Isaac Johnson; Slave to Soldier
Written by George Pettigrew
I never got to see him or him to see me. He was my great grandfather, a simple man who quietly made a difference without knowing it. He never got to understand what he had done and the difference he had made.
He was Isaac Johnson, and he was born in 1846 as best I can find. A slave in North Carolina most likely, or perhaps Nashville as some records reflect. It is hard to tell because the records, if they exist, are hard to come by. Life as an enslaved person in the antebellum South did not require or necessarily provide for the recording of a slave’s life. This disconnect would have been even greater if it were not for a most unusual event that put him on the records of America as a person and not a slave. That individual identity would come five years after the Civil War when in 1870 the U.S. Census recorded black people as individuals. That is what this story is about. His journey from Slave to Soldier.
I would know even less about him if it were not for his granddaughter, my mother, Eunice Davis Pettigrew. For forty years she researched our family and Isaac’s incredible journey. If not for her, even less than the scattered facts that I work with today in delving deeper into who, what and how great grandpa Isaac made the transition from property to a protector of the American dream and his part taming the old west. This is a story that has no parallel in America, the greatest human experiment in our nation’s history. And the most successful.
Following the end of the Civil War the nation was badly fractured and damaged. The economy was ripped apart and getting everything back on track would be almost impossible but not hopeless. This was especially true for the four million formerly enslaved people left to adapt to freedom when opportunities were scarce. Massive change was needed.
Details are sometimes vague but through Isaac Johnson’s military records I have come to know him. He was five feet seven and one quarter inches tall. His complexion was somewhat “marked by gingerbread.” A strange description that means he was a fair skinned or light brown complexioned black man with the honey tone skin like gingerbread.
The exact information as to his whereabouts and life immediately prior to joining the U.S. Army on May 6, 1867, is incomplete except that it was in Jefferson Barracks, Missouri where he enlisted. It was then he became Private Isaac Johnson, Company K, 38th Infantry, USCT (United States Colored Troops) as they were known at that time. This places him in camp at the same time the only known female Buffalo Soldier was beginning her service in Company A of the 38th Infantry. At that time no one realized she was a woman named Cathay Williams who went by William Cathay.
This simple act of enlisting in the Army seems like a very normal thing to do, a non-event in every way except one. This is the first time in our nation’s history that black men (and a woman pretending to be a man) were enlisted into the U.S. Regular Army during peacetime. The Army Reorganization Act of July 28, 1866 formed ten new regiments consisting of African American troops and white officers. Two regiments of Cavalry, the 9th and 10th, and four regiments of Infantry, the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st, later combined into the 24th and 25th Infantry.
His first troop movement took him by rail to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on his way west to Fort Harker. Soon after the arrival of four companies of the 38th Infantry arrived at Fort Harker the Asiatic Cholera epidemic broke out. It seemed that Pvt. Johnson would be spared when he was assigned to guard the mail from Fort Harker, Kansas to Fort Union, New Mexico. This was a routine assignment for the time as was attacks from the original inhabitants of the area.
According to Isaac Johnson’s “Claim Of Soldier For Service Pension, Indian Wars,” he suffered a bullet wound to his shoulder at or near the Cow Creek Crossing on the Santa Fe Trail in Rice County, Kansas while escorting the mail to Fort Union, New Mexico in the Spring of 1867. While he escaped the threat of the cholera epidemic, he suffered a wound that would later impact on his ability to serve as a member of the famed 9th Cavalry following his re-enlistment. He was further credited with having served on the Texas Frontier and Colorado while in the Infantry.
It was several years past his discharge on May 6, 1870, three years to the day from his first enlistment that Pvt. Isaac Johnson re-enlisted. Following his first enlistment he lived in Montgomery, Alabama, Austin, Mississippi and Plummerville, Arkansas where he lived with his wife Sally Walls Johnson and their daughter Jennie Manson Johnson, my maternal grandmother.
On June 14, 1878, Isaac reenlisted for five years in the 9th Cavalry and was given “$2.00 per month for years continuous service.” Due to the aggravation of his shoulder wound he was unable to complete the five-year enlistment and was discharged. On his Oath of Enlistment and Allegiance it further identified him by “Marks from the Eruption of the Skin on the Chest” by which my mother was absolutely him.
All of his history and involvement in the Indian Wars and the taming of the old west would have been forgotten in time and dismissed as a faceless former enslaved person. That was not to be as the 38th Infantry and 9th Cavalry became better known as Buffalo Soldiers.
By this action on his part, he became an original Buffalo Soldier from the time that nickname was given by the Planes Indians, a sign of recognition for their fighting ability and tenacity. No other soldiers were ever associated with the mighty buffalo. That holds true to today for the Buffalo Soldiers.
This is the story of Slave to Soldier. The story I have come to tell as a presenting member of the Missouri Humanities Council and a Certified Oral and Written Storyteller. The greatest human transformation story in American history. The story of Isaac Johnson, my great grandfather, and the Buffalo Soldiers.