March 17, 2008
Nevada's Online State News Journal
[From C.C. Goodwin, As I Remember Them (1913).]
HARRY I. THORNTON.
HE WAS slight and fair, not more than twenty-four years of age, I think, when he reached California, but he was already an accomplished lawyer. He hailed, I believe, from Alabama, and was of the first families. He settled in Downieville and soon made a name as an orator and lawyer, and was looked upon as sure to stamp himself upon the state as one of its foremost citizens. His private life was above reproach he always carried himself as one who was above winning anything except on merit, and as though his self-respect was something which he would sooner die than stain or wound. After awhile the Sierra district sent him to the legislature and he soon made a name there as a speaker and legislator. He was a Democrat of the Southern school and politics were fast taking on a fiery form in California. The killing of Broderick by Terry, and Ferguson by Penn Johnson had inflamed northern-born men of all parties. Though they were both killed in duels, the feeling in the first case was that he was challenged by an expert duelist, not be- cause of the reason assigned, but to get him out of the way, and in the latter case that it was little better than murder, for Ferguson was one of the most genial, gentle and kindly of men.
The extreme Southern-born men counted on General Albert Sidney Johnston turning over the arms and ammunition stored in Alcatraz to them. But he was a soldier, and was on his honor to perform his duty, and though all his sympathies were with the Confederacy, he would not betray his trust. When he was relieved by General Sumner, and resigned from the army to start for the South, a great many southern-born men in California followed him.
Thornton made a ringing speech in the legislature giving his reasons why he could no longer serve California as one of her law-makers, sent in his resignation, and likewise left for the South.
He was at once given a commission and a place on Gen-
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eral Pat Cleburne's staff. He fought in all the battles that the fiery Cleburne engaged in, the most furious one being at Franklin. He told me that on that afternoon Hood ordered six separate assaults upon the earthworks behind which Schofield with his seven thousand veterans played upon Hood's army in the open field. Six high officers of Hood's army were killed, among whom, if we are not mistaken, Cleburne was one, with a score of lesser officers and an appalling list of men. Franklin virtually decided the battle of Nashville.
It was what Hougomont was to Waterloo, and a part of Hugo's description would apply to Franklin, as follows :
"Napoleon sent his brother Jerome against Hougomont ; the divisions of Foy, Guillemont and Bacheln hurled thunders against it; nearly the entire corps of Rielle was employed against it and miscarried ; Killerman's brigades were exhausted on this heroic section of wall. Banduin's brigade was not strong enough to force Hougomont on the north, and the division of Gage could not do more than effect the beginning of a breach on the south.'
And the result :
"Banduin killed ; Foy wounded ; conflagration, massacre, carnage ; a river of English blood ; French blood ; German blood mingled in fury ; a well crammed with corpses ; the regiment of Nassau and the regiment of Brunswick destroyed ; Duplat killed ; Blackmaun killed ; the English guards mutilated ; twenty French battalions besides the forty from Reille's corps decimated ; three thousand men in that hovel of Hougomont cut down, slashed to pieces," etc.
As will be remembered, when Sherman at Atlanta wired Grant, asking permission to break away from his base and go through to the sea, Grant wired back to detach Thomas to look after Hood (who was in command of the Southern army in front of Sherman), and then go ahead. Sherman took ninety thousand of his army and started ; 'From Atlanta to the Sea," and the army he left Thomas was so much inferior to Hood's that there was nothing for Thomas to do but to fall back until he could unite with the command at Nashville. Then began that
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movement of Thomas' army with Hood hanging on his rear and seeking the opportunity to overwhelm him.
When Thomas reached Franklin, two days' march from Nashville, he ordered Schofield with seven thousand men to occupy the works there that had previously been constructed ; to keep a lookout for Hood, and if he found that he was flanking him, to leave the works and hurry after him, but if Hood attacked him to fight him until night and then draw out his troops and follow him to Nashville. Evidently Thomas believed from what he knew of Hood's impetuous nature that he would try to crush Schofield and then his battle with Thomas would be much easier, which would have been good generalship had Schofield been in the open like himself, but not when Schofield's army was splendidly entrenched. So Hood led his army through six distinct assaults with loss so frightful that it was only a half-hearted army that he had left. Thornton told me that in the last assault General Adams led his command until his horse's fore feet were reared upon the earthworks, when he and his horse were both killed.
When night came down, following his orders, Schofield silently withdrew his army and hurried on to join Thomas. Next morning the Confederates entered the deserted works, and found there the body of General Adams. The Federals had gone out and carried the body in, composed the limbs on a blanket and over it had laid an officer's costly military cloak.
When the war closed Thornton prepared the necessary papers and went to Washington. He went to Secretary of War Stanton's office next morning and waited his turn to speak to him. When the others were disposed of, Thornton went to the rail which separated the outer from the inner office, and Stanton asked in his brusque way what he could do for him. Thornton, pushing forward his papers, replied : "I have come, Mr. Secretary, with a petition for pardon."
Stanton looked clown upon him for an instant and then said : "You had better go about your business. We are not spending our time in pardoning boys."
