Monday, April 23, 2012

Charles B. Johnson: What He Saw

Charles Beneulyn Johnson saw a lot while serving in the medical department of the 130th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Some of what he saw he describes in his books written long after the US Civil War. Writing during a time of medical advancement, he relates instances that fall under the “If we had only known” heading. Dirty medical instruments, poor sanitation of camps, bad food, bad water and of course enemy missiles, led to the deaths of thousands of soldiers, Union and Confederate. The following are but two episodes he describes in the book “Muskets and Medicine”.

This can be filed under the “Boys will be boys” heading. Early during the Siege of Vicksburg, a young Ohio soldier seeking to alleviate the boredom he and his regiment was enduring while waiting to advance, found some loose powder. “He ran it along in a little trail, covered this with dust, and tried to fire it. As it did not ignite, he was stooping over with his face close to the ground when the charge took fire. His face was badly burned, and later was attacked with erysipelas, from which death resulted.” [1] Erysipelas is a condition caused by bacteria and attacks the outer layer of skin and presents itself as reddening of the skin around a wound and it may enter the system from something as minor as an insect bite and the more damaged the area the greater the likelihood of infection. [2] The area around Vicksburg would have been a fine place indeed to have this condition develop.

Also at Vicksburg, on May 22, the captain of company F, 130TH Illinois, William M. Colby, was mortally wounded. A bullet had entered his brain, and he arrived at the field hospital in a coma. “The first thing our surgeon did was to run his index finger its full length into the wound; and this without even ordinary hand washing. Next he introduced a dirty bullet probe.” [3] Colby died a few days later. Johnson does not fault the surgeon, for as he says, “These facts are narrated to show the frightful handicap Civil War surgery was under from a lack of knowledge of asepsis and antisepsis...” and it was no reflection on the surgeon or his skill. He was doing the best he could with what he had and what he knew.

Yes, Johnson saw a lot during his three years service, and although he would not be wounded by bullets he was felled by chronic dysentery, a malady that would follow him for the rest of his life.

It was the lot that fell to the soldiers of both sides. Bad water, bad food, bad sanitation, and bad medical practices took the greatest toll on their lives. Some would survive all of this and the bloody battlefield, but none would ever completely heal.


  1. Muskets and Medicine, or Army Life in the Sixties, Johnson, Charles Beneulyn, 1917, Page 105
  2. Erysipelas, Davis, Loretta MD, January 11, 2010 Medscape Reference, Retrieved from retrieved April 23, 2012
  3. Johnson, page 132

Monday, April 16, 2012

Charles Beneulyn Johnson- Hospital Steward

In the Spring of 1861, Charles Beneulyn Johnson was a young man of 17 years, just completing his primary education at Pocahontas, Bond County, Illinois. Fort Sumter had been fired upon, war had come, and many of the young men 'round about would enlist in 90 day regiments then forming after Lincolns call for 75,000 volunteers. Johnson would not be among them. His plan was to further his education and he, at least for now, saw no point in joining up. He was the only male of his household and for the time being he would follow the plow, dream of the halls of learning, and follow the war news from the safety of home. He was not caught up in the patriotic fervor that would grip so many young men of the time, nor was he inclined to seek glory. Besides, the war would be over soon and the other young men would return with their stories and life would be resumed as before. 1861.

He would continue his tilling, planting, and harvesting throughout the next 15 months, following the news, counting the casualties, and the days until he would resume his education. The 90 Days men returned on furlough, then returned to the war only now as 3 Years men. The sight of their uniforms and smart discipline nearly enticed the young farmer to follow, but only nearly as his heart and mind were still set on school, not soldiering. Bull Run was fought, as were Wilsons Creek, Belmont, Shiloh, the Seven Days fighting around Richmond, and countless other battles and skirmishes while the young scholar remained at home.

By mid Summer of 1862 the news of the war had lost its appeal to Johnson. He still followed it but not with the same zeal as before. Finally, after another call for volunteers in July, a war meeting was held at Pocahontas in early August. A similar meeting had been earlier held at Greenville, the county seat, and a friend informed him that many of their friends had enlisted.

Johnson writes:

Joining the army is not unlike measles, whooping cough, or even smallpox, for it is catching.” [1]


I let go the handles of the plow and left it sticking in the furrow.” [2]

That day at Pocahontas he found himself enlisted in one of two companies Bond county would send to the war to satisfy this latest call for volunteers. They, along with men from Mercer county, would form companies E and F, 130th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. They would muster into Federal service October 25, 1862 at Camp Butler, near Springfield.

