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Who the H#** was Old Alleghany?(FLS 4/8/06)


The Life and Wars of General Ed Johnson
by Gregg S. Clemmer
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town & Country
Date published: 4/8/2006 CIVIL WAR


Living here in the Fredericksburg area, otherwise known as "The Crossroads of the Civil War," it's pretty hard not to be aware of the battlefield exploits of such great Virginians as Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson and the flamboyant J.E.B. Stuart. One can hardly drive anywhere in our region without passing a monument or roadside marker testifying to the heritage of these great Confederate commanders. That said, for every one of our local luminaries, there are dozens of others whose stories have fallen through the cracks of Southern Civil War history. One such individual is Gen. Edward Johnson, also known as "Old Alleghany."

As a Jackson biographer, I was casually aware of Johnson's service to the Confederate States of America, but I must admit that I knew virtually nothing about this "blue-collar" rebel. Apparently, I am not alone in my ignorance and this is the rationale behind author Gregg S. Clemmer's monumental effort entitled "Old Alleghany: The Life and Wars of General Ed Johnson."

Although several of our more highly regarded historians, including Harry Pfanz and Bud Robertson, have briefly glanced into the life of Gen. Johnson, many others have filed his story in the "Who?" category of Civil War history. The lack of literary preservation on Johnson's behalf is understandable, as the general died during the Reconstruction period, leaving behind no family. Thankfully, we have people like Clemmer to maintain the memories of these forgotten heroes.

Clemmer, himself, is fully aware of this dilemma and addresses it immediately inside the front panel of his book jacket. In fact, the first words a potential reader sees are "Who the H#** was Old Alleghany?" in a large, bold typeface. I'm not exactly sure if this was an intentional marketing ploy, but the obvious question confronts the reader and beckons him to enter the life and times of this unknown soldier.

Briefly stated, Edward Johnson was the descendant of a prosperous Virginia family that resided on an estate christened Salisbury in Chesterfield County. In fact, his lineage can be traced back to a much more famous Virginian named Thomas Jefferson. Edward's family later moved to Kentucky. After attending Kenyon College and Grammar School in Ohio, he was awarded an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1833. Like many of his peers and some of his superiors, Cadet Johnson struggled academically at West Point and required five years to complete his studies.

Upon receiving his commission, Johnson was assigned as a second lieutenant in the 6th Infantry and served in the Seminole Wars in Florida, as well as the Mexican War. After the outbreak of the War Between the States, he followed the secessionist path of most Virginia officers, choosing duty to his state over that to the Union.

Despite the popular notion that Johnson was assigned a command within the ranks of the Army of the Valley, he was actually given control of the fledgling Army of the Northwest. It was only later, in 1862, that he aligned his forces with those of Gen. Jackson.

Praised by most of his superiors and subordinates, Johnson's career flourished until he was injured during Stonewall's famous Valley Campaign at the battle at McDowell. This interruption of service had a huge impact on the general's future legacy, as his extensive recovery time drastically limited his opportunities for recognition or advancement. Nobody knows for sure how high Johnson would have risen in the echelons of Confederate legends, if not for this untimely wounding.

Johnson returned a year later to serve under Gen. Ewell's division at Gettysburg. Johnson was also at the Wilderness and shortly thereafter he was captured in Spotsylvania. After an imprisonment at Fort Delaware, Johnson was released, only to be captured again in Nashville and held as a POW in Boston.

Following the surrender at Appomattox, Johnson returned to Virginia's Chesterfield County and took up farming. He died in March of 1873 and was buried in Richmond's famous Hollywood Cemetery. Ironically, the exact location of Johnson's grave has been lost and no one knows for sure where he lies.

That, of course, is the short version. For the long one, "Old Alleghany" provides the reader with an encyclopedic study of the general from the beginning to the end--and everything in between. At over 700 pages, this book can be intimidating to even the most voracious of readers, but the author's talents as a historian and wordsmith shine through the numerous pages. Each chapter flows very nicely from one to the next, and the narrative style paints an intimate portrait of a real "soldier's soldier."

Author Clemmer is a native Virginian who now resides in Maryland and also has published other Civil War books, including "Valor In Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor."

"Old Alleghany" is his fourth effort and, in defense of the size, Clemmer offers an argument in the introduction with which I cannot disagree. He states that although extensive, his exhaustive study of Johnson does not follow the mold of the traditional military biography. He is referring to the standard in which a writer spends 25 pages on the first 25 years of the subject's life; then several hundred more on his exploits during the war; only to wrap it up with a "token" postwar synopsis.

Therefore, Clemmer leaves no stone unturned, and I must applaud his efforts for taking the time to dig through the National Archives and a few other caches of Johnson's personal letters to compile a most well-rounded portrayal. I also would like to mention the inclusion of maps, photos and illustrations that provide occasional breaks and complement the editorial pages of the text.

As a validation of his efforts, Clemmer's book received the 2005 Douglas Southall Freeman History Award, a citation that, in my opinion, is well deserved. Honestly, this is one of the longest studies that I have ever read on a single individual, but it is also one of the most thoroughly composed biographies that I have ever seen--in any genre.

If you are short on time or prefer to read a conservative synopsis or vignette, then "Old Alleghany" is not the book for you. However, if you enjoy in-depth studies that encompass the entire lives of great military commanders, both on and off the battlefield, then "The Life and Wars of General Ed Johnson" is just the biography you've been waiting for.

GREGG S. CLEMMER will be in Fredericksburg (April 10) at the Eastern National bookstore, (1011 Lafayette Blvd.), to sign "Old Alleghany: The Life and Wars of General Ed Johnson." "Valor in Gray" also will be available. For more information call 540/372-3034.

MICHAEL AUBRECHT will be in Harrisonburg (April 8-9) at the Gathering of Eagles event to sign "Onward Christian Soldier" and "Christian Cavalier." Visit:




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