The Galvanized Yankee of Steubenville, Ohio

In the Civil War section of Union Cemetery in Steubenville, Ohio resides the grave of Augustin Johnson who among the Civil War veterans in that cemetery has a unique distinction: Johnson is only one in the cemetery who served in both the Confederate and Union Armies during the Civil War.

During the war, Confederate prisoners of war who took the oath of allegiance to the United States while imprisoned and then joined the U.S. Army were derisively called by their former comrades "galvanized Yankees." Augustin Johnson would no doubt bristle at this moniker, but the title fits in this case, though his service in the Confederate Army came about through no choice of his own.

In the spring of 1861, the 48-year-old blacksmith left his wife and children in Steubenville, Ohio and sailed upon a flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, Louisiana. Louisiana had seceded and cast her lot with the new Confederacy by this time, and it is unclear why Johnson went to New Orleans with the nation teetering on the brink of Civil War. Regardless, on April 25, 1861, he was “impressed with several companions” into the Confederate service, being enlisted in the 1st Special Battalion of Louisiana Volunteers, later famously known as Wheat’s Tigers named after their colorful commander Chatham Roberdeau Wheat. 

Louisiana State Pelican Belt Buckle

Wheat’s Battalion of 500 men was raised from the wharves of New Orleans, his motley recruits including dock workers, stevedores, ship hands, Irish and German immigrants, mercenaries who had served with Wheat in Nicaragua, and reluctant Northerners like Augustin Johnson. Johnson was assigned to Co. E (Old Dominion Guards) under the command of Obedia P. Miller, a noted New Orleans attorney, and to help distinguish the Northern “conscripts” from the Southern “volunteers,” Johnson’s head was shaved.

Wheat’s battalion was soon clothed in a unique uniform: red flannel battle shirts combined with cotton pants “known as pepper and salt” and commenced drilling at Camp Davis in New Orleans.  It was a rowdy group, as prone to fight with each other as anyone else. When they weren’t drilling, the men drank, played cards, and fought. One fellow Louisiana soldier dubbed them “wharf rats” and called them “the worst men I ever saw.” Amongst this august group Augustin Johnson found himself, an outcast among outcasts, and no doubt ran into his share of fisticuffs and trouble due to his Yankee background.

In June 1861, Wheat’s Battalion left Louisiana to join the army in Virginia then under preparations to fight at Bull Run. The Tigers took part in that battle while assigned to the brigade of Nathan Evans and held the left flank of Matthew’s Hill. Captain O.P. Miller reported that the Tigers went into action around 10:30 on the morning of July 21, 1861 and faced off against several regiments of Federals supported by three artillery pieces. “They fairly poured into and over our ranks a perfect hail storm of grape, cannon, musket and rifle balls,” he wrote.

“At the battle, Wheat’s Battalion was stationed at the extreme Rebel left. Near it was a South Carolina regiment under cover of some pines separated by an open space from the National infantry also under cover. As Major Wheat advanced his men into this open space, they were fired upon by the South Carolinians which caused the battalion to waver and made them easier victims for the very destructive fire that was immediately after poured in upon them by the National troops. Near Johnson were two other men. One of them, David Vance of Philadelphia, was instantly killed. The other, a comrade and warm friend of Johnson’s, an Illinoian named James A. Hutchinson, was shot under the eye. He was in such agony that Johnson carried him from the field a long way to the hospital, occasionally resting with the wounded man’s head on his lap.”

Louisiana Tigers in uniform with the pepper and salt trousers
With his friend safely deposited at the hospital, and Federal troops so near, Johnson decided it was time to escape. “He thought the time had come to escape as in the confusion there was no pickets out. He took his gun and started westward up a ravine. After getting a considerable distance from the battlefield, he threw away his gun and cartridge box. The uniform of the battalion was cotton pants of the mixed color known as pepper and salt, and a red shirt. Under this red short Johnsons had a checked cotton shirt. He now changed these by putting the checked shirt outside and the red one under, expecting instant death if he was arrested as a deserter.” Back at the battalion, Captain Miller couldn’t find Johnson after the battle and in a letter written to the editors of the New Orleans Crescent newspaper reported Johnson as missing or killed in action.