Although he was an infantryman, Johnson seemed from the first to be destined for something else. He would drill and march with his company and regiment, but it would not last long.

In mid January 1863, the 130th regiment was battling disease and the elements more than the Confederates. They were occupying Fort Pickering, below Memphis, Tennessee, when one of Johnsons closest friends, Corporal Harlow M. Street fell ill with typhoid. Johnson escorted the stricken man to the regimental hospital in Memphis and remained there, nursing and making him as comfortable as possible for several weeks. As Johnson was in and about the hospital for this length of time he became acquainted with the surgeons and and they liked him. They persuaded to stay and he was soon transferred from the line to be an attache, or hospital orderly. This would set the path the young farmer would travel for the rest of his life. Sadly his friend, Street, died at Memphis February 8, 1863.
Johnson immediately fell into the routine of hospital life, which suited him better than the “irregular and mixed duties of a soldier left about the city.” [3] He would devote any free time he could have in the study of medicine, reading the slim library the hospital staff had and his thirst for learning was being quenched even among the wreckage of war. He would be promoted to Hospital Steward in December 1863 and serve in that capacity until February 1865 when the 130th was consolidated with the 77th Illinois and he was again assigned to the ranks. Rules did not allow for officers or NCO's commissioned after the start of the war to remain in their positions if the elder regiment had a man serving in that capacity. Once again however that did not last long and he was re-instated in July when the remaining men of the 77th mustered out, including their Hospital Steward, and the 130th was revived as the 130th Illinois Infantry Battalion (130th Illinois Infantry, Revived). The 130th mustered out in September 1865.
During his time as Hospital Steward for his regiment, Johnson says:

I saw about every form of wound shot, shell, or bullet could inflict on a man.” [4]

He would return to the plow for a short time, work in a pharmacy at Flora, Illinois, and enter medical school in the Summer of 1866 at the University of Michigan, where he studied for 6 months. He would have a long road to travel before he was a credentialed MD. Unable to return to school in the Autumn of 1867 due to a lack of money, he occupied his time as a teacher and following a practicing physician, building on his knowledge of medicine. He would practice medicine without the diploma until finally, in 1871 he returned to his studies at The Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati. There he graduated in the Spring of 1872.

Much later he would turn to writing, leaving future generations a glimpse into the life of a country doctor. Mostly written from a more enlightened perspective afforded by age, wisdom, and medical advancement, he looks with amazement upon the years when anyone regardless of aptitude could become a doctor, and that the simple things such as hand washing and instrument sterilization were little practiced if indeed thought about. Had they been it is doubtless the final tally of the dead would have been far smaller.
One of his books, Muskets and Medicine, or Army Life in the Sixties, will be of particular interest to those wishing to delve into first hand accounts of the Medical Service. In it Johnson provides an appendix enumerating casualty numbers of varying causes from battle wounds to disease, including the type of disease. His figures indicate that 109,065 Union men died in battle or later died of their wounds. For the Confederates he lists an estimate of 92,000. For the toll that disease took, he only lists numbers for the Federal side, giving a total of 201,769 deaths, with another 285,545 discharged from service as a result of disease. He acknowledges that accident claimed the lives of many soldiers but gives no definitive figure for this cause of death. He does say however that given the number of men handling loaded guns at times of relative calm it was a wonder there were not more deaths. The totals are not referenced to a source, so one must assume they are inaccurate to some degree, but they do give some insight into the causes that made up the final death toll.
Charles Beneulyn Johnson would practice medicine well into the 20th century, and it all began when he first nursed his dying friend back in Memphis, in the early days of 1863. A young man bent on gaining an education found his place during this country's fieriest ordeal. He died May 31, 1928 and is buried in Champaign, Illinois.
1- Muskets and Medicine, Johnson, Charles B., 1917, page 30. Retrieved from Googlebooks
2- Ibid, page 35
3- Ibid, page 58
4- Sixty Years in Medical Harness, Johnson, Charles B., 1926, page 5. Retrieved from Hathi Trust,
Information on the 130th and 77th Illinois Infantry from The Illinois USGenWeb Project,
Photo retrieved from from Muskets and Medicine page 129

Monday, April 9, 2012

Affair at Henderson, Kentucky

Adam Rankin Johnson and Bob Martin would have little in the way of excitement after eluding a Yankee patrol at the home of a “small pox” stricken comrade. (See January 26, 2012 post) The only real difficulty occurred after crossing the Tennessee River. They were warned by sympathetic citizens that a Federal picket post was but a mile up the road, and they had a habit of stopping every man that traveled along that stretch. The intrepid scouts were able to successfully dodge the detachment by traveling early in the morning and passing the men just as they were having breakfast. They merited no more than a long hard look from one of the soldiers, who decided they were not worth interrupting his breakfast for and he allowed them to pass. The good fortune relieved Johnson, but it genuinely irritated Martin who seemed always ready for a fight. [1]

