A Yankee or Rebel? in Milton, WV

An interesting story from Franklin County, Virginia

Robert (Bob) Judson Thornton

A story written by B. A. Thornton from Franklin County, Virginia about a relative that lived in Milton, West Virginia.

Robert  Judson Thornton married Jemima  J. (Sis) Tate on November 18, 1873 in Franklin County, Virginia. Robert was born December 22, 1845 Franklin County, Virginia and died December 25, 1933 Milton, West Virginia. Jemima Tate was born May 1846 died ?  She is buried behind her farmhouse on Grassy Hill, Rocky Mount, Virginia. Jemima was a school teacher in Franklin County, Virginia. Bob divorced Jemima in Putnam County, West Virginia November 26, 1884.

There is no proven children by the marriage of Robert and Jemima, although the late George W. Harrison told me that Jemima and Bob had stillborn twins, who were buried under an apple tree between Canton Creek Church and Providence Church on the Sylvester Harrison land.

Bob married Mariam (Mamie) McKeny on May 6, 1892 in Ironton, Ohio. Bob and Mamie had no children. Mamie died January 27, 1940 and is buried in Milton Cemetery beside Robert in the McKeny plot.

Robert Judson (Bob) Thornton was the seventh of twelve children born to John W. and Lucy Ashworth Thornton. He enlisted in the Confederate Army during the Civil War just after celebrating his eighteenth birthday. He served with the 36th Virginia Regiment for eight months before being captured in the Valley of Virginia. He was sent to Harper’s Ferry where he took the oath of allegiance and was sent on to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Bob was kept in prison for a month before he became desperate enough to enlist in the Union Army. He told the Yankees that his home was in Sussex, Delaware and deliberately withheld his middle name, just in case he was able to escape and return to Virginia. Bob went from “rags to riches” overnight. The Yanks gave him a new uniform, new shoes and $25 in gold, which Bob said was the most money he had ever seen (at one time) in his life. Bob was placed in Company K 3rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry but served little time in that unit because rebel deserters were usually sent out of the area.

They first sent Bob to Camp Reno which was located near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was with the VET Reserve Corp. and assigned to protect the people from the Indians. Later, he was assigned the same duties and transferred to Fort Snelling, Minnesota and Fort Ripley, Minnesota. After several months Bob escaped and got as far as the front at Petersburg, Virginia before he was captured. When the Yanks learned that Bob was a Virginian, they immediately sent him back to Fort Snelling. They knew that if they left Bob in Virginia that eventually he would be successful in his attempts to escape, and they also realized that he would never fire a shot against the south.

After the war Bob returned to his parent’s home in Franklin County. He worked on the farm but he was always afraid that his four brothers, Abner, Starling, Ben and Sam would discover that he had served with the Union Army. Feelings were strong and he didn’t know how his brothers would react to his secret. One day, while plowing a field on Thornton’s Mountain, Bob lost his discharge card from the U.S. Army. He didn’t bother to search for it for he was afraid to carry it on him anyway. Hadn’t he seen three men killed for deserting the Confederate Army? He didn’t tell his brothers (who had served in the rebel army) about his Union service until he applied for a pension in 1913.

Bob married Jemima Tate in Franklin County, Virginia in 1873. She was one of the first registered teachers in Franklin County. According to the late Joe Allen Mullins, the marriage was rocky from the very beginning. Joe said that Sis was a mean, contrary and domineering woman. Bob was miserable in the marriage and found that he and Sis had little in common. He suffered the abuse as long as he could and finally things were taken out of his hands. Joe said that a stranger passing through asked if he could bed his horse down in Bob’s barn. As it turned out, the horse was stolen and the saddlebags were (reportedly) full of gold. The sheriff discovered the stolen horse in Bob’s barn and he was accused of the theft and put in jail. Two of Bob’s brothers came to the rescue, Ben and Jim posted bond. When Bob was released, he paid his brothers the bond money and with their help, he quietly slipped out of the state. Hence the name “damned Yankee horse-thief”.

After Mr. Mullins related the above story to me, I did some research at the Franklin County courthouse in Rocky Mount, Virginia. I found that on the 15th of May 1889, a fellow confessed to the crime and the case was dismissed against R.J. Thornton and his brothers. Seems it took several years to solve the crime and clear Bob’s name. Meanwhile, the damage had been done to his reputation. When Bob left Franklin County he went to Colorado and worked there for three years. In 1878, he moved to Putnam County, West Virginia and worked for several years. In 1891 he bought a farm in Garrett’s Bend, Lincoln County, West Virginia. Bob divorced Sis in Putnam County in 1884. He charged Sis with abandonment and cruel treatment. Bob married Mariam McKeny in Ironton, Ohio. They were very happy and Bob made a good living as a carpenter in the area. They had no children.

