Obituary of author of China and Japan

Extract from The Morning News, Savannah, GA, 5/10/1896 page I:6:1-2

Another Old Hero Gone

Capt. J.D. Johnston Dies at the Savannah Hospital

He Was the Ranking Surviving Officer of the Confederate Navy and of the Old United States Navy. His Heroic Conduct at the Battle of Mobile Bay Recalled -- The Interment to Be at Norfolk -- A Military Escort to be Tendered.

Capt. James D. Johnston died at the Savannah Hospital yesterday afternoon shortly after 6 o'clock. Although his death has been expected for several weeks its announcement will bring sadness to the hearts of many who knew the gallant old officer and loved him for his many noble qualities of head and heart.

Capt. Johnston was in his seventy-ninth year. His death was due to the gradual failing from old age rather than to any specific disease. For over a year he had practically made his home at the Savannah hospital. He spent a portion of last summer at Ashville, N.C., but returned to the hospital in the fall and has rarely left it since.

Capt. Johnston's history is well known to the veterans of the confederate army and navy. He was the ranking officer of the survivors of the confederate navy, and also the senior survivor of the United States navy of ante-bellum days. As the commander of the confederate ram Tennessee at the battle of Mobile bay he won a place in history.

Capt. Johnston was a native Kentuckian. He entered the United States navy as midshipman at the age of 15, June 30, 1832. He passed through the various grades of the service, reaching that of lieutenant in June, 1843. At the outbreak of the war he was high up on the list of first lieutenants and where rapid promotion was certain had he remained in the service. Shortly previous to the war he served with Admiral Commodore Josiah Tattnall as executive officer to the flagship Powhatan to the China waters at the time of the Peiho rebellion and was one of the prominent actors in the historic scene when Commodore Tattnall rendered assistance to the British ships, which were being worsted by the Chinese forts.

Capt. Johnston resigned his position April 19, 1861, and entered the service of the confederate states. He served with the naval department of the confederacy in various capacities until the latter part of 1863, when he was assigned to duty with Admiral Buchanan in Mobile bay. The confederate ironclad, Tennessee, was then being constructed by the confederates, the most powerful vessel of her class turned out by the confederacy. When the ram was put into service in 1864, she was made the flagship of the squadron, being the only vessel of any size in Admiral Buchanan's command, and Capt. Johnston was made captain. The Tennessee was built at the naval station at Seims, and to Capt. Johnston was assigned the difficult task of carrying her over the low bar and mud flats intervening between that point and Mobile, which he safely and successfully accomplished and hoisted her flag the same day in the full view of the federal fleet.

The battle of Mobile bay was the fiercest naval battle of the confederacy. On August 5, 1864, Admiral Farragut steamed up the bay with his full fleet of four ironclads and fourteen wooden ships. To oppose him, Admiral Buchanan had the ram Tennessee and three small wooden vessels, the Setman, the Gaines and the Morgan. The federal fleet passed the confederate torpedo line with the loss of one of the four ironclads, the Tecumseh. After a hard fight the three wooden vessels were driven back up the bay and the Tennessee was left alone to face the whole federal fleet. Though powerfully built, there were serious defects in the construction of the ram, which hampered her greatly, her movement in particular being slow. It was this slow movement only which saved the federal fleet from destruction. Admiral Buchanan boldly passed down the line, attempting to ram each of the enemy's ships in turn and poured broadsides into each vessel as he passed. He passed the entire line in this manner and anchored under the protection of the guns of Fort Morgan, with his vessel in almost as good condition as when she entered the fight. After a short rest, instead of remaining under the protection of the fort, the Tennessee was faced about and boldly moved up to attack the whole union fleet.

It is not necessary to give a detailed account of the fight now. Admiral Buchanan's action was so daring that it was generally spoken of afterwards as quixotic. In naval parlance the Tennessee was mobbed by the federal fleet. She was attacked from all sides and repeatedly rammed by the enemy's vessels in turn. Owing to her slow movements, she was unable to ram the enemy's wooden ships, but did terrible damage with her guns. Her defensive powers were destroyed by the enemy's monitors. Admiral Buchanan was severely wounded, and the command of the vessel devolved upon Capt. Johnston. Capt. Johnston did not want to surrender the vessel and sought the advice of Admiral Buchanan.

"Do the best you can, Johnston, and when all is done, surrender," replied the wounded admiral. Every vessel of the federal fleet was either banging away at the Tennessee or preparing to ram her, and she was unable to fire a gun, having only three guns left, and they could not be turned toward the enemy. The staff upon which the confederate colors had been hoisted had been shot away early in the conflict, and the colors had been placed upon a boathook outside the casemate grating. Having decided upon a surrender, Capt. Johnston drew in the boathook that carried his ensign. The enemy continuing his fire, he mounted to the roof of the casemate and displayed a white flag.

"This was accepted as a token of surrender and the firing immediately ceased. After the battle the wounded officers and prisoners were kindly treated by their captors, Admiral Buchanan being sent to a hospital. The other officers were sent north as prisoners, but were treated with consideration, until they reached New York harbor, when they were put in irons. This action on the part of an officer of the old navy toward men with whom he had formerly been associated, caused great indignation throughout the whole country, the act being condemned by the officers of the federal as well as the confederate navy. Admiral Paulding, who was in command, and upon whom the responsibility for the order rested, never recovered from the stigma it placed upon him. In speaking of this matter last night Capt. Tattnall, also of the old navy and the confederate navy, said that Admiral Paulding was held in the highest esteem by all of the officers who had served with him. It was said that he was ill at the time the order was given, and those who knew him could not believe he was in his right mind when he gave such an order.

After being released from prison at the close of the war, Capt. Johnston returned to Mobile. Several years after the war he came to Savannah as representative of the Alabama Gold Life Insurance Company. On the failure of this company, he was appointed the representative of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, with which company he continued until the day of his death. He was remarkably successful in the insurance business, and the company showed its appreciation of his services by retaining him upon its salary roll up to the time of his death.

Had Capt. Johnston remained with the union navy he would without doubt have risen to high position. He had the elements which go to make a successful naval officer, a brave, hardy spirit, courage, a strong will, strength of mind and body, and a thorough knowledge of his profession. He was held in high respect by the officers of the regular army and on the occasions of their visits to Savannah they never failed to call upon him.

The deceased had been for several years a vice president of the Confederate Veterans Association and that body will pay proper tribute to his memory. Two weeks ago, when Capt. Johnston's death was momentarily expected, it was decided at a meeting of the officers of the Savannah Volunteer Guards that the services of the battalion should be offered as an escort to the remains. It was stated then that the interment would be at Norfolk, where the wife of the deceased was buried at number of years ago. The deceased leaves one relative, a daughter, Mrs. Poindexter of Baltimore. Mrs. Poindexter was wired last night of her father's death, and is expected to arrive here today, when arrangements for the departure of the body from Savannah will be made.


Extract from The Morning News, Savannah, GA, 5/11/1896

Ancient Landmark Lodge No. 231, F.& A.M.

A special meeting of this lodge will be held at Masonic Temple to-day at 12:15 o'clock, for the purpose of paying the last tribute of respect to our deceased brother, Jas. D. Johnston.

Members of sister lodges and transient brethren are cordially invited to attend.

W.H. Gordon, Jr., W.M.
Jno. S. Haines, Secretary

Confederate Veterans' Association

Savannah, Ga., May 11, 1896 -- The association will assemble at St. John's church at 12:30 o'clock today, to pay the last tribute of respect to our late Vice President, Capt. Jas. D. Johnston.

G.M. Ryals, President
Harry S. Dreese, Secretary

The members of Lafayette McLaws Camp No. 596, U.C.V., are respectfully invited to meet with the association.

Go to top page of China and Japan material