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Captain James M. Johnson

Captain James M Johnson
Company L, Infantry Battalion

James M Johnson was born in North Carolina about 1836 to Bennet S and Ella P Johnson. Shortly thereafter the family relocated to Cherokee County, Ga since we find them there in the 1840 census. At some point in the 1840s the family relocated again to Marietta, Ga (in Cobb County) where we find fourteen year old James living with his parents, two brothers, two sisters and grandmother, Susannah Johnson, in 1850. The family was still in Marietta during the 1860 census with James and brothers American and Josephus living at home.

There is a strong possibility that young James attended the Georgia Military Institute at Marietta since the 1858 sophomore class roster does show a James Johnson enrolled from Marietta. This possibility is reinforced by the fact that young James would initially enter service in 1861 as an officer.

When war broke out in 1861 Governor Brown went to work to build a State Army for Georgia and the 4th State Brigade was organized at Camp McDonald in May 1861. One of the two heavy infantry regiments included in this brigade was commanded by State Colonel William T Wofford. In Company #1 of the regiment (The McDonald Guards), J M Johnson is listed as it's Captain on a roll dated May 12th 1861. Governor Brown addressed the brigade in June and when he indicated that he planned to retain the brigade in Georgia to defend the state, a number of companies, anxious to fight Yankees, disbanded and left the brigade to enlist in other units that were headed for Virginia. James was apparently one of these men since he next turns up as a Sgt in Co E of the 14th Georgia Infantry. This unit was moved north and participated in the mountain campaigns in western Virginia during the fall of 1861. The troops suffered severely as winter came to the mountains early that year and the new troops were swept by epidemics of measles and typhoid. We do not know the specific ailment that effected James Johnson but he was discharged from service on December 15th 1861 due to disability.

We surmise that James then returned home to Marietta to recover his health. The Phillips Legion had also been hard hit by disease in the same campaigns and it's leader, Colonel William Phillips, had also returned to Marietta to recover from a near fatal bout with typhoid. As his health improved, Colonel Phillips and Governor Brown began lobbying the Confederate War Department for an increase in the size of the Legion. Approval was granted during March 1862 and five new companies began to organize. The first of these was Infantry Company L, The Blackwell Volunteers of Cobb County, led by, a now recovered, Captain James Johnson who enlisted with the rest of the unit at Marietta on March 15th 1862. Marietta physician Newton Napoleon Gober was second in command as 1st Lt. and James Fletcher Lowery, son of prominent Marietta minister and newspaper publisher Basil Lowery, would serve as 2nd Lt.

The twenty six year old Johnson would soon take his new company to Hardeeville, South Carolina (near Savannah) where the rest of the Legion was stationed and went to work to train his new command. The April 11th 1862 Atlanta Southern Confederacy noted the movement of Company L through Atlanta on it's way to the coast, observing, "Last evening this fine company from Marietta passed through our city on their way to join Phillips Legion at Hardeeville in South Carolina. The company is under command of Captain James M Johnson, a brave and gallant soldier. He served last year in the terrible campaigns of western Virginia and was sent home on account of sickness. He has recovered his health and exhibited his devotion to his country and our common cause by going into the service again."

After several months of a routine of drill and patrols guarding the important Charleston & Savannah Railroad from Federal raids the Legion received orders to head north to Richmond, Virginia. Brigaded with two other Georgia units and two South Carolina units under Brigadier General Thomas F Drayton, the Legion entrained north on July 19th 1862. Arriving in Richmond near the end of July, Drayton's command was stationed east of town and put to work digging entrenchments facing the defeated but still potent army of Federal General George B McClellan. This interlude would not last long as a new Federal Army under General John Pope was beginning to move south through Virginia. Initially, General Robert E Lee had sent Stonewall Jackson's wing of the southern army to deal with Pope. Lee soon determined that McClellan was going to be withdrawn from the Richmond area to head north by water to join with Pope and quickly moved to send most of the other wing of his army under James Longstreet to join with Jackson in an attempt to overwhelm Pope before McClellan could unite forces with him. Drayton's brigade had been assigned to General David R Jones Division of Longstreet's wing and they now took the trains noth to Gordonsville, arriving at that place on August 14th 1862.