On July 4, 1911 a Thornton family reunion was held at Wadesboro, Virginia. That was the year that the famous photograph was made of John & Lucy’s twelve children. Bob was the only one of the twelve children (according to age) they left an empty chair in the front row where Bob should have sat. Bob did return to Franklin County in 1918 when a family reunion was held at Lanahan. He spent the night with the late Joe Allen Mullin’s parents. Joe’s mother was Martha Thornton Mullins and sister to Bob. It was the first time that Bob had returned to Franklin County in over forty years. Joe said that Bob was still a handsome man with his white hair and mustache. They sat up most of the night catching up on family news and the events of the past four decades.

Several years ago, Essie Thornton told me that several family members still had hard feelings and refused to attend the 1918 family reunion because Bob was there. I find it impossible to judge an 18 year old lad, his first time away from his Thornton’s Mountain home, held prisoner in Pennsylvania and probably scared, hungry, injured and homesick. Who knows to what extremes one might go to get free? One would have to walk in his shoes, huh?

I have a copy of Uncle Bob’s pension application and it is a most interesting piece of material. As I mentioned earlier, Bob had lost his U.S. Army discharge…. So had to prove that he was the same Robert J. Thornton who served in both the Confederate and Union armies. We learned that he was just one of many who took the oath and joined the Union Army from this county (Franklin County, Virginia). Others were never found out or left the area after the war. Bob was a respected member of society in Milton, West Virginia. Many of his friends and neighbors signed affidavits and gave character references when he applied for his pension. He was well thought of and had an excellent reputation in West Virginia. Robert Judson Thornton died on Christmas Day in 1933 at age 88. He is buried in Milton, West Virginia.

Written by: B.A. Thornton, Jr., Henry, Virginia

The newspaper article mentioned by B.A.’s story follows:

From an article entitled “Family Reunion”

A reunion of the members of the Thornton family was celebrated on the 4th of July, 1911, in the vicinity of Waidsboro, Franklin County, Virginia. In a shady nook festooned with extensive bunting of drapery of red, white, and blue, embellished with minute United States flags scattered here and there, and surrounding an enclosure of prolonged improvised tables placed in rectangle shape, assembled the scions of the Thornton family — direct descendants of John and Lucy Thornton, deceased , numbering at least one hundred and fifty-five. This Thornton family is really a remarkable one. The senior John Thornton had 12 children – seven sons and five daughters. All of them, save one, Robert J., were present at this joyous occasion. The absent one is now in good health living in West Virginia, who, for some reason, was absent from the festive gathering. In age these sons and daughters range from 77 to 53, averaging 66 years and two months. All of them seem to be in most excellent health. Of the seven sons five served gallantly in the Confederate army as members of the 57th Virginia and 36th Virginia regiments from ’61 to ’65. Samuel W. Thornton was desperately wounded at Gettysburg and laid on the battlefield until next day. The Thorntons are Anglo Americans. Matthew Thornton, a distinguished judge of the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, was a member of Congress from that State and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He died in 1803.

Promptly at 1 p.m., the Thornton family and a few invited guests—“one of whom I was which”—assembled around the festive board to enjoy the savory viands spread so abundantly before them. No people in the world can surpass the Franklin folks in their good living, especially when manifested in spreads of this character. Chicken fried, well kneaded bread, biscuits, boiled ham, fried ham, boiled eggs, sponge cake iced, coconut cake, jelly cake, gooseberry pies, sliced apple pies, pickles of every kind, including peach, cucumber and beet, and “ice cool lemonade”. Before indulging in this splendid esculent spread, Captain G.W.B. Hale, who was an invited guest, was introduced and requested to say something pertinent to the occasion and relative to the day upon which the meet was being held— 4th of July. His speech was briefly and appropriately mad and was followed by an extended grace, offered by Rev. Thomas Mason, who most eloquently invoked the Lord’s blessings upon the family and guests assembled. It is needless to say, the writer of these lines enjoyed hugely those eatables. Three times he was served to ham, eggs, chicken and pickle. Twelve times he was “hoped” to cake in honor of the 12 sons and daughters of John Thornton, and ten times, he drank a lemonade health to the ten sons and daughters of his comrade John Starling Thornton, and was only refrained from indulging his appetite somewhat beyond this by his extreme modesty and the presence of the lovely daughters of his old Confederate comrades.

After the dinner was served, the 11 sons and daughters of the original John Thornton were assembled and loving gifts, mementos, were presented to each one of them, including the absent one. These souvenirs were the gifts of Mrs. Emma Coleman, Mrs. Docie Martin, and Mrs. Ella Smithers remembered her mother by a suitable present. Also Mrs. Grant Mason gave her mother an appropriate memento. About 3 p.m. , the picture man came on the scene and photo of the eleven were taken in a group. After this the family present as a whole was “taken” including sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, and great-grandsons and great-granddaughters. It was an enjoyable occasion and will surely be remembered for years to come by all who had the honor and pleasure to be present.

A friend of the Thorntons.


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