I learned a great deal about the tumultuous life of Lucius Bunyan Compton during my time at Eliada Homes. In his youth he was a rascal and ne’er-do-well, spending his days smoking tobacco and drinking bootleg whiskey–things strictly forbidden by the “Compton Government.” After he was saved at twenty years old, he spent the rest of his life helping those he called “the last, the lost, and the least,” founding an orphanage, a rescue home, and a homeless mission in Asheville, North Carolina. And when asked later on in his ministry how he had come to the Lord, he always credited the profound influence of his father Miles Calvin Compton–the man who shaped his life and prepared him for his glorious and difficult journey.
But I always wondered about his father, that strictly pious mountain evangelist from Haywood County–a stolid one dimensional figure in the annals of his son’s amazing life. Who were his people, and how did he even end up in Western North Carolina? We know from the family narrative that he and his wife Elizabeth and their children struggled mightily–that Miles was barely able to support their large brood on his meager earnings. His son Lucius wrote about a youth filled with an empty hunger and bone chilling cold, often lacking the shoes and clothing essential for those piercing Appalachian winters. But the rest? I was wholly stumped…and then good fortune smiled upon my oral history project.
In 2001 Stewart Humphrey, the President and CEO of Eliada Homes, asked me to attend the funeral of Nettie McElrath, the beloved niece of Lucius Bunyan Compton himself. It was at Nettie’s ceremony in Asheville, N.C. that I met Ann Casey, Nettie’s daughter and Lucius’ grand niece. She opened the door I had been waiting to walk through, leading me straight to the story–the defining years in the life of Miles Calvin Compton.
But she was also suspicious about my intentions, peppering me with questions about the oral history project budget—and curious as well about any potential book payments or monetary advances. After my only visit with her, Ms. Casey sent me the following note:
“Whatever I do is in memory of my mother Nettie McElrath. It was very important to her that I write down everything about the Compton family. She always held Uncle Lucius as a role model and mentor to us. So many of my cousins grew up knowing and loving Uncle Lucius.”
“I really enjoyed your visit and getting to know you better. I only question your ability to handle the complete life of Uncle Lucius because of your age and lack of going through a similar path as a Christian. I like you. I trust you. But if you do not answer my correspondence, I will start snooping about you!”
I showed the letter to Stewart Humphrey. He responded to her questions promptly by e-mail, stating in part:
“Ms. Casey—My wife and I were very good friends of your mother. We were unable to attend her funeral and asked Cliff Davids who is working on an oral history for Eliada to attend her funeral on our behalf. Mr. Davids made me aware of some questions that you had regarding the oral history project.”
“At this stage we are simply gathering information about a great man and a great work. At some point in time we do hope to add to the body of writings already in existence. I can assure you that neither Cliff nor anyone else will benefit personally from this effort. Our sole purpose is to add to the archives at Eliada. Any information gathered from individuals or organizations will be documented and the source identified.”
The copy of the 1976 family newsletter Ann Casey gave me that day in 2001 revealed what I should have known all along about the life and times of Miles Calvin Compton–that he was an unyielding survivor. Compton was drafted into the Confederate Army as a teenager in 1862, leaving his young family behind for the bloodiest war this country has ever seen. He fought with the South Carolina 18th Infantry Regiment through some of the deadliest campaigns the Civil War had to offer–including the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, and the brutal nine month Siege of Petersburg.
He saw action in twelve major battles over three harrowing years before he surrendered at Five Forks in Virginia. The total number of casualties for all of the campaigns he fought in was a staggering 123,825. Somehow he persevered. He was paroled after his surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, and then began the 340 mile journey back to Haywood County, probably on foot. This war hardened veteran returned home to his wife and now four year old son, converted and became an ordained preacher, and lived the rest of his life close to God. He rarely spoke of the war.
The few surviving Civil War letters that he sent home to his father William M. Compton and to his Aunt Vashti are presented in the family newsletter below–as well as an oral history on the origins of Compton Family. It only hints at a story we will never fully know.
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COMPTON FAMILY ORGANIZATION
Monthly Newsletter No. 13 / February 1, 1976
To: All Members of Record
We have no new members to report this month. I do have a wonderful batch of information to publish in this newsletter, which comes from Robert F. Compton of Badin, N.C. These are miscellaneous letters and bits of information that came from a trunk that Bob’s father Charles C. Compton owned.
