When: July 14, 2010
Where: Ohio Health Medical Campus, 300 Polaris Parkway, Westerville Ohio 43082
Speaker: Gregg Clemmer
Topic: Ed “Old Alleghany” Johnson
Gregg Clemmer is a native of Augusta County and a graduate of Virginia Tech with a Master’s in Military History from Norwich University. He is a former president of the Montgomery County (MD) Civil War Roundtable, a tour leader for the Smithsonian’s Resident Associates Program, and numbers members of Armistead’s and the Stonewall brigades in his ancestry. Gregg is the author of four books including the acclaimed Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor. His biography, Old Alleghany: The Life and Wars of General Ed Johnson, won the 2005 Douglas Southall Freeman History Award as the book of highest merit published in Southern history for that year. He has just finished his first historical novel, A Turn for Home.
Ed Johnson is “one of the wickedest men I ever heard 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, and when he go mad could work his ears like a mule.”
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. Douglas Southall Freeman found Johnson “a curious, uncouth and strangely fascinating man.” Stonewall Jackson biographer Bud Robertson wrote that Johnson “boasted a strong personality and loud voice that commanded attention where physical good looks did not.” And Gettysburg’s pre-eminent historian Harry Pfanz declared Johnson “a character in an army that had more than its full share of eccentric general officers.”
But is history’s assessment of this soldier whom his men tagged with a dozen colorful sobriquets—including Fence Rail, Old Clubby, and Brute—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 Ft. 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 the 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 large 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 breadth of contemporaries, “Old Alleghany” emerges as much more than the gruff, laughable caricature of popular 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 solder ever donned the Southern Gray, or followed the storm-tossed colors of the immortal Lee.”