Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Robert Johnston Papers, 1863-1865

James S. Schoff Civil War Collection

Finding aid created by
Philip Heslip and Megan Hixon, December 2009

Summary Information
Title: Robert Johnston papers
Creator: Johnston, Catherine S.
Inclusive dates: 1863-1865
Extent: 36 items
The Robert Johnston papers consist of letters from a Confederate soldier in Virginia and Tennessee, written to his wife living in Albany, New York, between November 1863 and April 1865. The letters describe the difficulties of sending mail between the North and the South, and mention the legal complications of Confederate prisoners of war after the South’s surrender.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1995. M-3114.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

Robert Johnston Papers, James S. Schoff Civil War Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


This collection is organized chronologically with undated items at the end.


Robert Johnston was a colonel in the Confederate Army, serving in the 3rd Virginia cavalry. Johnston was born in Virginia c.1826. He completed his doctoral thesis from the University of Maryland’s medical school in 1852 after graduating from West Point in 1850. Johnston then joined the United States military and, from 1851-1856 and 1858-1861, served on frontier duty with the 1st Dragons as a first lieutenant. At the outbreak of war, he resigned from the Northern Army in April 1861 and joined the Virginia 3rd Cavalry as a colonel the following month. The cavalry was part of the Army of Northern Virginia which served under J.E.B. Stuart and Colonel Thomas H. Owen. After Gettysburg, he served under George Pickett. At the end of the war, Johnston was taken as a prisoner and sought amnesty by signing the loyalty oath "not to take part in hostilities against the Government of the United States."

In 1857, Johnston married Catherine Van Rensselaer, daughter of John Sanders Van Rensselaer and Ann Dunkin of Albany, New York. During the war, Catherine remained in Albany at her father's house with their two young children Robert and Dunkin (they had eight children over the course of their marriage). Johnston died in New York on July 2, 1902.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Robert Johnston papers (36 items) consist of letters from November 1863 to April 1865, during Johnston’s time with the Confederate Army; they track his movements around Virginia and Tennessee. The letters were primarily written to his wife Catherine "Kate" S. Johnston (also addressed "Mrs. C.S. Johnston" and "Mrs. Robert Johnston") who lived in Albany, New York, with her father, the retired General John Van Rensselaer.

Johnston's letters often concern his request for news about his young children. He often discussed friends and family members, but mentioned little of military matters, aside from officers with whom he has become friends. His letter of November 24, 1863, noted a recent bout of influenza in the camp and on March 30, 1864, Johnston wrote of being offered a professor's chair. In letters he wrote immediately following major battles, he does not mention them at length. However, some of their letters seem to have gotten lost in the mail, as he sadly noted. In his letter of April 8, 1865, he gave Kate explicit directions on how to address a letter to him and about what the appropriate length should be. The letter of February 20, 1865, contained a message from an unnamed examiner, who noted that the letter was too long and that it was supposed to be only one page in length.

Later letters have interesting content pertaining to the capture of Petersburg and Richmond and the end of the war. In his letter of April 4, 1865, Johnston mentioned his desire to see his mother and sister before the imminent evacuation of Petersburg, and that he had surrendered to Union General [George Henry?] Thomas of the Union and had received parole. Likewise, in his letter of the April 12, 1865, he expressed uncertainty about his legal position following the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox.

Subject Terms

    • Confederate States of America. Army. Virginia Cavalry.
    • Confederate States of America. Army--Officers.
    • Fort Stedman, Battle of, Petersburg, Va., 1865.
    • Richmond (Va.)--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.
    • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Prisoners and prisons.
    • Johnston, Robert, ca. 1826-1902.
    Genre Terms:
    • Letters (Correspondence)
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   77, Schoff Civil War Collection  
    Robert Johnston papers [series]
    Folder   1  
     1863 November 9-1864 January 28
    Folder   2  
     1864 February 3-1864 July 22
    Folder   3  
     1864 August 9-1865 February 20
    Folder   4  
     1865 March 7-1865 April 12
     Undated (2 items)
    Empty Envelopes (4 items)