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  • Kentucky and the Origins of the Confederate Partisan Ranger Service
  • Barton A. Myers (bio)

On July 18, 1862, Adam Rankin Johnson, a former scout for Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and former commissioned scout officer on the staff of Gen. John C. Breckinridge, hastily assembled a few dozen Kentucky citizens of Confederate loyalty from nearby Henderson, Kentucky, along the Ohio River to launch a surprise attack on the Union army arms stockpile and hospital located at Newburgh, Indiana. Johnson, who independently recruited his new guerrilla force from behind Union lines in his hometown, launched a successful raid that made Newburgh the first city north of the Mason-Dixon line captured by secessionists during the war. It was a daring plan, especially since Newburgh was connected via telegraph to Evansville, only twelve miles away, which had a large detachment of Indiana Union soldiers that might easily crush Johnson's small, self-constituted, ununiformed guerrilla force. Johnson directed his followers to ferry across the Ohio River in two groups and surprise the unsuspecting Hoosier militia in town, giving specific orders to seize the weapons, military matériel, and supplies. His chief goal was the capture of what he suspected were roughly one hundred stand of arms, and some of his group needed those arms to fight. During the surprise assault, Johnson ordered his subordinate, Lt. Robert M. Martin, to lead the second group of men, while he and two others quietly entered a building housing most of the guns. Johnson expected Martin's group to fight its way toward his location and help neutralize the armed Union soldiers in town.1

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Adam R. Johnson (1834-1922). From The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army, ed. William J. Davis, George G. Fetter, Co, 1904.

In the confusing moments that followed, Adam R. Johnson demonstrated [End Page 26] great personal bravery by bluffing the U.S. soldiers at Newburgh into surrender. Johnson told the northern soldiers that he personally commanded a large Confederate cavalry force about to enter the town, causing a group of approximately eighty-five soldiers convalescing at the Union hospital to capitulate. When a second group of Union officers arrived to investigate, Johnson tricked them into believing he had two cannons positioned within close range to shell the town, if he was not permitted to abscond with the weapons and ferry them back across the Ohio River. Johnson's ingenious, if rather lucky, plan succeeded, and he made off with the weapons without a single Confederate fighter killed. The cannons he had used to mislead the Union officers in command of the town were actually a deceptive guerrilla creation, a ruse. "I ordered the horses to be placed where they would make as big a show as possible to the people on the other side, and [then] form[ed] two pairs of old wagon wheels, with their axles and a stovepipe and a charred log, I soon had manufactured two of the most formidable-looking pieces of artillery into whose gaping mouths a scared people ever looked," Johnson later recounted. The origins of Kentucky's most famous partisan ranger force during the American Civil War began as a self-constituted guerrilla force recruited by Adam Rankin Johnson, known ever after by the nom de guerre "Stovepipe."2

The story of Johnson's assault on Newburgh reveals that the origin moment for the most successful sanctioned Confederate partisan ranger unit in the state did not begin after receiving explicit sanction under the Confederate government's April 1862 Partisan Ranger Act; its activities began before it received that formal status from the Confederate War Department. Furthermore, by the time of the passage of the Partisan Ranger Act, Confederate armies had been driven from the state by Union forces. Eventually Johnson and many other commands across the Confederacy and Border South fought under the authorization of this law, however, Johnson's command began as an ad hoc group among men recruited specifically for guerrilla warfare and for their skills as horsemen. Johnson's assault demonstrates that self-constituted bands of men were often the formation point for these authorized partisan warfare commands, and...


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