is possible to have vision without sight.
In 1927, Mary Mayfield Birge,
a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, recalled something that happened
at a meeting of the Albert Sidney Johnson Chapter in Austin.
the time, which Mrs. Birge identified only as “several years” before she got around
to putting her recollection on paper, she sat with a friend in a room on the first
floor of the Capitol
as other UDC members arrived for a chapter meeting.
“A tall muscular gallant
gentlemen kept step with a handsome woman of equal poise as they walked up the
middle aisle to about the center seat,” Mrs. Birge wrote.
couple’s poise, she whispered to her friend, “Who is that distinguished looking
The woman replied quickly.
“That is Gen. Adam R. Johnson of the Partisan Rangers and his wife,” she said
quietly. “They live in Burnet.”
“He looks to me like a Kentucky Blue Blood,” Mrs. Birge said.
“Yes,” her fellow UDC member agreed. “And what a pity that he is stone blind.”
That revelation caught Mrs. Birge by surprise. The old soldier did not carry himself
like someone saddled with a major handicap.
That incident prompted Mrs.
Birge to write a paper on Johnson that she presented at the UDC’s annual convention
in 1927. The women whose fathers or other relatives had fought for the South gathered
that year in Wichita Falls, holding their meetings in that city’s First Presbyterian
Church. As Mrs. Birge came to understand, the story behind Johnson’s loss of sight
is as inspiring as it is interesting.
Born in Kentucky in 1834, he came
to Texas in 1854 armed with an English-made shotgun
to protect him from hostile Indians or any unfriendly Texans he might encounter.
Given his first firearm when he was only eight, Johnson did a lot of hunting before
coming to Texas. In the Lone Star State, the marksmanship
he developed as a boy came in handy at times.
Johnson settled in Hamilton
Valley in Burnet County and worked as a surveyor. He also furnished mules and
supplies for the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route that crossed the state.
That job put him on the edge of settled Texas, and
he had several Indian scrapes. His shotgun served him well, and would continue
to do so.
But a far more deadly conflict loomed over the nation like a
towering West Texas thunderstorm.
“Moving on as rapidly as possible toward home after my last expedition,” Johnson
later said in the memoir he dictated to his daughter, “I reached San
Antonio just in time to get the earliest news of Lincoln’s election, and that
the whole country was in a fever-heat.”
matter the national political situation, Johnson must have been afflicted with
another sort of fever. On New Year’s Day 1861, he married “the young lady of my
choice,” Josephine Eastland. However, as his native Kentucky began to unravel
in sectional chaos, Johnson decided to go home and take up arms. He left Josephine
Civil War has been referred to as a conflict pitting brother against brother.
For Johnson, that literally rang true. As Southern states began seceding, his
parents remained loyal to the North, and two of his brothers joined the Union
Army. Johnson swore allegiance to the Confederacy and began his military service
as a scout.
The Kentuckian soon proved to be a fierce and clever fighter.
In one engagement, he had his men use two stovepipes to fool distant Yankee troops
into thinking were artillery pieces. That earned him his Civil War nickname, “Stovepipe”
As he had learned on the Texas frontier, he fought guerrilla style, harassing
larger Northern forces behind their lines with fewer, but well-mounted, well-armed
and well-motivated men. He also demonstrated an uncanny ability to remember and
deliver coded messages.
Promoted to colonel and later brigadier general, Johnson continued to do his part
to win the war until Aug. 21, 1864 when an accidental rifle round from one of
his own men at Grubb’s Crossroads in Kentucky left him blind. Not long after,
Union troops captured the Kentuckian-turned-Texan. He remained in federal custody
until near the end of the war in 1865.
Getting back to Texas as soon as he could, Johnson
proceeded with the rest of his life as if still sighted.
“They took up the thread of Civil Life again,” Mrs. Birge wrote of Johnson and
his wife, “and made a success in both social and business realms.”
Johnson platted the community of Marble
Falls (for years known as the “blind man’s town”), established an industrial
company and became an early advocate of harnessing the Colorado River.
of his former soldiers later opined that despite Johnson’s blindness, “perhaps
no man has led a more cheerful and happy life.”
Johnson died at 88 in
Burnet on Oct. 20, 1922
and lies in the State
Cemetery in Austin with other Texas
notables. His great-grandson, George Christian, later became press secretary for
Lyndon B. Johnson – the 36th President of the nation “Stovepipe” had lost his
eyesight fighting to divide.
- January 9, 2014 column
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