Darwin Johnson

Darwin Johnson, son of Silas L. Johnson and Abigail (Nabby) Rhodes, was born in Leicester, Addison Co., Vermont on 7 Nov 1829. Silas had been born in Dublin, New Hampshire and Abigail in Dedham, Massachusetts.[1] In 1850, Darwin was living with his parents on a farm in Leicester.[2] Darwin's first job away from home was that of choreboy for John A. Conant of Brandon, VT. Mr. Conant's fine horses took some of Darwin's time but his early aptitude for carpenter's tools led to a task on the Rutland Railroad. Water for the engines in those days came to the railroad yards, in smaller towns, from nearby springs via aqueducts made out of hollow pine logs. His job was to make periodical trips to inspect and repair those aqueducts over a route extending from Shelburne to Chester or Bellows Falls, VT.[3]

Darwin was a 27 year old farmer in Leicester when on 3 Dec 1857, he married 16 year old Melvina M. Fortier[4] who had been born in Canada in Aug 1839.[5] The wedding took place in Goshen, VT and was officiated by Silas D. Gale, justice of the peace.[6] Melvina was born near Montreal, the daughter of Lewis and Nancy Fortier, who were born in Canada. Melvina lived in Goshen at the time of her marriage.

In 1860, Darwin lived in Leicester within the household of Sarah M.K. Bullock and her family. He was a farm laborer for Mrs. Bullock, but probably did not actually reside in the household.[7] Next door to the Bullocks, Melvina and her two daughters resided with the family of John Forely [sic Foley?]. Forely shared a two family house with Alanson Norton and his family. All were farmers.[8] The following May, Darwin purchased a home for just south and east of the two family house. The new home was known as the "Gambell place." Darwin paid $400 for it.[9] Here "Melvina took care of her little girls, sewed for her neighbors, milked her cow, worked her garden patch and wrote letters to her soldier husband ..."[10]

Darwin, like many other Vermonters, heeded President Lincoln's call and joined the Union cause in the Civil War. At the time of his enlistment, his post office address was Leicester. "He went to Pittsford, Vermont, to enlist before the draft of '64, in order that his wife, left at home with two little girls, besides a two month old baby Jeanette, should have the benefit of $100 bounty given to men who volunteered."[11] Darwin enrolled on 7 Dec 1863 at Pittsford in Company C, 1st Regiment of Vermont Heavy Artillery. He mustered into service as a Private from 7 Dec 1863 at Brattleboro, VT.

Darwin was on the muster rolls of Company C for Nov and Dec 1863, and Jan and Feb 1864 as present for duty. He was also present during March, but on 6 Apr 1864, Darwin was admitted to Kalorama General Hospital, Washington, DC from Fort Slocum for treatment for varioloides [small pox] even though he had been vaccinated when young. Darwin was furloughed 7 Jul 1864, went home to Leicester, returned 24 Aug 1864, and was sent back to duty that same month.

Charles F. Church, a fellow soldier, recounted his story of Darwin's battles with illness. To the best of recollection, he and a healthy Darwin had enlisted together and served in the same company. But when Darwin returned to duty after being hospitalized for small pox:

"He returned from there to the Regt. while we were near Winchester, Va. (the night before the battle of Winchester), and at this time he was entirely unfit for duty. He was detailed as a nurse and went to the "Sheridan Field Hospital" in that vicinity, he was very thin in flesh and he was so weak that he could not walk any distance without giving up as it were."

William H. Allen, a comrade of both Church and Johnson also remembered that when Darwin returned to duty from the hospital:

"... the Regt. was in the "Valley" [Shenandoah Valley] and he was very weak and unfit for duty. This was about Sept. 18th, 1864. And as the Regt. was to move in the morning, with a strong probability of going into action, [Darwin] was detailed as a nurse in the Sheridan Field Hospital, and went there. The next day was fought the Battle of Winchester, VA."