I suspect that hurt Thornton more than would a blow. He had practiced law several years, been a member of the legisla-
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ture of a great state and then had fought by the side of a general renowned for his fighting propensities, only to be called a boy and told to go about his business by a grim old secretary of war.
From Washington he went to New York and watched the thousands that thronged the streets, the ships going and coming, and he told me he had never realized before what fools the southern men had been. 'Why," said he, "New York City alone could have licked us, and had she found the work a little too robust, she could in a month have imported enough Irishmen and Germans to have beaten us down through the sheer force of numbers." As soon as he could he sought the west. Reaching San Francisco, his friends advised him that all the rush was for Nevada, and he went there, settling first, I think, in Austin and going from there to Hamilton. When he arrived in Austin he found many old Sierra county friends. The first proposition was to all have a drink. As they stood glasses in hand, one man cried out, 'Here's to the south, beaten, but not subdued." Thornton set down his glass and turning to the man, said: 'Where in the south did you serve?"
"Oh, I was here," said the man.
Then Thornton said: "I was in the south, and I am subdued."
He formed a law partnership with Judge Garber, and the firm was recognized as one of the foremost in the state for several years. He was handling a mining case in Belmont and the principal on the other side was a Frenchman who had but a poor understanding of English. In his final argument, Thornton used the Frenchman's name several times. A would- be funny deputy sheriff sitting near the Frenchman asked him if he understood what Thornton was saying. He replied that his understanding was imperfect, when the other, thinking to have some fun, told the Frenchman that he was making fun of him and intimating that he was none too honest. When the Frenchman finally understood, he grew pale and asked the deputy if he would carry one paper to Monsieur Thornton. The deputy said he would, and the Frenchman went to a desk and wrote something in French and gave it to the deputy.
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When Thornton finished his argument the deputy carried him the paper. Thornton read it, his face flushed a little and leaning forward, he penned an answer. A lawyer friend was watching him, and leaning over him said : "What is it, Harry?' Thornton passed him the Frenchman's note. He read it and the friend said: "Are you going to notice it, Harry?" For answer he held up his acceptance. The friend read it and then declared that it must not be; that Thornton had said nothing to provoke a challenge, and the man was only a boor.
To this, Thornton replied: "'When a man is willing to risk his life for the honor of his name, his social position is not to be questioned. He is a man as good as any other man."
It required the utmost exertion of the court and bar, coupled with the protestations of the deputy that it was all meant as a bit of fun, to make Thornton concede anything. Finally he said : "Gentlemen, bring me a formal withdrawal of this challenge signed by Monsieur, or the fight goes." Then the Frenchman was appealed to, but he was as game as a bull-clog, and not until the judge of the court assured him on his honor that there was not a word of disrespect to him in Thornton's speech, would he sign the paper. He finally did, grinding his teeth and swearing low to himself in the meantime. Then he sprang up and challenged the deputy to fight him, "'not with ze sabre, not with ze gun, not with ze cannon, not with ze bomb, but with ze fists."
Then it required another extended explanation that the deputy was a peace officer, and while he held the office could only fight to keep the peace.
The Frenchman was still angry when he started out of town toward his mine.
Thornton and Garber were in all the litigation in White Pine county, and in all the great cases in Pioche and Eureka. After some years they removed to San Francisco and there maintained their high standing as lawyers and men. But after Mrs. Thornton died, Harry seemed to lose his interest in his business, and a little later an insidious disease came upon him. He had bought a farm some miles out of Oakland and raised horses and flowers upon it. He bought the place merely as a
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resting place when he wanted to be quiet, but as his feebleness increased he spent more and more time there, and I believe died there.
He was most gifted and lovable ; most generous in his estimates of his fellow men. There was nothing of envy or jealousy in his nature; not one drop of cold blood in his veins. Such a nature naturally drew men to it, and the grief over his death extended from cabin to palace and took in all classes of men.
Except for the great war, Harry I. Thornton's name would have been familiar and honored in every home on the west coast.
A little anecdote may make a good closing for this sketch. One day, when General Sherman was before Atlanta and Bragg was in command of the Confederate army in his front, Bragg sent a flag of truce to Sherman. Thornton heard the order given and begged to go along. The little company passed through the union lines and came upon Sherman's headquarters. One side of Sherman's tent was thrown back and Sherman was seen within bending over a map and talking to a group of officers around him and gesticulating in his impetuous way. As the flag of truce was announced, all in the tent stood at attention. The ranking officer approached General Sherman. They had been friends before the war. Sherman greeted him cordially and presented him to the officers around him. Then the Confederate officer presented those who had accompanied him, until it came to Thornton, when Sherman said: "One moment.'' Looking intently at Thornton in his colonel's uniform, he said : T had the honor of being associated with you in the trial of the case of Lucas Turner & Co. vs. Langston's Express Company, in Downieville, California. The trial began on the 16th day of February, 1854, and lasted four days. It was a hot fight, but we licked 'em. I am glad to see you, Col. Thornton." Then added, "Colonel Harry I. Thornton." Then he turned to his officers and introduced Thornton as an old California friend.