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Louis Johnson And The Arming of America
The Roosevelt and Truman Years
By Keith D. McFarland, David L. Roll
Indiana University Press Copyright © 2005 Keith D. McFarland and David L. Roll
All rights reserved.
Twenty-six-year-old Marcellus Alexander Johnson paced through the dimly lit rooms above the grocery store in the grimy working-class neighborhood. Outside, a cold wind was blowing sleet through the streets, weather which normally would have distressed the young merchant because it was bad for business. However, on that gray morning of January 10, 1891, the storekeeper had more important things on his mind. He was anxiously waiting for his wife, Katherine Leftwich Arthur, to give birth to their first — her third — child. Fortunately, the labor did not last long, and Marcellus soon learned that he was the father of a big healthy boy. As he and Katherine, who everyone called Kate, had previously agreed, the baby was named Louis Arthur.
The boy would bring pleasure and pride to the young couple. He would be hugely successful in law and government, he would be rich, he would befriend presidents, and he would be driven to become president. Yet at the same time he would be overbearing, arrogant, and imperious.
Although he was a child of Marcellus and Kate Johnson who ran a grocery store in Roanoke, Virginia, Louis Johnson's roots lay deep in the soil of Bedford County, Virginia.
Bedford County is a stunningly beautiful piece of the Virginia piedmont. It is bordered on the north by the majestic Peaks of Otter in the Blue Ridge. South from the mountains the rich rolling farmland ripples and unfolds until it reaches the Staunton River. Along the eastern border, north of the old Lynchburg-Salem Turnpike, Thomas Jefferson built his second architectural masterpiece, the magnificent octagonal retreat called Poplar Forest.
Louis Johnson's mother, born on August 10, 1861, in Bedford County, was the product of two very prominent county families, the Leftwiches and the Arthurs. The Leftwiches trace their ancestors back to the Norman Conquest. Kate's great-grandfather, Thomas Leftwich, the sheriff of Bedford County, was a captain of the Virginia Militia in the Revolutionary War who was later promoted to colonel and commanded the rearguard of General Gates's division at the battle of Camden. In the War of 1812, he was colonel of the 10th Regiment of the Virginia Militia. The Leftwiches settled in the southern part of Bedford County at a home called Mt. Airy near Leesville, where Thomas was buried in 1816.
The Arthurs, the other prominent family from which Kate descended, settled along Goose Creek and Craddock's Creek not far from Leesville. The Arthurs are lineal descendants of Lord William Russell, the Duke of Bedford. Kate's father, James Lewis Arthur, who inherited slaves and landholdings in his early twenties, was first lieutenant and then captain of Company C (the Big Island Greys) of the 58th Virginia Infantry. Under Stonewall Jackson, James Lewis Arthur and the Big Island Greys fought in the Valley and Seven Days' Campaigns of 1862 and at Cedar Run, Second Manassas, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, and Sharpsburg. On May 12, 1864, Kate's father was wounded at the "Mule Shoe" during the Spotsylvania Court House battle, one of the most savage and legendary engagements of the entire Civil War.
After the war, James Lewis Arthur returned to his family in Bedford County. In addition to his daughter Kate, James and his aptly named wife America raised five sons and six daughters on their family estate. Although the war had devastated the Bedford County economy and his farmlands lay in shambles, James Arthur was able to make his family comparatively comfortable as he tried to pick up the pieces and resume his career as a successful planter. He had plenty of acreage to sell, and the Bedford County land records confirm that he was an active buyer and seller of Bedford County farmland in the years following the Civil War. Captain Arthur entered public life, serving two terms in the Virginia Senate, one term as county treasurer, and ten years as justice of the peace. Louis Johnson always remembered his grandfather telling him that "no man is worth anything unless he is a Democrat."
While Kate was coming of age in Bedford County, Marcellus Johnson, her eventual husband and the father of Louis Johnson, was working on his mother's small family farm near Union Hall in Franklin County not far from the Bedford County line. Marcellus's father had died when he was only three, leaving his mother, Elizabeth Haynes, to raise eleven children.
Although Marcellus Johnson was born in 1865 in Franklin County, he was less than a generation removed from Bedford County; his father, John Wesley Johnson, had been born and raised in southern Bedford County on Craddock's Creek not far from the estates of the Leftwiches and the Arthurs. And Marcellus's grandfather, Martin Johnson, who owned a small farm on Craddock's Creek, was married to Sarah Leftwich.
