George Raynor: Prison fostered local legacy
Editorís note: George Raynor was managing editor of the Salisbury Post for 30 years and editor for eight years before retiring in 1982. This essay appeared in the Post on Feb. 9, 1986.
When Theresa Meroney Thomas, a young Salisbury housewife and ambitious writer, decided to write a novel, she didnít have to look far to find her subject.
The site of the notorious Confederate prison was only a few blocks away and her head was full of stories and legends about the prison. Her grandfather, Thomas H. Vanderford, was a rich source. As a boy he had often been in the prison during its uncrowded years and had a diary given him by a Yankee prisoner.
From the diary and legends Mrs. Thomas fashioned a plot and used her grandfatherís wealth of stories and facts as background for her novel ěTall Gray Gates.î Published in New York in 1942, it made no large splash in the world of books ó nor was it a neglected masterpiece.
Mrs. Thomas had not mastered the art of fiction and her plot was trite. Her hero was a handsome Yankee captain nursed back to health by a pretty and charming Southern volunteer nurse.
Naturally, despite such handicaps, they fell in love. The love affair was Mrs. Thomasí embellishment of a legend far more touching and in its way far more loving than the boy-meets-girl tale.
Betty Marlow, the unlikely attending angel, was Mrs. Thomasí creation. But her inspiration in real life was Sarah Johnston, who apparently lived in the 200 block of East Bank Street, just outside of the wooden railroad bridge that led to the ětall gray gates.î
Fictionalized, she appears in Mrs. Thomasí book as Bettyís mother, a twice-sanctified woman. Not only does she find space for and nurse ailing Yankee prisoners in her home, but she is also understanding about her daughterís love for the Yankee prisoner.
The difference between Mrs. Marlow and Mrs. Johnston is the difference between fiction and fact. There was a Mrs. Johnston, and if the bits and pieces of her activities are assembled, they suggest a person of angelic qualities, perhaps even larger and deeper in caring than the pale figure Mrs. Thomas drew.
That Mrs. Johnston was a flesh-and-blood person is attested to by Charles Carrol Gray, a medical doctor held in the Confederate prison from May to July 1862.
Although Gray was only here a few months during the ěeasyî period, he, like Mrs. Thomasí Yankee hero Capt. Robert Stanley, kept a diary. This was a common practice in the Civil War and Grayís diary is found in the Southern Historical Collection at Chapel Hill.
It was written in a small book that proved inadequate, forcing him to turn the book upside down and write between the lines. Because it was almost unreadable, Gray ětranslatedî it after the war and added commentary, including data of later reference.
It was in these pages that Mrs. Johnston first appears Ö ěpoor old Mrs. Johnston,î he wrote, ěstill comes to the gate frequently with something for the prisoners to eat.î
During this period of the war, the prison was not crowded and the food supply was probably adequate, although limited and monotonous. Anything from the outside would have been highly welcome, however, if only because of its freshness and the change of diet.
Gray noted that Mrs. Johnston had a son in the Confederate service and was thus above suspicion as a Union sympathizer. In his later revision, Gray noted that a Yankee prisoner named Cox was a favorite of Mrs. Johnston.
After the war ended, Gray wrote, Cox returned to Salisbury ěand hunted our poor old Mrs. Johnston, who was in great poverty, and helped her to a comfortable home in Ohio.î
In 1869, a former prisoner of war at the Salisbury prison testified before Congressman John P. C. Shanksí committee, which was investigating the treatment of prisoners by the Confederacy.
The man stated that a local woman consistently sent in food for him and some others. He said her kindness meant the difference between life and death to him. Louis Brown, the Statesville historian who wrote ěThe Salisbury Prison,î believes this unnamed woman was ěour poor old Mrs. Johnston.î
Brown also found a reference to a Quaker woman who befriended a prisoner after he left the prison in February 1865. Mrs. Johnston was a Presbyterian, not a Quaker.
A similar story that surfaced in the 1930s tells of a woman who cared for an ill prisoner after he was discharged from the prison, also in February 1865.
In this case, the prisoner died and was buried by the woman in her garden. A search of burial records of the quartermaster general by historian Brown disclosed that after the war a Union soldierís body was exhumed from a burial place in Mrs. Johnstonís garden and reburied in what is now the National Cemetery. She hadnít wanted him thrown into the trenches with the rest.