Johnson spent several days hiding in the countryside and working his way north, eventually arriving at Harper’s Ferry where Federal pickets arrested him. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported his arrival at Harper’s Ferry as a Rebel deserter with two other men from Wheat’s Battalion and commented “they appear to know little of the movements of the Rebels.” Johnson’s story (given above) of being an impressed Yankee in Confederate uniform was picked up in a number of newspapers including the Washington Evening Star, the New York Times, and the Cleveland Morning Leader.

Unidentified Union private in frock coat with H on his kepi
Library of Congress

Johnson remained in Washington for a few days then set off for Steubenville for what was surely a jubilant if short-lived reunion with his family. Despite his age and prior service in the Rebel army, Augustin Johnson enlisted as a private in Co. H of the 40th Ohio Volunteer Infantry on October 11, 1861 and served more than two years with the regiment. The 40th Ohio was initially assigned to duty in eastern Kentucky and took part in two small engagements during the winter months of 1862. It later joined the Army of the Cumberland and took part in the battle of Chickamauga which is where Johnson’s story picks back up. Augustin Johnson was now half a century old, one of the oldest men in the regiment, and had been taken out of the line and placed on duty as a hospital nurse. He accompanied the army into Georgia and assisted in caring for the wounded at the divisional hospital located at Chattanooga.

It was grim and frustrating work as remembered by Surgeon John Beach of the 40th Ohio. “The battle of Chickamauga left thousands of wounded men on the hands of medical officers with scarcely any hospital supplies to meet the emergency,” remembered Beach. “On Monday September 21st, the writer along with Dr. Bane of the 115th Illinois and Dr. Williams of the 121st Ohio rode into Chattanooga to look after the wounded of our division. The scenes about the city were sad, indeed. The Crutchfield house, all the churches, in fact, the entire town, was occupied by the wounded. But few medical officers were there, their duties having kept them with their commands on Sunday. No effort was made on Monday to bring order out of the existing chaos, and the entire day was spent the wounded and giving proper surgical attention to such cases as required immediate attention. On Tuesday September 22nd, the wounded were moved across the river two miles north where a meadow sloping down from a wooded hill to a stream of spring water was selected for hospital grounds. The extreme northern part of this meadow was given up to the use of the First Division of our corps and the writer and Dr. Bane went there to find a score or more wounded lying on the ground. The next day, the arrivals were numerous and wounded kept coming in for several days from the town and from the battlefield, the latter being removed under a flag of truce. There were few or no tents to be had for several days but every effort was made to shelter the wounded by fly tents, shelter tents, and large tarpaulins furnished by the Quartermaster. For several days there was no effort to get the wounded off the ground where they law on straw. In fact, it seemed impossible without lumber or nails or anything with which to build bunks or cots to improve their condition in this respect. Fortunately, the weather was delightful for some days after the establishment of the hospital so that there was no real suffering from exposure, notwithstanding the inadequate protection.”
Guidon flag carried by the 40th Ohio

Ohio History Connection

But for Augustin Johnson, the war was about over. With his health in decline, he was given a surgeon’s certificate of disability and mustered out of the service December 5, 1863 at Shellmound, Tennessee, a railroad junction located on the south shore of the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga. Shellmound doesn’t exist today, the site now being covered by the backwaters of Nickajack Lake which was formed by the construction of a dam in the 1960s. Johnson returned home to Steubenville and again picked up the blacksmithing trade, living until October 10, 1885, one day shy of 24 years since he had enlisted in the Union Army at Steubenville, Ohio.

Roster from the state of Ohio for the 40th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, pg. 159
Beach, John N. History of the Fortieth Ohio Volunteer Infantry. London: Shepherd & Craig, printers, 1884
Letter from Captain Obedia P. Miller, New Orleans Daily Crescent, August 1, 1861 (special thanks to Harry Smeltzer of the Bull Runnings blog for this source!)

Wikipedia entry for the Louisiana Tigers
“Arrival of Deserters,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 21, 1861, pg. 1
“An Ohio Man’s Experience in the Rebel Army,” Cleveland Morning Leader, August 30, 1861, pg. 2


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