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Dr. Harvey Green Johnston
Dr. Harvey Green Johnston
The Johnston Family graveyard was relocated to Birchlawn Cemetery when the land was sold for development

Christmas by Candlelight, 1861

It's a chilly evening on Chrismas Eve, 1861: flurries of snow whip down Pearisburg's Main Street. Dr. Harvey Green Johnston is home on leave from his duties as surgeon of the 86th Virginia Militia. His young wife Annie and their two small children, William and Carrie, have decorated the house for the special occasion, and have invited several friends to celebrate the holiday and recent Confederate victories. The beautiful brick house, built by Harvey's father Andrew in 1829, glows with candlelight and it filled with the aroma of pine, lemon teacakes, mulled cider and eggnog. Carolers from the neighborhood have stopped by to offer and extra measure of good cheer.

This Saturday, December 3, 2011, the Giles County Historical Society invites you to join the Johnstons as they gather to enjoy the holiday with family and friends. Ladies of the Jubal Early chapter of the UDC will greet you at the door and invite you into the house decorated with all the mid-nineteenth century. Members of the Giles High School Choral Ensemble, dressed in period costume, will entertain visitors with traditional carols.

Harvey Green Johnston I, third son of Andrew and Jane Johnston, was born in 1831 in Pearisburg. He was a year old when his family moved into the Johnston House, which would be his home for the rest of his life. He received and excellent classical education at private schools in the area before attending Emory and Henry College, the University of Virginia and the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He returned to Pearisburg and began his practice in 1853. In 1855, at age 24, he married 15-year old Anna Marie Snidow, familiarly called Anna or Carrie. Anne died in 1867 just weeks after their 12th wedding anniversary leaving her 36 year old husband to care for their 4 children, William Andrew, Carrie, Jennie, and Ada.


William Andrew became a prominent doctor in Roanoke.

In 1869, The widower remarried. His bride was Mary Priscilla Fowler Halsey, a well-educated 27-year-old lady from Tennessee and widow of Captain Alexander Halsey of Lynchburg. Mary Polly, as she was called, had lost her only child in 1864 at the age of 7 months. IN the next twelve years, she and Dr. Johnston added a wooden addition to the house to accommodate eight children, their parents and family servants. The same year, he also built the one room building near the house for his office, and, no doubt, a place to escape the commotion of family life.

Dr. Johnston was a meticulous record keeper. His ledger and a collection of notes and bills draw a picture of a man whose responsibilities included not only his practice but the upkeep of his property, the care of his slaves and the costs of supporting his large family. He ran accounts with merchants in Giles County, Lynchburg, Baltimore and Philadelphia. He was careful with his funds as witnessed by entries on his account with shoemaker Jacob Peters. Between February 1858 and July 1860, the Johnston family purchased three pairs of shoes and had 24 mended. The entire shoemaker's bill was $ 16.36, a small sum to us , but considering the charge for a patient visit ranged from $ 1.00 to $ 1.50, it is a relatively substantial amount.

Dr. Johnston was a country doctor. His practice stretched from Wolf Creek to Stony Creek. In the 1800s, the doctor went to the patient, regardless of weather, traveling by buggy, wagon of horseback all over the county. Many of the bills relate to the upkeep of his horses, buggy and tack. Most of the medicine he prescribed was carried in his medical bag. He also carried a 6" x 3 "  Leather bound copy of the Pocket Cyclopedia of Medicine & Surgery which listed, in alphabetical order, all of the known ailments and conditions and their treatment. Some pages in his ledger show patients visits on consecutive days, each one involving travel, and each one billed at $ 1.00.

Contacting the doctor was a challenge in itself. There is a note in the Doctor's papers that reads, "Mr. Doctor Johnston, I want you to come up to John Webster and see my sister. She has the flux and I want you to tend on her and I will pay you for your visits.  John C. Lafon,  June the 22 1871".   No doubt, the Doctor went. The method of payment could have taken several forms, the least likely being cash payment in full.
There was not a lot of ready cash in the local economy before the Civil War. After the War, the South was economically devastated for years, with cash almost non-existent. Bills were paid by barter and IOUs. People didn�t have credit cards, but they did have promissory notes and they used them. Dr Johnston kept notes given for his services in a long strip of linen lined with small sewn pockets. The notes were written on scraps of paper, folded to fit into a pocket, then the linen strip was rolled up, tied and stored. Generally, the notes were written out by the Doctor in legal language binding the signer and his heirs to pay and waiving his homestead exemption. In 1875, he began to use printed notes where he could just fill in the blanks.

