Mission Statement:

"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."

 

Brigadier-General Thomas F. Toon

of Columbus County

Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers

Brigadier-General Thomas Fentress Toon

Born June 10, 1840 on the family farm near Whiteville in

Columbus County, Thomas Fentress Toon was a farmer prior

to attending Wake Forest College, rising to the senior class

at that school when he enlisted as a private in the

"Columbus Guards No. 2" on April 24, 1861.

He returned to Wake Forest to graduate in June 1861

and then rejoined his company.

 

Early War Service:

Toon’s original 10th North Carolina Volunteers was organized at

Fort Johnston in Smithville (now Southport) at the mouth of the

Cape Fear River on 18 June 1861 for twelve month’s service;

his "Columbus Guards, No. 2" eventually became

Company K, 20th North Carolina Regiment in November.

Toon was elected Lieutenant on 18 June; then Captain to rank

from 22 July.   A fellow officer in the regiment was

half-brother William H. Toon of Bladen County, who

eventually rose to lieutenant-colonel of the regiment and

leader of General Lee's famed sharpshooters later in the war.

The regiment received its training

as infantry and artillery units at Forts Johnston and Caswell,

Oak Island and Smith’s Island (now Bald Head Island).

On 14 June 1862, Toon and his regiment proceeded

under orders to Richmond and assignment to General

Samuel Garland’s brigade of General Daniel H. Hill’s

division. On 25 June the brigade moved toward

Williamsburg to support General Benjamin Huger’s

action at King’s School House. The regiment was

then-commanded by Colonel Alfred Iverson and

Lt. Colonel Franklin Faison.  

The 20th North Carolina included volunteer units from

Columbus and surrounding counties, e.g., the “Sampson Greys,”

“Holmes Riflemen,” “Columbus Guards,”  “Fair Bluff Volunteers,”

“Duplin Greys,” “Brunswick Guards,” “Independent Blues,”

“Bladen Light Infantry,” “Moore’s Creek Rifle Guards,”

“Wilmington Light Infantry,” “Columbus Vigilants,”

and “Wilmington Rifle Guards.”

The roster of Toon’s Company K of the 20th North Carolina

were primarily farmers and laborers from Columbus County

with names like Broadhurst, Coleman, Williamson, Babson,

Batchelor, Bradshaw, Cook, Elkins, Fields, Fisher, Merritt,

Nobles, Powers, Sellers, Shaw, Stevens, Ward and Yates;

and included 19 year-old James E. Kelly in Co. K who

was born in New York City. Kelly would lose an arm in

the war and was commended for gallantry

at the battle of Winchester.

A Much-Wounded Officer:

Shot by the enemy twice in 1862, Toon ended the war

wounded a total of seven times, fighting with conspicuous

gallantry at Seven Pines, the Seven Days Campaign, South

Mountain and Fredericksburg.

To his great credit as a leader, Major Toon was elected colonel

of the regiment on 26 February 1863 when his seniors

in rank waived their own rights to promotion.

He led the 20th North Carolina Regiment during Stonewall

Jackson's famous flank attack at Chancellorsville

(depicted in the movie Gods & Generals) and was shot

three times while leading his regiment through what he later

described as "a perfect storm of shells and a mist of minie balls."

He later returned to duty and sustained wounds twice

more before the end of the war.

His regiment was heavily involved at Gettysburg from July 1-3, 1863,

and his 20th North Carolina suffered horribly during the first day’s

action with 65% casualties; the 20th fought bravely in the

later Mine Run Campaign and bloody battles of the

Wilderness and Spotsylvania.

When  General Robert D. Johnston (of Lincoln County) was

wounded at Spotsylvania, Colonel Toon was temporarily

promoted to brigadier general on May 31, 1864.

He commanded the brigade during Gen. Jubal Early's

Shenandoah Valley campaign and threatening

movements toward Washington City.

General Toon

 

Capturing an Enemy Regimental Flag: 

General Robert E. Lee commended General Toon’s leadership and courage in the following message to the Secretary of War:

Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia, May 16, 1864:

Hon. Secretary of War, Richmond, Va.

