In Their Footsteps
A Veterans Day Address By John H. Croom
Harmony Hall, Kinston, North Carolina
November 11, 2007
Today, I am pleased to be here to share some information about one of Lenoir County’s native sons, a man of great interest: Major General William Croom of the War of 1812.
The Croom families have deep roots here in Lenoir County and prior to 1741 those roots extended back to plantations along the lower James River in Virginia.
Of the many eighteenth century and early nineteenth century Croom and related families I have researched and studied, General William Croom and most of his children and grandchildren are among some of the more interesting.
General William Croom
At last count, I had 78 individuals in my genealogy database named William Croom. Fortunately, most of those have distinctive middle names or initials. Of the six that have no middle name that I have discovered, one stands out from the rest: General William Croom.
General William Croom, whom we are here today to honor, was born in 1772, most likely on one of his father’s plantations on Lower Falling Creek, just a few miles to the west of where we are now. His father, Major Croom—Major was his given name—was a prominent planter in Dobbs County and was active in the governing affairs of Colonial North Carolina. Major had many friends in New Bern, then the seat of the Colonial Governor. Closer to home, among his friends was Richard Caswell, who would be prominent in the Revolutionary War and would be the first governor of the new state of North Carolina.
Little information has been found of William’s childhood, but we know he grew up in a family and among acquaintances and neighbors who had experienced first-hand the meaning of war with its pain and the uncertainty of what the future held. His father and at least two of his older brothers, Joshua and Major, Jr, were active patriots in the Revolutionary War. As a member of the Committee of Safety, Major Croom knew that he likely would be hanged if caught by the British.
From all we can observe of William Croom’s life, it appears that he received a good education. Perhaps he had private tutors. No doubt he was a keen observer and his father and older brothers set high marks for him to hurdle. His half-brother Joshua was 28 years old when William was born and very likely looked over him more as a father than as a brother. Joshua served in the Colonial House of Commons, had been active in the militia during the Revolutionary War and afterwards was a member of the House of Delegates and later of the North Carolina Senate.
Young William Croom, son of Major, must have been attentive to the involvement of his father and older brothers in the affairs of government. It does not seem surprising that when William reached his 21st birthday in 1793 he decided to run for public office. By that time his brother, Joshua Croom, had served in the state senate and his brother Isaac in the House of Commons. William succeeded his brother Joshua in the state senate and was reelected in 1794, 1795, 1805, 1806, and 1807.
Our Country’s Wars
Our country has fought in several wars. Some standout more than others in the minds of our current population. Out of the struggle with Great Britain—The Revolutionary War—our country was born. World War II was a defining event as America’s population, both in uniform and civilian dress, rallied wholeheartedly to defeat its enemies. There have been other wars, like The Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and, of course, The War Between the States.
One war that the new country of North America, The United States, fought was the War of 1812. Some call it, “America’s Second War for Independence.” Many historians tell us—and I wholly agree—that the War of 1812 was one of our most important conflicts, a matter that few Americans apparently appreciate. When one understands just how precarious our country was in the aftermath of a long and bloody war with Great Britain, it is a marvel that we became the world’s most powerful and prestigious country in less than a century. Many British politicians and military officers still seethed with the conviction that the American Colonists had not really won the war and the ruffians needed to be taught a lesson. After The United States and England entered into the peace treaty, the new country’s businesses and leaders, now out from the restricting yoke of England, were eager to develop foreign trade and exports. One of those coveted trading partners was France. Unfortunately, it was at a time when the British were at war with France. In response, the British Navy began to commandeer our merchant ships and impress thousands of sailors into the British Navy. Other pressures continued to mount along the Canadian border, in the western territories of the Ohio River and the southern territories from Florida to New Orleans. Along the western frontier, which might be described as the area on both sides of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, American settlers felt that the British were inciting Indians by giving them guns. Native American Indian and British coalitions signaled threats to Americans moving west and settling in those areas. There still remained from the Revolutionary War a strong desire by some Americans that Canada be annexed and by other Americans that Florida be added to the Mississippi Territory.
General William Croom and the War of 1812
Prior to the Revolutionary War, it was expected that every male over 16 years of age would present himself for service in the militia. After the war, the new state of North Carolina continued the militia and it was a forerunner of our National Guard today.
On June 18, 1812 Congress approved President Madison’s request that war be declared to exist between Great Britain and the United States of America. While a Continental Army was in place, it was in dire need of additional troops. To this end, each state was directed to detach certain numbers of militia for service in the Continental Army.
