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Henry tied to Civil War escape

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By Brad Bowman

The Civil War divided just as many people in the county as it did in the state and nation. This is the first article of a Civil War series, beginning with an escape involving a Henry County resident that reached national fame during the late 1800s.

 

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apt. Issac Newton Johnston of Pleasureville enlisted under Col. Walter Whitaker in 1861 as part of the Sixth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. Whitaker had been commissioned to raise a regiment in Eminence. In Cap. Thomas Speed’s book The Union Regiments of Kentucky, the captain said only 130 men returned out of the 1,000 who enlisted.

Johnston felt compelled to join and help protect the Union. Johnston wrote that 100 men from Henry County enlisted and selected him as captain of Company H of the Sixth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry.

“…I remembered the wisdom of those men who gave shape to our institutions; I remembered the price at which independence was purchased,” Johnston wrote. “I felt that in such a cause, and for such a country, it would be sweet to die.”

His grandfather Thomas Young, too young to serve as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, acted as a drummer and later a dispatcher in the war. He was with George Washington during the surrender of Yorktown.

Johnston participated in three battles

Johnston fought his first battle at Shiloh in April 1862 with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army and six other divisions. The Battle of Shiloh proved to be the first heavy- casualty skirmish. The first day of battle Union troops suffered more casualties. The Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney a veteran officer died at the Battle of Shiloh. Johnston suffered a shot through his left cheek and the ball passed near the ear. Johnston wrote that the blow “…laid me for a time unconscious on the field amid the dead and the dying.”

In a Courier-Journal article from 1961 by Evelyn Meyer, Isaac Johnston’s son Joseph Elliot Johnston said in an interview that his father’s injury brought him much difficulty as he could never get a set of teeth fitted properly.

Johnston fought another battle and sustained injuries under Gen. Rosecrans on Dec. 31, 1862, at the Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) against Confederate General Braxton Bragg. The battle proved to be inconclusive for both sides with the Union totaling more men injured, killed and missing or captured. The battle lasted until Jan. 3, 1863. Shell fragments bruised Johnston’s arms and smashed the stock of a pistol the captain hung on his side. The fragments bent the barrel almost doubling it Johnston wrote. He credited the pistol with saving his life.

Captain Johnston retreated from his third battle at Chickamauga. The Union lost heavily and Confederate soldiers took Johnston prisoner during his brigade’s ordered retreat.

His defeat ultimately brought him one of his most memorable successes.

Confederates took Johnston to Richmond, Va. where he would spend four months in Libby Prison.

The Escape

Maj. Andrew G.  Hamilton of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry and a Col. E. Rose are credited with planning the escape, from which encompassed descending into the prison’s basement, tunneling 50 feet, depending on which source you read, under a guarded yard and into a tobacco shed. Confederate soldiers sealed off the basement after repeated flooding and a continuing rat problem made it inoperable. Hamilton’s personal account is written in his book, Eighteen Months a Prisoner under the Rebel Flagand describes how he removed bricks from a kitchen fireplace and descended to the basement.

Johnston was let in on the secret plan, which led to 15 officers working in three groups for 52 days. Hamilton recounted that, “…the only difficulties experienced in making this excavation resulted from a lack of tools and the unpleasant feature of having to hear hundreds of rats squeal all the time, while they ran over the diggers almost without a sign of fear.”

The Union men hid the displaced dirt under straw in the basement and once the tunnel, now shoulder width, progressed deep enough they used wooden cuspidors (spittoons) with ropes to pull the dirt out of the tunnel.

In Johnston’s book, Four Months in Libby, he recalls how during an evening head count of prisoners he was counted as missing. Johnston spent the rest of his time hiding out near the tunnel fed by fellow diggers when they came to start their shifts.

On the day of the escape, Johnston hid under the pile of straw as three slaves sat on top of it eating food they found the escape party had hidden. The slaves retrieved barrels stored in the back part of the basement and left.

Hamilton’s account states he and Rose went through the tunnel first followed by Capt. J. F. Gallagher, Major Fitzsimmons, Capt. Johnston and a Lt. Fislar. Confederate soldiers recaptured 48 of the 109 Union men that escaped on Feb. 9, 1864. Several Confederate sentinels were imprisoned under the suspicion of bribery until the tunnel was discovered. Hamilton reached Union lines on his own in Williamsburg.

Johnston and Fislar eventually found a sentinel of the 11th Pennsylvania Calvary. The officers’ familiarity with the territory and the armies’ movements aided them in finding a safe route to a Union army where they were transported to Washington, D.C.

 

Johnston later married Annie Nash of Shelby County and settled in Pleasureville where he is buried.