The Forgotten “Union” Men of Davidson and Forsyth County, NC. Chapter 1: The “Heroes” Lying Right Beneath our Feet

Chapter 1: The “Heroes” Lying Right Beneath our Feet

(continued from )

“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

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.

HOA Convention 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

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 RandolphDavidsonForsyth, 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.

JLJohnson tombstone plus



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.

Union Cross Republican Meeting

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,




10 thoughts on “The Forgotten “Union” Men of Davidson and Forsyth County, NC. Chapter 1: The “Heroes” Lying Right Beneath our Feet

  1. Where to start? I’ll comment as I read this again in chronological order as I come to each subject.

    First, James H. Moore was named as a neighbor of Hilton’s but I find no such neighbor in the census to confirm this. Searching in newspapers I find a James H. Moore as the editor for the High Point Reporter newspaper which began in 1860. He was also a reporter for the Standard newspaper in Raleigh. I’m thinking this may be the Moore in question and I’ve done research on him and even created a word document to try to determine his political leanings and such. (I’m obsessed, I know!) He wrote the letter to Governor Clark re: Hilton and the Unionists in July, 1861, “at the suggestion and request of several of the much reliable citizens of this place and vicinity.” I’ve made copies of this and other correspondence at the NC archives. (Incidentally, in researching the High Point Reporter yesterday, I believe I’ve found your account and clippings with! I’m not a subscriber to but I really need to be; I use the free site for newspapers.)

    Second, the Trinity Guards are of interest to me as my Hilton ancestor, Eliza, sister of John Hilton Jr., was married to John Johnson Mendenhall whose father Joseph Mendenhall was associated with one of the precursors of Trinity College, Union Institute, a union of Methodist and Quakers. In 1851, this became Normal College and in 1859 it became Trinity College from which the Trinity Guards formed. The Mendenhall’s had been Quaker previously but were disowned when Joseph’s father married someone who was not a Quaker. I believe the Trinity Guards might have been trying to get out of military service…who could blame them, right?

    Interestingly, a fellow researcher found a record at the Davidson County Court House showing John Hilton was elected constable in the Rich Fork District, February Term 1862, one month before the March 1862 peace meeting at Kennedy School. Constables were peace officers who served under the justice of the peace (JP) of each voting precinct. John does escape capture and join the Union Navy in early 1864 but in his pension statement he seems to indicate that for some length of time, he lay concealed at his friend Joseph Motsinger’s house in Forsyth County before heading towards the mountains in TN, being sent to prison in IL, then enlisting as a landsman in US Navy.

    Next, you mention your ancestor Joseph Murphy living near John Hilton. I notice they also live near Andrew Clinard. On ancestry a disallowed Southern Claims Commission filed by Andrew Clinard has a Robert Murphy (also on the same census page) as a deponent, as well as my John Johnson Mendenhall.
    Funny, a Martin Ensley said Andrew would have been a Union man but he was entirely under the control of his wife and her relations and never did anything without her consent and advice! Blame the wife and in the process disavow his claim! My John Mendenhall said that he himself was a Union man but he was arrested March 11, 1862, (peace movement at Kennedy School occurred on March 7th), thrown into prison and put in the army. The attendees at the school were captured days after the meeting. Two of John Hilton’s brothers died within months of joining, one from disease, another in battle. Their father John Sr. died of disease on November 25, 1862, after being sent to a “distant prison” according to a petition to Provisional Governor Holden in 1865 but I haven’t figured out where that was. This petition was for leniency after Hilton had once again been arrested upon returning to NC after leaving the Navy. He had found out his mother and sisters had been treated harshly and kept as prisoners in the “bull pen”! I cannot even begin to imagine the Hell they went through as did everyone.

    Apparently, John Hilton Jr. had gotten into an altercation with John W. Thomas (son of the founder of Thomasville). Many people from the area signed this petition. He ran on the “Radical” ticket in 1866, attended the 5th anniversary of the Kennedy School meeting in 1867, and his wife had their last child in 1870. At some point he left NC, divorced his wife, (she registered on the 1890 Census of Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows), remarried a woman in CA, where he apparently was a squatter in the mountains, and ended up getting shot over a land dispute in 1898!!! He had filed for a Navy pension but never was approved because he couldn’t show that when he was caught by the Confederates in the mountains and put into service for a short while before escaping, that it wasn’t voluntary.

    Well, I’ve written a book! I really should! I had seen your previous post on Piedmont Trails group about writing a narrative before you started posting in the blog and saved it on my YouTube channel.


    1. Thanks for your response. You have obviously done even more research on this topic than I! I find these records incredibly fascinating, particularly those from the Southern Claims Commission, which I will be heavily sourcing for my new few blog posts. I look forward to any additional comments you have.


      1. You’re welcome. I have only found what others had already written and referenced in books and went to the NC Archives to retrieve the original copies so I guess, in that sense, I’ve done more research but must give credit to those authors who did the hard work!
        On Ancestry I only find the disallowed claims in full view. It seems the allowed claims are not available on there for NC, anyway. Several other states are available but not NC. This is what it says:

        “If the claim was in one of the four states which has been filmed by the National Archives (NARA) (Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and West Virginia), you will find the entire case file here in this database.”

        I have a file I created showing a list for all claims in Davidson County, allowed and disallowed, but can’t figure out how I did it now??? Very few were allowed but are not available for full view anyway.


    2. And yes, my mom and I did just finish a (self-published) book on a line of our ancestors living near the Forsyth/Davidson border, and focusing on the time period between the 1840s-1930s. If interested in a copy, I can give you details.

      Liked by 1 person

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