Chapter 1: The “Heroes” Lying Right Beneath our Feet
“I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.” ― Shelby Foote
In the first entry of this blog series, I recalled myself as a young history nerd, studiously churning through the Civil War-themed volumes in the Ledford Jr. High library in preparation for those annual term papers. Though I was certainly learning about the broader historical context of those tumultuous times, I was also missing out on fascinating local history.
A response to my first blog post (from a fellow Ledford alumnus), reminded me of one of the more important Civil War-era episodes from Davidson County, of which I only recently became aware upon reading that 2011 “A Separate Peace” article in “Our State” magazine. This was an event that took place not more than three miles from that Ledford Jr. High library, though more than a century before, at a place called “Kennedy School House.”
“The Heroes of America organize themselves into small bands and work with the traditional pacifists and “stationmasters” on the Underground Railroad. One of the earliest bands operates in Davidson County and is led by John Hilton, a buggy maker from Thomasville. Hilton’s neighbor James H. Moore betrays him to Governor Clark, confiding that, “there are five hundred men in Davidson and other counties around ready to strike for the old Union.” What’s more, Moore tells the governor, Hilton has been bragging that “certain secessionists in the neighborhood … would ‘feel the rope’ in a short time.”
Clark dispatches the Trinity Guards to High Point to put down the incipient uprising. The Davidson County sheriff arrests Hilton near Thomasville for threatening violence. But the Heroes are not daunted, only driven deeper underground.
Out on bail, Hilton reappears on March 7, 1862, leading a peace rally at the Kennedy School House near Thomasville — one of many such Unionist “night meetings.” Hilton is hatching a scheme to rescue Yankee captives from Salisbury Prison. Alerted in advance to the rally and tipped off that Unionists are stockpiling arms and powder for an uprising, Governor Clark sends 300 troops to High Point and orders the entire 33rd Regiment of North Carolina Troops to converge on the rally. The troops take many prisoners, but Hilton eludes them, crosses the mountains into Tennessee, and eventually enlists in the Union Navy.” (reproduced from https://www.ourstate.com/civil-war-pacifists/)
Now that series of facts, and the associated history, would have made for a much more interesting term paper!
Coming across such an exciting episode of local history might send the amateur genealogist running through his/her family tree looking for connections to those more notable characters, such as this John Hilton. A recent perusal through the 1860 census for Davidson County shows that my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Murphy, was a close neighbor of the Hiltons, living on one of the many family farms along the Rich Fork Creek. I wonder if Murphy was among those who attended the “Union” meeting that fateful night in March 1862? Or maybe he was one of the “secesh” neighbors?
I can’t yet vouch for grandpa Murphy’s specific sympathies, but several others among these 1860 census pages for this part of Davidson County, and stretching into neighboring Forsyth and Guilford, can be later verified to form a network of pro-Union folks. Clues to the identities of specific individuals in the pro-Union camp are found through such sources as the files of the “Southern Claims Commission” (stay tuned for later posts on that research), among other records. My own research through these documents brought up many familiar family names (and peripheral mentions of a couple of people from my own family tree), and detailed descriptions of historic events in a geographic area that I know quite well.
But it was just in the past few weeks, after revisiting these many records again for the dozenth time, that I came across a previously unknown personal connection to one of the key political figures of the local Unionist movement, and in fact a leader/co-founder of that mysterious secret society, the “Heroes of America” (“H.O.A.”). While this person would be known to any good historian of this time-period and locale, my own “discovery” (at least for myself) of his identity and story took me entirely off guard. For this figure had been, in a semi-literal sense, lying right under my feet for many decades.
This unexpected finding surfaced as I was scouring the archives for newspapers of the 1860s for information on Unionist activities, and specifically those of the H.O.A. As noted in “A Separate Peace,” the newspapers were largely silent about such activities early in the war, preferring not to encourage further sympathies for them (for example, the episode noted above with John Hilton appears not to have been reported in any of the local papers at the time). But all of that changed in the summer of 1864 when the existence of the H.O.A. was more officially acknowledged, and broadly denounced, in newspapers across the state. The “jig was up,” as the old saying goes.
