The amazing adventures of General Adam Johnson
Adam Rankin Johnson is, without doubt, Burnet County’s greatest hero. The county was among the wildest places in the west when Johnson moved here in 1854, but the twenty-year-old Kentuckian proved equal to every adversity, and then some. At various stages in his life, he was an Indian fighter, a Confederate general, the founder of Marble Falls (after being severely wounded during the war) and the only blind man on record to lead a cattle drive. Combining the best traits of legendary figures as diverse as Robin Hood, Daniel Boone and Helen Keller, Johnson gained celebrity status across the South, and had an enormous impact on our area’s history. Every Texan can be proud of Adam Johnson’s amazing achievements.
Adam Johnson’s boyhood was a perfect preparation for his exploits in later life: the son of a prominent physician in Henderson, he enjoyed a freedom to roam the forests and fields, while acquiring a superb education during evening hours at home. At the age of eight he was allowed the use of a gun, and became an expert shot and a great hunter. He also learned to swim well. He was healthy, strong, and active, and quickly became a leader of the other boys. James R. Holloway, who later fought for the Union army, described Adam as a born leader: “He was ever characterized by a genius in designing and a boldness in executing, and got us in and out of many scrapes.” His keen powers of observation and his decisiveness would serve him well all his life.
At the age of twelve, Adam was hired by a pharmacist who preferred pleasure to work and left the business almost entirely to Adam’s care. Adam managed the store for three years until, at the age of sixteen, he accepted a job at a factory and was put in charge of eighty workers. His study of human nature and his enormous personal energy helped him set production records, but at age twenty the restless young man decided to go west.
Thinking that surveying would be a profitable occupation as the area became more populated, Adam took a job with a party of surveyors, and soon found himself marveling at the beauty and untapped power of the wild Colorado River. Always a visionary, he marked boulders on both sides of the river where he thought a dam should be built. Eighty years later, Buchanan Dam was built at his location. At the site of the “great marble falls” twenty-some miles south, he envisioned a major industrial city powered by the enormous energy of the river.
His travels soon led to a series of run-ins with the Indians who were resisting the incursions of the white men. Serving as county surveyor and as an agent for the Overland Mail as far west as El Paso, Adam developed a keen instinct for responding to danger; sometimes boldly attacking, sometimes making cunning escapes. When the Civil War began in 1861 Adam Johnson could say, “Perhaps I was more frequently engaged in battle with the Indians than any other man upon the Plains,” yet “When I was personally present none of my men or stock was ever lost.” By that time, he had tired of the fighting and was ready to settle down with his new wife (Josephine Eastland, of Austin) in his new home (Rocky Rest, on the west side of Hamilton Creek, in Burnet), but the greatest adventures of his life were still ahead of him.
Despite his new wife, new home, and a promising future, Adam Johnson joined the Confederate army as soon as Texas seceded from the Union. He was soon paired with Robert Martin as a scout for Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. The two went through adventures that would have made Robin Hood or Davy Crockett seem tame in comparison, and though perhaps Bob Martin was the more reckless of the two, he was certainly no more effective as a soldier. Fighting much of the war behind enemy lines, as described in his book “The Partisan Rangers of the Confederate States Army,” Johnson reached the rank of Brigadier General, and constantly bedeviled the superior forces of the Union Army. His most famous escapade, the subject of the book “Thunder From a Clear Sky,” was the capture of the Federal arsenal in Newburg, Indiana.
As Johnson himself told the story, he and his twenty-seven men prepared for the attack across the Ohio River by manufacturing two “cannons” from old wagon wheels, a charred log, and a stovepipe. They aimed the “cannons” at the town from the most visible spot on the Kentucky side of the river, then Johnson and two of his men crossed the river in a skiff, heading directly toward the house where the guns were stored, while Martin and the other twenty-four men crossed the river on a ferry a few miles upstream, to attack the town by road.
The guns were unguarded, and the three men began to barricade the doors and windows to wait for Martin, when they noticed a number of men in a nearby hotel. Johnson walked to the double doors of the hotel and found himself facing the guns of eighty armed men. Telling them that they were about to be surrounded, he convinced them to lay down their guns and surrender. When Martin arrived, they filled two wagons with rifles and took them to waiting boats. As several citizens tried to organize the two hundred and fifty “Home Guards” for an attack, Johnson shouted to them that he would leave peaceably with the guns, but, gesturing toward the “cannons” on the other side of the river, threatened to shell the town to the ground if attacked. No one attacked, and the twenty-seven arrived safely back in Kentucky with all the guns they could carry. The Union Army massed troops at every town on the Ohio, fearing a repeat performance, and the London Times had a lengthy editorial upon the importance of this first town captured north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Twenty-seven men had struck fear into the hearts of the North.
In July of 1864, General Johnson divided his force into three groups to attempt the capture of a Union force numbering three or four hundred. About fifty of the Union soldiers surrendered to General Johnson himself. As he led them back toward his lines, one group of his men mistook them for attackers and fired at the Union soldiers. A musket ball struck General Johnson in the right eye and, exiting the left temple, cut out both eyes. Southern newspapers mistakenly published his obituary (58 years early), but he was held prisoner by the Union army until his wife found him at the end of the war. Johnson returned to Burnet County in September of 1865, blind, sick, and penniless.