On 4 Nov 1864, Darwin entered Sheridan Field Hospital from the field for treatment of pneumonia and was transferred 15 Nov 1864. Darwin recalled:

"At Sheridan Field Hospital at Winchester, Va. I was detailed to help in taking care of the sick and wounded as a nurse - was there some two or three months - while there acting as nurse the chronic diarrhea came upon me to that extent that I became unable to act as nurse and finally was put to bed sick with the diarrhea - and was treated at the Hospital by Surgeon or asst. Surgeon whose name I did not know at the time and do not remember of even hearing what his name was - I know that he was of Irish descent - I was there but a short time perhaps one week ..."

Darwin later recalled that while convalescing from sickness at Fort Sheridan, he "was stationed at Winchester with the duties of an orderly. To him it was an honor that he equipped and brought out the fiery black steed which Sheridan mounted for the dash that stemmed the Confederate menace to Washington and turned the defeat of Cedar Creek into Union victory."[12]

From the Sheridan Field Hospital, Darwin went immediately to Mower (Chestnut Hill) General Hospital, Philadelphia, PA on 17 Nov 1864 with rheumatism. In December, Darwin wrote the following letter to his brother, George:

Chestnut Hill, U.S. Genl. Hospital
Philadelphia, PA. Dec 21st 1864

Dear Brother

It is with much pleasure that I take my pen to Acknowledge the Rec of your very welcome letter of the 19th which I Rec this morning in company of one from Charley from Petersburg I have been thinking about writing to you for a long time but hearing that you was in Vermont some time ago & not knowing whether you were there or not in my last letter home I wrote to find out but your letter came first I expected one from home this morning but it did not come I get one every week the last one I got they were all well there was not much news only that Leuther Beach had S[aul?] Verris on his mortgage I am afraid Verris will loose all he has got this fall I have been hear a little over a month, when I left home I went back to Kalorama hospital in Washington I was there about a week & went from there to Alexandria to camp Distribution was there 4 days & started for the Reg which was in the valey, there were about 3000 for the 6th corps we marched to Washington which is 4 miles & took the cars for Harpers ferry we got in there about midnight & went 1 mile to Boliver hights & campt down for the night which was the first of my camping out we had no tents lay down on our Ruber blankets, knapsack for a pillow & woolen blanket over & count Stars untill you can go to sleep & you will have an idea of my first night in the field Next morning had to go another mile before we could find water to get our breakfast got to the Regiment about dusk we passed by the place where John Brown was hung I was with the Regiment untill the 19th of Sept the morning of the Battle of winchester I had not been armed & was ordered to fall out with 4 others that had no guns. Just before they got on to the Rebs I went far enough to hear the pieces of Shells whistle over our heads & hear the limbs of the trees fall, & Sit down by the Side of the Road & sit there 4 or 5 hours & ther was a solid column passing all the while the first Johney I saw lay with his head in the Brook by the side of the road with a button hole through him Soon the wounded began to be carried to the rear & we were ordered to the hospital to help take care of them in the course of the day there was 8 from my company brought in two of them lost a leg, it was pretty tough business for me to have to hold a leg or arm & see the Doctors cut them of but I soon got used to it so I did not think no more of it than as though it was a beefs leg for I knew it must be done we moved from there in a few days to winchester & I was detailed to the Sheridan field hospital as nurse the hospital was nothing but tents put up & was cold nights I hurt by back lifting the men & got cold & had to turn in as patient I had the Rheumatism I was then sick 10 days & then was sent hear I am so as to be about most of the time but am lame in my hips & back & pain in my sides & stomach the Doctor examined me yesterday I do not know what he concluded on I may stay hear all winter & may be sent some where else tomorrow there is not much chance to get discharged I had as lives go to my Reg now as any time but I know that if I have to go there and ley on the ground it will not be long before they will have to send me of again but I wish I could be able to go with the rest of the boys I should feel better I guess you think I am never going to pay you that money back but it will come. if I was with the Regiment I could get my pay in full there is 104 dollars due me now that I have not been mustered for I cannot get but two month pay at a time when not with the Regt when I was at winchester I was with the Reg long enough to be mustered & I Rec 52 dollars & thought then of sending you yours but I got a letter from home from Melvina saying she had not money to pay for potatoes & things she wanted for winter & I sent her most of it thinking that you was not in need, but I shall have it sometime I hope before long & will send it to you or you may make it in your dicker with Wm if are in want of it before I can get it he is owing me a little & it will be all the same but perhaps I shall have it before you will have a settlement with him About them aples & walnuts, I should like to be with you & help you to keep them from spoiling but there is not much chance to get a furlough form hear & a person does not know what hour he may be called on the go hears there would not be any certainty of my getting them I should sent home before now if I could know that I was going to remain hear. the Sutter hear keeps them 2 for 5 cents about as large as turkey eggs, but I guess that I have wrote enough this time to make up for lost time so I will stop write often & oblidge your Brother

