“Old Johnston Thought It Rather Hard”


"Old Johnston thought it rather hard To ride over Beauregard; Old Johnston proved the deuce of a battle, And it's clear beyond a doubt That he didn't like the rout, And the second time he thought he'd try another." The Great Galena is also mentioned


The editors of Brown conjecture that the first verse of this song, at least, refers to the Battle of Shiloh. Given the fragmentary state of the text, this is possible -- but I wonder.

There were two battles in the Civil War in which a southern general named Johnston was in command over Beauregard: At Bull Run/Manasses, where the Johnston involved was Joseph E. Johnston, and at Shiloh, where the Johnston was Albert Sydney Johnston.

To me, the song seems slightly more likely to refer to Bull Run. J. E. Johnston, arriving on the field with reinforcements, could have taken command over Beauregard, but generally deferred to his junior as Beauregard knew the ground. In addition, the Confederates at Bull Run were wavering when Johnston's troops arrived; there was no such rout at Shiloh. (There, it was the Union troops which ran.)

I hasten to add that this is pure conjecture. If true, however, the song may link vaguely with the "Bull Run" song of Cox; there are some metrical similarities.

If the song refers to the eastern campaigns, it would also explain the references to the _Galena_, a Union ironclad launched in 1862. She operated on the James River during the Peninsular Campaign, and she and the _Monitor_ (either of which, though probably the latter, could be the "Naval Wonder" of the song) tried to ascend the river to attack Richmond after the destruction of the _Merrimac/Virginia_ on May 9.

The attack on Drewry's Bluff failed; the Union vessels could not elevate their guns high enough to attack the Confederate works. The _Monitor_ suffered little damage (except that her crew was driven inside by sharpshooters, leaving them breathing foul and very hot air; see Harold Holzer and Tim Mulligan, Editors, _The Battle of Hampton Roads_, Fordham/Mariner's Museum, 2006, p. 48), but the _Galena_ proved very unsafe. James L. Nelson, Reign of Iron: The Story of the first Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merimack_, Perennial, 2004, p.89, records an officer writing of her, "She is not shot-proof; ball came through, and many men were killed with fragments of her own iron."

Professor James Russell Soley, U.S.N., writing in volume II of the famous nineteenth century series _Battles and Leaders of the Civil War_, p. 270., writes that in the battle of Drewry's Bluff, "In this position the _Galena_ remained for three hours and twenty minutes until she had expended all her ammunition. She came out of the action badly shattered, having been struck 28 times and perforated in 18 places." In the end, she was converted to an unarmored gunboat.

Another perspective on Drewry's Bluff, however, comes from John Taylor Wood, who was first a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy and then a Colonel in the army. He too wrote an article in _Battles and Leaders_ (found in the short edition abridged by Ned Bradford in 1956; I use the 1979 Fairfax Press edition): He declares that Drewry's Bluff had not been fortified until the _Virginia_ was scuttled, and manned only by a few guns, served mostly by the _Virginia's_ former crew. He considers the _Galena_ to have been very skillfully handled, But his summary of the battle (p. 108) is as follows:

"The _Monitor_, and others anchored just below, answered our fire deliberately; but, owing to the great elevation of the battery, their fire was in a great measure ineffectual, though two guns were dismounted and several men were killed and wounded. While this was going on, our sharp-shooters were at work on both banks.... Fining they could make no impression on our works, the _Galena_, after an action of four hours, returned down the riger with her onsorts.

"This was one of the boldest and best-conducted operations of the war.... Had Commander Rogers [of the Union navy] been supported by a few brigades,landed at City Point or above on the south side [of the James River], Richmond would have been evacuated. The _Virginia's_ crew alone barred his way to Richmond...." - RBW

Historical references

  • July 21, 1861 - First battle of Bull Run/Manasses fought between the Union army of McDowell and the Confederates under Johnston and Beauregard
  • April 6-7, 1862 - Battle of Shiloh. The army of U.S. Grant is forced back but, reinforced by Buell, beats off the army of A.S. Johnston. Johnston is killed. Both sides suffer heavy casualties (Shiloh was the first battle to show how bloody the Civil War would be)
  • May 15, 1862 - Battle of Drewry's Bluff


  1. BrownII 224, "Old Johnston Thought It Rather Hard" (1 fragment)
  2. Roud #6618
  3. BI, BrII224


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1952 (Brown)
Keywords: Civilwar soldier battle
Found in: US(SE)