Author to discuss Greene County's Civil War role
Admittedly having always been interested in historical issues of his native Waynesburg and Greene County, Kent Fonner, featured speaker at Thursday's California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable, recalls a fortuitous turn of events following his freshman year at Waynesburg College — now Waynesburg University — when a history professor asked if he would be interested in conducting research regarding local historical issues.
Chuckling, Fonner remembers tediously poring over aged newspapers via microfilm in local libraries, a time-consuming project that led him to uncover unique and fascinating bits of information regarding both the city and county during the Civil War, further fostering his interest in the subjects.
Fonner will present his findings at the Roundtable's gathering in the University's Kara Alumni House, located on campus. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m., with the meeting starting at 7 p.m. His presentation is based on his 2012 book, “All Quiet on the Border: The Civil War Era in Greene County, Pennsylvania.”
Growing up in Waynesburg and Greene County, Fonner was always curious about the region's history, due to its location on the Mason-Dixon Line.
“I thought there was always more to the story,” he said, adding that “the old newspapers revealed much about the history of the region. I was always able to find little gems essentially hidden in those old articles.”
But his curiosity was actually homegrown. When he was a teenager, Fonner's uncle gave him information about his great-great-grandfather, William Silveus, Company I (Greene County Rangers), 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. Included in the information were some of Silveus' letters, which gave him a family connection to the Civil War. In one of the local newspapers he researched, Fonner found a letter from an area soldier relating events of the Battle of Fredricksburg, indicating that the soldier and his great-great-grandfather were both captured and held as prisoners in Richmond. Fonner's great-great-grandfather eventually became delirious and died at a prisoner camp in Maryland. Additionally, William Silveus' brother, Joseph Silveus, was in the 85th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Tracing his family history even further, Fonner, 57, discovered information about a young Fonner girl who lived on the family farm during the Civil War. To keep her fiance from being drafted into the Union Army, he was hidden in a sheep shed on the farm. Debris was still there when Fonner was a kid, he noted.
Fonner's book, he adds, “is intended to start filling the gap left in previous histories regarding events in Greene County during the turbulent period of the 1850s through the 1860s. Traditional county historians, such as Reverend William Hanna, Samuel Bates, L.K. Evans, and Andrew Waychoff concentrated on military contributions made by the county to the Union war effort and had little to say about events on the county home front during the war.”
“All Quiet on the Border” adds details to these earlier histories regarding political, social, and economic currents running through the county's development in those years. With Greene County located on the extreme southwest corner of Pennsylvania, bordered to the south and the west by Virginia, during the Civil War era it presented “a house divided.” In 1860, the majority of county residents voted for the southern Democrat, John C. Breckenridge, for president; and, in 1864, “little Greene” was one of 12 Pennsylvania counties that voted against Abraham Lincoln's re-election.
“With the county dominated by Peace Democrats during the war, the population displayed apathy over the slavery issue and political divisiveness common to border regions during the conflict,” Fonner added. “The Republican Party never represented more than a third of the voters and after the war many myths arose about Greene County's loyalty to the Union and the region's Southern sympathies. This work dissipates these myths and provides a more complete picture of the county's history in this turbulent era.”
Throughout the conflict Greene County provided more than 1,800 men for the Union, and at least six were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Much of what Fonner, who resides with his wife, Diane, in the Pocono Mountains, discovered and learned about the county and its people during the Civil War came from newspaper sources available through the Pennsylvania State University Library, with its collection representing newspapers throughout the state, “but I especially found a great deal of political news regarding Greene County in newspapers from Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia,” he added. “I am still finding more information regarding various Greene County and Civil War topics, and what I have discovered has opened up more information sources for me. It is fascinating discovering this information.”
From those papers, Fonner discovered the November 1864 story about Thomas Phillips, who was drafted in 1863 but ignored his draft notice. Phillips was attending a party and was told government agents were searching for him. When he left the party, Phillips encountered a neighbor, William Brown, and mistakenly believed Brown was one of the government agents. In the encounter, Phillips shot Brown, killing him.
As the shooting stirred up controversy in the area, there was talk about lynching Phillips. However, the case came up before a grand jury that rejected the indictment, based on the fact that Phillips did not actually intend to shoot Brown. Philips was eventually turned over to the army and mustered into service.
After Fonner graduated from Waynesburg College with a double major in history and English, he earned a master of arts degree in history from Duquesne University, and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. A self-described semi-practicing attorney, Fonner has taught courses in history and criminal justice at Waynesburg College and Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson. He is currently teaching courses in criminal justice at Northampton Community College at the Monroe County campus in Tannersville.
Additional information regarding the Roundtable may be obtained by calling 724-258-3406, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.