Darwin Johnson

Civil War military encampment, Bolivar Heights, WV. Bolivar in background. Oct 1862.[13]

Darwin Johnson camped here one fall night in 1864 with Company C, 1st Regiment of Vermont Heavy Artillery.

Darwin remained at the Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia until he was returned to duty on 4 Jan 1865. He was far from healthy when he rejoined his Company. Charles F. Church recalled being reunited with his comrade:

"The next time that I saw [Darwin] was when the Regt. was in front of Petersburgh, Va. he came to the Reg. and he was hardly able to walk he was so lame. He said that he had contracted rheumatism and the lameness while in the hospital and he also complained of a trouble with his breathing and strange feelings in the region of his heart. I know that he was a very different man in his appearance than I had ever seen him appear to be before. His sufferings were such that he would lie awake nights and moan with pain. I was in the same tent with him. And I know that the above statement is true in every particular, as I well remember that it was the opinion of his comrades that he would never get well again. The said Johnson never recovered from the said disabilities, and he was not again able to do duty while he was in the service. He was so lame that he could not march with the column or keep with it. And W.H. Allen a tentmate of ours went with him and took care of him."

Indeed, William H. Allen did care for Darwin. His memory of Darwin's return to duty corresponded with Church's:

"I did not see the claimant again until about the first week in January, 1865, when he rejoined the Regt. at or near Petersburgh, VA. He came to my tent or quarters and we were comrades and tent-mates during the rest of the campaign. At the time [Darwin] returned as above stated, he was evidently suffering from rheumatism lameness, and a difficulty of breathing, and he complained of the said disabilities. He said that he had contracted the aforesaid disabilities while serving as a nurse in the said hospital. And it is my belief that [he] told the truth. As I had not known of his suffering or complaining of the same until the above specified time. He was lame and weak and suffered so much pain that he was not able at times to sleep nights, but kept some of his comrades awake by reason of his moanings. He was thin and poor in flesh always after during the remainder of his term of service. While on the march from Richmond, Va. to Washington, D.C., after the war closed, he was so lame that he could not march with and keep up with the column. He fell out of the ranks and I went with him and helped him as far as Fredericksburgh, VA. where we joined the Regt. during the rest of the march from there to Baileys' Cross Roads near Washington, we were with the Regt. a great deal of the time. And the claimant continued to suffer from the same at the date of his discharge, August, 25th, 1865."

Darwin and his comrades were transferred to Company B in the same regiment and were reported present on the muster roll of that company for May and June 1865. Darwin was still a Private and in Battery B of the 1st Regiment of Vermont Heavy Artillery when he was received in Fort Foote Hospital, Maryland on 7 Jul 1865. He was treated for debility and returned to duty 26 Jul 1865. Darwin mustered out with Company B and was discharged at Fort Foote, MD on 25 Aug 1865. The following day, he left Ft. Foote at 1PM on the steamer, J.S. Lewis, bound for Washington, DC. From there, he took a train to Baltimore. On 27 Aug 1865, he boarded the Camden & Amboy train for New York City, via Trenton, New Brunswick and Newark to Jersey City, where he ferried to New York. Remaining there overnight, he left at 12:30 PM the following day on the steamer, Jos. M. Way, for Albany then on to Troy. On 29 August, he took the train from Troy at 7AM for Rutland and then to Leicester, arriving at 5PM.[14] His granddaughter, Alta C. Adams, recalled what Darwin had told her about the final leg of his journey home:

