Tuesday, May 10, 2016

'Wading through the blood of our children'

Capt. Charles Connor's grave at Rehobeth Methodist Church in Catawba County N.C.

NEWTON, N.C.
Newton had to replace its marker
after it was removed by the state
     Major Henry Connor was campaigning in 1839 for his 10th term in the U.S. House of Representatives when he warned North Carolina voters about the rising militance of abolitionists in Congress.
     In a speech that specifically criticized John Quincy Adams (the former president who was crusading against slavery), Connor declared: "There is reason to believe they will not be particular as to the mode of carrying out their plans, whether peacefully or by wading through blood of our men, women, and children."
     Major Connor's speech was driven both by political hype and personal stakes, considering that by 1850 he owned more slaves than anyone else in Catawba County. But his words were also terribly prophetic. His first-born son Charles would be one of the last to shed his blood for the Southern cause—shot and killed during Stoneman's Raid in Newton, N.C., on April 17, 1865.
     That was eight days after Robert E. Lee's surrender in Virginia. Some accounts say that Charles Connor was with Lee at Appomattox and had just returned home to Catawba County when he was slain. Others indicate that he left the army two years earlier.
     According to a 1911 book called The Catawba Soldier of the Civil War, Connor was just trying to avoid trouble when the Yankees invaded Newton:
     He served with his command along the Roanoke River in North Carolina and Virginia—a very important line between the two armies—but when the end came he was at home.
     A very sad thing occurred in connection with young Connor. Just as the war was closing in 1865, he went to Newton to have a settlement with Mr. Moses, a Jew living there at the time. While there, the Federal troops came into Newton, and Connor and many others fled to keep from being captured, and poor Connor was shot at long range and killed. He was a fine man and but few, if any enemies.
     But another tradition says Connor was single-handedly trying to drive the U.S. Cavalry out of town. Just this past Christmas, newspaper columnist Sylvia K. Ray advocated a mural in downtown Newton: 
     I think it ought to show the spring day in 1865 when the Union Army’s Stoneman’s Raiders came to town and were chased westward along what became West A Street by infuriated Confederate Captain Charles F. Connor in a one-man-versus-several-hundred incident. That was the only time that actual warfare took place in what is Catawba County. Yes, the gallant Confederate soldier from Terrell was shot down by the Yankee fighters as he defended the county seat town.
     As hard as it is to reconcile those stories, it's even harder to positively identify Newton's Confederate martyr. Because it seems there were two Charles Connors.
     They were cousins, they were both Confederate officers, and some historians have gotten them confused.
     Gravestones indicate that Lt. Charles T. Connor was killed in 1865, while his cousin Capt. C.F. Connor lived until 1901. (C.F. may have been known as Charles, though his name was Cornelius Fulton. He was captured April 1, 1865, during the fall of Richmond and was in a Yankee prison at Johnson Island, Ohio, when Stoneman's troops raided Newton.)
     However, the 1911 book, the 2009 historical marker, and the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans say it was Capt. Charles F. Connor who was killed in the raid.
     For the purposes of this story, I am blending the 1911 profile (which calls him Charles F.) and a 1935 newspaper column by Connor's son-in-law (who calls him Charles T.) Other than the middle initial, their stories match. T or F, true or falseit's not worth fighting over.
Lt. Charles Connor
     No Confederate soldier from Catawba County had more to lose than Charles Connor. His father, Major Henry Connor, owned 77 slaves and 5,329 acres near Sherrill's Ford on the Catawba River. Much of his estate is now lakefront property on Lake Norman.
     Major Connor was the son of Irish immigrants, became one of the first graduates of the University of South Carolina, and fought in the War of 1812. In the spring of 1839 (the same year of his abolition speech), he married Lucy Hawkins, who was said to be the daughter (or perhaps the niece or granddaughter) of William Hawkins, a Princeton graduate who was governor of North Carolina during the War of 1812.
     The first of their three children, Charles Connor, was born April 3, 1840. Charles was still a teenager when he married Mary Jane Sherrill and acquired 600 acres in a crossroads community called Terrell, about 20 miles southeast of Newton. Their first son, Thomas, was born Jan. 5, 1860. Two daughters were born during the war, Luetta in 1862, followed by Emma.
     After the Civil War erupted and North Carolina seceded, Charles Connor volunteered for the Fifth North Carolina Cavalry. He was elected second lieutenant of Company K in September 1862 and resigned his commission two months later. It is possible that he was promoted posthumously to captain, but it seems unlikely that he was commanding rebel troops when Stoneman's Tenth Michigan Cavalry raided Newton.
     The Tenth Michigan was commanded by Col. Luther Trowbridge. In his regimental history, Trowbridge tells us that Yankees occupied Newton for almost a week: 
About midnight on the 14th, news was received at Statesville of the surrender of Lee's army [April 9]. On the 17th, the Tenth was sent to Newton to guard the fords of the Catawba, and to gather in any stragglers from Lee's army who were seeking to get away without being paroled, being busy at that work for several days. News of the assassination of President Lincoln was received at Newton on the 23rd.
     As far as the people of Newton knew, their sons were still bravely fighting Sherman in eastern North Carolina. Lee's surrender applied just to Virginia. Jefferson Davis was still president of the Confederacy. Still, the shocking death of Lt. Connor (whatever the circumstances) must have broken their will and convinced them that resistance was futile. They were powerless to prevent the Yankees from burning the Catawba County jail and a Confederate warehouse. 
     Lt. Connor was evidently the only casualty of the raid in Newton. He is among 29 Confederate veterans buried at his boyhood church, Rehobeth Methodist Church near Terrell. 
Inscribed on Charles T. Connor's gravestone: "Kind one, thou art gone without a moment's warning. Thy absence makes thy once happy home a waste." It is telling that his grave has been decorated with flags from both sides (compare this photo to the one above).
     Lt. Connor's 28-year-old widow, Mary Sherrill Connor (1836-1889), held her family together through one tragedy after another. One of her brothers was killed in battle in 1862, and another came home crippled. Her father-in-law Major Connor died just seven months after her husband. She remarried in 1869 to another Confederate veteran, Levi Lockman, and had another daughter. 
     Son Thomas Franklin Connor (1860-1947) founded the Terrell Country Store that is still flourishing over 130 years later at the old crossroads on N.C. 150 near Lake Norman.
     Elder daughter Luetta Connor (1862-1941) married Rev. William Lander Sherrill (1860-1953), a Methodist preacher who wrote a series of newspaper columns that were compiled into a scrapbook history of Lincoln County. (The Connors' land had been part of Lincoln County before Catawba County was formed in 1842.)

