Adam Rankin Johnson, born in Henderson, Kentucky February 8th, 1835, had an amazing career as a Confederate soldier and leader and would eventually rise to the rank of Brigadier General. Early in the war he served as a scout with Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry, that officer utilizing Johnson and another scout, Robert Martin, on his personal staff. The exploits of the two would earn them a reputation of daring throughout the Western Theater, so much so that when John C. Breckinridge requested the services of the two scouts, Forrest reportedly told them “ Boys, you've made such a fine reputation I am afraid you will not be allowed to remain with me much longer.” After serving with with Breckinridge and being commissioned as officers on his staff, the pair was sent to Henderson on a recruiting mission, and Johnson bore a memorized, coded message to be delivered to a David Burbank. The message was a series of numbers that Breckinridge insisted Johnson recite back to him. Breckinridge informed young Johnson the information contained in the message was to sensitive for written dispatch, and would ask Johnson to repeat the message, word for word again at a later time before he divulged the name of Burbank. Satisfied, Breckinridge sent the two men on their way.
Adam Rankin Johnson
It was on this trip that an interesting event took place. Humorous actually.
On the way to Henderson the pair stopped on the road several times to obtain food for themselves and their horses from sympathetic citizens. On one occasion the scouts came upon the home of a Confederate soldier who had lost an arm at the recent Battle of Shiloh and was convalescing there. The man was also suffering from a serious case of poison oak, which had covered his face and swollen his eyes and lips terribly. As Johnson was aiding the stricken mans wife in applying ointment to the poison oak, Martin was away from the house tending to the horses. Suddenly the thunder of Union cavalry sounded around the house. Trapped, Johnson told the soldiers wife to wipe off the medicine they had just applied, and rushed out to greet the Yankees. Feigning alarm, Johnson asked the commanding officer for a surgeon.
“What in the world do you want with a surgeon?” , the commander, a major, demanded.
“Why, we have a sick Confederate soldier in the house and we are afraid he has smallpox.”, replied Johnson.
“The thunder you say!” the major cried. “Here, doctor, you had better go in and look at the man.”
The doctor obeyed and entered the house. A guard was set around the house to prevent any of the Union soldiers from entering. After a short time the surgeon emerged from the house and pronounced the case as being “undoubtedly smallpox”. Unwilling to chance even drinking the water on the place, the Federals departed but not before placing a yellow flag on the gate as a sign of warning to the passersby to avoid the home.
When Adam Johnson first met N.B. Forrest, he was impressed by Forrest's “great and prompt decision making”. As this incident shows,these same attributes would also be manifest in Johnson, as well as his friend Robert Martin and serve them well throughout the rest of the war. And in a very short time, Johnson, with the aid of his friend, would gain the nom de guerre of “Stovepipe”, but that is another story.
Source: The Partizan Rangers of the Confederate States Army, Johnson, Adam Rankin, 1904