Among the ten division commanders of the newly reorganized Army of Northern Virginia in June of 1863, one was a complete newcomer to the army--Edward "Allegheny" Johnson. Oddly enough, "Stonewall" Jackson himself had asked for Johnson earlier in the spring. Johnson, said the legendary corps commander, "was with me at McDowall and so distinguished himself as to make me very desirous of having him as one of my Division commanders."
The question was whether Johnson would be able to walk and ride well enough to return to the field. After beginning the war leading a regiment in Lee's ill-starred Cheat Mountain campaign in West Virginia, he spent the winter of 1861-2 at the head of a brigade-sized contingent with the grand title of the "Army of the Northwest," holding the crest of the Allegheny Mountains (which won him the nickname "Allegheny"). His little army then came under Jackson's command and in May 1862 fought at the Battle of McDowall. There, Johnson went down with a bad wound to the ankle, but not before he made an impression on Jackson so strong that it would still be with him a year later. It would take Johnson that long to heal--the ankle bones did not knit well, the leg stiffened, and Johnson mended slowly.
The long convalescence had little sting for Johnson personally. He made the best of his misfortune by retiring to Richmond, where he owned property and had many relatives and friends. He pitched headlong into the social scene, where he was the source of considerable amusement and fascination. Johnson was a heavy-set, rough-looking character, still a bachelor at age forty-seven with uncouth manners, a booming voice, and an eye for the ladies. Before long there was much talk and shaking of heads about his ham-handed amorous exploits. One story went around that he had been heard proposing marriage to one belle at the top of his lungs, and, not a week later, he admitted to "paying attention" to one of his cousins. As a result of a wound received in Mexico, he had an affliction in one eye that caused it to wink uncontrollably, which contributed to the impression among many women that he was being overly familiar and downright impertinent. He caught the attention of the Confederate diarist Mary Chesnut, who wrote a famous description of his head, which she said "is strangely shaped, like a cone or an old-fashioned beehive; . . . there are three tiers of it; it is like a pope's tiara." Photographs show Ed Johnson as a man with a thinning head of sandy hair and a large tuft of chin-whiskers, and that, while he was not a handsome man, Mrs. Chesnut's description was a flight of imagination.
Meanwhile, at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, Brig. Gen. Raleigh Colston, leading Jackson's old division for the first time, performed poorly. Immediately after that battle Lee sent Colston to Georgia and summoned Johnson. On May 8--exactly one year after he received his wound at McDowall--Johnson left the diversions of Richmond to join Lee's army.
Johnson's resumé before the Civil War had been ordinary enough for a professional soldier. Born in Virginia, raised in Kentucky, he graduated from West Point 32nd out of 45 students in the Class of 1845. Johnson served in Florida against the Seminoles, then in the Mexican War, winning brevets for bravery in three different battles. Between the wars, Johnson had toured the usual frontier posts and participated in the expedition against the Mormons.
Catapulted into command of the Stonewall Division of Lee's army, Johnson was an outsider with no experience above brigade level. The men knew him by reputation only. They called him "Old Clubby" because he had to walk with the help of a heavy hickory staff that looked like a fence rail. The men did not take kindly to him from the start. Even after his success in their first battle together, at Second Winchester in the opening days of the Gettysburg Campaign, they had no affection for him. He swore at them and hit skulkers with his huge staff, and they resented it. One of his men called him a "brute;" another described him as being one of the "wickedest men I ever heard of," and later wrote, "The whole division suffered through the folly of our hard fighting Johnson. He has none of the qualities of a general, [but] expects to do everything by [head-on] fighting."
As they approached the war's climactic battle, Johnson was a talented, professionally schooled soldier, but with little battlefield experience. New to division command, he was completely unfamiliar with the qualities and limitations of four new subordinates, all of whom would likewise be leading their brigades into combat for the first time. Staffer Kyd Douglas thought that Johnson "seemed to be spoiling for a fight with his new division."
| Johnson's division was separated from the rest of Lieut. Gen. Richard
Ewell's Second Corps, and approached the battle on July 1 from the west, along
the Chambersburg Pike. After trudging 15 miles over South Mountain, they could
hear the sounds of the first day's battle, and marched the last five miles with
a renewed urgency. Meanwhile Ewell, whose other two divisions had mauled the
Union Eleventh Corp north of Gettysburg that afternoon and sent the Federals
running back through town, was waiting for Johnson's division to arrive before
attempting to carry the Union rallying point on Cemetery Hill.|
By the time Johnson's men began to stream over Seminary Ridge and into town, however, it was almost sunset . Despairing at this late hour of taking Cemetery Hill, Ewell told Johnson to move his division up close to Culp's Hill and take it if it was found to be unoccupied. Johnson's division moved east along the railroad tracks in the twilight, crossed to the east side of Rock Creek and then moved south, not quite reaching the Hanover Road. By that time it was dark. Johnson for some reason declined to try Culp's Hill as he had been instructed to do. The more than 6,000-strong division halted and Johnson allowed his men to go to sleep on their arms a mile distant from that key eminence. At that moment it was occupied only by the 600 or so exhausted survivors of the Yankee "Iron Brigade."