Brown contends that the relationship between the prisoners and the community was, while delicate, not an unkind one on the part of the community. During the more relaxed period of the early war, civilians often visited the prison and brought the prisoners food, sometimes as gifts and sometimes to trade for trinkets the prisoners made.
In the early part of the war some prisoners were even paroled and allowed to work in town. They had to swear not to take up arms against the Confederacy or communicate any information to the Unionists until exchanged. Gov. Clark, in a letter to Secretary of War Benjamin, said that for some reason not explained, prejudice in Salisbury against the prisoners had nearly vanished.
For any understanding of conditions at the Salisbury prison, a differentiation between the early and late years of the war must be made. During the early years the prison was not overcrowded and the death rate among prisoners was low.
This abruptly changed in the fall of 1864 when thousands of prisoners from other camps threatened by advancing Yankees armies were sent to Salisbury. By that time, food was in short supply not only at the prison, but in the community as well. From October 1864 until the prison was closed in February 1865, starvation and disease took a heavy toll.
A prison overcrowded with desperate men became a threat to the community. Equipped with weapons, the prisoners would have been more than an even match for their guards and the civilian militia.
The role played in history by a poor, old woman, even one with the warmest of hearts, is not likely to be noticed by professional historians and her deeds are not usually recorded even by diarists. But Gray and other prisoners remembered Mrs. Johnstonís kindness and mentioned them.
Dr. Gray simply called her ěMrs. Johnstonî with no further identification. Later her first name of Sarah was used, and still later Mrs. Margaret Beall Ramsy in her memories of the Civil War refers to a Mrs. Sloan Johnston, who lived near the prison. She was poor, but in her early 40s she was hardly old and was to live until 1906.
In a feature story published by The Charlotte Observer in 1948, Theresa Thomas mentions that among her descendants living in Salisbury was Robert Johnston.
As a mail carrier and former policeman, Johnston was well known in Salisbury. He lived at 511 Mahaley Ave. and had two sons, including Bob Jr., and a daughter, Mrs. Harley Joseph. He died in the 1960s.
His father, Thomas P. Johnston, was far better known here and elsewhere throughout the state. He was one of the last five surviving Confederate veterans living in Rowan County at the time of his death, at 94 in 1939. He was, in fact, the reason Confederate guards trusted Sarah Johnston to visit and help Union prisoners.
Tommy Johnston, known as ěAdmiralî Johnston because he was a rarity ó a veteran of the Confederate navy ó was Sarah Johnstonís son. He, was born in 1845, the son of John Sloan and Sarah Reeves Johnston.
The Johnston family lived at the corner of Church and Innes streets, where the old U.S. Post Office now stands. Something happened to the familyís fortunes in the 1850s. When Tommy was 9, he was sent to Tennessee and then to Texas to live with relatives. He later referred in The Post to ěadverseî happenings but did not specify what they were.
In a 1919 edition of the biographical ěHistory of North Carolina,î Sloan Johnstonís financial problems are blamed on his willingness to co-sign notes for friends. A less kind version is that he drank himself out of gainful employment and a steady income. The son of Lemuel J. and Nancy Hall Johnston of Scotch-Irish township, Sloan Johnston, who was crippled on his right side and in his arm, moved to Salisbury to manufacture carriages and wagons.
At different times he had also been the coroner, a magistrate and the register of deeds. If, as reported, he was a heavy drinker, this fact probably explains his sonís avid interest in the prohibition cause. Although he didnít die until 1868, Sloan Johnston apparently had little public role in his final years. Mrs. Thomas refused to recognize him, making Sarah a widow.
At some point before the war, the family lost the house at Church and Innes and had to move to a smaller residence on East Bank Street. In T. P. Johnstonís biography it is stated it ědevolvedî on Sarah to support the family, which she did apparently by teaching school.
The chances are good that she also was helped by her family. She was the daughter of the prosperous Samuel and Mary Ann Hughes Reeves and a sister of Dr. Samuel Reeves. Her anonymous biographer, no doubt generously assisted by her son, wrote of her:
ěKind-hearted and sympathetic, she was widely known for her charity and benevolence, and during the Civil War no soldier, be he Rebel or Yankee, ever came to her for assistance that he did not get it. Her home, which was but a block from the garrison, became the refuge for soldiers of both armies.î One of these, the biographer relates, was Hugh Berry, a Yankee soldier of Oshkosh Wis. He was nursed by her at her home until he died, at which time she had him buried in her garden. The body was reburied later at the National Cemetery. The biographer states that as a result of her care of Berry, the federal government granted her a lifetime colonelís pension through a special act of Congress.
