John "Jack" Gilliam | Gilliams of Virginia

A Tragic Life, Ends Tragically
Updated March 4, 2016

“Jack,” John William GILLIAM, the son of Richard James GILLIAM and Catherine Elizabeth Thornton GILLIAM, was born 23 Jan 1843 at “Buena Vista” Farm, Powhatan County, VA. Jack was baptized a few months later, on 23 Apr 1843, at nearby Saint Luke’s, by the Rev. J. A. Massey.

Jack, at a young age, became acquainted with tragedy. A few weeks after Jack’s eighth birthday his paternal grandmother, Maria Jefferson James GILLIAM dies. Four months later his paternal grandfather, John GILLIAM, dies. Two months after Jack’s tenth birthday, his father, Richard James GILLIAM, dies leaving his mother with five small children (Jack was the oldest) and a large working farm. At thirteen, this maternal grandfather, William Mynn Thornton dies (his maternal grandmother died before Jack was born).

At the age of 18, on 25 April 1861, Jack enlists as a Corporal in the Powhatan Troops, Company E, 4th Cavalry Regiment, Virginia. The 4th Virginia Cavalry was composed of companies from Prince William, Chesterfield, Madison, Culpeper, Powhatan, Goochland, Hanover, Warrenton, and Buckingham counties. It served from First Manassas to Appomattox Court House, participating in every major battle and campaign which involved the Army of Northern Virginia.

The 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, Company E was formerly known as Capt. John F. Lay's Company, Virginia Cavalry. The regiment completed its organization at Sangster's Cross Roads, Prince William County, Virginia, on 4 September, 1861. The unit was assigned to General J. E. B. Stuart's, F. Lee's, Wickham's, and Munford's Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia.

After fighting at Ball's Bluff on 21 October, the unit guarded the Potomac front through the winter before moving to the Peninsula and reorganizing in April 1862.

After fighting in the May 1862 battle of Williamsburg, six companies of the 4th participated in Stuart's June "Ride Around McClellan". The companies were praised in the official reports for the gallantry during this historic raid. On 28 July the 4th's 350 troopers from a roster of 916 was assigned to Fitz Lee's brigade and a month later participated in the "Catlett Station Raid" before capturing Manassas Junction with infantry prior to Second Manassas. Crossing the Potomac on 5 September, the 4th protected the Army of Northern Virginia’s rear at South Mountain on 14 September. Returning to Virginia after Sharpsburg, the 4th numbered 411 effectives from a roll of 768 on 30 September. During the fall the 4th patrolled Loudoun, Fauquier, Stafford and Prince William counties before riding on Stuart's "Fairfax Raid" of 26-29 December, then moving to picket the Rappahannock River in February 1863.

On 9 June 1863 the 4th rode to Stevensburg to protect Stuart's right flank and rear. During this fight, Col. William C. Wickham's regiment supported the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry. Unfortunately, the 2nd was driven in by the Federal onslaught into the 4th. Retreating, Col. Wickham rallied his troopers and drove the Federals back to the Rappahannock; but not before losing fifteen wounded and 27 missing.

In late June, the 4th screened the Army of Northern Virginia's march to Pennsylvania, participating in numerous cavalry engagements. At Gettysburg it lost about three percent of the 544. On 1 September, Wickham was promoted to Brigadier General and given command of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th regiments. On 19 October, the 4th participated in the "Buckland Races", before scouting the region between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan for the winter.

During the Wilderness campaign the 4th fought dismounted to halt Grant's move against Richmond and then rode to counter Sheridan's raiders as the Yankees rode for Richmond on 9 May. The regiment participated in the battles of Trevilian's Station, Samaria Church, and Reams' Station, as well as, other engagements around Richmond in June before being sent to the Shenandoah Valley in August.

By February, the 4th was back around Richmond and participated in all the fighting that preceded the surrender at Appomattox: Five Forks, Namozine Church, Deep Creek, Amelia Springs, New Store, and Appomattox Court House where fifty-five troopers surrendered.

During the War 1,922 men rode with the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Of the 1,922 men, 208 were killed and 381 were wounded.

Jack returns from the War to “Buena Vista.” On 20 Oct 1869 Jack marries at “Windsor,” Elizabeth “Bettie” Moore Taylor, the daughter of George Taylor and Catherine Randolph Taylor.

