Tracking Down the Wounding of Joe Johnston
We are pleased to welcome back guest author Doug Crenshaw, who shares with us today a bit of original research.
It’s something that has puzzled me for years. The wounding of Joe Johnston was an event that changed the course of the Civil War, yet nowhere could I find the exact location where it occurred. I had attempted half-heartedly over the years to locate it, but to no avail. That changed the day Chris Mackowski asked me to see if I could find the spot. A trip to the fabulous yet under-appreciated library of the Richmond National Battlefield Park seems to have provided the answer.
During the first day of the battle, Johnston was apparently not aware that the battle was in progress, and stated in his Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War that he could not hear the action from his headquarters due to “the unfavorable condition of the air to sound.” He sent forward a staff officer, who returned to say that the army was indeed heavily engaged.
Johnston travelled down the Nine Mile Road to have a look and soon heard the sound of the action coming from the vicinity of Fair Oaks Station. When he arrived on the field, he came upon Whiting’s brigade (being led by Col. Evander Law), which was fighting near the intersection of the railroad and Nine Mile Road. A soldier of the 4th Alabama, R.T. Coles, wrote that the colors of the 4th were resting on the tracks. He said that Johnston “rode slowly alone, and quietly up within a few paces of our line and sat there for some time looking intently to the front.”
In his highly respected book, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Stephen Sears wrote that Johnston “elected to observe Whiting’s battle from a knoll 200 yards north of Fair Oaks Station and well within range of the Yankee guns.” This seemed to differ from Coles’s account.
How could I resolve this discrepancy?
In his footnotes, Sears referred to the Drury Armistead article in the Southern Historical Society Papers, so it was time to visit the Richmond Battlefield library, where they had these available for research—I was getting close!
Drury Armistead was a courier for Johnston. He wrote that the general and his staff were “riding in front of his line of battle.” As Johnston reached the point where the railroad crossed, “a tremendous fire with musketry and artillery” opened, and the group “rode back about two hundred yards to an elevated position near a small house.”
Okay—where was that house? If I could find a map, how would I know which was the correct one?
An RNBP staff member said that he had a period map of the area, and when he produced it, it showed only one house. It sounded like this was it, but how far was it from the intersection? If it was close to 200 yards, this had to be the spot!
We compared the road and railroad locations on the period map with a modern-day map on Google, and then we estimated a distance. With the “Hitchcock” house being the only one shown, and the distance being about right, we were reasonably certain that this was the location of Johnston’s wounding.
The last part of the puzzle was to see what the area looked like today, so I took a drive.
According to Johnston’s courier, Drury Armistead, Johnston rode back 200 yards from the crossing of the railroad and the Nine Mile Road. A mile is 1760 yards, with 1/10 being 176 yards. Three times I measured 1/10 of a mile from the crossing of the tracks and the Nine Mile Road. Each time I pulled over at 1/10 mile and looked about 25 yards ahead. This is what I saw each time:
Assuming the Nine Mile Road follows the historic route, the house was just off of the road. So, somewhere inside this building is likely the spot where Joseph Johnston was wounded during the battle.
And that, my friends, is why I love history.
The Hal Jespersen map that resulted from Doug’s research (a detail of which appears above) will appear in ECW’s first book in our “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press, due out this fall: Turning Points of the American Civil War. Stay tuned for details!
18 Responses to Tracking Down the Wounding of Joe Johnston
It is a joy to read an article like this.
So, Johnston was wounded while waiting to buy some new spark plugs? 😉
He needed SOMETHING to get his ass in gear. 😉
This is enjoyable reading–good detective work, Doug.
Tremendous. See if owner of auto parts garage wants to add a plaque! :)))
Thanks for the interesting article.
Very nice article.
The Hitchcock house, “Fair Oaks”, survived the battle. Here is a photo from 1936:
A survey report can be found here:
Hmm, that appears to be the same house as the “Quarles House” which was photographed by George Barnard after the battle.
But Colonel Frobel of Whiting’s staff says that Johnston rode back to the “small white house” where he was wounded, and the house you posted is small and looks to be painted white in the Gardner photo of the “Quarles House”, whereas every other house in pictures that I’ve seen of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines is unpainted.
Excellent history detective work Doug!
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.
Very cool. I drove around there several years back looking for where Abercrombie’s brigade was at Fair Oaks as I researched my history of the 65th NY Volunteers, No Flinching From Fire.