Although her picture shows a somewhat grim-faced angel of mercy, Mrs. Johnston apparently had her lighter moments. One of them was light enough to make the session minutes of the First Presbyterian Church.
ěThe pastor was requested to visit and converse with Mrs. Sarah Johnston in relation to a rumor that she had attended a dancing party ó and danced herself.î Dr. Jethro Rumple dutifully went to see Mrs. Johnston.
In July the minutes reported: ěThe Rev. Jethro Rumple reported he had visited and conversed with Mrs. Johnston. The conversation was unsatisfactory. The session declined any immediate action in the case and requested Mr. Murdoch (William) to visit Mrs. Johnston.î Murdoch apparently was either a tougher or more convincing talker than Rumple. In his August report to the session, he said, ěShe expressed sorrow for the occurrence and the session was determined to take no further action in this case.î
Two years after the close of the Civil War, Mrs. Johnston was dismissed (released from membership) in the First Church, which she had joined in 1838. This step apparently was a preliminary to her plan to leave the area to move to Cincinnati, Ohio. The family did move and that might explain why no gravesite can be found in Salisbury for her unfortunate husband Sloan Johnston who died in 1868.
Why she moved her family is not clear. The biographer simply states that she did so ěin order that her children might have better educational advantages.î This seems a flimsy excuse at best. The original legend is that a prisoner named Cox, her favorite in 1862, was so taken by her and her problems that he returned after the war and ěhelped her to a comfortable home in Ohio.î
In Mrs. Thomasí newspaper story she describes the tender care that Mrs. Johnston gave to Berry, the Oshkosh prisoner. Before he died, the story goes, he insisted that she write his mother and tell her how and by whom he was being cared for. The story does not say anything about the move to Ohio or her life there.
In any event, Mrs. Johnston remained in Cincinnati about 25 years before returning to Salisbury to live with her daughter Sally, wife of Alexander Parker. She died in 1906 at age 84 and is buried among her kinsmen in the Lutheran Cemetery under a stone that bears her name and the single word ěMother.î
Adventure for son
When Sarah Johnston was asked about her concern for the welfare of the Yankee prisoners in the Salisbury Confederate prison, she would remind those asking that she had a son in Confederate service. Presumably she hoped that if he were imprisoned, some Yankee mother would show a similar interest in him.
The son she referred to was Thomas Pinckney Johnston, who became the father of T. Edgar Johnston of South Fulton Street and Robert K. Johnston of Mahaley Avenue, both now deceased. Johnstonís life was a colorful one; in fact, one local woman who knew him described him as one of Salisburyís many ěcharacters.î
Known later as Tommy and, jocularly, in the Southern Colonel mode as ěAdmiral,î Johnston was a member of the pioneer Johnston family of western Rowan. His father, Sloan Johnston, had financial and alcohol problems that seriously affected the welfare of the family.
Because of these problems, Tommy was sent west to live with relatives in Tennessee and Texas at age 9. Details of this period are vague, but he often told enthralling tales of cowboys and life on the range. How much truth there was in these stories is a matter of conjecture, for Johnston became practiced in the fine art of storytelling. Certainly during one short period in his life he was exposed to enough material to last the average man a lifetime
He returned to Salisbury before the Civil War in time to attend school under the tutelage of Professor Samuel Wiley. When the war broke out he became an ěordinance messengerî for the Confederacy. It is not clear whether this was an enlisted status or that he was a civilian wagoner.
After serving in this role for three years, he yearned for more action and took an unusual step for someone from this area. He enlisted in the Confederate navy and was assigned to naval operations on the Roanoke River above Plymouth. Here he helped in the construction of the ironclad Albemarle, which was designed to help free Plymouth of Yankee occupiers.
The Albemarleís career, while short, was full of action. Johnston later said he took part in the sinking of the two Federal boats, Bombshell and Southfield. He was also aboard when the Albemarle was sunk by a Yankee torpedo in a daring surprise attack by a small Union vessel.
