Civil War Talk Radio: November 7, 2008

by Brett Schulte on November 7, 2008 · 1 comment

Air Date: 110708
Subject: Ed “Alleghany” Johnson, Confederate General
Book: Old Alleghany: The Life and Wars of General Ed Johnson
Guest: Gregg S. Clemmer

Summary: Gerry discusses the life of Ed “Alleghany” Johnson with his biographer, Gregg S. Clemmer.

Brett’s Summary: Gerry started the show by asking Mr. Clemmer why he did a biography of Edward Johnson.  The author took on the project because, incredibly, Johnson did not have a biography prior to this effort.  Interestingly, Clemmer was warned that Ed Johnson wasn’t a good subject for a biography.  He persisted and Old Alleghany: The Life and Wars of General Ed Johnson was the result.  Like this blogger and Gettysburg, Clemmer was tired of biographies of the same people showing up endlessly.

Clemmer mentioned that he fervently believes in physically going to locations where his subject lived and moved, looking in places where others may not have looked before.  He grew tired of the same old military biographies which focus almost solely on generals’ wartime lives.  The author really sounded like someone who places a premium on research, especially when he mentioned spending three chapters with Johnson during the Mexican-American War.  Apparently the author found many letters Johnson had written which had been previously undiscovered.

Clemmer made a good point when he talked about the luxury of time afforded to amateur historians that allows them to dig deeply and thoroughly, something not always available to professional historians.  He strongly indicated he believes in looking closely at all portions of a person’s life, not just covering a person’s life AFTER they became famous.  Clemmer went over the Gratton Massacre in 1854 to show that incidents which occur prior to fame tend to color how a person reacts later in life.  Ed Johnson’s regiment was sent to investigate the Gratton Massacre and Johnson sent a report to the Secretary of War indicating that the U.S. Army was at fault.  Jefferson Davis was the Secretary of War at the time and did not think highly of Johnson’s report.  He was appointed a Colonel and sent to the relative backwater of West Virginia to (hopefully as far as Davis was concerned) fade into obscurity.

As the second portion of the episode started, Gerry mentioned the book was over 700 pages long but assured readers the book was an entertaining, well-written one.  Johnson went to Kenyon College in Ohio, and was appointed to West Point in 1833.  It took him five years to complete the curriculum at West Point.  Clemmer went on to discuss Johnson’s penchant for collecting crazy nicknames.  Interestingly, Johnson’s grave had been lost, although a monument to the General is still present in the cemetery he was buried in.

Gerry then asked Clemmer about Johnson’s pre-war career.  Johnson was involved in the Seminole War and in the Trail of Tears, and Gerry posited the idea that Johnson may have become sensitive to the suffering of Native Americans as a result.  Clemmer wholeheartedly agreed, and went on to discuss Johnson’s time in California and his involvement in the campaign to exterminate the Digger Indians.  Johnson worked hard to prevent this extermination but went back east when the Civil War started.

Discussion turned to Johnson’s decision to go with Virginia and the Confederacy rather than the United States.  Clemmer indicated Johnson left the U.S. Army at a relatively late time as compared to many of his fellow officers.  Gerry asked how Johnson ended up with a Georgia command when his home state was Virginia.  Mr. Clemmer responded a bit facetiously with the comment “Ask Jefferson Davis.”  Davis did not like Johnson and saddled him with this command.

Johnson received the nickname “Old Alleghany” because he was sent to the Alleghany Mountains of West Virginia in 1861.  Johnson helped the Confederacy win the Battle of Greenbrier River in the mountains that October and his men realized they had a solid commander leading them.

The third portion of the show started with discussion of Johnson’s performance at Gettysburg.  Clemmer called Johnson’s fight the longest fight at Gettysburg but the least studied fight at Gettysburg.  He discussed Johnson’s Division’s assaults on Culp’s Hill.  He found Johnson’s quote on July 4 about slowly retiring at a walk rather than at a run.

Clemmer indicated Johnson all too often placed himself in the thick of the fighting, which was not the place for a division commander.  Johnson often carried a heavy piece of wood into battle.  His nickname “Old Clubby” comes from this habit.  Several other colorful nicknames resulted from this as well.

Johnson’s habit of leading from the front got him captured at the Mule Shoe salient during the battle of Spotsylvania.  Ironically, he was captured by his friend Winfield Hancock.  Johnson’s Division was situated in a large salient which had seen a brief breakthrough by Emory Upton’s men, so Lee ordered Johnson to remove his artillery as a first step to withdrawing from the salient.  Unfortunately, a huge Union attack was launched the next morning.  The hour ended with a great description of Johnson at the battle by an eyewitness which was read by the author.

I do not normally add comments or thoughts on my Civil War Talk Radio summaries, but it was clear from listening to Clemmer that he is not only knowledgeable about his subject but also VERY enthusiastic.  I have no doubt Gerry could have had him on for the rest of 2008 and they would not have run out of things to talk about with regards to “Old Alleghany”.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

Check out more summaries of Civil War Talk Radio at TOCWOC.

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