A Year From Home: a young boy’s Civil War story from the Greenbrier Valley – Part 1 of 2

I was born May 11, 1845, in Monroe Co., Va. . . . .

NOTE: this is a super-interesting short memoir written by Edden Morris Johnson, born in 1845 in Johnson’s Crossroads, Monroe County, (West) Virginia. He was a member of the same family of Johnsons who later moved from Johnson’s Crossroads to Willowbrook Plantation beginning in 1869.

Edden wrote this letter recounting his dramatic experiences of a young boy, away from his family the outbreak of the Civil War. Imagine sending your kid off to college in the days of 19th century travel, and a Civil War just happens to break out exactly where the college is located. That’s what happened here.

The manuscript was apparently kept in the family, until Mrs. Nancy W. Dargan, of Pontiac, Illinois, who found it among the possessions of her grandfather (Edden Johnson). It was first published, where I was subsequently born, grew up, and much later found it myself, in the October 1966 issue of the “Journal of the Greenbrier Historical Society.” I believe that it has since been published elsewhere – though it’s nowhere to be found on the internet that I’ve been able to find. I had been told of this story before, and it’s pretty darn amazing. And now, back to Edden Johnson’s story . . . .

In the summer of 1855, my grandfather, Jacob Johnson, visited a brother in Central Illinois, and liking the country, purchased lands in McLean Co., west of Bloomington. Returning home, he sold his possessions, and in 1856 the family moved to Illinois. He persuaded my father, who at that time was in business, having a general store at Johnson’s Cross Roads, to sell out and move with him to Illinois.

The Wolf Creek valley of Monroe County, the location of “Johnson’s Crossroads,” where the Johnson family lived.

NOTE: Inside Willowbrook Plantation, we found an original handwritten store ledger book from this store, showing the names of prominent local citizens, and pretty much everything they bought in the store. There are accounts for George Beirne, Hugh Caperton, Allen T. Caperton, and so on. The reason it was inside Willowbrook, is because the Johnson family, or at least some of them, purchased the plantation at the death of Christopher J. Beirne, and moved in, around 1869. Almost everything in Willowbrook has been related to the Johnson family, and most of it all says, “Johnson X Roads, Monroe, Virginia,” at least as far as the books and documents goes. This must have been from that same general store.

A couple pages out of the store’s ledger:

And an original Johnson House, close to where the store stood:

One of the surviving brick homes which had belonged to the Johnson Family in Johnson’s Crossroads in the Wolf Creek Valley of Monroe County, WV. I was involved in an easement lawsuit, which went to trial, involving this particular property. Beautiful property and house. I don’t recall which Johnson it was who lived here.
Another red-brick Johnson house in what’s left of “Johnson’s Crossroads.”

The journey was made overland in wagons and carriages, there being no railroads at that time in Va. Passing through the Blue Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier Co., Va., which for years had been a noted southern watering place with accommodations for several hundred guests, but a couple years previous had been purchased by the Southern Baptist Church for a school and established the “Alleghany College.” My father said “My boy when you get old enough, I will send you here.”

Here’s how Blue Sulphur Resort would have appeared to Edden and his father in 1855:

Edward Beyer painting of Blue Sulphur Springs as it appeared in 1857, the year after young Edden Johnson passed by it on the turnpike shown to the right side of the painting.

Our family consisted of father, mother and a sister, three years younger than myself. We arrived in Illinois Nov. 6, 1856, General Election day and spent the winter at my grandfather’s home west of Bloomington. A brother-in-law of father who had moved to Illinois in the spring of 1856, had purchased a farm in Livingston Co. some five miles west of Pontiac. Visiting him during the winter of 1857, my father bought a farm near Pontiac, and in March 1857 we moved to Livingston Co.

Drone shot looking towards Johnson’s Crossroads from one of the old turnpike hotels in Wolf Creek, WV. Edden and his father would have started out in the distance, and rode towards the camera location.