"He used to tell the story of a favorite weskit (waistcoat) that he should have burned with the rest of his clothes after his recovery from the dreaded disease [small pox], but he did not and wore it when he went home. He arrived at Leicester Junction late at night and walked the rest of the way. He couldn't quite bring himself to risk wearing the weskit into the house where his three little girls were, so he stopped at the little brook on the road east from the "Corners," took the garment off, rolled it up and tucked it under the bridge. Arrived at home a rap brought Grandmother to the door, and though he demanded food in a gruff, unfamiliar voice, a glint of light on the brass buttons of his uniform revealed his identity. The next morning Grandmother told the little girls that they might find some little kittens on her bed if they went in very quietly. Tiptoeing into the bedroom, they found their father asleep, covered with his coat of army blue."[15]

The next day Darwin went to Burlington and back. Two days later on 1 Sep 1865, he again "went to Burlington, paid off & discharged from Uncle Sam's Service."[16]

Darwin served for 1 year, 8 months, and 8 days and left the army with chronic diarrhea that plagued him for the remainder of his life.[17] "He also sustained an injury to his hip during a night movement of troops by train that resulted in a shortening of that leg, so that, during the latter years of his life he had to walk with a crutch.[18] After several attempts to gain a pension, he ultimately received a disability pension of $30 per month because he was "unable to earn support by reason of chronic diarrhea, itching piles, rheumatism and resulting disease of heart - and general debility."

Not all of Darwin's recollections from the Civil War were painful. He related an episode about President Lincoln visiting the troops. "While inspecting cannon placements, Lincoln jumped up on the rather low parapet overlooking the river. The officer in charge suggested that the President's tall figure made a perfect target for a Confederate bullet. But Lincoln was indifferent to the warning. At last the officer gave the definite order, 'As commander of this fort, I must command you to use the protection of this fort, and not so unnecessarily expose to danger, the President of the Union.' Lincoln's slow smile came then, as he stepped down from the embankment, but he said, 'You forget that I am Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army.'[19]

In 1869, Darwin sold his home to L.C. Churchill for $500[20] and moved east to the Lake Dunmore road. Here he bought a house from B. Austin for $450.[21] This placed him across the road from his new employment in a mineral paint mill just east of present day Fern Lake. Now, his family included three daughters and three year old, Julius D.[22]

Darwin represented Leicester in the State Legislature of 1876 where he served on a special committee of Military Affairs.[23] By 1879, he had returned to farming again in Leicester. Working with him was 40 year old Williard J. Hitchcock, a hired man and farm laborer.[24] Darwin leased 200 acres of Frank Chandler's farm on town highway #5. Johnson, in addition to his farming and tending dairy cows, was a carpenter, joiner, and Leicester town selectman.[25] Darwin rented from Chandler for shares of the farm products. Below is the farm's scope and extensive productivity for 1879:

acres of land improved, tilled32    pounds of cheese made265
acres of land improved, permanent
meadows, orchards, pastures
100    swine2
acres of woodland80    poultry on hand, barnyard12
cash value of farm$5,000    eggs produced in 1879125 dz.
value of farm implements & machinery$40    Indian corn:
value of live stock$370    acres3
cost of fences, build/repair$5     bushels140
wages paid$160    oats:
weeks of paid labor30    acres1
value of all farm productions$640     bushels69
acres of grassland, mown26    wheat:
acres of grassland, not mown90    acres3
tons of hay35    bushels56
horses2    tons of flax straw4
milk cows8    Irish potatoes:
other cattle9    acres1
calves dropped9    bushels150
living cattle sold3    Apple bearing trees50
cattle slaughtered1    bushels of apples200
gallons of milk sold547    value of orchard products$20
pounds of butter made1,200    cords of wood cut40
  value of forest products$80[26]