The pair would soon part company, but only for a short time. As Johnson continued to Henderson, Martin would travel to Slaughtersville (now known as Slaughters, in Webster county) and try to recruit soldiers from that region. Johnson would do the same in Henderson county and deliver the memorized message from General John C. Breckinridge to David Burbank. The number of recruits however would be well below expectations and as it would develop, nearly non existent. Martin found some men that were agreeable to the idea of fighting Yankees, he would tell Johnson, when they again met in Hopkins County. A dozen men were to meet them at Slaughtersville next morning.
At the meeting the leader of the band after appraising Johnson, informed him that he was to young to be a leader of soldiers. The men of Kentucky needed a leader, the man said, but “when one comes I will be willing to follow him and could bring a good company to back him.” Obviously neither Johnson or Martin was such a man in his estimation. The others felt the same and they departed, leaving the two scouts alone and very discouraged. [2] There was nothing for them to do but keep trying, which they did.
The pair had met many Confederate soldiers that were in the area under parole and others who, though sympathetic to the Rebel cause, would not join it for fear of reprisals from the Federal troops that marginally controlled the area. Johnson hatched a plan that seemed suicidal. In order to drive the “stay at home Confederates” to the colors a “rumpus” was needed to cause the Yankees to believe all the men in the area were involved in it, and harsh Federal reaction to it would cause the fence sitters to join up.

The plan was simple. Bob Martin had noted while canvassing Davies County the presence of a Federal Provost Guard detachment at Owensboro. The men would simply attack it. Simple. Johnson and Martin would be joined by their sole recruit, Frances “Frank” A. Owen. At barely seventeen years old, Owen was already a veteran in the Confederate service. He was wounded and captured at Fort Donelson in February 1862, interred at Camp Morton at Indianapolis, Indiana, escaped there in April, and now was counted among the Tenth Kentucky Partisan Rangers, or what would soon become that regiment. [3]
They planned on riding into the central square of Owensboro, haul down the United States flag and quickly retire with the flag as a prize. Bob Martin would get the flag as Johnson provided cover, and young Owen would hold a fall back position just outside town. Once the older men retreated the three would shoot down anyone giving immediate chase then skedaddle before others could organize further pursuit. Just as they arrived at their starting point, a friend of Martins came out of Owensboro and informed them that the Provost Guard had departed and took several prisoners with them.[4] There would be no “rumpus” here. It was June 20, 1862.

Dame Fortune was about to turn her smile upon Johnson and his companions however. As they pondered their next move while still very near Owensboro, they were approached by a buggy driven by a Union Surgeon and a lady friend out for drive.
The officer was Major John F. Kimbley of the 11th Kentucky Infantry, US Volunteers. [5] The young lady, Miss Georgie (Georgia) Shelby, Johnson apparently knew. The rebels halted the pair and demanded that the major come down from the buggy. Sensing the young lady's fright, Johnson reassured her by telling her that he knew both her and her father and that she would not be harmed. Kimbley on the other hand was left to his own fears as Johnson demanded his papers. The frightened major immediately produced his furlough papers, to which Johnson scoffed and said they were “from the wrong side” for he was now “down in DIXIE”, and he should consider himself a prisoner of war. Johnson then instructed Bob Martin to join Miss Shelby in the buggy and escort her safely home. Martin complied as Johnson gave orders for him to convey to other commanders in the vicinity, making sure he spoke loudly enough that their new prisoner could hear the details. Martin smiled slightly and acknowledged the orders and went on his way with his fair charge. The orders were of course a ruse put on by Johnson for the only rebel command in the vicinity was his own; two men and himself.

No sooner than Martin had driven out of sight, Johnson and Owen had the good fortune continue as they were met by a pair of mule drovers, one of them on foot, on their way to sell mules to the Federal government across the Ohio River at Evansville, Indiana. Johnson informed the lead drover that there was a market nearer to hand, to which the man said he did not rightly care who bought his mules as long as he was paid. He demanded gold or Federal money and would have nothing whatever to do with the Confederate currency Johnson had offered. It seems then that Johnson and Frank Owen “appropriated” the mules, as in Johnsons words, he “mounted the crestfallen drover” on Bob Martins horse, and the small band headed through the woods; mules, drovers, and one frightened Union major who was allowed to drive his rig one last time. Owen was ordered to bring up the rear and to shoot any man that tried to flee. Owen readily complied with the order but it was never necessary to shoot anyone.