The note was signed if the person could write, otherwise he made his mark (X) and a witness signed his name. The notes were usually for small sums - $ 3.00 to $ 20.00, and repayment was not necessarily in cash. In 1865, the ledger shows he treated the wife and son of William Bane. In 1866, the entries on the payment side of Bane�s page in the ledger record, paid by 2 hogs, 10.00; butter and cheese, 2.00; 15 lbs. Flour, 2.27; cash greenback, 10.00; cash greenback, 4.00; sundries, 8.00; and, finally, cash, 16.23. Other accounts record, paid 1 doz. Chickens and acct. settled w/corn.

The finances become more intricate when patients paid the Doctor by giving him notes owed them from third parties. The Doctor obviously collected on the notes because the signer's name has been carefully torn from the note and probably given to the person to insure the note was considered paid Often, people to whom Dr. Johnston owed money would request that he pay another party what he owed them. One scrap of paper reads "Dr. Johnston, You will please to pay Charles Hale the sum of two ($2.00) dollars and oblige C.F. Brown."

The Doctor kept a running tab with the Snidow and Brown Ferry. There is a $6.93 receipt for ferriage from 1/1/1866 to 3/23/1866. On June 29, 1871, James Brown sent a note requesting, Dr. Johnston to pay Wm. Adare $5.00 against his ferriage bill. The Doctor also used the system when needed. In 1868, Jacob Douthat paid his $27.75 bill by making back bands, belly bands, feeding buckets, repairing buggy collar, covering saddle for Geo. Mullins, paid $15.00 to James Rutledge.

The financial arrangements worked as long as the debtors kept their word. On the occasions when they didn�t, Dr. Johnston took the notes to the Justice of the Peace who wrote out a summons on the back of the scrap of paper the note was written on. The summons was served by the Sheriff, who charged 75 cents for his services.

The ledger mirrors American history. Entries before 1861 list treatment for Negro boy under the name of his owner. The Doctor held slaves himself as evidenced by a note which reads "On or before the 1st day of January 1855 I promise for myself and heirs to Harvey G. Johnston the sum of ninety dollars, being for the hire of his Negro man Ben for year 1854. I am to feed, clothe etc. As witness my hand & seal this 7th day of February 1854,R.G. Watts".

After the Civil War, former slaves are listed in the ledger under their own names, but with (Negro) written beside the name. One page, headed "Floyd Johnston 1867 (Negro) (Meadows) has written in the payment column, See account between myself & Floyd Meadows prior to this year 1st January 1871 are settled in full, both his a/c's against me & my own against him. Settled by verbal agreement between ourselves.

The ledger also contains reminders to himself. One page has in parentheses next to the name (son-in-law of Stephen McClanahan), another (Dan's widow).

Dr. Johnston was a gentleman of his time. During the Civil War he served in the Confederate Army, probably as a contract surgeon stationed in Kentucky. He was respected member of the Giles community, an elder in the Presbyterian Church located on the hillside across the road from his home, and, as one biographer took pains to point out, a Democrat. His papers included a receipt dated May 2, 1877 for payment for a bell for the Presbyterian Church. He hosted card games for his circle of friends in his small office near the house, complete with whiskey and tobacco that gentlemen of that era enjoyed.

The Doctor's papers contain letters from merchants with whom he carried accounts. Many are written in elegant Spenserian script. The letterhead from one manufacturing chemist (drug company) proclaims on it's invoice, the only centennial award indicative of superior merit for sugar-coated pills. A good number of the bills are addressed to Mary Polly who obviously directed the household purchasing. The tone of the letter indicates long term, cordial relationships between the Johnstons and the merchants. Relationships so close that one letter reads "We send the rice as ordered. As sweet girls as you have raised are always in demand. The trouble lies in finding men who are worthy of them."

Dr. Johnston ministered to the people of Giles County from the time of his graduation from medical school in 1853 until his death from heart failure in 1881 at age 50. Mary Polly found herself, after twelve years of marriage, a widow once again with at least six of the children in her care. William Andrew had probably finished his medical training and Carrie may have been married at the time of their father's death.


"A visit by them durn yankees"

Civil War: The Union Invades Giles County, 1862

During the first year of the Civil War it became clear that the conflict would not be the brief, glorious fight that many on both sides had predicted.   It soon began to take a grim toll on both soldiers and civilians, and the Union found itself unable to defeat the rebel army.  Those first twelve months saw a humiliating rout at Manassas, followed by a costly victory at Shiloh, and the failure of the Peninsula Campaign to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond.

Federal forces were somewhat more successful in western Virginia, where unionist sympathies ran high.  During the winter of 1861-62 President Lincoln and his generals devised a plan to invade Southwest Virginia, capture its lead and salt mines and destroy the strategically important Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.  The railroad was part of a vital transportation network that kept the South – and the capital of Richmond – supplied with salt, munitions, food and other crucial supplies.

