William Preston Johnston was born to Albert Sidney Johnston (02 February 1803-06 April 1862) and Henrietta Preston (23 February 1803-12 June 1835) near Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky on 05 January 1831. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was four, and his famous father shortly became involved with the new Republic of Texas. He was raised by his mother's family in Louisville and he received his early education in local schools. He later attended the academy of Samuel Venable Womack in Shelbyville, Shelby County, Kentucky, Centre College in Danville, Boyle County, Kentucky, Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Scott County, Kentucky, and Yale College (now Yale University) in New Haven, New Haven County, Connecticut. While at Yale, he met Rosa Elizabeth Duncan (03 December 1831-19 October 1885), whom he later married on 06 July 1853. After graduation, he studied law and received his diploma from the Law School of the University of Louisville in March 1853. Except for living a short time in New York, he remained engaged with his law practice in Louisville until the onset of the war.
Johnston aided in recruiting and equipping several companies for Confederate service in the summer of 1861, was elected Major of the 2nd Regiment, Kentucky Infantry, but was soon transferred to the 1st Regiment, Kentucky Infantry and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. His regiment was initially involved involved in operations near Centreville and on the line of Fairfax Court House following the Battle of First Manassas (21 July 1861). After suffering through typhoid-pneumonia and camp fever, and his regiment having been disbanded during his illness, he was appointed Aide de Camp to President Jefferson Davis (03 June 1808-06 December 1889), with the rank of Colonel, on 19 April 1862. Often assisting Davis with assessing military needs and delivering dispatches, he was present on the field at Seven Pines (31 May 1862-01 June 1862), Cold Harbor (31 May 1864-03 June 1864), Drewry's Bluff (16 May 1864), and periodically during the Petersburg Campaign (13 June 1864-03 April 1865). He accompanied Davis and the Cabinet in their flight and was captured with the President near Irwinville, Irwin County, Georgia on 10 May 1865.
Following his release after months of solitary confinement at Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island, New Castle County, Delaware, and spending nearly a year in self-imposed exile in Canada, he returned to Louisville and resumed his law practice. In 1867, Robert Edward Lee (19 January 1807-12 October 1870), then President of Washington College (now Washington & Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia, requested Johnston become his school's Chairman of History and English Literature, a post he remained in until 1877. Also in 1877, the college conferred upon him the degree of Doctorate of Law (LL. D.).
Johnston became a well respected author, public speaker, and for several years was one of the regents of the Smithsonian Institution. His writings include: a biography on his father, The Life Of Albert Sidney Johnston (1878), an in depth review of Shakespeare, The Prototype Of Hamlet (1890), and two collections of poetry, My Garden Walk (1894) and Pictures Of The Patriarchs, And Other Poems (1896).
In 1880, he accepted the presidency of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, and thoroughly reorganized the institution, which at the time had extremely low enrollment and a host of other issues. He left there in 1883, when requested to take charge of the newly founded Tulane University, in New Orleans, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Under his fifteen year leadership, Tulane became one of the South's most notable private colleges. After the death of his first wife, he married Margaret Henshaw Avery (16 October 1848-31 October 1925) on 26 April 1888. Johnston died on 16 July 1899 at "Col. Alto", the home of his son in-law, educator, lawyer, and U.S. Congressman, Henry St. George Tucker (05 April 1853-23 July 1932), in Lexington, Virginia, and is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky.
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