The county itself was not much better off. Conditions were generally bad for the few poverty-stricken survivors of the war, and General Johnson, choosing to face the dangers of Indians rather than the meanness of Reconstruction agents, moved to Honey Creek Cove in Llano County in 1867. There, he moved into a home which had been abandoned since Comanches killed the previous owner, a Methodist preacher named Jonas Dancer. In the fall of 1867, General Johnson led a cattle drive along the dangerous trail to Fort Worth, bringing back cash and provisions for the beleaguered settlers. (General Johnson is probably the only blind man to lead a cattle drive. He did it at least twice.) In 1869, after increasingly brutal attacks by the Comanches, General Johnson organized the settlers into “minute-men” to respond to any danger. This led to several conclusive victories for the settlers, and the Indian attacks subsided. In the meantime, Adam and Josephine, both accustomed to plenty, were forced to do the menial chores of subsistence farmers. Both did their jobs well, and the farm prospered.
In 1872, General Johnson sold his ranch and cattle, and returned to Burnet, where he re-opened the land office he had opened before the war. The sad condition of the town persuaded him to open a store and raise a subscription for a stone schoolhouse. One of his next undertakings was a paper known as “The Western Texas Advertiser”, which touted the healthfulness and resources of Burnet County. Though unable to see, General Johnson had not lost his fighting spirit; in 1874, when the Reconstruction governor, Edmund J. Davis, temporarily refused to yield his seat to the popularly elected governor, Richard Coke, the blind general decided to help send him packing. A marker on the Burnet County Courthouse lawn declares, “Johnson went to the Capitol, and posted himself atop the stairs with his old army six-shooter to fire down into the basement at the Davis forces, if necessary.” (Fortunately, no attack was necessary; Davis gave up, and relinquished power voluntarily.)
Recognizing the value of the granite in Burnet County, General Johnson raised capital and donated land to build a railroad in 1882. He was instrumental in persuading the state to use Burnet County granite to build the new capitol building.
In 1884, the Johnsons moved three miles to Airy Mount, a gracious home that General Johnson had built facing the new railroad on a rise just east of Burnet.
His familiarity with the land from his surveying days was invaluable in his land business, and drove him to pursue his earlier dream of building a city by the “great marble falls” of the Colorado River. His dream became a reality after the arrival of the railroad, and in 1887 he began selling lots in “his” town of Marble Falls.
The general’s land company continued to prosper with the growth of Burnet and Marble Falls. In 1890, he published a catalog entitled “Homes in Texas, 200,000 Acres of Valuable Land for Sale”. One of the listings was for “4400 acres, 6 miles SW of Burnet; 2 dwelling houses, everlasting water, no better grazing land in Texas, all under 5-wire fence: price $3.00 per acre; terms easy”. Another recommended a “nice residence, 300 yds. from public square; rents without trouble at $12.00 per month, price $800.00”.
General Johnson’s office was at the end of a long, uncarpeted hall, and admirers reported that “he knows the footfall of every citizen of the town and county.”
Sometimes strangers would come to the office. The ex-governor of Texas, Francis R. Lubbock, wrote of General Johnson, “He wore green goggles, would receive strangers in his office, point out on the map the various lands, describe them most accurately, for he knew every acre he described, having surveyed the land. The parties would leave the office, never dreaming that he was blind.”
When Johnson traveled, he was usually accompanied by a guide. Earl Moore, the son of former slaves who came to Marble Falls as a three-year-old during “the stagecoach days,” was one of the guides. At the Herman Brown Free Library in Burnet, there is a handwritten letter from Mr. Moore, in which he said, “As I grew in stature, I became the eyes of the best friend I have ever known, the one and only General Adam Johnson. I led him to all of his business trips and meetings, both in and out of this small city (Marble Falls).”
Johnson’s granddaughter, Mana Josephine “Jo” Hammond, who lived in Burnet until her recent passing, remembered leading her grandfather around the Burnet square when she was a little girl.
Johnson’s children inherited their parents’ strength of character, and several went on to noteworthy achievements of their own. Adam Rankin Jr. became city manager of Austin, and helped make it into a modern, growing city. A grandson and a great-grandson (both named Adam Rankin Johnson, as well) became professional baseball players. Great-grandson Ross Johnson is a prominent businessman in Marble Falls today.
When General Adam R. Johnson died in 1922, his body was laid in state at the Capitol Building in Austin, while thousands around the state of Texas paid their last respects. Streets and parks in several towns are named after him. A portrait of the general, painted by his granddaughter, Glory Posey, was prominently displayed in the lobby of the Marble Falls city hall for many years. Ray Mulesky of Evansville, Indiana, has recently written a book (“Thunder From a Clear Sky”) detailing his capture of the federal arsenal in the town of Newburg, Indiana. That exploit was described by a Union officer as “the most reckless, but most successful military master stroke achieved” (9) by either army during the war. Very few have ever lived a life of such courage, honor, and vision. We in the Highland Lakes area can be proud to honor his memory.