Today, we are pleased to welcome David Connon as a guest author on Gazette665.
David Connon is a historical researcher, speaker, and writer. He has spent the past six years documenting 75 Iowa residents who left that state and served the Confederacy. Their existence (in a strongly pro-Union state) represents a scarlet ribbon of political dissent. He shares some of those stories in his blog, Confederates from Iowa: Not to defend, but to understand. He is a great-great-grandson of two Union veterans. Mr. Connon has spoken to audiences across Iowa through the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau. During the season, he works as a historical interpreter at Living History Farms. He has a master’s degree in education from Northern Illinois University.
Multi-talented George R.G. Jones wanted a career in the Confederacy. His dream became a reality through education and a few well-placed family friends.
George was born in 1837 in Wisconsin Territory, across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa. He was the second son of George Wallace Jones, one of Iowa’s first U.S. Senators, a slave owner, and a lifelong friend of Jefferson Davis. Culturally speaking, Senator Jones was a Southerner.
When George was three years old, his family moved to Dubuque, northeast Iowa. They brought three slaves – and one black freedman — with them. (The family freed the slaves two or three years later.) When George was 11 years old, his father was elected U.S. Senator from Iowa.
His father’s stump speeches
Senator Jones, a Democrat, befriended Southern congressmen and senators and often voted with the Southern bloc. Senator Jones gave stump speeches around Iowa. He said, if civil war broke out, he and his sons would “be found in the ranks of the Southern Army, and that, altho’ we might be few in number, we would be victorious as our cause would be just.”
Southern military college
At age 15, George enrolled in Western Military Institute (WMI) in Kentucky. The school aimed to become the Virginia Military Institute of the West.
He re-enrolled at ages 19 and 20. George made friends from “some of the best families” of Tennessee, and he became proficient at infantry tactics and drill.
After he graduated from WMI in 1858, George attended schools in Germany and returned to Dubuque. His father was in South America after losing his senate seat and being appointed minister (ambassador) to New Grenada, present-day Columbia.
Plans to “go South”
In early 1861, southern states were seceding. George, age 23, bumped into one of his father’s friends in Galena, Illinois.
George said “he was going to Dixie to see his sweetheart,” and gave a “Significant Smile.” His “sweetheart,” however, wasn’t a lady – it was the Confederacy. George also told his father that he would fight to defend the rights of the Southern people.
In late April 1861, two weeks after Fort Sumter, George was in Nashville, Tennessee, drilling newly recruited soldiers.
That summer, his mother wrote his father, Ambassador Jones:
“We hear occasionally from George who is in Nashville or thereabouts. He says he is perfectly happy & will not move from there until the war is over & then only to visit for that is his adopted country.”
George became a drillmaster, and a lieutenant, with the Provisional Army of Tennessee on July 30, 1861.
Father under surveillance
While George drilled soldiers, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward spied on his father, intercepting letters between Ambassador Jones and his family. Seward suspected Ambassador Jones of treason, partly because of his stump speeches and his friendship with Jefferson Davis. The Lincoln administration recalled Ambassador Jones to Washington.
Shortly before Christmas 1861, the State Department arrested Ambassador Jones and threw him into Fort Lafayette Prison. Secretary Seward announced the arrest with lightning speed, and the news reached Tennessee.
Request for a commission
While his father was in prison, George wrote the Confederate Secretary of War that he wanted to be a career Confederate officer. George attached letters of recommendation from General Bushrod R. Johnson and Ambassador Jones’s Southern political friends. Unsurprisingly, George received a commission.
In early February 1862, Captain George R.G. Jones was at Fort Henry, Tennessee, commanding an artillery battery, expecting an imminent attack. Fort Henry was in a very poor location, on low ground between a slough and the Tennessee River. Rising water flooded the fort as Union gunboats attacked. General Lloyd Tilghman ordered 60-some men, including Captain Jones, to hold off the enemy while the other soldiers escaped. The Confederate guns fired accurately until General Tilghman surrendered. The general praised George and the other officers for “their consummate devotion.”
Northern newspapers weigh in
A New York Times reporter called George “a renegade Northerner, a resident of Dubuque, Iowa, and a son of Hon. Geo. W. Jones …”
The reporter continued:
“… He has always lived North, has been supported by the North (through his father), and turns against the country which has fed him …
A large number of his fellow townsmen are here, who became so indignant at finding this young ingrate, in this place, ready to train his guns upon his former associates, that they discussed the propriety of shooting him. Wiser counsels, however, prevailed, and he is left to enjoy his infamy undisturbed.”
The Davenport Daily Gazette stated:
“We presume young Jones will be sent to sympathize with his father at Fort Lafayette. An unfortunate family, those Joneses.”
Personal impressions of George
Iowa Union soldiers who met George were more sympathetic. E.M. Van Duzee, a Dubuque resident and captain of the 12th Iowa Infantry, stated:
“He said he was a citizen of Tennessee, and had been for several years. He was quite cheerful, and I think was quite willing to be taken prisoner.
C.S. Sumbardo stated:
“I had a short talk with George Jones at Fort Henry. He stated that he was through with fighting, and would like to take a tour through Europe, where I think he would be more warmly received than at Dubuque.”
George spent the next seven months in captivity at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. The prison, located on Lake Erie, held Confederate officers.
A fellow prisoner called George “elegant and accomplished.” Furthermore, George reportedly was “a versatile genius, being one of the best musicians in prison.”
On Sept. 1, 1862, George was paroled and sent to Vicksburg. Two months later, he was in Richmond, seeking an appointment as ordnance officer in General Tilghman’s brigade.
General Tilghman stated:
“I deem him one of the most valuable men we have … sacrificing Home, Property and friends, he has now proven himself an able and zealous soldier.”
Jefferson Davis commented:
“Capt. Jones as the son of my early and valued friend has to me special interest and I rejoice to find that his merit as a soldier has proved equal to his zeal for our cause.”
The fiddler’s trunk
In spring 1863, George left Vicksburg “to join Johnston’s forces.” Thereafter U.S. Grant began his siege. When Confederates surrendered Vicksburg, a company of the 21st Iowa Infantry captured George’s trunk.
The Dubuque Daily Times announced:
“Besides several articles of clothing and an excellent fiddle, this trunk contained letters of the most treasonable character, from several residents of Dubuque.”
George served the rest of the war in western Alabama and eastern Mississippi.
Endeavors after Appomattox
After the war, he practiced law in Memphis. He got married and was awarded patents for a fan rocking chair and an inkstand. George died on January 2, 1905.
Thanks, David Connon, for sharing your research! What an interesting story.
Don’t forget to check David’s blog Confederates From Iowa: Not To Defend, But To Understand for more articles about the lives of real people from the Civil War era. There’s also a Facebook Page, so you can LIKE it and follow all his blog posts and updates!