- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005


By Gregg S. Clemmer

Hearthside Publishing, $39.95, 760 pages, illus.


He was one of the South’s toughest fighters, yet few today can recall Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s great exploits. In this massive new biography, “Old Alleghany,” author Gregg Clemmer attempts to rescue this colorful, club-wielding character from the dustbin of history.

Edward Johnson was born April 16,1816, at the family home, Salisbury, in Chesterfield County, Va. Because of disagreements between his maternal grandfather and father, the family moved to Louisville, Ky., when he was a young lad. During his midteens, Johnson attended Kenyon College in Grambier, Ohio.

Toward the end of his time there, he applied to become a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy. Through the help of some politically powerful family friends, he secured an appointment.

In the summer of 1833, Johnson began his studies at West Point. Never a good student, he barely passed his first year and failed his second. Mr. Clemmer recounts how, during the next term, a sullen Johnson hit rock bottom after reporting to school late and, not long afterward, disobeying a direct order in mathematics class.

Pleading guilty to two of the charges against him and being found guilty of another at his court-martial, he was sentenced to dismissal. Then, surprisingly, the court commuted the sentence to a less severe punishment.

From that time on, according to the author, “Ed pressed his efforts for a West Point education with a new determination.”

Johnson graduated in 1838 and soon reported for duty with the 6th U.S. Infantry in Florida. For the next three years, he served in Company D as the 6th fought to flush the Seminole Indians from their swampy lairs. In 1842, his regiment was transferred west. From that time until the outbreak of the Mexican War, he served at various frontier posts, including Fort Smith, Ark.

In Mexico, the 6th marched with Gen. Winfield Scott’s army. On Sept. 7, 1847, during the desperate fighting at Molina Del Ray, Johnson risked his life carrying his wounded brigade commander from the field. Six days later, at the Battle of Chapultepec, he again distinguished himself. The Army rewarded his “gallant and meritorious conduct” by elevating him with two brevets to the rank of major, and once he was back home, the Commonwealth of Virginia and Chesterfield County each presented the champion with a sword.

Following the Mexican War, Johnson served as a recruiter in Richmond before transferring to posts in Kansas and California. On June 3, 1861, while stationed at Governor’s Island, N.Y., he resigned his commission and cast his lot with the South.

Once in Richmond, Johnson became colonel of the 12th Georgia Infantry. By mid-July, his men, along with additional units, were on their way to reinforce other Rebels trying to hold onto mountainous northwestern Virginia.

The regiment remained in the rugged highlands for the next 10 months. During his research, the author traveled extensively in this region, and as a result, Mr. Clemmer’s writings give clarity to the often confusing and overlooked actions there.

On Oct. 3, the 12th Georgia helped defeat Union forces attempting to cross the Greenbrier River and attack Camp Bartow. Johnson’s unruffled demeanor that day gave confidence to his troops.

Pvt. James Atkins recalled, “He sits on his horse in a deadly rain of bullets as calmly as other people would sit in a shower of rain.” On Dec. 13, at the Battle of Alleghany Mountain, however, he became much like a viking berserker, earning his nom de guerre, “Old Alleghany,” by leading his men in a successful counterattack while armed only with a hickory club he had snatched from the brush.

On May 8,1862, Johnson, now a brigadier general and commanding the small Army of the Northwest, cooperated with Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in defeating a Union force at McDowell. Near the end of the clash, though, a Yankee shot him in the ankle.

During his yearlong recuperation, the old warrior’s attention turned to love. Diarist Mary Chestnut aptly described his awkward attempts at romance with Richmond’s young high-society belles when she wrote, “He is a different part of speech.”

Johnson was promoted to major general in February 1863, and President Jefferson Davis chose him that May to command the famed Stonewall Division in Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Corps. During the Gettysburg Campaign, Johnson had mixed success. Although his troops whipped Robert Milroy’s division at Stephenson’s Depot on June 15, they were unable, despite furious assaults, to capture Culp’s Hill on July 2 and 3.

Johnson’s finest day in the Army of Northern Virginia came on Nov. 27 at Payne’s Farm. There his soldiers, outnumbered 7-1, not only stopped a federal advance but pushed it back. Mr. Clemmer points out: “In his career as a Confederate officer, Johnson would never lose a battle in which he alone commanded the field.”

The year 1864 proved unlucky for the general. On the morning of May 12, during the Battle of Spotsylvania, a tidal wave of Yankees crashed through his line at the “Mule Shoe,” capturing him and most of his men. Later exchanged, he was transferred by the War Department to the Army of Tennessee.

That fall, Johnson and his new division followed Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood on his doomed invasion of Tennessee. On Dec. 16, 1864, the federals captured Old Alleghany again at the Battle of Nashville.

In the postwar years, the lifelong bachelor farmed at Salisbury and stayed out of politics. He died March 2, 1873, in Richmond. Although he is buried at Hollywood Cemetery, his grave site is unknown.

Despite being handicapped by the lack of surviving Johnson correspondence, Mr. Clemmer has mined a multitude of sources to pen a superb biography of this obscure Rebel hero.

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