The Legion now embarked on the hard campaign that would culminate in the battle of Second Manassas and the decision to invade Maryland. Jackson's wing of the army had already headed north and west in a lightning strike that would carry it all the way around to the rear of Pope's army where thay captured the huge Federal supply base at Manassas Junction. Pope chagrined at Jackson's coup, now turned his army around and went after Stonewall in an attempt to "bag" his much smaller command. It now fell to Lee and Longstreet to reinforce Jackson before Pope could find and destroy him. The relatively new soldiers of Company L would soon be sorely tested. Orders were issued to strip down to light marching order with men carrying only weapon, pack and bedroll and off they went following the path of Jackson's earlier route around Pope. Fighting in several skirmishes along the Rappahannock River on August 23rd and 25th, Captain Johnson's company was fortunate to avoid any casualties. Then, after a series of long hard marches, Longstreet's command was able to rejoin Jackson just northwest of the 1861 battlefield of First Manassas on August 29th. Despite numerous warning signs, Pope chose to remain blissfully unaware of Longstreet's presence and on August 30th Longstreet ploughed into Pope's exposed left flank and swept his army back towards Washington. Drayton's command had been assigned the duty of guarding the Confederate Army's right flank and was only ordered forward late in the day. By the time the Legion arrived on Chinn Ridge, darkness was falling. As they charged forward towards the action on Henry Hill, they were swept by artillery fire and "overshots" from the action ahead. The Legion suffered about twenty casualties with three of the wounded coming from Captain Johnson's company. Darkness fell before Drayton's men became engaged and the Federals retreated from the field.

Following this great victory Lee's army paused momentarily at Leesburg, Virginia before plunging onward across the Potomac into Maryland on September 6th. Lee knew that his army was not in proper condition to make this audacious move but pressed on nonetheless. The men were worn down by the previous two weeks marches and fights and the southern supply system was in deplorable condition. Many soldiers were shoeless, uniforms were beginning to wear out and severe outbreaks of disease were sidelining many of the exhausted men. Longstreet's wing of the army alone left 5000 men behind at Leesburg when it crossed the Potomac and the attrition continued as the army marched towards Frederick, Maryland. Straggling losses in Drayton's command during the invasion of Maryland averaged 41 men per day!

Confident that the battered Federals would not quickly follow him north, Lee paused at Frederick to rest his weary army and plan the next phase of the campaign. Aware that the 12000 man Federal garrison in his rear at Harpers Ferry had not retreated (as it had been anticipated they would), Lee now split his army up and headed west to surround and capture this post. While this operation was proceeding a division under General D H Hill was left near Boonsboro, Maryland to watch the South Mountain passes while D R Jones' and Nathan Evans' divisions were ten miles north at Hagerstown with Generals Lee and Longstreet. Unfortunately for the southerners, the Federal commander, General George B McClellan, had come into possession of a copy of General Lee's Special Order 191 which fully detailed his plan to capture Harpers Ferry. Armed with this knowledge, McClellan began to press westward with uncustomary speed and by September 13th was rapidly approaching the South Mountain passes. General D H Hill had two brigades atop the mountain on the morning of the 14th and looking down into the valley to his east quickly realized that he was in major trouble. Putting out a call for more of his own brigades to come up from Boonsboro at the west side of the mountain, he also sent a courier galloping north requesting help from Longstreet at Hagerstown.

Captain Johnson's men had suffered greatly over the course of the Maryland incursion. Their uniforms in rags, many without shoes, regular rations non existent, troops were regularly dropping out on the line of march as they became sick, exhausted or foraged for food and water. The Legion infantry that had reached Hagerstown on September 12th was much smaller than the organization that had crossed the Potomac just a week earlier and looked forward to a few days of rest. Thus it was with some alarm that the men were called into ranks on the morning of the 14th for a forced march back over the same road they had just traversed from Boonsboro. Nonetheless, Drayton got his men up and moving at the van of the reinforcements with only George T Anderson's small Georgia brigade on the road in front of his own. Reaching the base of the mountain where the road ascended to Turners Gap around noon, Generals Jones, Anderson and Drayton conferred briefly with Lee and Longstreet. Drayton and Anderson were ordered to take their brigades and report to D H Hill at the top of the mountain while D R Jones remained with Lee and Longstreet waiting for the remainder of his brigades to arrive from Hagerstown. The ominous thunder of artillery could be heard ahead as Drayton's tired men hurried along the long steep incline toward Turners Gap.

