General Adam Rankin Johnson

by Edmund Starling, 1886


The distinguished man whose name heads this article was born in the Town of Henderson, on February 8th, 1834. He is the son of Dr. Thomas Jefferson Johnson and Juliet Spencer Rankin, daughter of Dr. Adam Rankin, who settled in Henderson County during the early part of the year who settled in Henderson County during the early part of the year 1800. Dr. Johnson came from Frankfort, and settled in Henderson in 1823, and four years thereafter, to-wit: on the fifteenth day of February, 1827, was married to Miss Rankin, Rev. Thomas Evans officiating. Dr. Johnson was a man of strong mind and positive character, and, during his early life, enjoyed a prominence few young physicians of his day ever attained. Mrs. Johnson was one of the noblest women, and was universally beloved by every one who knew her. Dr. and Mrs. Johnson lived to a ripe old age, and raised a large and prosperous family. While the schools of the town at that time were not the best the country afforded, they were yet sufficient to impart a good education in the primary and intermediate branches. General Johnson was kept at one of these schools until he arrived at the age of twelve years, when he was placed with Ira Delano, an experienced druggist, to learn the art of compounding and otherwise to qualify himself for a life of usefulness. There he remained until sixteen years of age, at which time he entered the tobacco stemmery of Burbank & Barret. In this business he remained until he was twenty years of age, when he bade adieu to Kentucky, and went to the Lone Star State, settling in Burnett County, known at that time as Hamilton Valley. This at that time was an extreme frontier settlement. Very soon after his arrival he associated himself with a surveying party, and was so well pleased he then and there adopted surveying as a profession peculiar to himself. In those days and in that country, Indians were to be found in large numbers, and in numerous rencounters[sic] with them in the years 1855 to 18612, he was compelled to exercise unceasing care, precaution and strategy to preserve not only the safety of his companions but his own life. The keenest vigilance, which he found absolutely necessary, soon became a second nature with him, and it was in this school that he learned the lesson which in the days of the great war between the States, proved so valuable to him while acting in the capacity of a scout or partisan. His entire frontier life up to and including a part of the war, was filled with wild adventure that no one but a man of unquestioned nerve and intelligence could have so successfully contended with. The war coming on, General Johnson was not long in deciding with whom he should fight. He visited Kentucky, and, for a time, his old home in Henderson, where he was gladly welcomed, although the entire family were strong for the Union of the States. During his brief stay in Henderson, the town was occupied by Federal soldiers, and yet it was not known that he was a Confederate scout. Becoming a little uneasy of his position, Johnson determined to return South, and, to this end, started on foot, hoping to cross Canoe Creek below the fair grounds and make his way to Mrs. Jordan's, on the Madisonville road, where he had a horse. Reaching the creek, it was found to be at flood height from back water from the Ohio River and impassible. Thinking he had passed the Federal pickets, he pushed on down the stream in search of a drift pile or fallen tree, and, as he reached the summit of a hill, to his amazement, only a few yards away from him, there stood the advance outposts, who saw him about as soon as he saw them. He was heavily armed, and this was evidence against him. He determined, as quickly as thought, to retrace his steps, and did so, but was pursued by one of the soldiers on foot. He hurried on to the roots of a great tree that had fallen down, thinking there he could secrete himself, or perhaps the pursuit would be given up. Hardly had he gotten behind this ambush, when he observed the soldier, with hastened tread, following on. There was but one question then, life or death, and, as the soldier approached the tree, Johnson fired, and the soldier fell dead in his tracks and rolled over the bank into the creek. Johnson then returned to the town and remained but a day or two, when he made another and successful effort to reach the Confederate lines. Two days afterwards he reached Hopkinsville.

Subsequent to the battles of Fort Donelson and Corinth, Johnson returned to Kentucky, and his first military venture in Henderson County was the capture of U.S. Surgeon Kimbly, of Owensboro, near Hebardsville. His next adventure was in company with Colonel Robert A. Martin and Amphius Owen in an attack at night upon a company of Federal provost guards stationed in the two-story brick opposite John H. Barret & Co.'s tobacco stemmery, on Main Street, then known as the National Hotel. The attack was made about ten o'clock on Sunday night in the latter part of June, 1862. Johnson, Martin and Owen went, unnoticed, to the lot adjoining Barret's factory and secreted themselves among the stave piles. They were also protected by a high plank fence between them and the street.

Captain Daly and a number of his soldiers were sitting on the pavement in front of headquarters, laughing and talking, when, at a signal, Johnson, Martin and Owen fired the first volley from their shot guns, and then, in quick succession, the second. The scene quickly changed from one of laughing to one of groans of dying and wounded men, and the flight of those who had escaped unhurt. The doors of the house were immediately barred, and, as soon as could be, the three Confederates appeared in the cemetery, immediately in the rear of headquarters, and fired another volley. This done, they retreated  to their horses and departed from the town. Lieutenant Taylor was killed, and ten or more men, including Captain Daley, were more or less seriously wounded.

Excitement in the town became intense. A citizens' meeting was held in Barret's factory, at which resolutions, strongly condemnatory of the course of Johnson, &c., were passed. A short time after this, and when Colonel Johnson had formed a nucleus of a regiment, he took possession of Henderson, and, by his words and orders, very greatly relieved the anxiety of the people, especially those politically opposed to him. It was at this time he planned his Newubrg campaign.