Having in mind the promise of my father regarding the going to Alleghany College, I attended the public schools of Pontiac and received private instruction from Rev. A.T. White more, pastor off the Presbyterian Church and Sept. 2, 1860 started for Va. and College. NOTE: talk about bad timing . . .

Drone shot from the same location, looking towards the Greenbrier River and Blue Sulphur Springs, beyond. Edden and his father would have roughly followed the road below, as it meanders into the distance, eventually getting to Blue Sulphur Springs.

The only incident of the journey by rail road to Cincinnati was the public reception and parade to the Prince of Wales which I witnessed in Cincinnati while waiting to take the steamboat which plied up the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. During the presidential campaign in the summer of 1860 I had seen many large political gatherings, but the immense crowds that lined the streets of Cincinnati to see a slender youth riding at the head of a procession in a carriage drawn by six white horses, and hearing the acclaim of thousands, was to me, a boy of fitted, an exhibition of snobbiness that I have always remembered.

Here’s the Prince of Wales, to whom he’s referring, and some background on his visit to Cincinnati:

An engraving of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, as appeared in Harper’s Weekly magazine in October of 1860. Check out the chair, and compare it with the one just below….

When Albert Edward visited Cincinnati, he was not yet 18 years of age. It would be another 40 years until his mother, Queen Victoria, died and he became King Edward VII of the United Kingdom.

Although he was Prince of Wales when he arrived in the Queen City toward midpoint of a lengthy tour of Canada and the United States, Albert Edward liked to believe that he was traveling incognito because he used another, less prestigious, title: Baron Renfrew. Cincinnati, of course, would have none of these incognito shenanigans and resolutely referred to the young man as Prince Edward the entire time he was in town. Although heir to the throne and a prince, he was a minor and traveled with a guardian, the formidable Henry Pelham Pelham-Clinton, Fifth Duke of Newcastle.


As an aside, take a look at the chair Prince Albert is sitting in, in the engraving from 1860 Harper’s Weekly. It looks a whole lot like the one found by my father at a Greenbrier Valley flea market. For more information, check out the post I did on this chair: Historic Chair Found at Flea Market. I guess I need to add Prince Albert to that post . . . .

I had attended every 4th of July celebration, knew the Declaration of Independence by heart and had thoroughly been imbued by the doctrine of democracy, so the adulation and attention paid to the sprig of royalty was an, to say the least, an eye opener, but I have since through a long life found that the American people are prone to bow at the feet of royalty.

At the time I wrote of, 1860, the great campaign for the election of a president of the United States was being waged. In my state, Illinois, it was wholly confined to Lincoln and Douglass, although there were other nominees for the presidency. I with other boys had marched in the processions at the political meetings and had up to this time had no other idea but Senator Douglass wouldn’t be elected.

NOTE: Lincoln was the Republican party candidate for the presidency, and Douglas was an incumbent U.S. Senator for Illinois, and the Democrat Party candidate. Both candidates were lawyers, by trade. As can be imagined, the primary issue of the campaign was whether to allow the expansion of slavery in new territories, as the U.S. still had many new states to add to the Union at that time. Illinois was a free state.

Sort of like early “fake news,” the Illinois newspapers started to assist Douglas, and favorably edit, and report on, his comments, while at the same time doing their best to leave Lincolns in the roughest form possible, thus showing him to be uneducated, etc. That didn’t stop Lincoln though, since he edited his own speech transcripts, and published them himself – not wholly unlike Donald Trump using Twitter today.

Lincoln and Douglas

Taking the steamboat “Kanawha” which plied between the headwaters of the Kanawha River and Cincinnati, I found over a hundred passengers bound for the various towns on the Kanawha river, most of them for Charleston (Now the capitol of West Va.)

NOTE: On January 5, 1916, the steamboat, “Kanawha,” still in operation, sank in the Ohio River with a loss of 16 lives. The steamer’s Second Clerk, Fred M. Hoyt, survived the wreck, and wrote a first-hand account of the ordeal: “The Wreck of the Kanawha.” Also, check out all these steamboat wrecks listed on this site: Steamboat Disasters. I’m not sure I would want to travel on one.