Arriving at the crest, General Hill promptly escorted the two Georgia brigades almost a mile south on a mountain trail to Fox's Gap where, earlier that day, the Kanawha Divison of the Federal IX Corps had overrun and routed Sam Garland's North Carolina Brigade, killing Garland in the process. Hill had rushed two of his own brigades under George B Anderson (not to be confused with George T Anderson) and General Roswell Ripley south to stabilize the situation and the fates smiled on Hill as the Federal commander, General Cox, decided to pause his attack to await for three additional IX Corps divisions to come to his support. Thus it was that Captain Johnson's exhausted company arrived at Fox's Gap with their 1900 compatriots of G T Anderson's and Drayton's brigades between 2 and 3 PM. The battlefield at the gap had assumed an uneasy quiet at this point. The Federals had moved back beyond the woods south of the gap while the 2200 men of G B Anderson's and Roswell Ripley's brigades looked south awaiting the Federal's next move from the natural trench of the Old Sharpsburg road where it crossed the crest of the mountain. General Hill, now having over 4000 troops at hand, decided to attack first. Calling his 4 brigade commanders together he outlined his plan to align his troops down the west side of the mountain in the Old Sharpsburg Road and then have them attack the Federal's left flank in a giant left wheeling movement which would swing on the "hinge" of Drayton's brigade at the gap itself. Knowing that Federal pressure was also building at Turners Gap and to it's north, Hill placed the senior brigadier, Roswell Ripley, in command of the attack and headed back to Turner's Gap. While this conference was taking place, G B Anderson's and Ripley's troops had shifted west down the Old Sharpsburg Road to make room for G T Anderson's and Drayton's troops. At this point a critical error occured as the two lead brigades shifted too far west drawing G T Anderson's brigade after them. This caused a 300 yard gap to open between G T Anderson's men and Drayton's troops at the gap. Drayton had gotten his men into position in an L shaped formation at the gap with the 15th SC and 3rd SC Battalion in the Old Sharpsburg Road facing south and the Legion, 51st and 50th Ga along a stone wall facing east with the right of the Legion connecting to the left of the 3rd SC Battalion. Drayton became alarmed as he saw Anderson's men move away to the west, ordered the Legion to "rotate" 90 degrees into the Old Sharpsburg Road and moved the South Carolinians further west. A patrol from the 3rd Battalion had been sent across farmer Wise's field just south of the gap and they now scampered back telling of a heavy Federal presence in and beyond the woods bordering the far end of the field. Around 4PM, observing no Federal activity to the east, Drayton now ordered the 51st and 50th Georgia to repeat the Legion's shift into the Old Sharpsburg Road and ordered the Legion and two SC units to launch their attack southward against the Federals. Why Drayton did not wait for the other two Georgia units to redeploy into the Old Sharpsburg Road to join the initial southern attack is not known. It could be that he wanted his troops to charge across largely open ground and all five of his regiments would not have fit into the the available space. It could also be that he had decided to keep the two "green" Georgia regiments (50th & 51st) in reserve.

What is known is that Drayton had still not been able to reconnect his right with G T Anderson's left when he ordered the Legion and the South Carolinians to the attack. Drayton had been criticized for his tardiness at Second Manassas and he wasn't about to let the same thing happen again.

What Hill and Drayton did NOT know (but should have suspected) was that large Federal reinforcements had arrived during the early afternoon lull in the fighting. In addition to the 3000 remaining men of the Kanawha division that had mounted the morning attack, the 7000 men of Orlando Wilcox's and Samuel Sturgis' divisions had arrived and deployed by 4 PM with the bulk of these troops being located just beyond the woods southeast of the gap with their right near the Old Sharpsburg Road but out of sight of the Confederates. This meant that the Legion, on the left flank of the attacking force headed due south, was moving obliquely across the face of masses of enemy troops to their east or left. Once into the woods east of Wise's field, this problem quickly became evident as men began to fall to enemy fire from the left front. Meanwhile the South Carolinians headed south across Wise's field and house lot ran into the fire of the Ohioans of Cox's division posted in the woods on the south end of the field. Further west, G B Anderon's men struggled through the thick mountain laurel attempting to get into attack position while Ripley's troops marched right off the mountain and out of the battle. G T Anderson, hearing the fight break out at the gap, tried to reconnect with Drayton but found Federals had penetrated the opening between the two brigades. This left Drayton's 1300 men at the gap engaged with 10000 Federal troops. Even worse, Drayton had initiated an attack with about 850 of his troops against the same 10000 Federals.

