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Stovepipe Johnson - Partisan Ranger


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In grade school history class, wars are often simplified and made clean for the sake of brevity. Each side is clearly defined, one side against the other. Both sides wear uniforms, both sides agree to certain rules and battles are well controlled and sanitized. Of course, as we get older we realize war isn’t really like that. College-level military history will blow any quaint notions that war can be clear-cut or sanitized right out of the water. War is a dirty business, the line between citizen and soldier is blurred, uniforms sometimes disappear and battles can happen in isolated forest clearings between a dozen men armed with just knives. The American Civil War illustrates this point as well as any other. The Civil War had its pitched battles where men wore grey, men wore blue, and they stood toe to toe and hammered at each other until one side retreated or fell over in exhaustion. But that line between citizen and soldier was blurred often; men went back and forth numerous times, sometimes even in the same day even in the same “battle.” Men were in one instance a soldier, the next a guerilla, the next a civilian. This happened most frequently in the border states. The old trope that the Civil War was “brother against brother” was nowhere more true than in the border states (pictured above) of Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware. Many areas in those “Union” states were agrarian and relied on slave labor as much as Virginia planters or cotton farmers in Alabama. Kentucky was the most strategically important state in the war, according to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said, “I hope to have god on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

He almost didn’t. Kentucky’s official position at the beginning of the war was to remain neutral, but that only masked a deep division within the state. Unionist forces in the Commonwealth feared putting secession to a popular vote. Kentucky Confederate sympathizers thought they could tip the scales for the South if the state joined the Confederacy. The neutrality didn’t last long, Confederate General Leonidas Polk ordered his forces to occupy Columbus, Kentucky which had a strategic position on the Mississippi River. Upon hearing the news, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant crossed the border five days later (September 6, 1861) and entered Paducah. The governor denounced both armies for violating Kentucky’s neutrality; however, the state Assembly met and passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of Confederate forces only. The governor, a Southern sympathizer, attempted to veto the measure, but both houses of the assembly overrode the veto and declared Kentucky a Union state. The governor wasn’t alone in his sympathies. A Kentucky “government in exile” existed until the end of the War. However, the Confederate presence in the state was a tenuous one, the official Confederate presence anyway. This is where we cross the line between soldier and guerilla; this is where we come across one of the most interesting men buried at the Texas State Cemetery, Adam Rankin “Stovepipe” Johnson.

Johnson moved to Texas from Kentucky in the mid-1850s and wore his home state proudly on his sleeve. When the war broke out, he moved back to Kentucky and joined the Confederate Army, eventually becoming a “partisan ranger.” Partisan rangers were semi-official units in both the Confederacy and the Union. These were smaller units of men working behind enemy lines doing what they could to disrupt the opposing army’s supply lines, communication lines and anything else that might help the cause. Why was this controversial? Well, these partisan rangers had a tendency to step over the line. Mostly they wore no uniforms. During peacetime, men who didn’t wear uniforms who stole food, guns, medical supplies and other valuable items at gunpoint were just thieves or highwaymen. Johnson’s problem was that many criminals in Kentucky who stole or murdered or committed any other sort of crime claimed they were partisan rangers. Johnson himself was accused of being a freebooter, a glorified thief by newspapers and Union sympathizers. Johnson wrote a book later in life directly refuting the notion. He called on the testimony of fellow Confederate officers and Union officers to help his cause.

What led to Johnson’s immortality as a factoid in the annals of the Civil War happened at Newburgh, Indiana. He also earned his nickname in Newburgh. General Nathan Bedford Forrest ordered him to Kentucky just before the Battle of Shiloh to deliver a message. Forrest ordered him to stay and recruit a brigade of Kentucky cavalry and disrupt Union activities. With his first small group of volunteers, he captured his own hometown of Henderson, Kentucky. He hit and he ran causing chaos behind the established Union lines. In order to supply his growing legion of followers, Johnson crossed the Ohio River to Newburgh. Newburgh was a town of 1,500 people and the home of a Union hospital. One hundred and eighty Union soldiers were convalescing at the hospital, some more fit than others. In broad daylight, Johnson crossed the river with 35 men, mostly unarmed. They sacked a warehouse where they found sabers and pistols then proceeded to the hospital. Johnson persuaded the ranking Union officer to surrender. He pointed to two cannons across the river and said he would shell the city to the ground if they didn’t. The officer, a Major Bethel, surrendered. The unlikely raiders took all the weapons meant for the convalescing soldiers along with medical supplies, food and many other items Johnson needed to equip his men and then fled. Ever after, Johnson was called “Stovepipe” by his men, for the two “cannon” aimed at the city were made of old stovepipes and the remains of a broken wagon. He’d fooled his way to his most notable victor and it was the first time a Confederate force had taken a Union city.

Newburgh didn’t stay “taken” very long. Once the cry went up, hordes of Indiana regulars and irregulars swooped down on Newburgh. However, Johnson was gone, he and his men having melted away into the forests and valleys of Kentucky. He was promoted to colonel after the raid. Later, Johnson commanded a brigade at the Battle of Buffington Island, a disastrous defeat for the Confederacy, Johnson and his men were the only unit to escape. In a horrible accident, Johnson was shot by his own men at Grubbs Crossroads in 1864. It left the young colonel blind for the rest of his life. He was captured and spent the duration of the War at Fort Warren in Massachusetts.

I’ll write more about Stovepipe in next week’s blog entry, because being blind didn’t stop Johnson, he still had a few more roles to play in Texas history.


- Will Erwin