In 1884, Darwin moved into the former John Bullock house, which was then owned by Clemon Brownson. Under this arrangement two Leicester selectmen dwelt under the same roof, "a matter of personal convenience to them." Meanwhile, Darwin continued "to carry on the Chandler farms."[27]

During Friday night of 18 Nov 1892, a wind storm "did considerable damage in town. It blew the roof off from Roscoe Sawyer's horse barn, and blew off six blinds from Darwin Johnson's house, and part of one chimney. The blinds had been recently painted and hung, and were left open to dry. The wind made kindling wood of three of them."[28] Years after this storm, Darwin's granddaughter recalled what she had heard about the storm:

"When my grandfather lived in the old tavern known as 'The Red House,' [Chandler's house] a severe electrical storm came up one summer night about 'milking time.' Grandma was making biscuits for supper, but crossed the kitchen to lower a window in her bedroom in the southwest corner of the house. She remembered raising her arms to the window just as a terrific crash told of the bolt [of lightning] which struck the old-fashioned, square chimney with its double flues. A long length of stovepipe over her head was knocked down and the room dusted with whitewash. This pipe went through the wall into the kitchen stove and the bolt followed it through the stove, knocking out a small door under the hearth where the oven was cleaned out. The heavy plank flooring in front of the stove was broken like sticks of kindling wood. Dropping into the cellar, the bolt blackened a stone in the wall as it went out into the ground.

This same bolt had sent a current out through the fire board in an unused fireplace, stripped up a breadth of carpet, cut out and destroyed spindles from a chair leaving no trace of them, blackened the head of a nail in the baseboard, and finally tore off a corner of the piazza roof.

A second electrical current went through into a smaller stove in the hall-dining room, gave Aunt Nora, who was lying on a couch near, a shock, splintered the floor in front of the stove on its way to the cellar where it broke nearly every jar in a box of canned fruit. This was done so neatly that there was no leakage from many of the jars until they were picked up.

Grandfather and Aunt Nettie found Grandma unconscious in the shattered bedroom. Father (Frank Cooley) rode for miles in the down pour of rain after a doctor. Not until after eleven o'clock that night did Grandma show any signs of life, and not until December was she able to be about her work."[29]

In 1889, Darwin had sold the house across from Fern Lake to Frank Gambell for $330.[30] Two years later, he had purchased 30 acres of land, known as the "Beach Farm," for $1,800 from Frank E. Chandler. This property is located on present day Shattuck Road just north and east of the former Chandler farm. Here, Darwin and Melvina moved from the former Bullock/Chandler house sometime in the 1890s and made their permanent home called "Sunset Hill."[31]

In 1900, Darwin, his wife, and 36 year old single daughter, Nettie were still living together and Darwin was still farming at age 70. Nettie worked as a seamstress.[32] In early 1920, Darwin at age 90, Melvina, and Nettie still resided at "Sunset Hill."[33] Darwin died in his home on 13 Apr 1920 at the age of 90 years, 5 months, and 6 days.[34] Melvina received a pension of $50 per month until her death on 4 Oct 1928. Darwin and Melvina are buried in Brookside Cemetery in Leicester. Children:

i. Lenora, b. 11 Dec 1858. ii. Emma J., b. 17 Mar 1860. iii. Janette (Nettie) W., b. 17 Oct 1863. iv. Julius D., b. 27 Dec 1867, d. 13 Feb 1872.


