way down to the Leister farm, which will be open to the public for the first time in many years. The program ends at 11 p.m. so bring a flashlight. You may park along Hancock Avenue (on the right hand side of the road with all four wheels on the road), at the north or south National Cemetery lots, or at Lot #3 at the Visitor Center (the closest to the Taneytown Road) and walk to the Meade equestrian.
D. Scott Hartwig
[Note: Our Commemorative Events Guide, with all of our 150th activities may be downloaded from our website at http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/150th-anniversary-plan-your-visit.htm]