Colonel Robert Newton Wilson
by Helen D. Chandler

    In Their Own Words
    The Gastonia Daily Gazette
    Monday afternoon July 23, 1928
    Colonel Robert Newton Wilson
    By Helen D. Chandler
    Colonel Robert Newton Wilson, in many respects one of the most unusual men in 
    the Piedmont Carolinas, will celebrate his 90th birthday on Sunday, July 29 at his 
    home in Gaston County, a few miles out from Gastonia.  A Confederate veteran—
    one of the very few left of the 1,500 who went to war from Gaston County—Col. 
    Newt is one of the rapidly diminishing number who remember Lee, Lincoln, Stonewall 
    Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and others of that period whose names are engraved on the 
    pages of American history.  A Southerner of the old style, Col. Wilson is a Democrat 
    and can vote no other ticket.
    The characteristic of Col. Newt which has made him famous in his native county 
    and throughout Piedmont Carolina is his ability to remember countless dates and 
    facts which he has accumulated over the years.  He has a flair for dates that seems 
    marvelous to those who are accustomed to those who regard them as stumbling 
    blocks on the road to learning.  Histories of the Civil War are about things that 
    happened on an exact date and month and year.  He remembers the number of killed 
    and wounded, peculiar incidents, methods of fighting in all the battles in which he 
    took part and they are many.  He was at Seven Pines, at Hatcher’s Run, at the Seven 
    Days battles around Richmond, at Sharpsburg, at Fort Sheridan, with Lee at 
    Fredericksburg, at Malvern Hill, and many others of lesser importance.
    This remarkable old man comes of Irish ancestry.  His parental grandfather came 
    to America from Tyrone County, Ireland in 1794 and his maternal grandfather from 
    County Anson about the same time.  His father bought the tract of land upon which 
    Col. Wilson still lives in 1822 for a little more than a dollar an acre.  The Wilsons 
    are still prosperous farmers, cultivating the land handed down to them since 1822, 
    adding to it from time to time.  
    Robert Newton Wilson was born in 1838 in a house built a half mile from the one 
    he now occupies with his son Clarence.  Although his marches during the Civil 
    War carried him far from home, he was captured by the Yankees nine days before 
    Lee’s surrender and taken to Johnston’s Island on Lake Erie—he has always come 
    back to this place which has always been his home except for a few years residence 
    in Gastonia, ten miles distant. 
    The old homestead, erected in 1835, is now occupied by one of his sons.  It was 
    originally built of logs, but was re-covered about 45 years ago and stands today 
    almost perfectly preserved.  There, as a young man of twenty three, he said good 
    bye and went away to war.
    It is of the war—and he never means the World War, that the Colonel loves to talk.  
    In the earlier days of the war he was commissioned lieutenant colonel 37th N.C. 
    Militia and it is this title by which he is still called, although during the war he was 
    made first lieutenant in the Confederate Army.
    Colonel Wilson left home May 27, 1862 to join Company H, 49th (?) regiment at 
    Goldsboro.  No time was lost in getting them into shape. After three days drilling 
    at Goldsboro, the company went to Petersburg for training.  He was in eight battles, 
    one of which was Seven Pines. The Battle of Malvern Hill is the one he remembers 
    where he came the closest to being killed.  The bullet holes in his hat gave mute 
    evidence of where he had been.  
    At Fredericksburg, he fought under the peerless Lee, at another time he was led by 
    Stonewall Jackson and another time by Longstreet.
    For three months before he was promoted to lieutenant, Col. Wilson served as forage 
    master for Bushrod Johnson’s supply trains, a position which he said he would not 
    have exchanged for General Lee’s.
    Before he could be commissioned a lieutenant, he had to be examined before a 
    military board of the Confederate Army.  He recalls vividly the questions asked him 
    in reading, writing, arithmetic and military terms.
    Another incident which stands out in his memory, is the farewell address of Colonel 
    Zebulon Vance to his brigade before he went home to take up the more arduous work 
    of governing North Carolina during the remainder of the war.
    It is a well known fact that Confederate soldiers went hungry during much of the war 
    because there was nobody back home to raise the crops.  One of Wilson’s neighbors 
    deserted to the enemy because the pangs of hunger grew too keen.  Most of the 
    Confederate soldiers, however, were more loyal to say the least.  They raided the 
    cornfields of Maryland and burned the cobs to hide them from the officers, because 
    raiding was strictly against orders.  He once enjoyed a good meal at the risk of his life.  
    A guinea was knocked from its roost in a tree from a Yankee bullet and with lead flying 
    about his head, he stopped to pick it up.  But he still thinks the supper was worth the 
    risk of obtaining it. 
    Just nine days before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Wilson and a number 
    of his comrades were captured at Five Forks in Virginia and were taken on boat to 
    Washington.  There they remained until the day of surrender, April 9, when he was 
    removed to Johnston Island in Lake Erie.
    Colonel Hill, of Ohio, in addressing the Confederate prisoners at Johnston’s Island, 
    made the statement that it was unfortunate for the South that Lincoln was dead.  
    This was also Colonel Wilson’s opinion.  Much of the misery and degradation in the 
    South during the Reconstruction period might have been avoided, he thinks, if Lincoln 
    had been permitted to guide the policies of the Federal government during that period. 
    Colonel Wilson says he made almost as good a prisoner as he did a soldier—he was 
    obedient in both capacities.  While in prison, he had some form of duty to perform all 
    the time—from police duty to operating a washing machine.  The Southern prisoners 
    at the island were paroled on June 20, 1865 and Col. Wilson started on his long journey 
    home.  At Harrisburg, Pa., he paid $60 in Confederate money for six pies, and enjoyed 
    the immensely, he said.  Leaving the train at Charlotte, he walked the remaining twenty 
    odd miles to reach his home, and went to work.
    Transcribed by Christine Spencer, June 2008

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