Preserving memories

In 1869, Jonas Conrad Killian was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan in Newton. In a two-year span, he was beaten, trampled and robbed for trying to raise a Union flag after the War Between the States ended and North Carolina had rejoined the Union. 

Jonas, a husband, blacksmith and member of the Union army, had a turbulent time surviving through a Confederate-supported Catawba County in the 1860s. 

Now, 150 years after he lived through, and served in the war, his descendents are finally giving the Civil War veteran the recognition he deserves. 

In January 2011, the federal government paid to have a tombstone erected on Jonas’ grave at Zion Lutheran Church near Hickory, nearly one and a half centuries after the Civil War started. 

The tombstone comes after repeated requests by Jonas’ direct descendents – kin who still tell their ancestor’s story today. 

“Jonas was born in 1827 in the Jacob’s Fork community of Catawba County,” said Charlotte-resident Lee Killian, a great-, great-grandson of Jonas. “Jonas was baptized inside Zion Church. He was a blacksmith and never owned any slaves.” 

Killian, who researched his ancestor off and on for 40 years with his brother, Ron, said at the beginning of the Civil War Jonas was not called to serve in the Confederate Army because he was 34, which was a little too old to serve. As the war went on, however, men in Jonas’ age bracket were called into the Confederate Army. Wanting to remain neutral, Jonas tried to hide out and avoid the draft, Lee said. 

“He was hiding out for a while, and wanted to remain neutral as much as he could,” Lee said, adding that his mother, Sally Dietz, his wife, Roxanna C. Killian and Jesse Killian were charged with harboring Jonas from the Confederate Draft by the Catawba County sheriff. 

During this period of time, many pro-Union or neutral citizens in Catawba County hid out to avoid conscription, said Melinda Herzog, executive director of the Catawba County Historical Association. 

“It’s unusual to have a family fight for the Union and stay in the county,” Herzog said. 

Despite eventually voting to secede, Herzog said it took two votes before Catawba County officially seceded. 

“There were a lot of people that wanted to stay in the Union, but there were only a few that stayed,” Herzog said. 

In June 1864, Lee said Jonas made his way to Yancey County, an area of North Carolina that was more pro-Union. He, along with several other men from his county then went to Knoxville, Tenn., where they joined the N.C. Third Mounted Infantry Volunteers, U.S.A., under Col. Kirk, according to an enlistment document dated June 30, 1864. 

“And I, Jonas C. Killian, solemnly swear, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against their enemies or opposers whomsoever; and that I will observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles of war,” according to copy of a U.S. Volunteer Enlistment form.

The mounted infantry unit saw action in Western North Carolina, but Jonas was uninjured, Lee said. 

In August 1865, Jonas returned home to Catawba County, “not as a hero, but a villain to most citizens,” Lee said. 

“Instead of being welcomed home, people treated him like a villain,” Lee said, adding that most of Catawba County was pro-confederacy. 

Three years later, the war is over and North Carolina rejoined the Union. Jonas, along with Jesse and Andrew Ramsour, were peacefully attempting to raise the American flag in front of the Catawba County Courthouse in Newton, Lee said. As they were lifting the flag, suspected Klansmen Phillip Burns and Matthew Wilson ripped the flag away from the men and threw it away, said Dr. Gary Freeze, author of “The Catawbans” and professor at Catawba College. 

Freeze said legal suits ensued between both parties and in 1869, the Klan beat Jonas and Ramsour. The incident was the only major all-white Klan incident in Catawba County, said former O-N-E Editor Sylvia Ray.
“The court case took six years and was never completely resolved,” Freeze said. “It is the incident that led to the fleeing of over 300 Catawba County men that were supposedly associated with the Klan.”

In 1886, Lee said Jonas finally received his pension from the U.S. Army after applying for it four years earlier. 

“He was almost penniless at the time,” Lee said. 

Six years later, Jonas died of asthma brought on by exposure to the weather during the war. He was buried at Zion Lutheran Church. 

Keeping in touch

Over the years, Lee and his brother have attained copies of war and government documents more than 100 years old – information that is not easy to find, Lee said. 

Lee said his family’s genealogy interests him because “you have to know where you come from to know where you are going.” 

“I feel that’s something we have all lost over time,” Lee said. “Families just don’t stick together anymore.”

Catawba County is different, though, Lee said. He said most families and citizens in the area usually keep up with their genealogy over time. 

“Most people don’t know who their great-grandparents are, but you have a lot of names local to this county that you don’t find anywhere else,” Lee said. "It took a lot of nerve doing the things he did. I view him as a hero. I think he was a pretty smart man for his time."