       SIR: Yesterday evening the enemy penetrated a part of

our line and planted his colors upon the temporary breast-

works erected by our troops. He was immediately repulsed,

and among the brave men who met him the Twentieth

North Carolina Regiment, under Colonel Toon, of

the brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. R. D. Johnston,

captured his flag. It was brought to me by Maj. John S. Brooks,

of that regiment, who received his promotion for gallantry

in the battle of Chancellorsville, with the request that it be

given to Governor Vance. I take great pleasure in

complying with the wish of the gallant captors, and

respectfully ask that it be granted, and that these colors

be presented to the State of North Carolina

as another evidence of the valor and devotion that have

made her name eminent in the armies of the Confederacy.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,
General.

 

A Last, But Serious Wound:

When General Johnston returned to duty during the last stage of the

Valley campaign, Toon reverted to the rank of colonel and led his

regiment again at the battle of Monocacy.  This campaign has been compared to the Inchon landing in Korea as General Early’s

command bypassed the main enemy army and threatened

to capture the Northern capital.

Colonel Toon received his last and most serious wound on

25 March 1865 during the assault on Fort Stedman, near Petersburg.

He was sent to a hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina on April 7th

and recovered sufficiently to be present when General Joseph E.

Johnston surrendered his army at the end of the month. Toon

was paroled by Northern forces at Greensboro in May,

nearly a month after his 20th North Carolina had stacked

their arms at Appomattox.

Civilian Life After 1865: 

Returning to Columbus County after the war to

rebuild his life, Toon lived there for 25 years before removing to

nearby Robeson County in 1891. Being a young man at

the beginning of the war, he is far better known for

his accomplished civilian career in education.

Toon married Carrie E. Smith of Fair Bluff and served as

principal at Fair Bluff School on Academy Street in the

mid-1880’s; he was elected State Senator from Columbus

County in 1881 and reelected in 1883. A vocal advocate

of public education in North Carolina and protégé’ of

Governor Charles Brantley Aycock, he was

a committed leader of public schooling for the white

and black races. Taking his commitment to education

to the political sphere, Toon was elected to the

position of North Carolina Superintendent of

Public Instruction in 1901.

Also in 1901, Toon wrote a detailed regimental history

of the 20th North Carolina for  Clark’s Regiments, an official

compilation of North Carolina’s struggle 1861-1865. His tribute

to the regiment noted that it was “initiated at Seven Pines,

sacrificed at Gettysburg, surrendered at Appomattox.” 

General Toon died of either a heart attack or pneumonia

in Raleigh on February 19, 1902, and is buried in the

Confederate section of Oakwood Cemetery in that city.

 

 

In his message to the General Assembly of 1903

Governor Aycock paid the following tribute to

General Toon’s memory:


“On the 19th day of February, 1902, Gen. Thomas F. Toon, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State, fell on sleep.

His record is one of which the state may well be proud.

He entered the Confederate Army as a young man as

a private, and without outside influence, by merit alone,

won promotion after promotion, until he

became a Brigadier-General.


He freely offered his life for the independence of

the South. He finally gave it in behalf of the education

of the children. He was engaged in canvassing the

State in advocacy of larger educational facilities

when he was attacked by pneumonia.

He ended his life as he had spent it, in patriotic

service for the State. As a soldier, as citizen, as officer,

he was always faithful and gave to the cause which

he espoused his full devotion. He died as he lived,

without other fear than that which we are told is

the beginning of wisdom.” (Aycock, pg. 121)

Thomas F. Toon was honored on August 26, 2000 with a

State Historical Marker at Fair Bluff and ceremony by the

"Columbus Volunteers" Camp, North Carolina Sons

of Confederate Veterans (below).

 

Toon is also noted at Wake Forest University as its

highest-ranking alumnus during the War Between the States.

Compiled by Bernhard Thuersam, Director

Cape Fear Historical Institute

Sources:

Generals in Grey, Ezra J. Warner, LSU Press, 1959

NC Troops, 1861-1865, W. T. Jordan, Jr., NC DA&H, 1998

North Carolina Museum of History (www.ncmoh.org)

Confederate Veteran, Vol. III, 2001

Life and Speeches of Charles B. Aycock, Conner/Poe, 1912