Almost simultaneous with Drayton's attack, the Federals launched their own attack, pressing the Legion northwest out of the woods into Wise's field while Cox's troops forced the South Carolinians to retreat northwards. As previously noted, some of Cox's troops had even managed to work their way around through the woods to the west of Wise's farm. Drayton's men were rapidly being boxed in from three sides and scrambled to get out of Wise's field. Somewhere in this confusion, Captain Johnson was wounded in the thigh. It is not clear if he was left on the field and captured or whether he was removed to Boonsboro and captured the following day, but it is clear that he did fall into Federal hands. The Legion took quite a drubbing in this fight, taking 115 casualties or 40% of those engaged. Johnson's Co L escaped with the loss of one man killed, four wounded and eleven captured. Captain Johnson, along with most of the other men captured would be quickly paroled and exchanged by the Federals and most would be back in Richmond by mid October. Sometime during this period, Captain Johnson's younger brother, American F Johnson, transferred into Company L with the rank of 5th Sgt. Apparently he had moved over to Alabama in 1860 or 1861 and when war broke out had enlisted as a private in Company G of the 10th Alabama Infantry on May 21st 1861. When an NCO opportunity arose in his brother's unit he jumped at it.

Captain Johnson was back in command of his company at the battle of Fredericksburg on December 13th 1862. The Legion was now part of General T R R Cobb's Georgia brigade and was posted in a sunken road at the foot of Marye's Heights when this position was attacked by waves of Federal troops. The position formed a natural defensive bastion and Cobb's troops slaughtered the onrushing Federals. The Legion was on the left of Cobb's brigade and very heavily engaged. In short order, General Cobb was mortally wounded and Lt Col Robert T "Tom" Cook commanding the Legion was killed. Captain Johnson took command but was quickly disabled with a wound to his foot. Although the Legion took many casualties in this action, Company L was fortunate to have only two casualties (Captain Johnson and Private Hiram Sherman who was mortally wounded by a shell and would die in a Richmond hospital on December 21st)

Jim Johnson would recover again and in February 1863, his younger brother, American F Johnson, would transfer into Company L with the rank of 5th Sgt. American had moved over to Alabama in 1860 or 1861 and when war broke out had enlisted as a private in Company G of the 10th Alabama Infantry on May 21st 1861. When an NCO opportunity arose in his brother's unit, the veteran soldier who had already been severely wounded in the hip at Gaines mill in May 1862, would take advantage of it. After wintering near Fredericksburg, Johnson would lead his troops into the early May 1863 battle of Chancellorsville, where Company L lost two men killed and five wounded. This time though, Captain Johnson managed to escape further injury. July 2nd 1863 would find him leading his men into the maelstrom of the wheatfield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We know that he was at the head of his company at Gettysburg from a newspaper account. The Legion infantry was on the far left flank of Wofford's brigade late on the second day of the battle as they swept across the Wheatfield smashing several Federal brigades and capturing two Federal colors. The Legion finally pulled up behind a stone wall in the Plum Run valley just northeast of Little Round Top. Small groups of soldiers pressed even further onto the slopes of Cemetery Ridge before General Longstreet, sensing an impending Federal counterattack, ordered their retreat. Their brigade commander, General William T Wofford was not happy with this order, but, with benefit of hindsight, it proves to have been wise as the entire Federal VI Corps was massing to the southerners front. Company L lost five men wounded and five captured in the fight. Jim Johnson once again escaped without injury but younger brother American would not be so fortunate, suffering a wound to his foot. Serving as some consolation for his wound was his election to the position of 2nd Lt on July 27th 1863.