I hope you will enjoy the following:
My name is Charles Carroll Compton of Laurens, S.C. Today is Dec. 26, 1941. Below is a brief story of the Compton family history as told to me by my Great Aunt Elizabeth Jane Compton (Aunt Lizzie). The marriages and records of birth and death taken from ledgers and family bibles of William McCauley Compton, Elizabeth Jane Compton, Josiah Compton, William Monroe Compton, and John Franklin Montjoy (my maternal grandfather) more than substantiate Aunt Lizzie’s oral report. She stated:
“Norris Compton was my great-great grandfather. At present it is not definitely known but Norris Compton or his father came from Ireland (probably Northern Ireland or Ulster) and settled in Virginia or North Carolina. It is definitely known that Norris Compton came to South Carolina while still a young man. It is known that he was married three times. However, there is no record in my possession of but one of these marriages.”
“From this marriage to Susannah Watson twelve children (six boys, six girls) were born. Of these children, William McCauley Compton was my great grandfather. He and the other children of Norris Compton and Susannah Watson were born in Spartanburg in what is now known as Cedar Shoals Church community and Waldrop’s Crossroads.”
“William McCauley Compton married twice. His first wife was Amelia Rainwater, and from this marriage MILES CALVIN COMPTON was born. Miles Compton married Elizabeth Gentry when he was a very young man (probably at the age of eighteen) and their first child, Thomas Jefferson Compton, was only a few months old when the Civil War started. Miles Calvin Compton entered the Confederate Army in 1862 and stayed with the Army until the end of the war.”
NOTE: I have in my possession a number of interesting letters written by Miles Compton to his father Wm. M. Compton and his Aunt Vashti Compton. These letters were written while he was a soldier with the South Carolina 18th Inf. Reg. of the Confederate Army from 1862 to 1865…copies made by C.C. Compton Dec. of 1941:
Miss. Scott County
July the 28 ‘63
Miss Vashti Compton:
Dear Aunt I once more take my pen in hand to write you a few lines to let you know that I am well. I hope when these lines come to you they will find you well also. I have nothing good to write—only that I am well.
Dear Aunt I have not heard from you in a long time, and I want to know what in the world is the reason you don’t write or have something to say in some of Papa’s or Betsy’s letters. I am all most obliged to think that you have married and gone off to some distant land—so I shall not write any more on that subject. Dear Aunt I want you to write me as soon as you can and tell me all the news you can. I shall have to come to a close for the want of something to write. Nothing more…
I remain yours till death.
P.S. When this you see remember me though many miles apart we’ll be.
Near Petersburg, VA
July the 12th ‘64
I take my pen in hand to write you a line to let you know that I am well and hoping when these few lines come to you they will find you all well. I have no news to write that is any ways good at all. I have no entrenchments and the Yankees are doing the same. There hasn’t been any fighting, only picket fighting for several days.
Dear Father, I received your kind letter yesterday bearing the date of 5th instant…I was mighty glad to get it and to hear that you are all well. That is always good news to me to hear that you are all well. Dear Father, I want you to write to me again as soon as you can and I will do the same to you.
So nothing more at present. I remain your true son until death
P.S. July the 13th…I am still well today and I hope that these few bad composed lines that come to you will find you all well and doing well. So write soon and often.
Aug. 12th /’64
It is through the kind mercy of almighty God that I am permitted to write you a line to inform you that I am well and doing as well as can be expected. Aunt Vashti, I have seen some mighty hard times since I last saw you, but I have always struck up with good luck safer. Dear Aunt I want you to write me soon and often and I will do the same to you. So nothing more at present.
I remain yours until death
Feb. the 2nd 1865
These few lines will inform you that I am well and I do hope when these few lines come to you they will find you well and doing well. I have good news to write to you at this time. I do wish I could see you and talk with you for I could tell you a heap more than I can write. I can’t tell whether we will see each other again or not, but I still feel in hopes that we will meet again on earth. If we should not meet again on earth I hope we will see each other in a land of peace where parting will be no more and hardships and wars not felt.
Aunt Vashti I see a heap of trouble about my folks at home, but if I just knew that I could ever get home again I would be better satisfied, but that is not for me to know. I shall just have to live in hope and trust in the Lord. Our duty that we have to do is very hard and our rations is very short. Be certain to write me a line soon and let me know how you are getting on in life.
So as I have nothing worth your attention to write, I will come to a close by saying write soon and often and I will do the same to you. Nothing more at present. I remain your true friend until death.
When you see this remember me though many miles apart we be.
Yours in love
M.C. to V.C.
So there you have everything that Robert F. Compton sent to me. I found this all extremely interesting. I realize there are many conflicts when we start to put the pieces together; however, this is to be expected. We can tell by these letters that Miles Calvin Compton had a great love and fondness for his Aunt Vashti…he named his baby daughter Vashti.
I regret that I can’t get all of our newsletters run on the xerox since it makes a much better copy. This one will have to go out on the ditto machine. So no more at the present time. I am anxious to hear from each of you.
G. Roy Compton (February 1, 1976)