Colonel Johnson and Martin, with perhaps twenty-three men, left Henderson late in the evening and camped for the night upon the farm of Wm. Soaper, near the city. Early next morning they were en routed for Newburg and were not long in arriving in front of that loyal town. The Evansville Journal having declared that the people of Indiana would not allow that territory to be invaded for a moment, Johnson and Martin determined to test their courage. To this end, therefore, they set about disposing of their horses and an old wagon, that was near by, in such a way as to represent a large cavalry and artillery force. All ready, Martin, with some twenty men, crossed over about a half mile above the town. At this place Johnson military master stroke achieved by any commander of high or low authority, in either army during the war.

Johnson's information was that in Union Bethell's storehouse, on the river front, was stored all of the arms and ammunition supplied by the State and Government; therefore, he landed his skiff as near as possible to that building and made directly for it, unnoticed, as the crossing of Martin and his men had attracted general attention. Johnson found the arsenal unguarded, open, and a large number of guns stacked in it. He ordered the two men with him to barricade the doors and windows, and hold the building until Martin's arrival. In the meantime, Johnson walked up to the hotel, where he saw a number of Federals retreating into the hotel. Believing they were unarmed, he entered the door alone and stood, electrified, in the presence of eighty men with cocked guns presented. As quick as thought, he knew that retreat was certain death; that the least hesitation would prove fatal; that immediate daring was absolutely necessary; then, without the quiver of a lip, or nervous twitch of a muscle, or change of facial features. he boldly advanced to the front line, demanding an immediate surrender, at the same time throwing up the muzzles of several guns with the one he held in his hands. He announced, in unmistakable and most positive language, that if a single cap was fired, the last man to whom he was addressing himself, would be massacred, and that on short notice, and, as unpalatable as the sequel may be, it is yet true that the whole command obeyed his order, stacked their guns and retired to a large dining room in the building.

At this juncture a great burley Orderly Sergeant dashed in and called out, "What are you doing; where in the hell are your guns?" To this Johnson replied, by leveling his double-barreled gun upon the Sergeant, and tellig him,"Move another step, and I will riddle you with bullets." The Sergeant surrendered with the others. Soon after Martin came up with a portion of his men, the others having been detailed to guard the streets. Johnson, fearing an attack, set immediately to work paroling his prisoners, and securing wagons and teams to remove the captured property, guns, ammunition, etc. When the last ferry load had been safely crossed to the Kentucky side, Johnson leisurely walked to his skiff, seated himself and directed his two oarsmen to pull for life. He had gotten not more than half way across when the yells of the Home Guard Company were heard entering the town. They failed to fire at him however, from the fact leading citizens had been notified by Johnson, that if a gun was fired, he would shell the town. Johnson's battery consisted of an old two-horse wagon, with a black log extending from the end of it, and it was this that terrified the Newburghers. General Johnson, subsequent to this time, was in many severe contests and close places, notably at Green River bridge, on that ever memorable fourth day of July, where he was repulsed by Colonel Moore, and then with Morgan on his Ohio raid. He was one among the few who escaped capture. Upon his return to his Kentucky department, he heard for the first time of the killing of his uncle, James E. Rankin, and immediately set to work to effect the arrest of his murderers. A few days afterward two men were brought to him charged with the crime, and were immediately sent to Henderson and turned over to the civil authorities. General Johnson was rapidly organizing four regiments, and it was found necessary to drive him out of the State before he had succeeded in doing so. Therefore, General Burbridge sent General Hobson with a large detachment of cavalry in pursuit of him. General Johnson determined to cross the Cumberland River, and, if possible, draw Hobson in pursuit. Before, or just about the time he reached Cumberland River, he engaged a force of Federals at what was called Grubb's Cross-roads. He surrounded the camp and had captured twenty-five or more Federals. White flags were seen flying, and upon this General Johnson rode back and ordered the firing ceased. Another part of the Confederate command came up about this time, and without knowing the situation, or their own friends, commenced firing indiscriminately, and, during the shooting, General Johnson, their commander, was shot, instantly destroying both of his eyes. He was thereupon taken to the home of Mr. Garland Simms, where every attention was given him by Mr. and Mrs. Simms, and their son, Richard. Wm. S. Johnson, his brother, hearing of his sad condition, went to his bedside and remained with him until he was able to be removed to Henderson, his native home. He remained here at his father's house but a short time, when he was sent a prisoner to Fort Warren. He remained in prison several months, and was then sent on for exchanged and arrived in Richmond on the twenty-sixth day of May, 1865. After the surrender, he was very active in having his men, who were under indictment, and other prosecutions against them in the Courts of Kentucky, released from custody. His entire willingness to assume all responsibility for the impressment of horse and such like caused the dismissal of all remaining prosecutions. General Johnson returned to his home in Texas, to find his personal property wasted, and himself terribly in debt. Though sightless, he embarked in the real estate business, and his success remains to this time unparralleled[soc]. He is at this time the father of a large fmaily, and the possessor of a handsome competency. Although deprived of his sight, he is justly regarded one of the leading business men of his country and his success in life has proven it.

The History of Henderson County, Kentucky by Starling 1887 page 713-17;

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