As Kate entered her early twenties, she caught the eye of a son of the distinguished Saunders family who had settled across the Staunton River at Ivy Cliff. In 1884, she married Edgar Saunders. Within the next two years the couple moved to Roanoke City, a bustling railroad hub, probably to escape the depressed postwar economy in Bedford County. The parents of the young couple must have given them a substantial wedding gift because they were able to purchase a frame building and establish a successful grocery business near the booming Roanoke Machine Works.
The couple settled down and set up housekeeping above the grocery store at the corner of Wells and 4th Street. Kate gave birth to two sons, Edgar and Henry. In 1887, Marcellus Johnson arrived in Roanoke and was hired as a clerk in Saunders's grocery store. Within a year tragedy struck the young family. First Edgar Saunders died of typhoid, then his eldest son died of measles. These devastating losses left Kate with a four-year-old son, Henry, and the grocery store. She was a long way from Bedford County and the comfort and security of the Arthur estate. But she was a strong, proud woman and she would not look back.
Marcellus was four years younger than Kate. In terms of social standing, family lineage, inherited wealth, and manners, he was vastly "beneath" her. Yet before long, probably due to proximity, convenience, and mutual attraction, he began courting her. Marcellus was a big rawboned man who was strong and hardworking, and Kate believed he would be a good provider. On January 29, 1889, Marcellus A. Johnson and Katherine Leftwich Arthur were married.
So the yeomanry and the aristocrats of Bedford County were united — the blood of the Johnsons, the Leftwiches, and the Arthurs was mixed and poured into the veins of Louis Arthur Johnson. Johnson would be a worker, a fighter, a gambler, and a roughneck. He would also emerge as a climber and a relentless seeker of wealth, power, and status. This was the legacy of Bedford County, Virginia.
Although Louis Johnson's roots were in the hills and creeks of Bedford County, he was indelibly shaped by the "Magic City" — the name the promoters gave to Roanoke, Virginia, in the 1890s. Roanoke in the gay nineties was both magical and a very rough place.
Only a few years before Louis Johnson was born, the town was called "Big Lick." Once the decision was made to connect the Shenandoah Valley Railroad with the Norfolk & Western at Big Lick, the boom began as thousands of workers streamed into town. When the population reached 5,000 in 1884, a charter was granted and the new city was named Roanoke. The railroads built huge machine shops in the northeast area of the city where the two railroads converged. Streets were laid out and hundreds of identical row houses for the workers were built. Dozens of hotels, saloons, restaurants, boarding houses, and banks and even a few "skyscrapers" sprang up almost overnight.
By 1900, the population of Roanoke had swelled to over 21,000, and by 1910 it had exploded to 39,000. With the influx came promoters, gamblers, prostitutes, saloonkeepers, and all manner of thieves and lawbreakers. Roanoke was a wide-open lusty railroad town.
The Johnson corner grocery store was a two-story frame building in the northeast section of the city surrounded by workers' row houses and not far from the gigantic Roanoke Machine Works, which manufactured freight cars and locomotives and employed thousands. Marcellus and Kate had three more boys and a girl in the thirteen years following Louis's birth. From a very early age, Louis Johnson worked for his parents in the family store, where he learned the rudiments of what became both his expertise and passion in adulthood — how to supply an army.
The Johnson store was situated in the midst of an army of workers. Since there was no refrigeration, the workers were completely dependent upon the Johnson store for their daily grocery needs. The store would be crowded by 6 A.M. every day except Sunday. To accommodate their customers, Marcellus, Kate, Louis, and the other family members of working age had to have the store stocked and ready by a very early hour. Often a predawn trip to the market house across the tracks was made to purchase supplies for the day. This meant harnessing the horses to a grocery wagon to transport supplies. During the day the horse-drawn wagon was used to deliver groceries.
Louis grew up learning about and performing these tasks. He anticipated what was needed, restocked the shelves, harnessed and cared for the horses, drove to market, purchased supplies, and delivered groceries. He learned the fundamentals of logistics and supply. When Louis was in high school, his father opened an account book and began charging him for clothing, school supplies, sports equipment, and other items he wanted or needed. Louis was obligated to repay Marcellus for those goods by hours worked in the store. Since his father assigned him a low hourly rate, Louis usually worked two to three hours before and after school and another twelve to fourteen hours on Saturdays to repay his debts.
During summer vacations when he was in high school, Louis was permitted to secure more lucrative employment in the foundry of the Roanoke Machine Works. Due in no small part to his size, strength, and energy, Louis loved this work. The propensity for hard work that developed in these early years was to stay with Louis for a lifetime, and he worked hard and long at every job he ever had in order to achieve success.
