This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Born and raised at Henderson on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, Johnson’s education ended at age 12, when he left school to work full-time in a drugstore. Eight long years later, the thrifty youth had put aside enough money for a one-way trip to Texas.
Putting down roots in the frontier county of Burnet, Johnson chose two occupations that took him deep into Indian territory. When he was not surveying the vast expanse out west for future settlement, he provided supplies and livestock for the string of Butterfield Overland Mail stations. Because both jobs brought him into contact with hostile tribes that were none too happy to see him, he had to fight to survive and in the process became rather well-known.
Soon after the simmering sectional pot boiled over into war, Johnson rushed back to Kentucky and enlisted as a scout under Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the Texan “The Wizard of the Saddle” saw a kindred spirit who shared his taste and talent for unorthodox warfare.
With the influential assistance of Forrest and John C. Breckenridge, former U.S. vice president-turned-Confederate-general, Johnson was given command of his own company of hand-picked Texans. The Texas Partisan Rangers wasted no time in spreading death and destruction behind Union lines in Kentucky.
But Johnson was handicapped by a shortage of the essentials – firearms, food, ammunition and medical supplies. Then he learned all that and more was his for the taking just across the Ohio in Newburgh, Ind.
Prior to crossing the river on the morning of Jul. 18, 1862, Johnson and his 35 volunteers, most from his hometown, erected two “Quaker Guns” on a hill overlooking their objective. Though pieced together with stovepipes, charred logs and parts of a broken-down wagon, at a distance the fake cannons looked a lot like the real things.
After declining their leader’s last-minute offer to back out with no recriminations, the raiders boarded two boats and paddled undetected to the opposite shore. Their first stop was a tobacco warehouse converted into an arsenal for the home guard. The Rebs helped themselves to the 75 sabers and 130 pistols inside and headed for town armed to the teeth.
Ordering his comrades to wait outside, Johnson walked in the front door of the Exchange Hotel like he owned the place. Eighty or so convalescing enemy soldiers instantly trained their rifles on the stranger, who calmly informed them the building was surrounded by a far larger force. The major on duty believed the big lie and told his “patients” to put down their weapons.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s men brought the captured Yankee colonel to their cool-headed commander. The Texan loaned the prisoner his spyglass and advised him to take a hard look at the cannons across the river. The threat from the Confederate to “shell this town to the ground” convinced the colonel that at least on this occasion discretion was the better part of valor.
Four hours later, the raiding party departed Newburgh with all they could carry. The first southern capture of a northern town had been accomplished without the firing of a single shot.
“Johnson performed perhaps the most reckless, and yet most successful, military masterstroke achieved by any commander of high or low authority, in either army during the war.” Those words did not come easily for a noted historian, who had fought for the North.
Forever known as “Stovepipe” after the fantastic feat, Johnson went on to see fierce action in many much bloodier battles before that tragic day in August 1864 in his native Kentucky. Up before daylight to inspect his defenses, he was accidentally shot in the face by one of his own sentries and blinded for life.
Taken prisoner soon after the incident, Johnson spent the rest of the war at Fort Warren in Boston harbor. Released after Appomattox, he returned to Texas a changed but not a broken man.
“Stovepipe” refused to spend his last 57 years in a rocking chair feeling sorry for himself. He played active roles in several enterprises, including an attempt to harness the power of the Colorado River, in addition to founding Marble Falls, known to this day as “the blind man’s town.” He also found time to write the classic narrative The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army, still an informative and entertaining book more than a century after its publication.
Upon his death at 88 in 1922, “Stovepipe” Johnson was honored with a funeral in the Senate Chamber of the Texas capitol before interment in the State Cemetery. The Civil War hero was joined in 2002 by great-grandson George Christian, President Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary.
Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile’s latest book, “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes,” is available on his website here..