A year later on 22 Jul 1870, Catherine, Jack’s mother, under the Homestead Act files a Homestead deed. Prior to the War, Catherine had real estate valued at $27,000 and personal property valued at $40,000. By 1870, Catherine’s real estate was valued at $12,000; her personal property was valued at $800.

On 3 Mar 1871 to Jack and Bettie is born a son, Richard James GILLIAM who was named after his grandfather. A year later, on 5 May 1872 Bettie gives birth to Randolph Moore GILLIAM. Bettie dies on 11 May 1872, a few months later, apparently from complications resulting from the birth of Randolph. Randolph Moore lives for only a few months. He is buried at Saint Luke’s on 10 July 1872.

At the age of 29 Jack finds himself a widower with a one-year-old son. One would have thought Jack would have quickly remarried, but he remained single until 1887 when he married Mary Ann “Polly” Overton, his first cousin, the daughter of his aunt, Martha Catherine GILLIAM Overton.

Around this time, several of Jack’s aunts die: Lucy Ann GILLIAM Archer dies 23 May 1869; Susan Elvira GILLIAM dies 18 Nov 1872; Mary Louisa GILLIAM Pemberton dies 15 Sep 1873 and Martha Catherine GILLIAM Overton dies 22 Nov 1878.

About 1895, Jack’s son Richard James GILLIAM marries Marion Mildred Perkins, the daughter of Joseph Perkins and Sarah Chapman Maupin Perkins. On 27 Oct 1895, a son, Randolph Moore GILLIAM is born. Two years later, Jack’s son, Richard James GILLIAM, dies on 5 May 1897.

Marion remarries four years later Edloe Morecock on 13 February 1901.

From the Richmond Dispatch, 13 Feb 1901, page 3
Mr. Edloe Morecock, a popular inspector in the customs service, and Mrs. Marian GILLIAM, who is both popular and prominent socially, were married this afternoon at 3:30 o’clock at St. Paul’s Episcopal church by Rev. J. Francis Ribble, the rector. This was one of the most brilliant nuptial events here of recent year, the church being crowded to the doors with friends of the popular couple. Miss Cabell Perkins, of Baltimore, a sister of the bride, was the maid of honor, and the best man was Irwin Tucker, of this city, a leading business-man. The ushers were Messrs. Jefferson Norris, of Baltimore, C. R. Kennon, of Powhatan, Ewell Scott, and James Christian of Williamsburg, J. A. Massie, James Plummer and Dr. S. W. Hobson of this city.

From the Richmond Dispatch, 15 Feb 1901, page 3
Mr. And Mrs. Augustine Royall of Manchester; Miss Katherine Michaux, this city; Miss Frances Overton, of Louisa, and Miss Nancy Kennon, of Powhatan, attended the marriage of Mrs. Marion Perkins GILLIAM and Mr. Edloe Morecock in Newport News, Tuesday.

Just three days after the wedding, Jack commits suicide. We can only speculate as to a connection.

From Richmond Dispatch, 17 February 1901, page 20

Death of a Powhatan Farmer
Mr. Royall Receives news of the Sudden Demise of Mr. John GILLIAM

Mr. John GILLIAM, a prominent resident of Powhatan, died quite suddenly yesterday at his home, “Buena Vista.” A telegram announcing his death was received yesterday afternoon by Mr. Augustine Royall.

The deceased was a prominent farmer, and a gallant veteran of the Confederacy. Besides his wife and grandson, he is survived by two brothers and two sisters. The brothers are Mr. W. T. GILLIAM of the Virginia Navigation Company, and Mr. James D. GILLIAM a conductor on the Farmville and Powhatan railway. The surviving sisters are Mrs. Nelson, wife of Dr. Hugh T. Nelson, of Charlottesville, and Mrs. William U. Kennon of Powhatan.

From Richmond Dispatch, 19 Feb 1901, page 1
Ended His Own Life
Further Particulars of the Death of Mr. John GILLIAM of Powhatan

Further particulars of the death of Mr. John GILLIAM, of Powhatan, reveal the distressing fact that he ended his own existence.