The steamboat “Kanawha.”

There were but a few women in the boat, which by the way to my boyish eyes was a marvel, not only of beauty but of luxury never ever dreamed of. These were the days of glory in river steamboat traveling and even though the “Kanawha” did not compare in size with the Ohio and Mississippi boats yet she had all the luxuries of the larger boats. The passengers, to my surprise soon after leaving Cincinnati, gathered in groups and talked politics. Not a single voice could be heard, all the way up the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, for the three days and nights, favoring Lincoln & Hamlin, the Republican candidates.

A drone shot I took, looking up the Kanawha River towards Malden and Charleston, from about 2 miles upriver of Point Pleasant – the confluence of the Kanawha with the Ohio.

The boat ran to Malden, a town about 20 miles east of Charleston, and here I took the stage to the Blue Sulphur Springs at midnight, arriving at the College early in the morning of the second day.

One of the turnpike stagecoaches posing for a photo crossing a creek. They operated much like a train. You pay a fare, and can bring a certain weight of luggage with you. Able bodied men were sometimes made to walk on uphill mountainous portions.

NOTE: the Blue Sulphur Springs Resort hotel had its heyday in the 1840’s, and had many famous guests, including Robert E. Lee, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson, and Jerome Bonaparte – brother of Napoleon. But it began to decline in the early 1850’s, due primarily to competition with other nearby resorts, in what was a crowded market – primarily the Old White at White Sulphur Springs. It was converted to a college in the late 1850’s. Here’s the National Register of Historic Places documentation on the property.

A before and after style pic I made showing the old Blue Sulphur Springs Resort on top, and showing what it looks like now, by drone, below. The before photo also shows a turnpike stagecoach arriving at the resort via the Blue Sulphur Turnpike, which is how young Johnson would have arrived in 1860.

Some three weeks previous to my starting the large central hotel which had been converted into the College Chapel, with its big dining hall and various classrooms, had burned down, leaving only the cabin wings. These so-called cabins were one story brick extensions, with a sitting room and two bedrooms to each, extending north and east from the Central hotel. They were each a continuous row with 30 apartments each affording ample accommodations for the students, the professors and their families.

This lithograph drawn by E. Crehen clearly shows the long range of two and three stories. {2} The “Temple” over the spring is nearly 33 feet square and an example of Greek Revival architecture. It is the only remnant that remains as the other buildings were burned during the Civil War.

A temporary dining hall and kitchens had been hastily erected. The news of the burning of the main building had reached the territory from which the majority of the students came and in consequence only the senior class of 24 were in attendance. Only a few of the juniors, sophomores came back with the freshmen class of only those from Virginia, North Carolina and a few from South Carolina. Made a total enrollment of 132 students. The previous year there had been an enrollment of 220. I entered as a freshman as also did one other boy from Kansas, the rest of the students were all southerners.

1838 newspaper advertisement for Blue Sulphur Springs, a Washington, D.C. newspaper, published until 1870.

When I took the stage from Malden I was sick. Got sick on the boat. The Captain to whom I complained told me I had a touch of “river fever.” However I was able to enroll as a student and then made my way to my Aunt’s house, some 6 miles from the Blue Sulphur Springs. This aunt, a sister of father, was a widow, with four sons and one daughter. The next day after arriving at Aunt Eveline’s I went to bed and a physician sent for pronounced my disease as typhoid fever. I lay some three weeks at my Aunt’s home and recovering [before I] went to the College.

NOTE: I believe this was Evelyn Johnson Jarrett (1823-1909), Evelyn being a daughter of Edden’s grandfather, Jacob Johnson. I believe she married Ira Jarrett (1809-1853) in 1840. So James W. Johnson, who bought Willowbrook Plantation in 1869, was the brother of Jacob Johnson. So Edden would have been his grand-nephew, and Evaline would have been his niece.

The Jarrett family was an early and prominent family in the area of Blue Sulphur Springs. Ira’s grandfather was James Jarrett, an early settler who built the aptly-named Jarrett’s Fort on Wolf Creek, or maybe his brother built it and he lived there. He later built a large stone house, which still stands today, though he died shortly after it was completed.

