Tucked away on a south wall of the Comanche County Museum is a black and white photograph of a woman in a bonnet. There is nothing to identify the woman except a name and a story from the far-off old state of Georgia. There is nothing to say why her photograph hangs on the Comanche County Museum wall, or even if or when she ever lived in Comanche County.
She is a mystery – a mystery woman in a old fashioned white bonnet.
It might be hard to believe that she was the daughter of a Revolutionary War hero and general, the sister of a congressman and lieutenant governor of Mississippi, and the aunt of a governor of Alabama and a lieutenant governor of the infant state of Texas. But she was.
And she was an early resident of the Leon River country who spent her final years in Comanche County. Her name was Martha Easley Dickson McConnell, but her father called her Patsey.
Martha was born Nov. 30, 1805, almost certainly in Jackson County, Georgia, to General David Dickson and Anne Allen Dickson. Her father was 55 years old when she was born.
Martha was the eleventh child of thirteen born to General Dickson by three wives. By the time General Dickson was 46, he had buried his first two spouses.
When not burying wives and fathering children, General Dickson, who, during the American Revolution had enlisted in 1775 and fought through the duration at San Augustine, Florida, and on the southern frontier, was an active citizen of his newly born country.
Before Martha was born, her father had served as a Georgia state representative for Greene and Hancock counties, as well as a justice on several courts. The year Martha was born, he was finishing a term as a Georgia state senator for Jackson County.
His public service seems to have abated somewhat during the years of Martha’s youth. However, her older brother David Dickson, Jr., 13 years her elder, took upon himself his father’s mantle. By 1817, David Dickson. Jr., had taken up the profession of medicine, moved to the Mississippi Territory and entered politics.
Just five years later, David Dickson, Jr., was elected Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi. He would be unsuccessful in his bid for governor two years later, and would serve in minor roles for the following decade until he was elected to the United States Congress in 1835 representing Mississippi in the House. Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly the following year. However, among Martha’s kin, there would be other days and other Dicksons who would rise in public life.
It was, in a sense, their family calling.
On Feb. 19, 1826, Martha married William McConnell in Fayette County, Georgia. McConnell was an early settler of Georgia’s northwestern Chattooga County, where he and Martha set up housekeeping in the Broom Town Valley and established a middling plantation in the early 1830s.
Doing the rough work of the frontier, William and Martha managed to build up a sizeable estate through two decades of hardship.
About 1837, they built a large antebellum home on a farm of nearly 600 acres, only 200 of which was improved farmland. The McConnells built the house from slave-brick baked on the plantation. The two-and-one-half story house included six large rooms and wide galleries.
William and Martha also added a barn, a cotton gin, a carriage house, a blacksmith shop, slave houses, a dairy, and a country store to the plantation, and took an active part in erecting a three-story flour mill for the community nearby that shipped local flour to market in nearby Rome.
By 1850, William and Martha’s plantation produced 81 bushels of wheat, 1,750 bushels of corn, 200 bushels of oats, 10 bushels of Irish potatoes, 200 bushels of sweet potatoes, 100 pounds of butter, and 5 bales of cotton. On their unimproved acreage, they herded 100 hogs, 12 beef cattle, 11 sheep, 11 mules, eight milk cows, five horses, and four working oxen. Their farm was valued at just under $10,000, and this during one of the United States’ worst economic depressions.
The family also held 20 slaves, almost all of whom were young children. Only six of the family’s slaves were above the age of 13 years, meaning that the McConnell household, even though technically a plantation, was more like a yeoman farmstead, where the McConnells worked in the fields side by side with their slaves.
By 1850, too, the McConnells had raised a brood of children – the oldest, 21-year-old Joseph, being the only surviving son. In rapid succession followed a host of daughters -Mary, age 17, Elizabeth, age 15, Ann, age 12, Sarah, age 10, and Martha, age seven. All of the McConnell children attended school.
Also living on the McConnell plantation were Methodist minister William N. Fambrough and his wife Sarah, who lived in the McConnell’s large antebellum house.
As the 1850s opened for the McConnells, good news greeted them from the young state of Texas, when it was announced that Martha’s nephew David Catchings Dickson had been elected Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Two years later, Dickson, son of Martha’s older brother William Dickson, furthered his political career with his election to the office of Lieutenant Governor of Texas on the Elisha M. Pease ticket.
