The Life & War of General Ed Johnson
Ed Johnson is “one of the most wickedest men I ever herd of,” wrote a member of the Stonewall Brigade. Declared another, he is “a large and rather rough looking man on horseback… whom the men jeered.” Others recalled Johnson as an irascible character who “always carried a big hickory club or cane.”
Modern historians have eagerly plucked such scrofulous literary plums to color their accounts of Jackson’s Valley Campaign, Gettysburg’s Culp’s Hill, and Spotsylvania’s Mule Shoe, Douglass Southall Freeman found Johnson. “a curious, uncouth and strangely fascinating man.” Stonewall Jackson’s biographer Robertson wrote that Johnson “boasted a strong personality and loud voice that commanded attention where physical good looks did not.”
But is history’s assessment of this soldier whom his men tagged with a dozen colorful sobriquets accurate and fair? Certainly few students of the war know that this Virginian was a first cousin – twice removed – of Thomas Jefferson’s. Even fewer know of the recently found details of his being shipwrecked in the Gulf of Mexico or earning two brevet promotions for extraordinary bravery during the Mexican War. And what of his controversial report on the tragic 1854 Grattan Massacre outside Fort Laramie, still buried in the dusty archives of the War Department along with the details of his stalwart struggle to prevent wide-spread genocide in northern California five years later?
Parodied for his careless dress and homely appearance, for his deafness, nervous eye tic, and gargantuan ears that “would brush flies off the back of his head” when he became angry, Ed Johnson could hardly be obscured in an army that counted no fewer than eight Johnsons or Johnstons as General Officers. Yet he never married, had no descendants, and left no cache of papers. He died during Reconstruction when a still-recovering South could only momentarily acknowledge his passing. Even his grave in Richmond’s hallowed Hollywood Cemetery has been lost.
Yet when surveyed from a full impartial breadth of contemporaries “Old Alleghany” emerges as much more than the gruff, laughable caricature of popular (yankee) history. Stonewall Jackson praised his “high qualities as a soldier.” Dick Ewell called him “brave almost to a fault,” and Robert E. Lee pleaded for Richmond to press “any prospect” for Johnson’s exchange from the enemy.
Still, Johnson’s highest accolades shine from subordinates who followed him into battle. They are legion, but perhaps summarized best in the words of Artillerist William P. Carter, “No bolder soldier ever donned the Southern gray, or followed the storm-tossed colors of the immortal Lee.”
Virginian Author Gregg Clemmer has once again provided an invaluable work of historical research for which we should all appreciate; as this title deserves it’s place among scholarly tomes of historians who produced factual history and not the type so prevalent today.