We don’t know much about William Croom’s early service in the militia but we know that by 1807 he was a colonel. By 1812, he had attained the rank of major general and was in command of 2 brigades from Lenoir County and 1 from Jones County. None of the brigades under Croom’s command had been detached for service with the Continental Army and therefore all were standing in readiness to respond to any forthcoming command of the Governor of North Carolina.
To thwart imports, the British established a naval blockade, which was largely effective in closing down the ports along the North Carolina coast; however, American privateers persisted in running the gauntlet. By the summer of 1814 the British had over 2,000 troops poised off Ocracoke Island. Residents in Edenton, New Bern and Wilmington were becoming increasingly apprehensive.
In July 1814 British troops landed at Portsmouth and Ocracoke. Barns were burned. Houses were invaded and furniture destroyed, Women and children were robbed of their clothing. Foodstuffs and livestock were confiscated. The residents were terrorized. Fortunately, the revenue cutter Mercury, while under fire, was able to outrace the British to bring the news of the British raids to New Bern.
The word spread that New Bern was under an imminent threat of British attack. General Croom immediately began preparing the 3 brigades under his command to march to New Bern in defense of a threatened British invasion even before the Governor’s order officially arrived. The troops under General Croom’s command were the first to arrive in New Bern. It took a while for other militia to make the 130-mile march from Raleigh. Historical records describe the city as “an armed camp.” The threat was real but the British never appeared. Memories were still fresh in the minds of the New Bern residents from the British excursions during the recent Revolutionary War and much gratitude was expressed to General Croom and the other troops for the city being spared similar assault in 1814.
General William Croom in Florida
After the War of 1812, William Croom resigned his commission in the NC Militia and retired to his estate at Newington, just to the east of Kinston. There he devoted more of his time to managing his land interests in and around Lenoir County. Newington formerly was owned by Richard Caswell, the first governor of the state. In time, William purchased several nearby plantations—Tower Hill, Roundtree and Friendship Hall. By 1820, he was attracted to available rich and virgin land—excellent for growing cotton—in the Florida Territory, especially in the panhandle near what is now Tallahassee. William Croom and his sons and daughters and, a few years later, some of his nephews, nieces and other acquaintances would be among the earliest North Carolinians to acquire large land holdings in Florida and southwestern Alabama. Several of these plantations would create significant wealth and establish the Croom name among the most prominent citizens of those states during the 1830 to 1860 period. Isaac Croom, a son of the general’s older half brother, Isaac, Sr, not only served in the NC House and Senate but after moving to Alabama served there in the state legislature. Another Lenoir County native son, William D. Moseley, served 8 years in the NC Senate before moving to Florida and becoming the first governor of the new state of Florida in 1845.
During the 1820s William Croom and his eldest sons, Hardy and Bryan, acquired several thousand acres in Jackson and Gadsden counties in the Florida panhandle. William moved a good number of his slaves in North Carolina to the new Florida plantations, as did his two sons.
Though William had established several large and profitable plantations in Florida, he never expressed an interest in moving his official residence there. Kinston, or Kingston as it was first known, was established in1762 but was never incorporated until 1826. When it was incorporated, William Croom was a town commissioner and served on Kinston’s governing board.
William Croom’s Family
I’ve charted many families over the years and I don’t recall any that was as complicated as that of William Croom. You see, William and his son Richard both had the same father-in-law. Without showing you a chart or taking the time to detail it here, let me briefly summarize it.
MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM CROOM (1772-1829) married first about 1796 MARY BRYAN, daughter of COLONEL NATHAN BRYAN and his wife, the former WINNEFRED BRYAN. Among their four children was a son, RICHARD CROOM (1805-1559).
MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM CROOM (1772-1829) married second in 1809 ELIZABETH “BETSY” WHITFIELD, daughter of GENERAL BRYAN WHITFIELD and his first wife, the former NANCY BRYAN. RICHARD CROOM (1805-1559) married in 1829 WINNEFRED BRYAN WHITFIELD, daughter of GENERAL BRYAN WHITFIELD and his second wife, the former WINNEFRED BRYAN. Thus, William and his son, Richard, married half-sisters and both William and Richard had the same father-in-law. Put another way, another way: Richard married a much younger half-sister of his step-mother.
I should point out that this unusual father-in-law relationship was short-lived. Richard married in April 1829 and General William Croom died unexpectedly the following month.
On May 9, 1829, General Croom was scheduled to depart for another one of his trips to Florida. A few days earlier, however, he had been taken sick with chills and fevers and died at Newington on the date of his scheduled departure. He was buried in his Rountree Plantation family cemetery near Tower Hill. After William’s untimely death at age 57 in 1829, all of his children of both marriages moved to Florida and Alabama.