Life was good for William and Martha Dickson McConnell, but that would change with the untimely death of William McConnell in 1854.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Martha’s son Joseph McConnell took his place as the leader of the area’s local Confederates, having been elected to command the newly formed 39th Georgia Infantry Regiment on March 20, 1862.
Through the remainder of 1862, McConnell and the 39th Georgia Infantry took part in minor engagements at Bridgeport, Alabama and Cumberland Gap, Tennessee.
In the spring of 1863, however, the war began in earnest for the 39th Georgia Infantry, when they found themselves defending the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi from Union forces intent on splitting the Confederacy in two.
At Vicksburg, even before the seige began in May 1863, Confederate soldiers were going hungry, including at least a few of the 39th Georgia under McConnell’s command, who were placed under arrest in March 1863 for killing farmers’ hogs during the night.
Doubtless, Col. McConnell had to manage his share of weary soldiers, and sometimes that management went to extreme lengths.
“I went out yesterday evening, our Regt. and brigade with three others to witness the execution of a soldier by shooting for desertion,” reported 39th Georgia Infantry soldier W.G. Harris to his wife Jennie. “It was one of the most horrible scenes I ever witnessed, they brought him out shrouded sitting on his coffin. The brigades were formed on three sides leaving a square in the center of about 100 yards. The prisoner was drove up in the center taken out of the wagon and tied to a post blindfolded with his back to the post and 12 soldiers with guns marched reprise 10 paces and commanded to fire 5 bullets struck him in the breast. There were two others, shot at other places in the divisions yesterday evening. They all belonged to the 1st Lee Regt. of Artillery. The charge was for deserting and Spiking the cannons last Apr. and going to the enemy and afterwards were taken prisoners and recognized by their own Regt. They had joined a Minnesota Regt.”
Col. Joseph McConnell and his 39th Georgia Infantry did not have long to brood over this incident, however. By May of 1863, the regiment was fighting in the Vicksburg campaign, and suffering heavy losses. McConnell himself became a casualty on May 16, 1863, when he was wounded in action at the Battle of Champion Hill.
McConnell recovered from his wound to command his regiment at Missionary Ridge, where he was mortally wounded on November 25, 1863. Col. Joseph McConnell died five days later from his wounds. He resides today under a plain veteran’s administration headstone in Macedonia Cemetery near Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Ironically, although McConnell had marched and fought throughout the deep South, across Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, he was killed less than 40 miles from his home.
After Joseph’s death, the war brought nothing but death and destruction to Martha Dickson McConnell and her family. If there were any moonlight and magnolias, it dissipated quickly with the war’s realities. Aside from Martha’s purchase of a $600 piano, which she purchased with borrowed Confederate money, the McConnells had few diversions to sheild them from the war.
Chief among their troubles was the location of the McConnell plantation itself. Located near the mountainous Appalachian region of northwestern Georgia, the plantation was surrounded by Unionist sympathizers and exposed to Union forces from nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as deserters and other troublesome types who hid in the adjoining mountains.
At least once during the course of the war, the McConnell house was sacked and looted by Unionists living near the McConnell Plantation.
According to Martha’s daughter Sarah, things grew worse from there. Sarah reported that Martha, her daughter-in-law Ann McConnell, and two McConnell daughters – one of whom was almost certainly Sarah herself – were arrested by Union authorities, apparently for aiding local Confederates, reporting Union sympathizers, and sympathizing with the Confederate government.
They were, said Sarah, imprisoned in the federal military prison in Chattanooga, without even a change of clothes. Sarah McConnell also reported that they would have been freed if only Martha would have taken the oath of allegiance to the Union.
With her only son recently buried by Union bullets at Missionary Ridge, Martha refused. The McConnell women would remain in prison.
Soon, however, Union authorities were made aware of Martha’s standing “socially, politically, et cetera, and their treatment improved.” Food was plentiful, and they received protection inside the prison walls, but no comforts were made available to them.