This revelation no doubt exposed the H.O.A. members and other Unionist sympathizers to greater scrutiny and danger, though by now their ranks permeated many societal institutions, including the Confederate Army! Fortunately, the tide of the war was now turning, and in less than a year it was all over.
But the end of the war did not end the mission of the H.O.A. It lived on for a few years thereafter as a political and fraternal organization, with its own short-lived publication (“The Red String”), and local meetings in its old strongholds such as Lexington.
The H.O.A. even held its own state-wide convention in 1869.
News articles such as the one shown above provide valuable details about the political activities of the H.O.A. in these post-war years, and some of the individuals involved. For example, the article shown above, from an 1869 Raleigh newspaper, was posted by a “J. L. Johnson.” This somewhat generic name was one familiar to me, though in an entirely different context . . . or so I thought.
I grew up attending Union Cross Moravian Church, located in the small community of the same name. As a fourth generation of my family to be associated with that congregation, I was always interested in its history. Thus, I recall learning how the church originated as a humble “Sunday School” in 1893, first meeting in a general store at the “crossroads,” and a couple years later, constructing a simple white clapboard sanctuary for weekly worship, situated in a prominent spot along the main road between Winston-Salem and High Point.
A key figure in the establishment of this new congregation, something of a “patron saint,” was a local country doctor by the name of . . . J. L. Johnson. It was in Dr. Johnson’s general store that the Sunday School had its first meetings, and Dr. Johnson who had donated the small lot on the main road for the construction of the first sanctuary. After Johnson’s death in 1900, the Union Cross congregation purchased more of the surrounding property from his estate, for a time using the former Johnson family home for additional Sunday School activities. When the church established its own cemetery (or “God’s Acre,” as the Moravians like to say) in the 1940s, the remains of Johnson and his wife, Eliza, were moved there as if they had all along been regular congregants.
Like most “doctors” of the time, I am sure that Dr. Johnson would have been among the more prominent members of the local community, deeply engaged in its civic life. And he would certainly have been well-known to many of my own ancestors, including great-great-great-great-grandmother, Matilda Cook (listed just above the Johnson household in the 1880 census), who likely sought out Dr. Johnson for treatment and shopped at his store.
This was Dr. J.L. Johnson’s story, as far as I knew it, and an interesting enough life for most people of that time.
Still, my mind kept wondering back to the news clipping about that 1869 H.O.A. convention.
A separate line of research was recently taking me on a walk through the streets of Lexington via the 1860 census records. Among the local citizens listed was one I recalled being noted in the “A Separate Peace” article as a prominent Unionist figure, Henderson Adams, who served as a state senator during the war. And one of Adam’s neighbors in the 1860 census, also warrants a mention in that article.
“Among the founders [of the H.O.A.] is Dr. John Lewis Johnson, a native Philadelphian who moved to North Carolina as a boy, studied medicine in Lexington, and practices in Forsyth County. He enlists in the Confederate Army –– probably under threat by Confederate agents — is captured under suspicious circumstances during the Sharpsburg Campaign, and returns south on parole. He now becomes an apostle of the Heroes, proselytizing for the order all over the state.” (from https://www.ourstate.com/civil-war-pacifists/)
Have you ever had one of those “d’uh” moments? Mine came after having shared this Lexington census information with my mother, and fellow amateur genealogist/historian, who shortly thereafter texted back a link to the article reproduced below. I was left almost breathless reading there about the amazing life of the real Dr. J. L. Johnson, the one both of H.O.A. exploits . . . and that simple country doctor associated with the church of my youth. Here is the official record of his story.
“Johnson, John Lewis
by William T. Auman and David D. Scarboro, 1988
13 Feb. 1818–3 Nov. 1900
John Lewis Johnson, physician, druggist, and dental surgeon, was a founder and leader of the Unionist secret society known as the Heroes of America, or “Red Strings,” during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Born in Philadelphia, he was the son of Dr. Henry M. Johnson of Lynchburg, Va., and Hannah Lewis Johnson of New York.
