From Underground Railroad to Confederate General

The Civil War is often described as the North against the South.  That is somewhat inaccurate as plenty of Southerners fought against the Confederacy, and the Confederacy had a fair number of sympathizers in Union states.  Of the generals who led the armies, a few Southerners, George “Pap” Thomas is a prime example, fought for the North, and a few Northerners fought for the South.  Of those Northerners who donned rebel gray, none had a more unusual biography than Bushrod  Rust Johnson.

Born in Belmont County Ohio, on October 7, 1817, Johnson’s family were Quakers, pacifists and strongly opposed to slavery.  Prior to attending West Point, Johnson worked with an uncle on the Underground Railroad, smuggling slaves to freedom.

Graduating with the class of 1840 from West Point, Johnson served in the Seminole and Mexican Wars.  In 1847 his military career was cut short when he was dismissed from the Army for selling contraband.  Academia being less choosy usually than the military, Johnson taught as a Professor of Chemistry and Philosophy at the Western Military Institute in Georgetown, Kentucky and went on to be Professor of Engineering at the University of Nashville.  Throughout this time period Johnson was active in the Kentucky and Tennessee state militias.

He married a Mary Hatch.  His wife died young in 1858.  They had one son, Charles, who was an invalid and required continual care.  It is to his eternal credit that Johnson kept his son with him and cared for him until Bushrod Johnson’s own death.

In June of 1861 Johnson was commissioned as a Colonel of Engineers in the Confederate States Army.  He was instrumental in the construction of Fort Donelson, and, after being promoted to Brigadier General in January 1862, he commanded a division of troops at the battle of Fort Donelson. Two days after the surrender of the Confederate forces, Johnson simply walked away from captivity, an instance of just how lax the guarding of prisoners could be in the Civil War.

Johnson commanded a brigade at Shiloh, and then served as a brigade commander in the battles of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, down to the siege of Knoxville in late 1863.  Johnson earned a reputation as an aggressive and tenacious fighter.  At the siege of Knoxville Johnson came to the attention of Longstreet, who was serving temporarily, along with his corps, attached to the Army of the Tennessee.

Promoted to Major General in May, Johnson served as a divisional commander with the Army of Northern Virginia for the remainder of the War.

After the war he returned to academia, eventually becoming co-chancellor of the University of Nashville.  His health failing, he retired to a farm in Brighton, Illinois.  He died there in 1880.  His body was buried at a cemetery in Miles Station near Brighton, until 1975, when it was disinterred and buried in Nashville next to Johnson’s wife Mary.

Published in: on January 16, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on From Underground Railroad to Confederate General  
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