Johnston wrote that after his escape from the sinking ship he was assigned to serve aboard the Owl, a privateer. But a train wreck in Tarboro delayed his arrival at Wilmington, and he and the rest of his crew were assigned to the defenses at Fort Fisher.
He was in these defenses when the fort underwent a terrific federal bombardment on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1864. The fort was finally captured by land assault on Jan. 16. Again Johnston escaped, this time to Wilmington and finally to Richmond.
It was there, Johnston later claimed, while he was attending the Presbyterian Church that he saw a messenger deliver a telegram to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The telegram from Gen. Robert E. Lee announced the fall of Petersburg, Va. He watched as Davis, followed by the whole congregation, walked out of the church. The fall of Petersburg meant the evacuation of Richmond and for all practical purposes the end of the war.
Before he left Richmond, Johnston figured in a small drama with a familiar sound. Food was virtually unavailable in Richmond and Johnston stopped at a house to see if the resident could spare anything to eat. The woman there told him she had only one loaf of bread. She offered to divide it with him, mentioning that she hoped under similar circumstances someone would do the same for her soldier son.
The railroad between Richmond and Danville was still open and Johnston claimed to have been aboard the last train to leave Richmond. After that train cleared the James River, the Confederates fired the railroad bridge.
Johnston and his friends, arriving in Danville, were apparently without assignment as the war rapidly wound down. Since they were not too far from Johnstonís home in Salisbury, they decided to head that way and began walking toward Greensboro.
On the way they met a supply train headed north and stopped it. The crew gave them food and was surprised to learn that Richmond had fallen and Lee was in retreat to western Virginia. The train probably was carrying supplies from the big depot in Salisbury to Leeís forces, thought to be in Richmond.
The Johnston biography says that he and his companions took control of the train and forced the crew, probably not against their will, back toward Salisbury. Johnston and his friends got off the train at the Yadkin River, ěMr. Johnston taking with him a pair of government blankets which he had secured in Greensboro.î
The story smacks of invention, particularly the seizure of the train, and there is no other record of the event except the claim in the Johnston biography, most likely authored by Johnston himself.
Thus ended Johnstonís Confederate service, but not his association with the cause and his former companions.
He was active in the affairs of Confederate veterans and at the time of his death in 1939 was one of only five Confederate veterans living in Rowan.
Peace found him unprepared, and he tried his hand, as so many did, at farming near Salisbury. He then went west to Cincinnati, where he stayed two years, first working as a streetcar conductor and briefly as an agent with the Andes Amazon and Triumph Insurance Co.
Since the accurate dates can only be guessed at, it is unclear whether he went to Cincinnati to join the rest of the family or whether his presence there encouraged his mother to bring the family there.
In any event, he decided to return to Rowan and to farming. He managed to buy farmland in Salisbury township and worked it for the next four decades. He apparently had learned something somewhere about engineering, for he supplemented his farm income by working as a surveyor and becoming the county surveyor.
He also invested in real estate and was one of the men who developed the Vanderford Hotel, later the Bates, in the 200 block of North Main Street. Both industrious and thrifty, he lived comfortably, if not ostentatiously, in a small house at 111 West Kerr Street.
Johnston was striking looking. Like his parents, he was a devout Presbyterian and served as an elder of the First Church. Edith Clark, retired Rowan librarian, remembers him occupying the same pew every Sunday.
ěHe had a powerful voice,î she recalled. ěBoth in talking and singing. You couldnít miss his voice. He was always a half a bar behind the choir and the rest of the congregation.î
Johnston was twice married. His first marriage was to Julia A. Brown, daughter of Moses L. Brown, a prosperous farmer, and Letitia Hartman Brown. They had seven children, four of whom lived to maturity.
Two years after her death in 1890, he married a widow, Jennie Keistler Winecoff of Concord. They had three sons, Thomas Pinckney, Jr., who became a Presbyterian minister, Ralph Balfour, accidentally killed at the age of 16, and Robert K. Johnston, who became the Salisbury postman.
Tommy Johnston became a leading figure in the Prohibition Party of North Carolina and was nominated by it for various state offices, including governor. ěMr. Johnston is a lifelong advocate and practitioner of prohibition,î his biographer proclaimed, ěand votes and prays as he lives.î