     Rev. Sherrill had vivid memories of Stoneman's Raid in Lincolnton, when he was five. Seventy years later in 1935, he wrote:
      As a five-year-old child, watching as the invading army entered the village, little did I dream that some "rough necked" soldier in that group had the day before in Newton, for no provocation, shot and killed a brave Confederate lieutenant, Charles T. Connor, who had for four years been a gallant soldier of the South. It was a brutal and cowardly act. That young Lieutenant, killed April 17, 1865, left a little three-year-old girl, who grew to womanhood and in 1884 became my wife and still abides with me.
     When he died July 15, 1953 at age 93, Rev. Sherrill was probably the next-to-last eyewitness to Stoneman's Raid, outliving 109-year-old Alfred "Uncle Teen" Blackburn (1842-1951) by 19 months and 106-year-old Ohio bugler William Allen Magee (1846-1953) by six months. The last I have found was John Pearson (1852-1954) of Morganton, N.C. 
     Rev. Sherrill and his wife are also buried at Rehobetha biblical name that means "place of inheritance" or "place of flourishing." 

———

ONE OUT OF THREE NEVER CAME HOME: Catawba County had a population of 10,709 in 1860. Most of the men (2,123) served in the Confederate military, and almost one-third of those did not survive the war. Catawba had 147 killed in action and 477 who died because of disease, in prison, or other war-related circumstances, according to exhaustive research by Derick Hartshorn with the Capt. C.F. Connor Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.


The Terrell Country Store, founded in 1885 by Lt. Connor's son, is now an antique shop.


This map of the Tenth Michigan Cavalry's route indicates that the raiders looped through Lincolnton before invading Newton from the south.

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