Although Sarah McConnell does not state it outright, it is likely that Union authorities were made aware that Martha was a sister-in-law of Jeptha Vining Smith, whose family were among the most pro-Union residents of the state of Alabama. Several of Martha’s Smith nephews, for example, were officers in the 1st Alabama Cavalry, one of the only Union regiments raised in the state during the Civil War. It is likely that Martha’s close relationship to these staunch unionists aided her cause once she and her daughters were arrested.
Eventually, because of local interest shown by some Chattanooga ladies for the McConnell women, Martha and her daughters were allowed to leave the prison and remain with local families, where they took in sewing to earn a pitiful living.
When the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, the McConnells were allowed to return to Chattooga County, Georgia. Only four cows remained on the McConnell plantation. Neighbors, undoubtedly sympathetic to the plight of the four McConnell women, welcomed them home with a hen, fifteen chicks, and a large ham. After ten months in a military prison, the gifts must have appeared to the McConnells to represent a fortune.
The former McConnell slaves were mostly still on the place, and “had taken care of things as best they could.”
While Martha McConnell and her daughters worked to rebuild their lives after the war, the last of their politically-minded relatives reached the summit of his career, when, in February 1868, Martha’s nephew William Hugh Smith, son of Unionist Jeptha Vining Smith and Nancy Dickson Smith, was elected Governor of Alabama. Oddly, William Hugh Smith was possibly present at Martha and William McConnell’s 1826 wedding, as his mother, Martha’s sister, was seven months pregnant with him when Martha and William married in Fayette County, Georgia, not far from the Smith homestead.
While William Hugh Smith was busy achieving the pinnacle of his career as Alabama’s first Republican governor in 1868, his aunt Martha McConnell was suffering a series of physical and financial setbacks.
At some point after the Civil War, Martha McConnell suffered an attack of paralysis that appears never to have left her.
Adding to her woes, Martha lost a lawsuit in 1872 in Chattooga County that proceeded to the Georgia Supreme Court. The case was rooted in a $726 note that her husband William held against a Chattooga County resident named Joseph Wardlaw, who was sued for payment as early as January 18, 1858. According to Wardlaw, the debt was paid in grain during the Civil War to Martha’s son Col. Joseph McConnell, only a short time before he was killed in battle. Witnesses were presented attesting to the grain payment, and Wardlaw intimated that Martha had proceeded with the suit because she was struggling to make a living in the harsh days after the war.
Apparently, Martha lost that struggle.
During the decade following the Civil War, Martha, her daughter Sallie McConnell, her son-in-law James Montgomery Hamilton and assorted family members moved to Texas, foregoing Chatooga County, Georgia forever.
In Texas, Martha’s youngest daughter, also named Martha, married Randolph Fields of Liberty County, a son of one of Texas’ oldest families and a former member of Terry’s Texas Rangers. Soon after the marriage, Fields found himself facing the hangman’s noose after he and and a handful of partisans summarily executed two presumed horse theives in Liberty County.
Instead of being hanged himself, Fields was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. Eventually Fields was pardoned by Texas Governor Lawrence S. “Sul” Ross.
Unfortunately, that pardon did not come quick enough to relieve the familial burden that his prosecution left on Martha McConnell, who was left to care for her fatherless grandchildren and to solace her unhappy daughter.
By 1880, Martha McConnell was a resident of Comanche County, living with her grandson W. Oscar Hamilton, a 25-year-old lawyer who is best known as a long time Comanche County attorney and county official. Also living in the home with Martha and her grandson was Martha’s daughter Sallie McConnell, who never appears to have married, and two other grandchildren, the four and five year old daughters of Martha McConnell Fields, whose husband was suffering from extreme legal difficulties.
In the spring of 1882, Martha McConnell traveled southeast out of Comanche County, probably on DeLeon’s Texas Central Railroad, on an extended visit to her daughter Martha Fields in Ironwood, in Liberty County.
On July 25, 1882, word reached Comanche that Martha McConnell had died at the Fields residence, in the seventy-eighth year of her life. McConnell left Hamilton descendants in both the city of Comanche and the city of DeLeon following her passing.
The death of Martha Dickson McConnell, and her subsequent appearance on the south wall of the Comanche County Museum is indicative of the great changes in American history, of a change in American culture where the daughter of a Revolutionary War hero, and the mother of a slain Confederate officer, and a member of one of the South’s most well known political families spent her final years caring for a family that was simply struggling to exist.