Some time in his youth Johnson moved to Virginia, and from there to Lexington, N.C., in 1841. In 1843 he began to study medicine with Dr. William Dillon Lindsay of Lexington, and in 1845 he returned to Philadelphia to attend Wilson’s Medical School. After practicing medicine and selling patent medicines in Virginia, he moved back to Lexington in 1855 and went into the drug business with Dr. Samuel Pendleton. Johnson may have experienced hard times, for the 1860 census describes him as a brickmaker. In 1860 he moved to Forsyth County and established a practice in Winston, living in the village that is now called Union Cross.
The Civil War interrupted Johnson’s fledgling practice in Winston, and in 1862 he served with the Confederate Army as an assistant surgeon under his old teacher, Dr. Lindsay. The circumstances of his enlistment are obscure, but he may have been conscripted or enlisted to avoid conscription, as his strong Unionist sympathies suggest that he would not have joined voluntarily. He served with the Army of Northern Virginia until after Fredericksburg, when he and Dr. Lindsay were captured. Johnson may have contrived to be captured because he was quickly exchanged.
Early in 1863 he began his career as a leading organizer of the Heroes of America, a secret society dedicated to the Union cause that arose in 1861 in the “Quaker” counties of Randolph, Davidson, Forsyth, and Guilford, close to Johnson’s home. Johnson may have been a member of the organization from its creation; certainly from 1863 to 1869 he was one of its most active agents. In 1863, under cover of a job as a druggist in the Confederate hospital in Raleigh, Johnson took the lead in spreading the Heroes of America to many counties in central and eastern North Carolina, and also probably crossed into the Union lines at New Bern and Beaufort to establish contact between the society and the Union’s occupying forces. He strongly supported the peace movement led by William W. Holden, editor of the Raleigh North Carolina Standard, and participated in a peace meeting in southern Wake County on 23 July 1863.
When the Heroes of America was exposed by the Confederates in June and July 1864, Johnson was forced to flee North Carolina. On his way north he decamped a company of Confederate soldiers to the Union lines, an event that was remembered locally as “Johnson’s Raid.” On arriving in Washington, D.C., he met with Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick, and initiated Hedrick and Daniel Reaves Goodloe—and probably President Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, and Commissioner of Pensions Joseph Barrett as well—into the Heroes of America. Most likely Johnson and Hedrick set up a national Grand Council of the Heroes of America to cover the order’s activities throughout the border states. Johnson then went to Cincinnati, where he attended a course of medical lectures, and in January 1865 he may have returned to North Carolina via Kentucky.
Johnson’s family suffered greatly for his Unionist activities. He and his wife, Eliza Gafford, whom he had married at Danville, Va., on 3 Sept. 1839, had thirteen children between 1840 and 1867. Two of his sons died in a Confederate prison in Richmond, and a third was captured in West Virginia while trying to reach the North but survived imprisonment. One of his sons who died was scarcely a year old, which strongly suggests that his wife was arrested and incarcerated when Johnson’s activities were exposed in 1864.
After the war, Johnson learned dentistry in Philadelphia and established a practice in Forsyth County. He became a Republican and remained active on the Grand Council of the Heroes of America (he was elected Grand Lecturer in 1867) until the order broke up about 1870 under pressure from the Ku Klux Klan. After its collapse Johnson presumably withdrew from politics, for little more is known of him until his death in Winston-Salem. He was buried at the Moravian Church in Union Cross, and his tombstone bears the Masonic emblem.”
Here was a tombstone I had passed by many times in my years at Union Cross, not necessarily giving it much thought beyond the story of that simple country doctor, and patron of this congregation, of whom we had been taught. The simplicity of Dr. Johnson’s gravestone (as is the custom of Moravian cemeteries) masks the historically significant life behind it. It also symbolizes the obscurity into which the stories of these NC Unionists fell in the generations after their exploits.
So let’s keep retelling their stories today.
Dr. Johnson’s story is one of the more dramatic, but he was far from alone in his sympathies and actions. And there is probably a reason that he ended up living in the Union Cross community, where there were not a small number of like-minded folk.
Up next, we walk a mile or two down the “Old Plank Road” to the community of “Teaguetown,” where we will meet the local constable and county commissioner who also counts himself among those ranks.
Continue to Chapter 2 here,