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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Thomas Addison Harris

Thomas Addison Harris*

     Soldier, farmer, public servant, twice a husband and eight times a father, Thomas A. Harris was a resourceful man of many dimensions and I take pride in presenting his life's story today. [Original photographs which include asterisks in their captions appear courtesy of my friend and fellow researcher Rich Morrison. Please note that each image in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing]
     Thomas Harris was the fifth child of of Robert McCracken Harris and his wife Mary Kishpaugh, who came from Warren County, New Jersey and settled in Virginia in the early 1840s. Thomas was the first of their family to be born in Spotsylvania, arriving on August 29, 1844. The 1850 census shows that the Harrises lived next door to Robert's father William Harris. I presume they all came south at the same time.
     Robert McCracken Harris and his family lived near Shady Grove Church. He does not seem to have taken to the slave system in his adopted state. At least his name does not appear on any slave census that I can find. The 1860 census shows that two free black women, Bettie and Mary Curtis, were living on the Harris farm as laborers. They were still there ten years later.
     When the Civil War began Robert Harris had four sons of military age. The two oldest, who were born in New Jersey, had divided loyalties. William left Virginia to serve in the Union army. John Alfred Harris joined the 30th Virginia Infantry. They both survived the war. William returned to Virginia and for many years he and John ran a grocery in Fredericksburg named Harris & Brother.
     The other two sons who were Virginia born also cast their lot with the Confederacy. Charles Montreville Harris served with the Fredericksburg Light Artillery. Thomas, still three months shy of his seventeenth birthday, enlisted for one year's service in Company D of the 30th Virginia Infantry. This same company was later commanded by another rambunctious teenager, the colorful Benjamin Cason Rawlings. Rawlings was the first Virginian to join the Confederate army.
     In March 1862 Thomas submitted a request to transfer to a new battery being organized by Lieutenant J.F. Alexander. For whatever reason this did not come to pass and he remained with the 30th until he was mustered out on July 23, 1862.
     But his stint as a Confederate soldier was far from over. A month later he enlisted in Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, in which he served until April 1865. Thomas Harris served as a scout for General Jeb Stuart and accompanied him during both of his raids into Pennsylvania. It was at the outset of the second of these adventures when he encountered some difficulty.

Payment for loss of T.A. Harris's horse

     On June 21, 1863 Thomas's horse was killed in action during the fight with Pleasonton's cavalry in Upperville in Loudon County. This was an occupational hazard for all troopers north and south, and doubly so for Confederate cavalrymen, who furnished their own mounts. Appraisals for these horses were kept on file so that compensation for their loss in battle could be expedited. In Thomas's case, however, the bureaucratic wheels turned slowly and it was not until February 18, 1864 that he received the $650 due him.
     The exploit for which Thomas was best remembered took place during the battle of Five Forks in April 1865. Much of the fighting took place at "Burnt Quarter," the home of the late John W. Gilliam in Dinwiddie County.  His widow Mary, who was then nursing a sick servant, and three of her daughters were trapped in their house by the fighting that raged about them, and indeed their lives were in great peril. General Fitzhugh Lee asked for five volunteers to escort them to safety. Corporal Thomas A. Harris was one of those five. Mary Harris refused to leave her ailing slave, but her daughters were successfully brought out of harm's way. During the ensuing battle Thomas was severely wounded, and his career as a Confederate trooper came to a close.
     Thomas returned to Spotsylvania and resumed his life as a farmer. On April 14, 1867 he married Mary Elizabeth Poole, who bore him eight children over the next sixteen years. Two of them, Eustace and Rupert, died in their teens.
     Thomas Addison Harris had ambitions beyond those of being a farmer. In 1870 he dipped his toe into politics and was elected as superintendent of the poor. This position he held until 1879, when he was elected commissioner of revenue for the St. George's district. And four years later he was elected sheriff of Spotsylvania County, in which capacity he served for the next twenty years.

