James Madison Johnson (1833?–1913)

James Madison Johnson migrated to Arkansas shortly after statehood in 1836. He rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general in the Union army during the Civil War, was twice elected to the U.S. Congress (though he was never seated), and served as the state’s second Reconstruction-era lieutenant governor.

James Madison Johnson was born in Warren County, Tennessee. The year of his birth is uncertain, with sources listing 1829, 1832, or 1833; however, 1833 is recorded on the headstone marking his grave, and December 8 is the agreed-upon day. He was the son of James Martin Johnson and Elizabeth Dunagin Johnson. In about 1836, Johnson and his family moved to Arkansas, settling in Madison County.

He attended Arkansas College and the Ozark Institute, both located in Washington County. While also pursuing a teaching career for two years, he began studying medicine under Fayetteville (Washington County) practitioners in 1855. In 1857, he attended the St. Louis Medical College, and after returning to Arkansas he began practicing medicine in 1859 in Huntsville (Madison County).

On September 10, 1850, after settling in Madison County, he married a cousin, Elizabeth Johnson. They had six sons and two daughters. Elizabeth died in 1883, and he married Jennie Mullins Wilson of Whitener (Madison County) on October 15, 1893.

As a Unionist during the Civil War, he and friend Isaac Murphy joined General Samuel Curtis’s army in 1862 and later served in the Army of the Frontier, commanded by General John Schofield, at Springfield, Missouri. In 1863, he was authorized to raise troops for the Union cause. After recruiting many of the Arkansas soldiers who served in the Union army, he was promoted to colonel of the First Arkansas Infantry. In Arkansas, he participated in the 1863 Action at Fayetteville, the 1864 Action at Moscow, and the 1864 Camden Expedition. He also fought at Fort Gibson in Indian Territory and Fort Pillow in Tennessee, the latter known for the massacre of African-American U.S. troops.

Johnson was elected to Congress from the Third District in 1864 and again in 1866. Despite his being a loyal unionist, the U.S. Congress, suspicious of delegates from seceded states, refused to seat him either time. However, in 1867, upon the recommendation of General Ulysses S. Grant, he was promoted to brevet brigadier general by President Andrew Johnson.

That same year, he lost the nomination for governor to Powell Clayton but was elected lieutenant governor. In the midst of Reconstruction, Johnson led a faction that levied charges against Clayton for corruption in handling railroad bonds and an abuse of the governor’s power in dealing with the suppression of violence in different areas of the state during the so-called Militia Wars. Eventually, impeachment proceedings were initiated against the governor, though the legislature never took action.

Clayton was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1871 by the Arkansas General Assembly. However, if Clayton were to take the seat, Lieutenant Governor Johnson (Clayton’s political opponent) would assume the office of governor. Clayton declined the seat until he could broker a deal in which Johnson would resign and be appointed to the office of secretary of state, which had become vacant when Robert T. White resigned and returned to Virginia due to his wife’s death during childbirth. With the office of secretary of state vacant, the order of succession to the governor’s seat would fall to Clayton ally and Arkansas Senate president pro tempore Ozro Hadley. In March 1871, Johnson accepted the arrangement and resigned. Clayton then moved to the U.S. Senate and Hadley to the executive seat, serving as acting governor.

After completing White’s term, Johnson was duly elected to a term to the office in 1872. It was during this elected term that the Brooks-Baxter War, a dispute over who was rightfully elected governor in the election of 1872, broke out. As secretary of state, it was Johnson’s duty to care for the state’s property, including the capitol building (now the Old State House Museum). During the dispute, the capitol building and grounds were occupied by military forces who damaged the building and much of the holdings of the library, including state records. The capitol grounds were also damaged by several barricades and earthworks built to defend the building during the dispute. As secretary of state, Johnson oversaw the repair of all of the damage.

The Constitution of 1874 required the reconstitution of Arkansas’s government at all levels, and Johnson chose not to run for office again. Johnson returned to Madison County, settling on his farm with his family. It is believed that he continued to offer his services as a physician to local residents. His daughter Kate followed in his footsteps, studying medicine under him. In 1874, Johnson once again entered public service when he accepted a position on the board of trustees at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville, a position he held until 1883.

Johnson died on February 15, 1913. He is buried in the family cemetery near Wesley in Madison County.

For additional information:
The Goodspeed Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northwestern Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889.

Kwas, Mary. A Pictorial History of Arkansas’s Old State House: Celebrating 175 Years. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011.

Wiedman, Ruby Johnson. “Col. James Madison Johnson and His Family.” Madison County Musings 3 (Summer 1984): 91–102.

Debra Polston
Cabot, Arkansas


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