Monday, November 27, 2017

Pain on train: 'James Johnson your husband is ded and buried'

The cars on Private James Johnson's train, perhaps one much like this one, plummeted into a ravine.
(Library of Congress)
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Eight months after James Johnson survived a hellish assault on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, the 11th New Hampshire private found himself on detached duty more than 600 miles west. On Sunday night, Aug. 16, 1863, Johnson and other soldiers were traveling by train through Indiana. Their destination was Covington, Ky.

Shortly after the fast-moving train had passed the hamlet of Shoals, Ind., the cars somehow ran off the tracks, violently tossing Johnson and other soldiers to the ground. Some soldiers, including men in the 51st Pennsylvania, had been riding atop the train cars, a dangerous practice in the daytime let alone at night. Many were asleep.

"The train was midway on the bridge when the first car left the iron, and the three cars in the rear followed, cutting the ties and bridge timbers nearly off," the 51st Pennsylvania historian wrote. "When about one hundred and fifty or two hundred yards past the bridge, one car that had been running on the edge of the bank, rolled down the embankment, stopping the whole train with a crash. Five cars were frightfully piled upon each other, two of which were reared like a combed roof." The bridge spanned a ravine and a deep stream.

According to a Philadelphia newspaper correspondent, "the accident threw horses and negroes pell-mell into one end [of a railroad car], but none were hurt, though they scratched their wooly heads with astonishments at this unexpected deliverance."

Riding ahead of Johnson, 11th New Hampshire Private Peter K. Proctor waited for his car to stop before he leaped from the train to see if anyone had been injured. He found Johnson, a 36-year-old laborer fom Enfield, N.H., on his back, barely alive.

“He had his leage all smashed up about half way down from his knee,” Proctor wrote to the soldier’s wife, Joann, “and his head was hert verrey bad so that the blood was coming out of his ear.” (See Proctor letter and complete transcript below.)

It was obvious Johnson was a hopeless case – he lived for about 20 more minutes. “I spoke to him,” Proctor explained to Johnson's widow, “but he did not no me or eny one elce.”

James Johnson survived the 11th New Hampshire's attack at Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg.
Eight months later, he was killed in a train accident in Indiana.
The wreck also claimed the life of a 51st Pennsylvania private, and a dozen or so other soldiers were injured. It was astonishing that more had not been killed -- some soldiers landed on the tops of trees while others went tumbling into the ravine. Others had to be cut out of the train.  Most of the soldiers on the train, veterans of Antietam and the siege of Vicksburg, remained remarkably calm.

"Old railroaders, who had been in numberless smashes, said they never saw such a wreck," the newspaper correspondent reported.

In the aftermath of the accident, the 51st Pennsylania regimental historian wrote, no one seemed to notice the bloodied Johnson as he lay sprawled on a stretcher. "...but as he was there a stranger," he recalled, "it is safe to say that the poor fellow had to be buried by the railroad company, as no one appeared to take any notice of him only through curiosity.

"Although it seems inhuman to neglect a fellow comrade, yet when we consider all the ghastly sights of a battle-field, on which a true soldier is compelled to look, they cannot do otherwise than blunt the finer feelings, and an expression of sympathy rarely gets utterance."

In the letter to Johnson's widow, however, Proctor said  he carried his comrade's body to the nearest village, where he found a box for a makeshift coffin. To dig Johnson’s grave, he enlisted the aid of soldiers in the 51st Pennsylvania, who had buried their comrade earlier. But before the Pennsylvanians could finish the sad task, the train was ready to roll to Covington. A war needed to be fought, and there was no time for them to bury James Johnson.

“We carried him back to the villadge and the citterzins said that they would burrey him in good shape and so I left him in there care,” explained Proctor. On James' body, he had found $1.10, postage stamps, a chunk of tobacco, two pipes, a small knife, two letters from Mrs. Johnson and an image, presumably of Joann.

Proctor vowed to tear up James' letters to his wife, “for they are of no consequence  to send back to you,” he wrote to Widow Johnson. He also promised to send her what little money James had as well as a precious memento of the father of her four young children: a lock of his hair.


-- James Johnson's widow's pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via
-- Parker, Thoimas H., History of the 51st Regiment P.V. and V.V., Philadelphia, King & Baird Printers, 1869.
-- Philadelphia Press, Aug. 20, 1863.


National Archives via
Covington, Ky, Aug. 19 / 63

Mrs. Johnson:

I sit down this afternoon to write a few lines to you and that of a bad kind of news; I am sorry to say it althoe it must be so. James Johnson your husband is ded and buried. He was killed on the road to Covington. We had passed the village of Shoals when the (indecipherable) of the cars gave away and cars was all smashed up and we was going like lightning speade; I was in the car ahead of James. I got out as quick as I could and went back and the first I saw was James. He laid on his back about ded. He had his leage all smashed up about half way down from his knee and his head was hert verrey bad so that the blood was coming out of his ear. I think that was what killed him. I think he must af been on top of the cars. I spoke to him but he did not no me or eny one elce. He lived about 20 minutes after I found him. I laid him out that knight an a (indecipherable) which it happened in the knight about 11 o’clock last Sunday.

I carried him back to the villadg and got a box and put him in and then got a detail out of the 51 Penn. Rigament to burrey him for I was ...

National Archives via
... all alone. None of our rigament was with me. They dug a grave near the villadge where they buried a man that was killed out of the Penn. Rigament the same night; they dug on one other coffin and gave it up for we had not time to dig one other grave for the cars was reddey to go again. We carried him back to the villadge and the citterzins said that they would burrey him in good shape and so I left him in there care. I took his thinges out of his pocket. He had one dollar and 10 cents in money your picture I suppose it must be and som postage stamps and a peace of tobacco and 2 letters that he got from you. The letters I will tore up for they are of no consequence to send back to you. He had 2 pipes in his pocket and a jack knife. I will do with them just what you wish me to do. I cutt of a lock of his hair for you. I will send that and the money to you. I will close now after telling you the whole perticulars and hope I shall hear from you in regard to him.

Yours in haste.

P. K. Proctor

John Johnson is sick and in the hospittle in this cittey but I do not no where to find him as yet. James was killed on the way from (indecipherable) to Covington where we are now. I was not hurt. ...

National Archives via

... but we had a narrow escape. We had 10 wounded and 2 killed with James and (indecipherable).

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1 comment:

  1. Love your blogs they are better reading than battles