During the night, a scout reported to Ewell with information that Culp's Hill was undefended. Though Ewell expected Johnson to have already taken possession of the hill according to his orders of the evening before, he sent a messenger to Johnson in the early morning of July 2 with a direct order to occupy Culp's Hill if he hadn't already. The messenger arrived as Johnson was preparing his brigades for a morning assault. By that time, however, the skeleton line of Union defenders had been reinforced, and Johnson's own scout found Culp's Hill solidly in Federal hands. "Old Clubby" sent Ewell a message saying he would refrain from attacking Culp's Hill until further orders. The opportunity for Johnson's division to walk onto Culp's Hill had been squandered.
According to Lee's new plan for July 2, Johnson's and Early's divisions would attack Culp's and Cemetery Hills, respectively, when they heard Longstreet's assault go in on the other end of the line. The assault was scheduled for early that morning, but due to delays with Longstreet (during which Johnson's men waited in frustration while they listened to the Yankees on Culp's Hill "plying axe and pick and shovel" to improve their defenses), it wasn't until after 4 o'clock that afternoon that the sound of fighting came from Longstreet's front. Johnson's answering attack was troubled from the outset. When his artillery opened from Benner's Hill they were overmatched by Union guns and had to be withdrawn. Walker's Stonewall Brigade, engaged by Union cavalry near the Hanover Road, had to be subtracted from the attacking column to stay and deal with the threat to the rear.
Johnson did have a stroke of luck that evening, however: the Union Twelfth Corps, which had been manning the defenses of Culp's Hill, had pulled out to help repulse Longstreet's attack, leaving only Greene's brigade behind heavy breastworks at the crest. When Johnson's three brigades went forward at dusk, forded Rock Creek, and climbed the steep rocky northeast face of the hill in the descending darkness, they met resistance only on Greene's section of the line. Steuart's brigade, meanwhile, occupied the abandoned Union trenches on the southern end of the hill. There they stopped.
During the night Lee and Ewell agreed that Johnson should consolidate his gains by continuing the attack in the morning. (As on the previous day, the plan was for Longstreet to attack at the same time.) Johnson would have to attempt his breakthrough without artillery support, since there were no good positions on the steep wooded slopes. Johnson's three brigades, however, were heavily reinforced, first by bringing up the Stonewall Brigade, then by adding Daniel's and O'Neal's brigades from Rodes's division and "Extra Billy" Smith's brigade from Early's division. There was no finesse to their instructions--all would have to plunge directly forward, slug it out, and hope to find a weak point in the Union defense.
At daybreak on July 3, about 4:30 A.M., it was the Federals who struck first, with a furious short-range pounding by twenty-six well-sited guns, artillery fire which thundered for the next six hours. During that time, the Rebel charges were thrown back time and time again with heavy loss from behind the near-impregnable Yankee breastworks, and the trenches captured by Steuart were recaptured by determined Union assaults. (Longstreet's expected simultaneous assault, as on the previous day, did not go forward, having been postponed until the afternoon.) By 11 o'clock that morning, the works on Culp's Hill were all back in Union hands, and Johnson's division had been thrown off the hill. It had been a disaster for Confederate arms--around 2,000 casualties with nothing to show for it. Johnson's part in the battle had come to a disappointing end. The entire Second Corps withdrew to the hills west of Gettysburg that night.
Ewell commended Johnson along with his two other division commanders in his report after the battle, although he was reportedly disappointed with Johnson's failure to take Culp's Hill in the opportunity of the first night of the battle. Lee's opinion of Johnson as a solid professional appears not to have been damaged by the dismal experience of Gettysburg. During the next year, Lee put Johnson and his men wherever stout fighting was needed most. As a result, on May 12, 1864 at Spotsylvania Court-House, Johnson was captured along with much of his division, and his service with the Army of Northern Virginia came to an end.
For further reading:
Hotchkiss, Jed. Virginia, Vol. 3 of Confederate Military History. Ed. by Clament A. Evans, Atlanta, 1899. Vol. 4 of extended ed., Wilmington, 1987
Patterson, Gerard. "'Allegheny' Johnson." Civil War Times Illustrated 5, Jan 1967