1. Civil War Pension Record for Darwin Johnson, file #294,812. [Unless otherwise noted, all information comes from this file.]
2. Census, 1850, VT, Addison Co., Leicester, 28 Aug 1850, p. 116/76. Silas Johnson and family
3. Silas and Abigail Johnson Annals. Bulletin 2, 1943, p. 17. provided by John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
4. Vermont Vital Records
5. Census, 1900, VT, Addison Co., Leicester, ED 9, Sht 1, 1 Jun 1900, p. 80A. Darwin Johnson and family
6. Vermont Vital Records
7. Census, 1860, VT, Addison Co., Leicester, P.O. Leicester, 25 Jun 1860, p. 90/218. Sarah M.K. Bullock and family
8. Census, 1860, VT, Addison Co., Leicester, P.O. Leicester, 25 Jun 1860, p. 90/218. Alanson Norton & family, John [Forley?] & familiy, and Mulvina Johnson & family
9. Leicester, VT Land Records, 11:13, 13 May 1861. [Note: In 1999, this home is owned by Mr. Shattuck.]
10. Silas and Abigail Johnson Annals. Bulletin 2, 1943, p. 19: Janette W. Johnson, daughter account of Darwin Johnson. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
11. Johnson Annals of the Silas and Abigail Johnson Association. 1940s. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
12. Silas and Abigail Johnson Annals. Bulletin 2, 1943, p. 17. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
13. Harper's Ferry Historical Assn. Image Name: hf-0983.
14. 1865 Diary of Darwin Johnson. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
15. Silas and Abigail Johnson Annals. Bulletin 2, 1943, p. 18: Alta C. Adams, granddaughter account of Darwin Johnson. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
16. 1865 Diary of Darwin Johnson. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
17. Census, 1890, VT, Addison Co., Leicester: (11) 45/46. Darwin Johnson. Private, Co. C, 11 VT Art. Enlisted 17 Dec 1863, discharged 25 Jun 1864. Served 1 year, 8 months, and 8 days. Disability - chronic diarrhea, P.O. Leicester, VT; and Civil War pension.
18. Silas and Abigail Johnson Annals. Bulletin 2, 1943, p. 18: Alta C. Adams, granddaughter account of Darwin Johnson. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
19. Silas and Abigail Johnson Annals. Bulletin 2, 1943, p. 17. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
20. Leicester VT, Land Records, 12:82, 13 May 1869.
21. Leicester VT, Land Records, 12:197, 17 Dec 1870.
22. Census, 1870, VT, Addison Co., Leicester, P.O. West Salisbury, 11 Jun 1870, p. 12/112. Darwin Johnson and family
23. Silas and Abigail Johnson Annals. Bulletin 2, 1943, p. 17. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
24. Census, 1880, VT, Addison Co., Leicester, ED 9, sht 6, p 103, 7 Jun 1880. Darwin Johnson and family
25. Child, Hamilton. Gazetter and Business Directory of Addison County, Vt. for 1881-1882. Published by Hamilton Child. Syracuse, NY: Printed at the Journal Office, February, 1882. Page 322. Darwin Johnson farmer, etc.
26. Census, Agricultural, Schedule #2, 1880, Vermont, Addison Co., Leicester, 7 Jun 1880, p. 6.
27. Brandon Union, Friday, 29 Mar 1884.
28. Brandon Union, Friday, 25 Nov 1892.
29. Adams, Alta C. A Memorable Storm. Typed one page recollection. No date. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.
30. Leicester, VT Land Records, 14:373, 1 May 1889.
31. Leicester, VT Land Records, 14:475, 5 Mar 1891.
32. Census, 1900, VT, Addison Co., Leicester, ED 9, Sht 1, 1 Jun 1900, p. 80A. Darwin Johnson and family
33. Census, 1920, VT, Addison Co., Leicester, ED 9, Sht 6A, 22-23 Jan 1920. Darwin Johnson & family.
34. Silas and Abigail Johnson Annals. Bulletin 2, 1943, p. 18: Alta C. Adams, granddaughter account of Darwin Johnson. Courtesy of John F. Adams, Middlebury, VT 1999.

Contributed by William J. Powers, Jr., Lake Dunmore, VT., wjpowers@lakedunmorevt.com.


Darwin Johnson, an aged and respected citizen, died at his home here, early Tuesday morning. He was in his 91st year and was the oldest person residing in Leicester. He has been a life long resident of the town and was a veteran of the Civil war. He is survived by his widow and three daughters and two granddaughters.

Source: Middlebury Register, April 16, 1920
Courtesy of Tom Boudreau.