Gathering at Spotsylvania Court House, about 1890

     In the photograph above, Sheriff Harris (13) is seen standing near the center of the image. His son, William Aquilla Harris (5) stands at left, dressed in white.

Spotsylvania Court House (on right), late 1800s

     In 1885 Thomas bought a 259 acre farm from the estate of Phillip Anns. This property included the modern sites of R.E. Lee School and the Spotsylvania Courthouse Village. The photograph above appeared in "A Life of Public Service," an excellent article written by Ted Kamieniak for the Free Lance Star on October 9, 1999. The camera is looking north up Court House Road at its intersection with Brock Road. The Harris farm was located behind the buildings on the left.
     One of Thomas's brothers, James Alfred Harris, was a partner in the saw mill business of my great grandfather, George Washington Estes Row. Their advertisement appeared in the March 23, 1881 edition of the Virginia Star:

Row & Harris

     After George W.E. Row's death in 1883, Thomas attended his estate sale and made arrangements to carry away the shed that covered the steam boiler for the mill. This letter was written by him to my great grandmother on October 14, 1883:

Thomas Harris letter to Lizzie Row

     Thomas's wife Mary died in 1888 and he remained a widower for three years. On September 3, 1891 he married thirty nine year old Elizabeth J. "Lizzie" Easturn.

Lizzie Eastburn*

     In 1903 Spotsylvania clerk of court Joseph Patrick Henry Crismond was forced to resign in the wake of a long running scandal. Judge R.E. Waller appointed Thomas A. Harris to fill the remaining two years of Crismond's term. In the photo below, Harris stands third from left. Judge Waller is the hatless fellow seated in the middle of the picture:

Spotsylvania Court House, 1890s

     In 1905 Thomas Harris was elected, without opposition, to an eight year term as clerk of court in his own right.

Thomas Harris, 1905

     Harris also helped usher Spotsylvania into the new century by becoming a member of the Spotsylvania Telephone Company, which ran a line from Fredericksburg to the court house area.

Thomas A. Harris*

     In January 1912, sixty seven year old Thomas fell on an icy patch and suffered debilitating injuries. He lay in bed for several weeks before succumbing to a heart attack brought on by "acute indigestion" on January 25. He is buried at Zion Methodist Church in Spotsylvania. His wife Lizzie followed him to the grave just four months later.

Headstone of Thomas Harris

     During his final illness, Thomas would have been cared for by his son, Dr. William A. Harris, who had married JPH Crismond's daughter Dora.

Dr. William A. Harris*

     Dr. Harris practiced medicine in Spotsylvania for decades and served three terms in the House of Delegates in the 1930s. He was my family's physician for many years.

Dr. Harris letter to Lizzie Row

     In early 1917 Dr. Harris treated my great grandmother for a persistent cough and what he characterized as a liver complaint. He wrote a prescription for Keracol and gave her advice on taking care of herself. He concluded his letter on a warm and personal note, telling her that she should go on a trip she planned and he also referred to my grandfather's recent marriage:

     I believe the trip will do you good and would certainly advise you to take it, especially as Horace has provided himself with a fine little woman, who will look after him in your absence.
                                                                                      With best wishes to all
                                                                                      I am sincerely your friend
                                                                                                    W.A. Harris             

How many of us have ever received a letter from our doctor like this one?


  1. Fantastic! I am enthralled by your blog entries. I reside in 'Shady Grove' and after reading this and reviewing the old maps I can only assume that I am sitting on what remains of the old Harris farm adjacent to the old Buchanan farm. The old Buchanan farmhouse still stands circa 1900-something. I can not get enough of your blog- learning the history of what and who came before us right here in Spotsylvania!

  2. T.A. Harris was brother to my great-grandfather, Robert B. Harris, who had a dry goods store in Unionville, VA. This was quite interesting. My father and I have visited the Shady Grove area but could never figure out where the Harris farm was/is. Thx.