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Lt. American Ford Johnson

Lt. American F Johnson
Company L, Infantry Battalion

Lt American Ford Johnson was born August 10th 1840 in Cherokee County Georgia to Bennett S and Ella P Johnson. At some point in the 1840s the family relocated to Marietta, Ga (in Cobb County) where we find ten year old American 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 American and brothers James and Josephus living at home.

At some point in late 1860 or early 1861, 21 year old American had moved to Alabama. When war broke out the young man promptly enlisted in Company G of the 10th Alabama Infantry on May 21st 1861 at Jacksonville, Alabama. Serving with this regiment in Virginia, he was in action at Dranesville in December 1861, Williamsburg in May 1862 and at Gaines Mill where, on June 27th 1862, he was severely wounded in the hip. Records indicate that he missed the battle of Second Manassas but rejoined his company in time for the Maryland campaign in September 1862. Hospitalized with illness in December 1862 he missed the battle of Fredericksburg.

American's older brother James had become the Captain of newly formed Phillips Legion Infantry Co L in April 1862 and when an NCO opportunity became available in his brother's unit American transferred into Co L as the 5th Sgt in early 1863. He would then be in action at Chancellorsville in May 1863 before suffering a wound to his foot at the battle of Gettysburg on July 2nd 1863. Shortly afterwards, on July 27th 1863, American was elected to the position of 2nd Lt in Co L.

In early September Robert E Lee dispatched General James Longstreet with 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 totaling 2600 men but these would not arrive at Knoxville until November 25th. After a great deal of indecision over where to assault 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 over 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 lopsided actions of the war, the attack produced over eight hundred Confederate casualties while less than twenty 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 shot through the 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 initially 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 fight and was buried in the Knoxville City Cemetery. American would survive his severe wounds and would be paroled and exchanged. He would, however, never fully recover from the cumulative effects of his four wartime wounds and was retired from the service in October of 1864.

American would return to Marietta and marry Miss Martha T "Mattie" Calder on May 30th 1871. We find them in the 1880 census for Dade County Georgia. American, 40, was working as a miner while Mattie, 35 was keeping house. They have a daughter, Mary L, age 7. We then lose track of them until American filed an application for a veteran's pension on January 14th 1897 in Haralson County. He is living alone and is so crippled by his wounds that he is unable to work in his occupation, that of a bricklayer. We have been unable to find a record of his death but did find a death record for a Mattie Johnson in Haralson County showing she died on December 25th 1930. As with so many personal stories of this long, hard war, this one certainly does not end on a happy note.

Photo courtesy of Mr Al Camblin of Topeka Kansas. Mr Camblin found this photo (and that of Captain James Johnson) in a family lot at a small estate auction in Topeka. Initially unidentified, upon opening the case a piece of paper and two newspaper clippings were found inside. The paper bore the inscription, "Miss L C Calder Marietta Cobb County Ga., An old friend of Bill Noileys". The two newspaper clippings covered the passage of Captain Johnson's company of the Phillips Legion, The Blackwell Volunteers, through Atlanta in spring 1862 and the death of the two Johnson brothers at Knoxville in November 1863. When the case of Captain Johnson's picture was opened an inscription to "Camilla" was found along with a lock of (presumably) his hair. Mr Camblin then found the Legion webpages and brought the photos to my attention. He has also most generously permitted them to be displayed here for the reader's enjoyment.

Written by:Kurt Graham