Wednesday, August 3, 2016

1862 Letter from the Siege of Cincinnati: Private William G.Johnson, 97th Ohio

Several months ago, I posted about an envelope I had acquired along with the letter inside. My intent was to follow that post up quickly with the transcription of the letter and some research on it. I clearly failed to follow up on that intention, for no one particular reason, but now I have fixed that and here is the text of the three-page letter as followed by my research and thoughts on it. (I have left the spelling and grammatical errors as they appear on the original, as they make it feel more genuine and do not hurt its readability. I did not add the distracting "sic" either, but did, however, break it up into paragraphs.)

Page 1 of letter

Covington, Kentucky
September 8, 1862

My dear wife. I sit down this after noon in the enemy country to write you a few lines to let you no how I am getting along. I am well and hope these few lines will find you injoing the same blessing.  

We left Zanesville yesterday morning and arrived here about three o’clock last night. Sabers were left in Zanesville and Walter Barnett allso Matt left camp with out leave and has not been heard of since. 

I do not no how long we will be here. We may leave in one hour’s time and we may not leave for one week. I heard that the 85th Ohio was here and I have been out looking for James and the rest of the (illegible - army?)  but I could not find any of them nor hear from them. 

Dear Mary. I suppose you have got my likeness. I sent it you you by CAS last  Saturday. Mary, I told CAS to tell you to give mother three dollars. Do so if you have not. 

Dear Mary I would love to have seen you once more before I left but I could not. Now Mary cheer up and keep in good spirits for I will take good care of my self and I do want you to do the same.

I must close for my time is limited. You need not write to me untill you here from me again. May God bless you Mary. 

Fare well, from your true and affectionate husband,

W.G. Johnson 

William Johnson had been born in Ohio in 1840, probably in Guernsey County. He enlisted as a private in Company B of the 97th Ohio Infantry regiment, on August 1, 1862, for a three-year term. (The company mustered in on September 1, 1862 at Camp Zanesville, Ohio.) He did not serve the entire term however as he was discharged on January 15, 1863 in Gallatin, Tennessee on a surgeon's certificate of disability, just a couple weeks after the Battle of Stone's River. Records do not indicate what caused the disability.

The Walter Barnett mentioned in the letter was a sergeant in the same company and a neighbor of the Johnson family. He was wounded at Kenesaw Mountain in 1864 and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, so he obviously did not desert as the letter indicated he may have done. 

"James" was likely William’s younger brother. He was a private in company I of the 85th Ohio, a three-month regiment that was also involved in the defense of Cincinnati.  

The identities of "Matt" and "CAS" are unknown. A search of the 1860 census showed one "Mathew Lennon" as a neighbor of the Johnson household. The only military record for him, however, shows he joined the 122nd Ohio Infantry.  It was also organized in Zanesville, but not until September 30, after this letter was written. Might Mathew have joined a three-month regiment like the 85th Ohio and then changed to the 122nd somehow? Perhaps his paperwork was incomplete or lost? Or, probably, "Matt" was someone else. 

No candidate for "CAS" seems obvious. (I capitalized it in my transcription, but it was in small letters in the document. My assumption is they are a person's initials, based on the context.)

I also wonder about the "likeness" he sent home. Did it make it there? How long did it survive? Perhaps it is still in someone's collection, stuck in a pile of old photographs of unidentified men and women. Or maybe one of his descendants still has it.

Anyway, Ohio Civil War Central tells the story of how Johnson and his comrades in the 97th Ohio ended up in Covington and its actions following this scare to Cincinnati, then the country's sixth largest city.

"On September 7, 1862, officials dispatched the 97th via railroad to Covington, Kentucky, where, the following day, the regiment took up a position near Fort Mitchel. Confederate General Kirby Smith was currently leading a raid in northern Kentucky, and authorities believed his goal was to capture Cincinnati, Ohio, which was located just north of Covington and across the Ohio River. The attack never materialized, and on September 20, 1862, the 97th boarded the steamer Emma Duncan and sailed for Louisville, Kentucky, arriving two days later. The regiment immediately joined the Army of the Ohio, which was preparing to pursue Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s army.  The Army of the Ohio departed Louisville on October 2, 1862 and engaged a portion of Bragg’s command on October 4, 1862 in a small skirmish at Bardstown, Kentucky. On October 8, 1862, the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky occurred. The 97th fought well in this engagement."
Fort Mitchel, courtesy
It is noteworthy that he referred to Covington as "enemy country." It is part of Kentucky, which was a slave state, but also remained in the United States. Covington lies along the northernmost border of Kentucky, on the south side of the Ohio River, the unofficial border between north and south at the time, at least west of the Mason-Dixon Line. Underground Railroad stations existed throughout the region, but, on the other hand, when John Hunt Morgan escaped from prison in Columbus, Ohio, he supposedly found a safe house one night in the Covington/Fort Mitchel area. Both sides of the war enjoyed support in the area, so it was not unreasonable for a northerner, even one from a state bordering Kentucky, to think of it as "enemy country," though it certainly caught my attention.

William married Mary Harper in 1865. They had eight or nine children, as records I found varied. He spent much of his life in Ohio, but by 1895 lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was in Minneapolis in 1905 and in the Minnesota Soldier's Home in the same city by 1910.

MN Soldier's Home, courtesy

Mary passed away in 1916 and William lived until January 5, 1921 when he died at the soldier's home. He is buried in section C, lot 204 at Hillside Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Rest in peace, private William Johnson.


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