The group was met a few hours later by Bob Martin after he had deposited Miss Shelby safely at her home. Owen and Martin would take the mules to Slaughtersville while Johnson drove Major Kimbley to the nearby Green River where he relieved him of the horses and rig, paroled him, and sent him on his way. Kimbley was later picked up by a steamboat and taken to Louisville where he reported to Brigadier General Jeremiah T. Boyle what had happened. He no doubt emphasized the fact that the area was crawling with Confederate guerrillas, the very notion that Johnson had planted in his mind with his "orders" to be relayed to the phantom commands. [6] Boyle responded by dispatching a detachment of Provost Guards to Henderson to strengthen Battery F, (Andrews') of the 1st Michigan Light Artillery which was already garrisoning the river town. It would raise the force to 110 men. This in itself would offend some Confederate sympathizers, but they would not yet flock to the banner of the Confederacy. Adam Rankin Johnson would soon have his rumpus. [7]

Monday, June 30, 1862, on the partially gas lit streets of Henderson, Johnson and his men
struck. The men of the Provost Guard and the Michiganders were packed into one spot, the National Hotel on Main Street. A Captain Daley of the guard and Lieutenant George Tyler of Battery F were chatting beneath a street lamp in front of the two story brick building, others sat idly chatting nearby, and two men were on sentry duty. Johnson and his troops were secreted behind a tall plank fence across the street watching the unaware soldiers. It was shortly after midnight.** Suddenly the scene changed from quiet serenity to bedlam and smoke as the trio of Rebels cut loose with a deadly storm of lead from pistols and shotguns, firing two volleys in quick succession. The blue clad men scampered for the door of the hotel. Daley and and Tyler had been hit along with a number of others before they could reach the safety of the interior. Tyler was the most severely wounded and would soon die of his wounds. [8]
From his report to General John C. Breckinridge, Johnson writes:

On the 29th of the same month, we proceeded to Henderson and made an attack on the forces stationed there, killing a lieutenant, wounding the captain, 1 lieutenant, and wounding 9 soldiers.
The attacking party consisted of A. Owen, R. A. Martin, and A.R. Johnson. They fired 11 shots. [9]

Once the Rebels finished their deadly work, they dashed for their horses and made good their escape, while the shaken Federals kept up a constant firing at shadows throughout the night.
Panic ensued throughout the countryside on both sides of the Ohio River. The Evansville Journal, a daily newspaper, shouted in bold headlines:

Provost Guard Attacked by 300 Guerrillas!

The paper claimed that the fight had lasted for nearly nine hours, when in reality it might have lasted nine minutes, and that the enemy had been driven off with a heavy loss. Johnson attributes the inflated numbers to the fact that:

One of their random shots, it was discovered next morning by the citizens, had struck an old sow, and as she moved about, here and there lying down, leaving blood all around, these fine marksmen claimed they had hit many a rebel, who, either dead or wounded had been taken off the sanguinary field by their comrades.” [11]

The affair had the desired effect on the men in the surrounding country. Johnson puts it thus:

“ gave us such a character for successful enterprise that many valuable recruits joined us at once.” 

Those that dared not join immediately were automatically assumed to be a part of his command and that gave a false impression to prying eyes, which also suited Johnson.[12]

Johnson had his rumpus, and would very soon return to Henderson, only at the head of a much larger force, a precursor to a much bolder move. That move would be overshadowed by a much more famous personage and his actions. John Hunt Morgan was about to begin his first raid through Kentucky, beginning July 4, 1862, and he would spend the better part of the month there, causing a rumpus of his own. Johnson and his men, at least for the time being, would be the least of the Federal's worries.

** Starling lists the time of the attack as shortly after 10 pm, on the 29th.

1- The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army, Johnson, Adam R., 1904, page 88
2- Ibid, page 90
3- Thunder From a Clear Sky: Stovepipe Johnson's Confederate Raid on Newburgh, Indiana, Mulesky Jr., Raymond, 2005, 2006 page 12
4- Johnson, page 92
5- Mulesky, page 5
6- Johnson, page 93
7- Mulesky, page 7
8- History of Henderson County, Starling, Edmund L., page 715, Mulesky, page 14
9- War of the Rebellion -Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series 1, Volume 16, part 2, page 994
11- Johnson, page 96.
12- Johnson, page 100