Fighting for Freedom Together, an Ancestral Connection
Updated: May 5
History can be told using the facts and figures we all learned in school. Or history can be told with the words of the people who were there. Sometimes the difference gets hazy. One example may be how the American Civil War finally ended. It's a story that can be told from several points of view. For the sake of simplicity, the Civil War is often said to have ended on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The two generals are now household names and the village where it took place is a National Historical Park considered one of the most outstanding heritage parks in the country. Everything there fits together. But the reality is that the final end of the Civil War was still several weeks away from the surrender at Appomattox. Small battles on both the land and sea continued to be fought.
Then there are the personal stories. They are often told in bits and pieces. But they can define the legacy of families and even serve as an inspiration to future generations. The story of my great-grandfather is a case in point. If there was ever such a thing as a gentleman’s war, where skill favored force, it was my great-grandfather who fought in it. He commanded warships for the Union Navy and there is no record of a casualty in combat.
His name was John Alexander Johnstone and he was born in 1836 at Balmerino, a small town on the River Tay in Fife, Scotland. His family were shippers that carried cargo across the Atlantic to Philadelphia. By the time he was a teenager, he was a skilled seaman. With a sense of hope and opportunity, he chose to make Philadelphia his new home and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1860.
As the clouds of war began to gather, Johnstone most certainly would have been beaconed to join other Scottish sailors to be part of the wily fleet of Confederate blockade runners. There was money to be had in that line of work; lots of it. Instead, his values leaned towards abolition. And so, in 1861 he joined the US Navy where he trained in naval warfare and began his career as a shipmaster, a rank equivalent to a modern ensign, to help fight for the cause of equality.
His time with the Union Navy was commendable. By 1865, the final year of the war, the 28-year-old Johnstone had been responsible for capturing at least three blockade runners, had received commendations, gained promotions, and was given command of at least three different ships.
Johnstone’s final assignment was commanding the USS Cornubia which was with the Western Gulf Fleet near Galveston, Texas, the last Confederate port. It was there that the final battle would be fought and the last surrender made.
Artist rendering of the USS Cornubia
It began on May 23, 1865, when a transport ship called Denbigh, a notorious Confederate blockade runner, had been discovered to have once again slipped past the Union blockade into Galveston Bay to deliver its valuable cargo. It had been in service for the Confederacy for almost two years and had made at least 13 successful trips frustrating every Union effort to capture it. But on this trip, a squad of four blockaders – Cornubia, Princess Royal, Kennebec, and Seminole – were ordered by Captain Benjamin F. Sands, the senior officer on the coast of Texas, to use every means to destroy the notorious ship. The small fleet of ships were finally successful in cornering the Denbigh and running it aground just outside the bay.
The Cornubia and Princess Royal then fired on the Denbigh as its crew abandoned it to the safety of the shore at Bird Key Spit, off Galveston. Boarding parties from the Kennebec and Seminole then took control of the Denbigh, gathered whatever valuable items they could, and set the ship on fire. By the early morning of May 24, 1865, the Denbigh was declared a total wreck.
What happened a few hours later is best told by John A. Johnstone in an official report made to naval officials the day after the event:
“Report of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Johnstone, U. S. Navy, regarding the wreck of the Confederate schooner Le Compt, guard boat at Galveston.
U. S. S. Cornubia, Off Galveston, Tex., May 25,1865.
I have the honor to report that yesterday afternoon, in obedience to your orders to prevent any of the enemy's boats from boarding the burning wreck of the blockade runner Denbigh until she was completely destroyed, I got underway, and stood into the Bolivar Channel as far as the depth of water would allow, and anchored in 12 feet about 1 mile outside the wreck. A schooner which had been at anchor about a mile inside the wreck, on discovering the approach of the Cornubia, got underway and tried to escape into Galveston.
On firing two shots at her, she hauled down her sails, and a part of her crew got into a boat and escaped to the beach.
I then sent an armed boat under command of Acting Ensign Frank Millett, of this ship, to board her and bring her out if possible. On boarding her, Mr. Millett found that she had drifted ashore on Bird Key Spit, and had bilged and lost her rudder. Finding it impossible to get her off, he threw overboard a 24-pounder howitzer, with which she was armed, and brought four men, whom he found on board of her; also 5 carbines, 5 new Enfield rifles, a steering compass, and a rebel flag.
She proved to be the schooner Le Compt, the rebel guard boat stationed at Galveston.
During last night she beat over the spit, and now lies a wreck on Bolivar Point beach.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, John A. Johnstone, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant, Commanding.”
A month later, the following report was made by Admiral Thatcher to Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.
“Report of Acting Rear-Admiral Thatcher, U. S. Navy, forwarding the last flag captured in the civil war.
West Gulf Squadron, U. S. Flagship Estrella, off Mobile, Ala., June 29, 1865.
I have the honor to forward herewith to the Department the rebel flag of the armed picket schooner Le Compt, captured by the U. S. S. Cornubia, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant John A. Johnstone, off Galveston, on the 24th May, 1865.
On the same day the blockade runner Denbigh was destroyed. It is believed to be the last rebel flag on the coast afloat captured from the rebels during this war, and may possess an interest at the Department.
It has been duly marked as above, and was recently received from Captain B. F. Sands, U. S. Navy, senior officer on the coast of Texas.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, H. K. Thatcher, Acting Rear-Admiral, Commanding Western Gulf Squadron.
(Source: Civil War Naval Chronology 1861-1865. pp. I:1-41; II:1-117; III:1-170; IV:1-152; V:1-134. 1971: Naval History Division, Navy Department.)
Galveston, Texas 1871
In short, this end of the Civil War has provided me and my family with a special connection. On May 24, 1865, my great-grandfather, John A. Johnstone, commanding the U.S.S. Cornubia off of Galveston, fired the last shots of the war, destroyed the last Confederate warship, and captured the last Confederate Battle Flag which was passed on to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells. (Despite the clear paper trail, that last Confederate flag has not been located.)
There is also a sense of pride that these events were achieved with an integrated crew of 15 African American sailors, most of which had been born into slavery. Below is a list of each of their names to honor their service to the Union cause:
George Berry, Landsman
James Brown, 2nd Class Fireman
Thomas Brown, Landsman
Robert C. Freeman, 1st Class Boy
James Johnson, Landsman
Ben Jones, Landsman
James Jones, Landsman
Edward Linier, Landsman
Haywood Linier, Landsman
Isaiah Mason, Ordinary Seaman
James Peterson, Ordinary Seaman
James Redwood, Landsman
Harrison W. Sewall, Ordinary Seaman
Abram Smith, Coal Heaver
George Wilson, Landsman
This was not unusual. According to the National Parks Service Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, there were approximately 18,000 African American sailors that served in the Union Navy. They made up about 25-percent of the Union sailors and were given the same wages and privileges as their white counterparts.
Later, on June 5, 1865, two weeks before Juneteenth, John A. Johnstone, commanding the U.S.S. Cornubia, became the flagship for Captain Benjamin Sands as it sailed into Galveston Bay. Once docked, Capt. Sands mission was to meet with the mayor of Galveston and proceed a couple of blocks to the Custom House. Upon arrival, he ordered the Confederate flag to be lowered for the last time. To a small gathering, he announced the final end of hostilities and then ordered the Stars and Stripes to be raised. The group remained silent. But from the deck of the Cornubia my great-grandfather and his valiant crew of Black and white sailors stood shoulder-to-shoulder to cheer and celebrate.
What is Juneteenth?
Check out an article written by Malcolm Johnstone for County Lines Magazine to learn more about this national day of freedom.