In early September Robert E Lee dispatched General James Longstreet and two divisions of his First Corps to the west in an attempt to help the Army of Tennessee stop General William Rosecran's army which was driving into north Georgia. While the majority of Longstreet's troops arrived just in the nick of time to deliver the key attack at the battle of Chickamauga on September 20th, 1863, Wofford's Georgia brigade (including the Legion) did not arrive until September 21st and did not take part in the battle. They were a part of the pursuit as the routed Federals fell back into Chattanooga and began to entrench. On September 24th the Legion got involved in a hot skirmish which cost them several men killed and mortally wounded as well as a number of wounded. The Legion settled into siege lines surrounding Chattanooga until General Braxton Bragg decided in early November to send General Longstreet and his two divisions north to eliminate a Federal army under General Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville, Tennessee. This would have the positive effect of opening a direct line of communication with western Virginia, but General Longstreet felt the plan to be ill conceived. He was being sent with 17000 troops to drive an army of 23000 out of a fortified town. One can sympathize with Longstreet's pessimistic view of the endeavour but orders were orders and off the Legion went to Knoxville. Driving the Federals before them Longstreet's small army arrived at Knoxville on November 17th and surrounded the city. Longstreet, realizing that he had too few troops to successfully mount an attack, called on General Bragg for reinforcements. Bragg agreed to send two brigades totalling 2600 men but these would not arrive at Knoxville until November 25th. After a great deal of indecision over where to attack the Federal lines, it was finally decided to attack at Fort Sanders which occupied a salient at the northwest corner of the works. This point was selected as there was a steep drop off just a little over 100 yards from the fort which would permit a large attacking force to mass there without being seen from the fort. The attack force consisted of General Wofford's Georgia brigade and General Humphrey's Mississippi brigade closely supported by General Bryan's Georgia brigade. After spending a frigid night in the ravine, the Georgians and Mississippians responded to the fire of a signal cannon and leapt to the charge. They almost immediately ran into trouble as men tripped and sprawled into the frozen dirt and others tripped on them. The Federals had clear cut the field before the fort and then made it tricky to traverse by running telegraph wire from stump to stump about a foot off the ground. Getting themselves sorted out the determined attackers pressed on unaware that even greater trouble lay ahead. Faulty reconnaisance by southern officers had failed to reveal the presence of a deep ditch in front of the fort's walls and the attackers were at first baffled as to how they should proceed. Fortunately, fire from the fort was not too heavy as the 3rd Georgia Sharpshooter Battalion had kept a covering fire on anything that moved atop the fort's walls during the charge. The attackers now began to leap or fall into the ditch to try and scramble up the opposite side. Standing on each other, some managed to reach the lower part of the fort's sloping earthen walls only to discover that a thin layer of slippery ice had formed during the night. Men hacked away with bayonets, trying to carve footholds in the frozen walls and, painstakingly, small groups began to work their way up. Unfortunately the delay had given the Federals time to regroup. Flanking parties began to pepper the attackers and the small number of defenders in the fort was able to kill or capture the few southerners who reached the top of the wall. Amazingly, the color bearer of the 51st Georgia somehow managed to get his flag atop the wall, only to have it captured by an aggressive Federal. A southern officer who managed to pull himself into a gun embrasure demanded the fort's surrender only to be blown to particles when the artillery piece was fired point blank into him. Then, an enterprising Federal artillery Lieutenant began to hand light fuses on artillery shells and lob them over the wall into the crowded mass of southerners in the ditch. This was the final straw for the ill fated attack. Panicked men began to flee the exploding shells, scrambling to flee the deadly trap the ditch had become. One soldier was even seen trying to bury a sputtering shell in the dirt just before it blew him to bits. Many of the southerners could not escape from the ditch and were trapped and captured there. In one of the most one sided actions of the war, the attack produced over 800 Confederate casualties while less than 20 Federals were lost. The Legion suffered seventeen men killed or mortally wounded with many more men wounded and captured. Of the captured, seven would die in northern prisons. Captain Jim Johnson was leading from the front as usual when he went down with a wound through his body. By his side was his younger brother American, who also fell with wounds to his left thigh and right shoulder. Both brothers fell into Federal hands and both were reported as killed in action by the Marietta newspaper. In fact, Jim Johnson did succumb to his wound at 2:30 PM on the day of the attack. Federal medical records note his death and go on to state that he was "buried in the public burying ground of the City. His grave is not numbered. The rebel sympathizers of the city will be able to identify his grave." Lt American Johnson would survive his severe wounds and would be paroled and exchanged. He would, however, never fully recover from his wounds and was retired from the service in October of 1864.

Photo courtesy of Mr Al Camblin of Topeka Kansas. Mr Camblin found this photo (and that of Lt American F Johnson) in a family lot at a small auction in Topeka. Initially unidentified, upon opening the case a piece of paper and a lock of hair were found inside. The paper bore the inscription, "Capt Johnson to Camilla, Summerville SC June 19 1863". When the case of Lt Johnson's picture was opened a newspaper clipping (Marietta Ga) was found inside which announced the death of the two Johnson brothers of Phillips Legion at Knoxville. Mr Camblin then found the Legion webpages and brought the photos to my attention. He has also generously permitted them to be displayed here for the reader's enjoyment. BR>
Written by:Kurt Graham