Hardy Bryan Croom
Perhaps General Croom’s most famous offspring was his eldest son, Hardy Bryan Croom, who graduated UNC, class of 1817. He later came back and was awarded a M.A. there in 1820. Hardy briefly practiced law back in New Bern but according to testimony from his friends showed no real interest in making that his profession. During the 1820s he joined his father on trips to the Florida Territory and began acquiring land. During that time, he gave no indication of moving from New Bern to Florida. After the death of his father, William, in 1829, however, he went to Florida to manage the plantations his father had established there. Hardy continued to acquire thousands of acres in Florida and established Goodwood Plantation just outside of Tallahassee. Goodwood later would be completed by Hardy’s younger brother, Bryan, also a UNC graduate, class of 1821, and under Bryan’s management would grow to cover some 8,000 acres and become one of Florida’s most profitable and prestigious plantations. The mansion and gardens are a favorite tourist attraction today.
While Hardy’s love was not the law, he did have a keen interest in geology, mineralogy and botany and gained international recognition for his work in botany and his publication of a number of papers. He discovered several indigenous trees and plants and a southern flower that is named after him: the Croomia. Tragically, however, he is most remembered for his untimely death on his fortieth birthday.
Hardy had been in fragile health for many years. Most likely he suffered from malaria or possibly tuberculosis. He, his wife and their three children had spent several summers in New York state, mainly at Saratoga and in New York City. In the summer of 1837 he traveled to New York City to join his family and to attend the graduation of his sixteen-year-old daughter, Henrietta, from finishing school. That fall they were returning from New York City to Charleston, SC, when their steamboat, The Home, sank in a hurricane south of Cape Hatteras on October 7, 1837. While it was not that rare for lives to be lost on ships wrecked in hurricanes, what ensued from that disaster is what Hardy is most remembered for today. It is a subject that every law student studies today. After Hardy Bryan Croom died in 1837, his younger brother, Bryan—the family had a lot of links to the Bryan name, especially to General Nathan Bryan—took over the completion of the Goodwood Plantation begun by Hardy. Hardy had never officially moved his New Bern residence to Florida, even though records would show that he voted a few times in Florida. Inasmuch as Hardy died intestate, the matter of his estate was challenged in court by his mother-in-law, Henrietta Smith of New Bern. I will not detail it here, but you can read all about the legal details on my web pages. The matter of who would get the lion’s share of Hardy’s vast estate would take 20 years and finally be determined by the Florida State Supreme Court in a landmark decision. Much testimony would be given by survivors of the ship wreck and a host of family members and acquaintances, for and against the filed law suit of the mother-in-law. The court would decide from much of the testimony which of the Hardy Croom family was the last to die. If it was a grandchild, then the grandmother—Hardy’s mother-in-law—would get most of the estate, one that had been greatly enhanced by Bryan during the years after his brother Hardy’s death. And that is exactly what happened. Hardy’s only son, ten-year-old William Henry Croom, was deemed by the Court to have been the last surviving member of the Croom family on that tragic October night. The Court in its’ ruling established case law: Presumptions to the order of death in a common calamity. Lawyers apply that case law today in transportation disasters, such as airplane crashes. I noted recently that lawyers are preparing to use the famous Croom case-law in the recent murder-suicide of the professional wrestler and his family in Georgia in determining how the wrestler’s estate should be settled.
Since I began genealogical pursuits in earnest some twenty years ago, my fascination with the lives of my ancestors and their contemporaries has grown multi-fold. It’s not that I stand in awe of some illustrious ancestor, but rather that I find so many interesting parallels in their lives and ours today. All too often I have encountered people who brag excessively of their ancestors: “I’m descended from so and so who came over on the Mayflower.” Or, “I’ve traced my ancestry back to King Richard.” The way some speak so proudly, it’s as though they take credit for having chosen their own illustrious ancestors. Sadly, when the most important thing a person has to boast of is his ancestry, then he is like the lowly potato: the best part is underground.
On this special day as we remember and honor all Veterans who contributed so much to defend our nation and assure our freedom, it is only fitting that we remember those early pioneers who were instrumental in building this great country, people like General William Croom and our early ancestors.
There is an old Spanish saying: A person dies three times. The first is when his heart stops and beats no more. The second is when he is laid to rest. The third and final time is when the last word has been spoken or read of his life. So, in a sense you could say that many of our ancestors, who were walking nearby fields, tending the soil, serving in the militia, going to church, and leading common, everyday lives 200 years ago, are very much alive today as we walk in their footsteps.
Link to an announcement of the 2007 Veterans Day presentation honoring Major General William Croom: