We can cancel the 154-year-old APB on Hannibal Augustus Johnson, on the lam from Confederate authorities since escaping from Camp Sorghum in Columbia, S.C. in 1864.
Johnson has turned up in Cincinnati, of all places.
A Hallowell resident, the 20-year-old Johnson mustered on June 4, 1861 as a corporal in Co. B, 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment. He moved up through the ranks to sergeant.
Promoted to second lieutenant at Chancellorsville on May 3, former 1st Sgt. William H. Briggs of Monmouth now commanded Co. B, and Johnson took his place as the “top kick.” The 3rd Maine went north, and the regiment’s chapter in Maine at Gettysburg (pages 127-157) details the 3rd Maine’s hard-fighting fate on Thursday, July 2.
Col. Moses Lakeman deployed his boys to support the morning reconnaissance made by men from the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters. Crossing the Emmitsburg Road, the Union troops probed in late morning “into the thick coverts of oak and chestnut” on Seminary Ridge, along the modern Confederate Avenue.
The sharpshooters and 3rd Maine boys “became hotly engaged,” and “here I labored under a decided disadvantage, which will account for my heavy loss,” Lakeman noted.
He reported 48 men killed, wounded, or missing, with “my dead and seriously wounded” left on the field. The 3rd Maine returned east across the Emmitsburg Road, wound up defending the Peach Orchard during the late afternoon Confederate assault, and, with its color guard shot literally to pieces and “a large [enemy] force moving around to cut me off,” abandoned the orchard and pulled back toward Cemetery Ridge before the sun set on July 2, Lakeman noted.
Company B lost men that day: Sgt. Asa C. Rowe and Pvt. John W. Jones (both of Augusta) killed and Hannibal Johnson and privates Enoch M. Barker of Troy, Charles Gannett of Augusta, and Joseph Winslow of China captured. Sgt. Fred Gannett and Pvt/ Nathan Call were wounded.
His Confederate captors promptly exchanged Johnson. Commissioned a second lieutenant, he went into The Wilderness with the 5th Maine in early May 1864, and Capt. John C.B. Smith and his men of the 12th South Carolina Infantry captured him on May 5.
Smith took Johnson’s pistol and sword.
Shipped to a POW camp in Macon, Ga., Johnson stayed there until William Tecumseh Sherman marched out of Atlanta in November to make Georgia howl. Already afraid that Union cavalry would raid the state’s POW camps (Andersonville particularly comes to mind), Confederate authorities had shipped Hannibal Johnson and other captured Union officers in October from Macon to “Camp Sorghum … a hastily built facility in what is now West Columbia,” according to the University of South Carolina Scholar Commons.
“The prison contained no buildings and it had no surrounding wall,” the Commons states. “It was little more than a five acre clearing with … guards posted around its perimeter,” and “prisoners were forced to dig holes to live in, and food was in short supply.”
Johnson and many comrades decided they were not staying. “In the two months the prison was in operation” before the opening of the wall-surrounded Camp Asylum, “hundreds of men escaped,” says the Commons.
So Hannibal Johnson and three comrades — two lieutenants from the 3rd Maine and a 16th Maine lieutenant — escaped after dark on Monday, Nov. 21, 1864 “by running down the guard” and running “for the woods as fast as possible.”
Over the next seven weeks, the four soldiers traveled north through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Along the way the men navigated the Great Smoky Mountains, where Confederate and Union guerrillas waged an internecine war that saw few prisoners taken and many men swung from the nearest tree limbs. Liable to be executed if caught by Southern marauders, Johnson et al evaded capture and reached the Union lines near Knoxville on Thursday, Jan. 5, 1865.
There Johnson learned that he had officially mustered out with the 3rd Maine Infantry on June 28, 1864. He became a first lieutenant in Co. D., 1st Maine Infantry Battalion on April 5, 1865 and mustered out for good a year later.*
John C.B. Smith tracked down Johnson in 1875 and returned his captured sword. The men were friends until Smith’s death in 1898. Johnson died in Massachusetts on July 3, 1913.
There is far more to the daring escape of Hannibal Johnson, however. Our Kentuckian son and daughter-in-law, Chris and Jennifer, recently visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
There Chris read on a display that “during the Civil War, some blacks helped Union soldiers escaping from Confederate prisons. Lt. Hannibal Johnson of the Third Maine Infantry reported that a succession of ‘negroes’ guided him and three other escapees from Columbia, South Carolina “to the Union lines near Knoxville, Tennessee in 1864.
“Hiding the soldiers in the woods during the day, the blacks fed them, leading them further along the way at night,” the story goes.
That’s a tale I would love to hear directly from Hannibal Johnson.
*Organized from spare infantry companies kicking around Maine in winter 1865, the 1st Maine Infantry Battalion served on occupation duty in South Carolina after the war.
Sources: Maine at Gettysburg, p. 133-134, 138, 143; 1863 Maine Adjutant General’s Report, pp. 129-130; Official Records, Vol. 27, Series I, Part 1, pp. 507-508; University of South Carolina Scholar Commons, Legacy, Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2011; Hannibal Johnson, The Sword of Honor, Register Printing House, Hallowell, 1905
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.