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Stovepipe Johnson Part 2

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When we last left Adam Rankin “Stovepipe” Johnson, he’d been blinded in a battle at Grubb’s Crossing and captured by Union forces. Johnson was shot in the right eye and the ball exited his left temple, permanently destroying both eyes and leaving him blinded for life. Many men would have meekly accepted their fate, but Johnson was no ordinary man. He was exchanged for Union prisoners in late 1864 and begged permission to resume his own type of war against the Union, behind enemy lines in Kentucky. Jefferson Davis gave into his wish and he raised another company of men at Macon, Mississippi. Johnson was ready to resume his guerilla war when the news came of the Confederate surrender.

Johnson must have cut quite the figure at the end of the war. He always wore an immaculate uniform, but now he had the permanent addition of bandages over his eyes. After the surrender, Johnson collected his wife Josephine Eastland from Virginia where she stayed during the war and the two traveled overland back to Texas. That was no mean feat; travel after the Civil War was dangerous. Former soldiers turned into bandits and ambushed travelers in the old Confederate states. Texas was not free of banditry and the Comanche still roamed the Staked Plains from Oklahoma down through Central Texas making the trip that much more difficult.

Johnson scraped out a living in Burnet County, having a few hardscrabble years as he first tried ranching and then farming. Even before the War, Johnson envisioned a flourishing city along the Colorado. He often talked about his adopted state to his friends and colleagues during the War, but most thought he gave up the dream after he was blinded. He didn’t give up the idea, he merely postponed it. The late 1860s and 1870s were hard for Texas. Reconstruction took its toll on Texas and the rest of the former Confederacy. The slave-based society of the old south was dismantled and it wasn’t clear what would replace it. Central Texas was never going to be an Old South type of country, it was too hard and dry for plantation style farming.

It was up to men like Johnson to find an identity for the country in the stony hills around the Colorado. Johnson envisioned a town at the spot where the Colorado funneled into a deep channel of stone and cascaded down marble falls. He saw industry where others saw beauty, Johnson wanted to harness the river’s power and turn it into industry. His dream incubated. Burnet County had enough trouble surviving numerous Comanche raids and the other dangers of Hill Country farming, drought, blight and withering heat. Those disasters notwithstanding, Johnson and a few ex-Confederates and copperheads carved out a city in the marble hills. First, they built a cotton mill, then a “power plant” (most likely a watermill) and a school building from the characteristic pink granite of the surrounding country. Johnson was the key to many of these improvements; he personally designed the layout of the town with the help of sighted friends.

Johnson rode sixty miles east to the state capitol in Austin in 1883 seeking government help to establish a railroad from Austin to Burnet and include a spur to Marble Falls. It was good timing. When he arrived, a controversy was unfolding about the type of stone to be used on the capitol. The Legislature insisted on using native limestone for the capitol’s construction, however, native limestone has bits of iron in it and can cause discoloration. After much debate, the legislature voted to use Indiana limestone. Governor John Ireland was scrambling for a solution when Johnson presented him with a perfect solution. In exchange for building the railroad to Burnet and the spur to Marble Falls, Johnson and a few investors would donate the right of way for the railroad and the stone itself. It was a fair trade in Johnson’s book.

He lived until 1922, but his legacy reaches all throughout Texas History. His wife, Josephine Eastland’s family had two prominent Texas politicians come from their line. George Christian Sr., a prominent judge, and George Christian Jr., press secretary for Lyndon Johnson and Texas political guru are both related to the Eastlands. Adam and Josephine had six children, one of whom went on to become a fairly well known baseball player. Adam Rankin “Tex” Johnson pitched in the Red Sox and Cardinal’s system from 1914 to 1918. “Tex” had a son also named Adam who played baseball in the majors as well. Rankin Johnson Jr. played for the Philadelphia Athletics for one year in 1941 and likely quit to go to war.

“Stovepipe” Johnson may be a bit of trivia in the vast collection of Civil War history for his taking of Newburgh, Indiana, but he had a very real impact on Texas and on the Civil War itself with his revolutionary guerilla tactics. The capitol building of Texas may not be pink if it wasn’t for Johnson.


- Will Erwin