1862: Henry Johnson to Margaret (Green) Johnson

Henry Johnson

This letter was written by 43 year-old Henry Johnson (1819-1895), the son of Samuel and Rebecca J. (Heiner) Johnson of Sussex County, New Jersey. Henry attended subscription schools, graduated from Princeton in 1837, read law with the Hon. Whitfield S. Johnson, and joined the New Jersey bar in 1841, at which time his mother moved Henry and his brother to Muncy, Pennsylvania, settling on land acquired from her grandfather, General Daniel Brodhead. Henry opened a law office in Muncy and married Margaret Green, sister of future state Supreme Court Justice, Henry Green. A Whig, later Republican, Johnson was elected an 1848 elector for Zachary Taylor, and in October 1861, was elected to the state Senate.

During the Civil War, Johnson served as a private in Co. K, 14th Pa. Militia, 1862, Antietam Campaign, and although his unit was involved in minimal action with the enemy – it is not what the Hon. Johnson did with “bullets” as much as it was what he did with “ballots.” In 1864, Lincoln had good cause to fear defeat against presidential candidate George Brinton McClellan of Philadelphia, the often maligned former commander of the Army of the Potomac whom Lincoln fired after the Battle of Antietam. The president feared, should McClellan win, especially in his home state of Pennsylvania with eleven percent of the country’s electoral votes, the war would immediately end, and the nation would be reduced to half its original size. He expressed his worst fears to General Sherman, asking him to furlough his Indiana troops during the upcoming general election. Sherman cooperated, putting off his “march to the sea” for three months. Indiana, and all other states except Ohio, did not permit an active duty soldier to vote in the field. In most cases, the trooper needed a furlough to return home and vote, like Pennsylvania; or as in the case of New York, send a “vote by proxy” (mail) to the hometown county courthouse – a process highly susceptible to election fraud. Ohio was the only state to permit soldier balloting in the field (1863), but Lincoln direly needed more than the Buckeye state in summer 1864: he desperately needed Pennsylvania.

Johnson and the Senate of Pennsylvania were way ahead of the President. In 1862, Judiciary Chair John Penney introduced a resolution proposing an amendment to the constitution. The following year, Judiciary member Johnson added specifics to the (now) joint resolution, to allow suffrage to those “in actual military service,” lowering the voting age to 18. The resolution passed the Senate, 33-0. On its final trip through the Senate in 1864, the opposition attempted to block Johnson’s SR 101, which had passed without incident in March, by pushing the referendum resolution’s effective date to November rather than the desired July. The idea was quashed, and despite an innocuous trip to Finance, all provisions passed by a Republican and War Democrat super-majority. Article III, Sec. 4 became part of the 1838 Pennsylvania Constitution as well as Henry Johnson’s legacy after its approval in July 1864. Pennsylvania’s soldiers in the field could now vote at age 18; they did so, and the Commonwealth re-elected the incumbent President. The act made national headlines. Lincoln carried the state by 19,000 votes, with the soldier vote in just the Army of the Potomac amounting to 14,000 of the margin. The other nine Armies contributed over 7,000 – far in excess of Lincoln’s victorious margin. Overall, 78 percent of Pennsylvania’s soldiers voted for Lincoln in 1864 – Republicans and Democrats. Citizen Henry Johnson saved Pennsylvania for the Union.

Johnson, a skilled, Princeton-educated attorney, returned home to Williamsport at the end of the 1864 Session, practiced law and worked for the betterment of his hometown until the day he died, August 11, 1895. However, for one brief three-year term, his legislative success – just one bill – might have very well changed the course of Commonwealth history. [Biographical Sketch on Henry Johnson from Pennsylvania State Senate Website]


Camp Johnson near Hagerstown
September 20, 1862

My dear Rebecca, Mary, & Ida, wife & sisters,

I wrote you yesterday and by mistake dated I believe the 18th, After I wrote to you about half past four P.M., such word was received of the result of the days fighting as made it necessary for us to move from our position 3 miles out of Hagerstown in the turnpike which leads to the battleground near Shepherdstown [Battle of Boteler’s Ford] and come back to Hagerstown & move about two miles toward Williamsport.

As I told you, I have been assigned to guard duty. The guard consisted of 63 men & some others were left — in all perhaps 80 men. Jackson has escaped from McClellan & crossed the Potomac, and McClellan feared that he might go up the Potomac & cross at Williamsport, come up to Harpers Ferry and either get in his rear or go up into our state. For this reason he desired the Pennsylvania forces to be sent on to Hagerstown in order to deter him from the attempt or prevent him if he undertook it. He showed his foresight in this instance for sure enough, he did send up some forces to Williamsport yesterday afternoon.

In our old camp, I was on guard in the woods for from 6 to about 10 P.M. & there was so much fear of a raid of some kind, that I walked my beat the entire time. All at once a horseman came up at a gallop across the fields from here & ordered us all to pull up tents, pack baggage, & be off in half an hour for this camp. I was so tired that I knew I could not march some six miles & I succeeded through James Bowman [quartermaster] in getting a ride with the baggage. The road from Hagerstown here was lined with cavalry and other forces, cannon, &c., and here on each side of the road the campfires were blazing in every direction. We were paraded about 11 P.M. in battle array, muskets all loaded, & with stacked arms were permitted to lay down, with our blankets for a covering & with the information that we might be attacked at any moment & at all counts would be early in the morning.

At two or three o’clock, we were roused up & again placed in line of battle — an alarm being occasioned by some of our cavalry pickets coming suddenly upon our infantry pickets, and causing an alarm in the camp. A dispatch was forwarded  at 1 A.M. this morning & received here while we were in battle array that he had succeeded in extending his lines some 15 miles this way & that there was no longer any necessity for the Pennsylvania forces to remain here. It was also ascertained that the force sent by Jackson to Williamsport had left there, either because we were too strong for them, or because they had found out McClellan’s extension of the lines.

We accordingly again went to bed, but the night was cold & I did not sleep so comfortably on the ploughed ground as the night before. We were all a good deal uneasy at the thought of such raw forces being opposed to Jackson’s veterans but I was not much discomposed, I believe, but prepared myself to stand fire without a flinch, if I could.

Today we are all calm as danger has passed away & tomorrow we march back to Pennsylvania where you may write to me & will go to New Castle, Pennsylvania — how long to stay, I do not now. Tomorrow some of us intend going to the battleground. It is dark now & I have no more room. Love to all. I wish I could hear from home.

Yours ever, — H. Johnson

Some of our boys call this Camp Johnson in my honor. The battle today was near Sharpsburg, Va. [Maryland] & we obtained a complete victory, as reported.

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