By the spring of 1862 Federal troops occupied almost all of what is now West Virginia, and had reached Raleigh Courthouse (now Beckley, West Virginia).  Stationed at Raleigh Courthouse was the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry, commanded by future U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes.

A 38-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer with no military experience before the war, Hayes had already proved himself to be a daring, ambitious leader much-admired by his troops.  Among the men of the 23rd Ohio was a newly-promoted commissary sergeant, William McKinley.  A brash and spirited 19-year old, McKinley would also become President of the United States.

As part of the overall invasion plan, Union General Jacob Cox was ordered to lead two brigades up the New River, through the Narrows and Giles Court House (Pearisburg) and on to Central Depot (Radford.) The goal was to burn the covered wooden railway bridge across the New River near Central Depot. 

Occupation of Pearisburg

By the 1st of May, Cox’s division had fought its way to Princeton, which was engulfed in flames on orders of the retreating Confederate commander.  Lt. Col. Hayes pushed forward into Giles County with 600 men of the 23rd Ohio.  By May 6 Hayes had passed through the undefended Narrows of the New River, occupied Pearisburg and encamped on high ground just south of the town at the base of Angel’s Rest mountain.

Hayes wrote of his first impressions: This is a lovely spot, a fine, clean village, most beautiful and romantic surrounding country, and polite and educated Secesh people…I find more intelligence and culture here than anywhere else in Virginia.

Private E. E. Henry, was also taken with the village and its surroundings: In the beautiful town of Pearisburg a mountain is near, called Angel's Rest.  The fields are full of grass, clover, and bumble bees humming around.” 

Henry goes on to describe the occupation of Pearisburg as something akin to a schoolboy caper:

We capture Confederate money, our expert penmen sign the new bills…. We buy palm leaf hats, sorghum, hams, bacon, everything to suit our fancy; go the hotel, look over the register, and sign our names, order dinner, call ourselves Colonels and Generals.  The rebel citizens do not seem to know that we are high privates.  We eat and give toasts, make speeches to the delight of the servants, and then march out as though we owned the hotel. The storekeepers are jolly, saying, "Have a good time boys, General Lee will not allow you to stay but a few days."  This is the biggest picnic we have had since enlistment. Whenever the band plays "Dixie", the whole town throws open windows and waves aprons and 'kerchiefs.


Another soldier, Private John Ellen, took a dimmer view of the citizenry:


The town abounds in liquor and cross men and women.  The women are a little insulting; they hate the Yankees.


The Federals captured a large amount of food and supplies stored in the Presbyterian Church on Main Street.  Across from the church was the elegant brick home of Dr. Harvey Green Johnston and his nearby medical office.  Tradition holds that Hayes set up his headquarters in the doctor’s office, and took his meals at the Woodrum Hotel (now the Chamber of Commerce.). 


With the Federals now within twenty miles of the strategic railroad bridge near Radford, Gen. Henry Heth, commander of the area’s Southern forces, managed to cobble together an army of some 2000 men and five artillery pieces.


Hayes soon realized that the gathering Confederates force far outnumbered his regiment of around 600 men.  Heth also had artillery while Hayes had none.  Hayes sent a series of desperate but unheeded requests to his commander for reinforcements.


Battle of Giles Court House


Early in the morning of May 10, the Confederates attacked Hayes’ first line of defense just south of town.  In an hours-long running battle the Federals fell back through the town and up the river, making several futile stands along the way. At the Narrows, Heth continued to pound the Union troops with artillery.  Hayes was wounded and his regiment retreated to Princeton.


Total casualties of the skirmish were two or three killed on either side and several wounded.  Local legend has it that as the Yankees fled town they set fire to the supplies in the Presbyterian Church. The formidable ladies of Pearisburg formed a bucket brigade and extinguished the flames.


The action at Giles Court House effectively ended the Union advance to Central Depot and saved – for a time – the strategic Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.  It can even be said that Hayes’ defeat ensured that Giles County remained a part of the state of Virginia, and not part of the new unionist state of West Virginia.  Giles County remained relatively peaceful until Union Gen. George Crook marched through the county in 1864 after the battle of Cloyd’s Mountain.
Commanders at the battle of Giles Court House.
Gen. Henry Heth (R) drove Lt. Rutherford B. Hayes and his 600 men out of Pearisburg on May 10, 1862. Hayes was elected President of the United States in 1876.

19-year-old Sgt. William McKinley served under Hayes during the Civil War. He was elected U.S. President in 1897 and was assassinated four years later.
  1860 United States Federal Census
  U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970


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