It is learned that he locked himself in his room, put a gun in him mouth and pulled the trigger. The shot ranged downward, and came out at the lower portion of the body. Mr. GILLIAM was a prominent farmer and highly connected in the State. His home “Buena Vista’ is one of the prettiest places in Powhatan county. The funeral took place from St. Luke’s church, the rector, Rev. Martin Johnson, officiating.

Jack is buried at Saint Luke’s along side his parents and sons. His tombstone reads:
In memory of John GILLIAM
January 23, 1843
February 16, 1901
Brave, tender and true

A few weeks later another gentleman, Randolph Harrison Finney, takes his own life. Jack’s suicide is mentioned as a probably cause of Col. Finney’s suicide.

From Richmond Dispatch, 26 Feb 1901, page 5
Takes His Own Life
Major Randolph Harrison Finney Hangs Himself
Long Blind and in Ill Health
Found in His Room, Suspended from the Transom, by a Skipping-Rope, the Plaything of His Little Daughter--Sketch of His Career

In a temporary fit of mental derangement, a result of blindness, and a long period of ill-health, Major Randolph Harrison Finney took his own life Sunday morning at his hone, No. 1303 Floyd Avenue.

Major Finney arose at his usual hour Sunday morning and went down-stairs to assist his wife and his little daughter in getting breakfast. He went back upstairs again in a few minutes, presumably for the purpose of preparing himself f to come to the table.

A short while after this Mrs. Finney called him to come to breakfast, but she met with no response. Fearing that something might be wrong, she immediately went to his room, only to med the terrible spectacle of her husbands body suspended across the transom by a skipping rope, the plaything of his little child that he loved.
Died in a Few Minutes.

Drs. Lewis Bosher and Christopher Tompkins were immediately summoned but their effort to restore the dying man were of no avail. In a few minutes more he was dead. The physicians gave it as their opinion that the deceased came to his death by his own hand I the a temporary fit of insanity cause by great physical suffering and the depression following a long period of total blindness.

Major Finney was in the 66th year of his age, and was a native Powhatan county, where he had lived the most of his life. He was the son of the late Captain William Finney of the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, and his mother was Miss Ward, of English extraction.
Major Finney was highly educated, having studied at some of the best schools in his country and in England.
I childhood Major Finney lost an eye from any arrow shot and shortly after the war, a terrible attack of erysipelas deprived him of the sight of the remaining eye.

Record as a Soldier
Major Finney served with distinction through the war. Early in the conflict he was made quartermaster of the staff of General Harry Heth, and at Gettysburg and many other great battles he displayed marked heroism thought that the suicide of his friend, Jack GILLIAM, of Powhatan, which occurred some days ago, had much to do with the tragic death of Major Finney.
His Family
Major Finney married about eleven years ago Miss Emily Cree of Ohio, who with a little daughter, 7 years of age survives him.
He also leaves two brothers—Col. W. W. Finney, of Old Point, and Mr. Lewis Harvie Finney of Washington. He is survived, too, by a sister—Mrs. E. C. Battelle.
The funeral took place yesterday afternoon at 3 o’clock from the residence, and the interment was in Hollywood.

The news of Jack’s death quickly reached the west coast where several of the Thorntons had removed. By 4 March 1904, James D. Thornton writes from San Francisco to Polly to convey his condolences.

By 1920 Jack’s wife, Polly, is living with her brother, William Overton at Prospect Hill, Louisa County. There she resides until her death in 1933.

Her obituary reads:

Mrs. Polly Overton GILLIAM, 88, widow of John GILLIAM, died today at her late home, Prospect Hill, Louisa county. Hour of the funeral will be announced later. Mrs. Gillam was a daughter of the late William Overton and Mrs. Martha GILLIAM Overton and was widely related among old and prominent families in this state.
From "The Richmond News-Leader," Richmond, Va., Tues., Jan. 3, 1933 issue, p. 4, c. 8

  • Richmond Dispatch, 13 Feb 1901, page 3
  • Richmond Dispatch, 15 Feb 1901, page 3
  • Richmond Dispatch, 17 February 1901, page 20
  • Richmond Dispatch, 19 Feb 1901, page 1
  • Richmond Dispatch, 26 Feb 1901, page 5
  • Richmond News-Leader, Richmond, Va., Tues., Jan. 3, 1933 issue, p. 4, c. 8