James Vincent Johnston proudly wore this outfit—with a stag-horn knife tucked into his waist—for this photograph. Submitted photo

The crew of the USS Forrest Rose presented this uniform to the six-and-a-half-year-old boy they called “Admiral Johnston” for his bravery. The actual uniform can still be seen in the Missouri History Museum. Submitted photo

James V. Johnston

September 23, 1857 – February 18, 1906

“Powder Boy” James V. Johnston. Young Jimmie Johnston had accompanied his mother to visit his father, Captain John V. Johnston, aboard the U.S.S. gunboat Forest Rose, in peaceful waters on the Mississippi. As the vessel approached Waterproof, Louisiana, in February 1864 it came under attack by a force of 5,000 Confederates who were trying to cross the Mississippi to reinforce General Joseph E. Johnston, who was confronting General Sherman in Georgia. When the gunboat’s regular powder monkey, who carried powder to the gunners, was killed early in the battle, young Jimmie took his place until the Confederates were repelled.

(With three Johnstons in this one battle, father, son and opposing Confederate general it is no wonder that facts were scarce about this youngster’s brave efforts.)

James “Jimmie” Vincent Johnston was born September 23, 1857, and “was one of the youngest persons who rendered effective service in battle” during the Civil War at age six and a half.

His father, Captain John V. Johnston, was executive officer on Admiral Andrew Hull Foote’s flagship during the attack on Fort Donelson. For some time there had been so little trouble on the Mississippi River that naval officers were allowed to receive visits from their families. On February 13, 1864, his wife and son Jimmie were aboard the USS Forest Rose gunboat with him when they were unexpectedly attacked by a force of 5,000 Confederates. Captain Johnston directed his wife to lie on the floor of their cabin, tied Jimmie to the leg of a table and went back to his duties.

The young fellow was unwilling to be a prisoner while there was a battle going on and soon freed himself and ran down to the gundeck. Finally, when the regular powder boy was shot and killed, Jimmie took on his role and served efficiently as the gunboat’s “powder monkey” for the remainder of the fight.

When his father discovered him, he asked where he had gotten the load of powder. Jimmie replied, “Why, Tommy [the powder boy] had his head shotted off over there, an’ I’m a-carrying’ his powder.”

Thanks to little Jimmie’s help, the Forest Rose repelled the Confederate force successfully, saving the town of Waterproof, Louisiana, and its federal garrison. (Captain Johnson attained the rank of lieutenant by the time he resigned from the naval service on June 23, 1864. He died April 22, 1912, at St. Louis, Missouri. During World War II two destroyers were named USS Johnston in his honor.)

After the battle, in appreciation of the boy’s heroics the sailors nicknamed him “Admiral Jimmie” and made him a miniature sailor’s uniform, which now can be seen in the Missouri History Museum. Johnston proudly wore the outfit—with a stag-horn knife tucked into his waist.

Jimmie passed away from typhoid fever Feb. 18, 1906 and his funeral took place in St. Louis, Missouri. He was probably buried in Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum, as his death certificate say the place of burial was simply “Calvary.”

(This  valiant young warrior is the last one, as we know it, of the six year olds who, despite their age, served their country well. Next week, we start with the seven year old Civil War soldier boys.)


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