In addition to a rigorous work ethic, Marcellus and Kate did their best to teach their children the value of a spiritual life and the importance of organized religion. The year Louis was born, his father was on the building committee for a new neighborhood Methodist church, the Grace Mission. The church was built on a lot just a few doors from the Johnson store, and when it opened in 1892 it was called Grace Church.
Every Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday night would find the entire Johnson family at Grace Church. At the age of four, Louis was adept at telling Bible stories and quoting scripture. By the age of twelve, he had succeeded in organizing the youth of the city's three Methodist churches into a single youth organization, the Roanoke Epworth League. The importance of religion that was ingrained in Louis in those early years was to remain with him throughout his life, and while he was not what would be called a deeply religious man, he was always an active church member.
Because of the many temptations afoot in the Magic City, youth organizations such as the Epworth League abounded. In Roanoke, a constant war was being waged between the wets and the drys, with religious leaders backing the drys and saloonkeepers making sure the city remained wet. It is not known whether Louis was influenced by the Epworth League, Grace Church, or his parents, but from the time of his high school years until the end of his life he was a teetotaler. He didn't preach about the evils of alcohol, but he was never known to have taken a drink.
A deep respect for education was also a value that was learned in the Johnson home. F rom his earliest years, Kate taught Louis the importance of reading, especially for the purpose of understanding the scriptures. His superior reading ability enabled him to do very well in public school. He was an outstanding elementary and high school student who enjoyed and excelled in history, literature, public speaking, and debate.
By the time he reached Roanoke High School, Louis, taking after his father, had developed into a large-boned 200-pounder. Along with his size came an agility and strength that helped make him an outstanding football and baseball player. Both in the classroom and on the athletic field Louis exhibited an extreme aggressiveness and competitiveness — characteristics that were to be evident throughout his life.
During his high school years, it became apparent to his parents, teachers, and classmates that Louis had unusual potential and that he needed to continue his education. In particular, his mother, who was such a driving force in his life, continually urged him to go to college, even though she knew that he would have to work to pay his tuition and expenses. In addition, Louis remembered his grandfather Captain James Lewis Arthur talking politics and telling him that the most noble of occupations was that of a lawyer.
So in the spring of 1908, the decision was not difficult. Louis Johnson decided to enroll at the University of Virginia for the purpose of studying law.
On September 8, 1908, Louis stepped off the train at Charlottesville and walked up University Avenue to "the Corner" near the entrance gate to the university, with its poolrooms, barbershops, newsstands, and the old Temperance Hall where students bought their books. Student idlers and loungers, called "Corner loafers," were impressed with Johnson's height and bulk, but they said nothing as he trudged through the "Long Walk" gate.
When he saw the Rotunda and the Pavilions that Thomas Jefferson had helped design for the first time and when he realized he was joining company with distinguished graduates such as Woodrow Wilson and Edgar Allen Poe, he felt a sense of history, pride, and excitement. Although he would never let it show, he was also afraid that he wouldn't measure up in the classroom or that he wouldn't be able to surmount the social barriers.
Joining Johnson in the fall of 1908 were 296 other students who had enrolled in the "College," as they called it. Everyone was required to attend the College for one year before entering one of the university's professional schools or continuing in the study of humanities. Total enrollment that fall was 768. Academically, Louis's first year was anything but a success; for Louis, mathematics and English literature were nearly insurmountable obstacles to further study. Finally, however, the first year ended and he managed to earn grades just high enough to gain entrance into the Department of Law.
If the first year in the College was difficult for Louis, the challenge of law school was even more formidable. The University of Virginia law school in the fall of 1909 was one of the most highly regarded law schools in the nation. It was crammed into the basement of the Rotunda, and the law school faculty was small (there were only four tenured professors), but it included gifted teachers and it produced top-rank legal scholarship. Professor Raleigh Minor wrote critically acclaimed books on conflicts, international law, real property, and federalism. Armistead Dobie, who was to serve with Louis Johnson in the headquarters of the 80th Division in World War I, achieved national renown as a legal scholar, authoring hornbooks on federal procedure and bailments. Louis Johnson met this challenge, and during his three years of law school he compiled an outstanding scholastic record. This was done in spite of his tendency to prepare for examinations by a single reading of his class notes. His ability to perform in the classroom won the respect of his professors, and in his senior year he was selected to serve as an assistant professor in the law department, a position that entailed tutoring other students and administering examinations. When he graduated in the spring of 1912, he ranked tenth in his law class of thirty-one.
Excerpted from Louis Johnson And The Arming of America by Keith D. McFarland, David L. Roll. Copyright © 2005 Keith D. McFarland and David L. Roll. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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