Edden’s aunt’s grave:

Evelyn Johnson Jarrett’s grave in Bloomington, Ill.

Aunt Evelyn’s prominent inlaws’ Greenbrier County home:

James Jarrett House, built by Evelyn’s in-laws, circa 1815, as it appears today.

And their 18th century fort location:

The campus, about 40 acres of level land filled with stately trees, with mountains on the west, north and south, opened up to the east on a most beautiful farming section. Through it ran a small creek, fed by mountain streams. At the east end the great Blue Sulphur Spring gushed out of the ground, pouring a street as thick as a an’s leg, so greatly impregnated with sulphur that the odor could be smelled a couple of miles. A beautiful pagoda covered the spring which was lined with marble slabs.

A now and then shot of the interior of the “Pavilion,” spring house, a.k.a. the “Grecian Temple” at Blue Sulphur Springs – all that’s left of the entire resort-turned-college. This is where the spring would have bubbled out of the ground.
The “pavilion,” which was referred to as a “Grecian Temple” in the resort’s advertising. It’s all that’s left of the resort.

Looking into the water it appeared almost as blue as indigo. In a glass it was as clear as a crystal, and its curative properties made it during the palmy days of the south the most popular watering place in all that region. Not even the celebrated White Sulphur, some thirty miles east, the Red Sulphur, eighteen miles south west, even the Salt Sulphur, some twenty five miles south, all with magnificent hotel buildings and equipped as the most fashionable southern watering places in the whole southern country was equal to the Blue Sulphur or as extensively patronized prior to its purchase by the Baptist Church for a college.

Here’s some old pics of the “Salt Sulphur” resort he’s referring to:

And how it appears now:

Salt Sulphur Springs. This is the main ballroom of the old resort. The stagecoach turnpike ran from Blue Sulphur, through Johnson’s Crossroads, and then on directly to Salt Sulphur.

It was on the great stage route line, east and west with branches to the north and south and no finer nor more beautiful place could have been found for a college site and with its fine buildings afforded an equipment unsurpassed for an educational institution.

I was quartered in one of its so-called cottages, with three other boys. We had a large common sitting room or study with two bedrooms opening from it. A large fireplace furnished us with heat and ventilation. A temporary dining hall with kitchens had been erected and shower bathrooms building erected. So college life commenced in October, 1860.

1859 Lithograph by L.M Hamilton of Blue Sulphur Springs.

The approaching presidential election in Nov. excited great interest, especially to the senior class, most of whom were from the eastern part of the state and North Carolina. The election was held on Nov. 6th. The voting in Va. at that time was viva voca.

NOTE: I feel this is another area where my history and political education failed me – and I have a degree in political science, which is almost entirely the study of the history of politics! Voting “viva voca,” as Johnson terms it, would be voting verbally, which was practiced in Virginia in the 1860 election and before, subsequently disappearing by the late 19th century:

Viva voce voting was the defining feature of the political worlds of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Lincoln, all of whom came to political leadership in states that voted by voice. Its high point coincided with the great expansion of the suffrage: the era still sometimes referred to as “the golden age” of American political participation. Oral voting gradually waned, but even in the presidential election of 1860 nearly ten percent of the vote was cast by voice. In the 1830s five of the 26 states voted viva voce (Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, and Illinois); in the 1850s five of the 33 states did so with Oregon replacing Illinois and Texas giving up its brief experiment with oral voting; in the 1870s only Kentucky and Oregon continued to vote viva voce. In 1891 Kentucky became the last state in the Union to practice oral voting and the only American state to move directly from voting by voice to an Australian invention: the state-produced secret ballot.
The objection to viva voce, of course, was that it invited intimidation and coercion, of employees by employers, of the weak by the powerful, and of individuals by groups. Yet it remains the case, perhaps ironically, that turnout appears to have been so high when public voting prevailed.

