An email arrived recently in my inbox from Philip Johnson, stating that his father, C. Elwood “Doc” Johnson, who lives in Ocean View, had attended the 75th reunion of Battle of Gettysburg veterans back in 1938, as a teenager. In addition, Johnson said he had a copy of his great-grandfather John C. Gray’s honorable discharge from the Union Army of the Potomac.
A visit to the Johnson home resulted, to view photos taken during the Gettysburg reunion, the discharge papers and other Civil War memorabilia.
Doc Johnson is himself a veteran, a member of the “Greatest Generation,” which served during World War II, from 1942 to 1946. As a pharmacist-mate first-class – ergo his nickname, “Doc” – his assignments were in the South Pacific on the hospital ship the USS Relief and the USS YMS 260, a wooden-hulled minesweeper.
Although born, raised and educated in Pennsylvania, Doc Johnson worked for more than 30 years for the General Motors Corporation in Wilmington and owned an antiques store in Odessa and Delaware City before retiring to Ocean View in 1987.
As a 13-year-old, Doc Johnson had attended the Gettysburg 75th reunion with his father. He kept a reunion directory and guide as a souvenir – one that includes advertisements for a number of establishments, such as the Jennie Wade House and the Cashtown Inn, historic locations still in operation today.
The young man also used a “98-cent camera” to take snapshots of a parade with marching bands, crowds of spectators along the roadside and, more importantly, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt riding in an open car to a dedication ceremony of the Eternal Peace Light Memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Roosevelt dedicated the monument commemorating the North’s and South’s reconciliation. The president said about the Gettysburg veterans, “All of them we honor – not asking under which flag they fought then – thankful that they stand together under one flag now.”
Johnson’s great-grandfather was Pvt. John C. Gray from Chester County, Pa., who mustered into the Union Army at West Chester in 1864 for one year of service. He joined Battery E, 1st Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Artillery, under the command of Capt. S.S. Richardson.
Gray and his artillery battery participated in action during Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Petersburg, Va., that led to the fall of that city, as well as the Confederate capital of Richmond in early April 1865. Gray was with Grant’s army as it pursued and forced the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee a few days later, at Appomattox Court House on April 9.
Gray took pride in the fact that his artillery battery had a “high reputation for its efficiency and was commended for distinguished service.” Many years after the Civil War, he commissioned an artist’s rendition of his discharge papers, with illustrations of Civil War scenes, symbols and bunting. Prominently featured is a photograph of President Abraham Lincoln, inscribed “the Soldier’s Friend.”
Gray presented this keepsake to his wife Ida and children Hattie, John, Clarence, Allie and Marjorie in 1901. It now resides in a place of honor in the Johnson home in Ocean View.
A sword that belonged to his Civil War ancestor is one of Doc Johnson’s prized possessions. “American Light Horse” is etched into the upper part of the blade, and it is similar to the U.S. Model 1840 Light Horse Artillery Saber. It has a leather sheath and wooden handle, and its markings indicate manufacture in Sohlingen, Germany. Both Union and Confederate artillerymen carried versions of this style of sword during the Civil War.
Other Civil War memorabilia in the Johnson collection include an 1841 Springfield flintlock musket that had been converted to a more modern percussion cap-and-ball rifle and miniature leather purses designed to fit in a soldier’s pocket, for carrying necessities.
Commemoration of the 150th anniversary, the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg, will take place in July 2013, 75 years after the 75th reunion of veterans who survived the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Doc Johnson, having attended the 75th reunion, represents a direct connection to those heroes. He is also a prime example of young people who visit Gettysburg National Military Park and treasure the experience the rest of their lives.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.