Voting Viva Voce, Professor Don DeBats, University of Virginia, http://sociallogic.iath.virginia.edu/node/35

Each voter came to the polls and as his name was called, he announced who he voted for, and the clerks of the election recorded his vote. There were no printed ballots, but the list of candidates was posted at the voting place. It was a tedious job as there were four sets of electors. Their precinct had about 80 voters including the resident professors of the College.

Bell and Everett had a plurality of the votes, not only at this precinct but in Greenbrier County. Not a single vote was recorded for Lincoln & Hamlin and very few for Douglas and Johnson. Breckenridge and Lane was next to Bell and Everett. It was over three weeks before we heard who was elected and when it was definitely known that Mr. Lincoln was elected the consternation of the professors and older students was demonstrated by meetings with impromptu speeches of such a fiery character to such an extent that all meetings except those of the regular college regime were forbidden.

The excitement and interest however was intensified by the reports of resistance to the inauguration of the president. Especially after the news of the action of the South Carolina legislature in adopting the secession ordinance, which came just before the Christmas holidays.

Nearly all the students left for their Christmas gatherings at home. I went to my Aunt Evelyn Jarrett’s and spent my holiday vacation, and at various gatherings heard more and more about secession, which was emphasized by my oldest cousin, a young man, 21 years of age, and a veritable “fire-eater” in his denunciation of the North. He frequently declared that the election of Mr. Lincoln meant the freedom of the slaves – a prophecy he did not live to see fulfilled as he died a soldier of the Confederacy in 1862. NOTE: this may have been at the Battle of Lewisburg, which occurred on May 23, 1862. I haven’t figured out exactly who this was as of yet, but I’m working on it. It may have been Johnson Jarrett, who he later mentions several times.

Blue Sulphur Springs, circa 1905

Returning to school after the holidays, the regular class recitations were resumed, but quite a number of the students from South Carolina and North Carolina remained at home. This too, augmented the general feeling of unrest and anxious inquiries as to the situation, made ore tense by the news in January 1861 of the action of other southern states in adopting ordinances of secession. Two North Carolina students in the senior class were called home in February, and this too added to excitement which prevailed. In the meantime the boys commenced calling me “Yank” and teasing me as a northerner.

I had frequently spent Sundays at my Aunt’s home and I became exceedingly worried about going home. She told me not to be uneasy and that there would be ample time to get home after the school closed in June. In April however after the news had permeated to the College of the firing on Fort Sumter and that war had been declared, more and more of the students had abandoned school until in the later part of May, the College closed and I went to my Aunts.

The stage line which ran to the Kanawha Valley had been abandoned and there was no way for me to get out of Virginia. Letters were few and those from my home in Illinois did not give instructions as to what I should do. Volunteer companies were being formed for the Confederacy and among the first to enlist was my cousin Johnson Jarrett.

This muster roll is all I could find regarding Johnson Jarrett’s Civil War service record. I’m not sure if he’s the cousin who was killed in 1862, or whether that was a different cousin. This unit only existed during 1861, and so he must have joined a different unit. However, I am unable to find the records.

My Aunt who had managed her farm after the death of Uncle Ira, with her servants was greatly hampered by the fact that her son Johnson, who had once in 1859 visited in Illinois and saw the great fields of corn, had in the spring, stimulated by the call of the southern leaders, to raise more grain, broken up two large meadows and had then planted to corn. He had joined the army and this corn crop had to be hoed. Her two negro servants, her three boys, Leonard, Andrew and Clark and myself, hoed the corn after the plowing by “Old Uncle Ham.”

Civil War era view of Lewisburg, WV – the county seat of Greenbrier County

Word frequently reached us of negro uprising, and this too added to the anxiety and unrest. In June a negro had attempted to blow up the Presbyterian Church at Lewisburg, the county seat of Greenbrier Co., thirteen miles from my Aunt’s home. He was owned by a doctor whose house was close to the church. He had tunneled from his cabin under the church, had placed a keg of gunpowder, which he had stolen from a store, under the church, and had planned to fire the powder on a Sunday night when services were being held in the church.

The Old Stone Presbyterian Church:

The Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg WV

Greenbrier County Courthouse:

Greenbrier County Courthouse – built in the 1830’s, and still in use today. This is where I was first sworn into the practice of law, and I subsequently tried many cases here.

Fortunately, a heavy rain came up in the evening and the congregation had been dismissed. All but the preacher and his little son had left and they were going out of the church when the explosion came off. The little boy was so badly hurt that he died during the night. His black “Mammy” went into hysterics and told who had committed the deed. The negro was captured and was at once tried in the court and sentenced to be hung the latter part of June. The hanging was public and people from all parts of the county went to the “hanging.” This caused a greater anxiety as the people feared an uprising of the slaves. NOTE: this was actually not true, and was likely disinformation, or rumor, which was circulating. A slave was indeed hanged on June 28, 1861 for “conspiring” and “insurrection,” but it was apparently unrelated to the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg.

Greenbrier County Courthouse on Court Street – then and now.

July 21st the battle of “Bull’s Run” or Mannasses was fought and shortly after courtiers came announcing that a Union Army was coming through Western Va. via of the Kanawha Valley and that the Union soldiers were murdering men, women and children and calling upon the southerners to protect their homes and that the Union forces were to encamp at Meadows Bluff some twenty-five miles northwest of the Blue Sulphur Springs.

A now and then shot of the Pavilion at Blue Sulphur.

In consequence hundreds of men and boys marched to Lewisburg from adjoining counties passing on the turnpike running past my Aunt’s farm. They were armed with shotguns, rifles, pistols, Bowie knives made from files, and some carried pitchforks. It was a motley army indeed. We boys sat on the fence for hours watching them pass. It was a false rumor however and a couple of days after, they passed back in groups without the swagger which they had previous. NOTE: A similar rumor spread in nearby Monroe County, also met by an armed force of locals. However, there was no federal army at that time nearer than the Ohio River.

There were frequent meetings at the various towns throughout the county. My Aunt forbade me going to them as I was a “Yank” but my cousins went frequently. Johnson Jarrett was in the Army in Easter Va. and us boys hoed corn. No letters had been received from home for months and I did not know what to do. The Union forces had invaded West Va. The Confederate forces were congregating in force, making Lewisburg their base of operations. General Wise and Floyd had in August an army of 5000 men encamped in Lewisburg. A Confederate force occupied the Blue Sulphur Springs.

Civil War era view of Lewisburg, WV

Aug. 25th a messenger came to Aunt’s house from the Blue Sulphur Springs with the word that my father Morris Johnson had been arrested by the Confederates and was held as a spy. Aunt and I at once went to the Springs. On our way we got her brother in law James Jarrett and Dr. Beard, who had treated me the year before when sick and Mr. Andrew Johnston, who had purchased father’s store in 1856.

A drone shot I took of the Pavilion at Blue Sulphur. At this time it was barred off from public access, so I was limited to checking it out by drone.

Father had come from Illinois after me, thinking that he might be able to get me out of Va. The last letter I had written in June as also one from Aunt had told him and Mother of the situation, I was in. He had made his way past the Union forces in the West to Fayetteville the county seat of Fayette County and there to where his Uncle Miles Mansur lived, and had secured a horse and a boy to take him to the Blue Sulphur Springs.

[There] he was arrested, as stated, telling the Captain in command who he was and what he was there for, he got the messenger to Aunt….

Read Part 2 HERE.

4 thoughts on “A Year From Home: a young boy’s Civil War story from the Greenbrier Valley – Part 1 of 2

  1. What a great story My mother was born August 5 1924 in Blue Sulphur Springs WV. I was born July 9 1945 in Lewisburg WV. I was at the Springs many years ago I grew up in Asbury WV. Which is close to Blue Sulphur thanks

    • Asbury is the location where Gen. Lewis’ army encamped the first night on their march to the Battle of Point Pleasant. One of my goals is to find the spot.

  2. Are these the same Jarret’s the Flora Jarret came from ….who married a feller with the surname of “SEE “?

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