In about 1847 a thirteen-year old arrived in Jacksonville, Virginia—later named Floyd. No family stories explain how he traveled there, how long the journey took, who might have accompanied him, or how he felt about his lost past and unknown future. But over the decades he painted his own venerable portrait.
Born in Bedford, Virginia, to the wife of a country doctor. James Lucas Tompkins was eventually joined by twelve more siblings. Too many eggs for one carton, so the oldest was sent to live with his mother’s brother, Dr. Tazewell Headen, and his wife. Because the couple had no children–youngsters at that time were part of the labor force–James worked at their mercantile store. He also attended Oxford Academy in town and later worked at other stores in the area.
Later he became interested in the Clerk of Court office at the Courthouse. He read law with an older lawyer, Harry Lane, and passed the bar to become a lawyer in 1857. Except for the war years, he practiced for half a century. He married Abigail Howard, who was born in Jacksonville.
When the War between the States began in 1861, he joined Company B of the 42nd Regiment, Virginia Volunteers. (See name of second unit listed below on plaque.) It was made up mostly of young men in town, a few of the surnames being Howard, Tice, and Conner. James started out as Third Lieutenant and was promoted to Captain. He survived the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, during which catastrophe his son William Daniel Tompkins was born in Floyd. 1864 Capt. Lucas was one of the 32,000 casualties on both sides at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. In this multi-day fight near Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Northern troops were led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. On April 9, 1865, Lucas surrendered his regiment at Appomattox. “He was judge advocate of Gordon’s Division,” as noted by Judge Archer A. Phlegar, “tribute to his skill as a lawyer and fidelity as a soldier.”
The son of William Daniel would marry Sally Kinkannon Green. in 1941, they became the grandparents of James L. Tompkins–whom Randall A. Wells interviewed in 2014. Jim graduated from Hillsville High School in 1960, then from the Univ. of Tennessee Law School in 1967. He was admitted to the practice of law in 1968. In 1980 he was installed Judge of the District Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court for he 27th District of Virginia. In 2002 he moved to Floyd County after marrying Meredith Simmons, and in 2005 he retired. The interview took place at1499 Old Furnace Rd. SW.
Jim reported that the war consumed his great-grandfather for four years, but not permanently–unlike four of his brothers and his fellow soldiers, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lane. John Dillon, for example, was killed at the Battle of Mine Run, Virginia. He was a physician whose father built a lot of houses in Floyd. Meredith’s older son was named after this kinsman.
After the war, people called the veteran “Captain” Tompkins. He never charged a fee from a Confederate widow. “It was always a delight to him,” wrote Phlegar, to aid an ex-Confederate soldier or the widow of one….” Below is a photograph of the Tompkins family, date unknown.
Jim remembers his unmarried great-aunts, Mary Stuart and Kate.* One of them took many of the early photographs in the area, probably as an outlet for her intelligence. As for the house, located at what is now 173 Weddle St., when it was remodeled by William and Joanne Bell, they discovered that the central structure was log.
Both Jim’s great-grandfather and one of J.L.’s sons served as Commonwealth’s Attorneys. Most of the other sons went to surrounding towns to practice law; one became doctor for the Norfolk & Western Railroad and lived in Coburn, VA, a mining area. William D., Jim’s grandfather, moved to Hillsville.
Jim, noting that his great-grandfather didn’t have a reputation for being a churchman, recounted a family story:
A preacher conveyed all his property to his wife to avoid his debts. My grandfather and great-grandfather brought a suit against them to get his property subjected to his debts. They held a deposition for several hours, then stopped to eat lunch. The preacher came up and asked, “Mr Tompkins, how is it with you and your religion?’” “Reverend, it’s much like your property, it’s all in my wife’ s name.”
Captain Tompkins died in his 70s in 1907. Judge Archer A. Phlegar wrote an encomium on his military, professional, and personal qualities. He praised Tompkins’ “zeal, honor, honesty, and success”—including both the volume and variety of his business—along with his intelligence, modesty, even his memory. The obituary in the Floyd Press also describes what must have been one of Floyd County’s most admirable citizens.
As a farm boy, James arrived here almost like a refugee; as a young man he departed for fields watered by blood in Virginia and Pennsylvania; as a lawyer he regularly traveled to Patrick, Carroll, Montgomery, and Franklin Counties. This lone “Came Here” fathered one boy who was a “Stayed Here” and four who became “Left Heres”—all esteemed sons of Floyd County.
* For Wells’s interview with the daughter of a Confederate veteran, see his Old Times in Horry County: A Narrative History. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2007.
Below is a letter that Capt. Lucas wrote to his father about the Battle of Gettysburg. He wrote it on July 9, 1863, from a camp near Hagerstown, Maryland. (It was transcribed from handwriting by Mildred Tompkins, Jim’s mother, most of the paragraph breaks furnished by R. Wells.) According to the eulogy written by Judge Archer A. Phlegar, Tompkins was mustered into service June 11, 1861, by Gen. Jubal A. Early. He served in the Northwest Virginia campaign under Gen. Robert E. Lee, and afterwards in the division and corps commanded by Generals Stonewall Jackson, Edward Johnson, John B. Gordon, R.S. Ewell and others in the Valley and Eastern Virginia. In the Battle of Gettysburg, despite a stupendous effort detailed in part below, Gen. Robert E. Lee failed in his second attempt to invade the North. Over 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or listed as missing.
A brief note hurriedly and badly written in the rain yesterday, if it ever reaches you it will give you the information that through God’s Mercy and kindness I came out of the Gettysburg fight unhurt, and I I am not interrupted I will give you now a hasty sketch of where I have been and what I saw since I last wrote you from Chambersburg Penn. About 25th of June since which time I have had no opportunity of writing or sending letters if I had written. Possibly the papers have all ready given you more information of the campaign than I know, and if so you must excuse me.
Our Div. left Chambersburg the day after I wrote and went on to Carlisle, Penn. 32 miles distant from Chambersburg and 221 miles from Harrisburg. Jenkins Cavalry was in front and ran out the enemy and Rhodes Div. which reached the place by another road took possession of the town and the U.S. Regular army barracks there and Jenkins pushed on towards Harrisburg but how how far I do not know. [Jubal] Early’s Div. took a different road at Sharpsburg Md. Went on by Boonesboro Md., Gettysburg, Penn. And as far as York Penn. Near the Susquehannah River on Harrisburg and Baltimore R.R. In meantime A.P. Hill’s Corps and [Gen. James] Longstreet’s Corps crossed the river and moved on after our Div. until they reached Chambersburg and then moved on towards Gettysburg going on direct toward Baltimore. In the meantime Hooker or Mead’s army moved rapidly and and got near Gettysburg and Rhodes moved from Carlisle to York and joined Early and together they moved back upon Gettysburg. Our Div. moved back to near Chambersburg and moved on to Gettysburg passing Longstreet’s Corp.
On first day of July Early, Rhodes, and A.P. Hill encountered the enemy some five miles north of Gettysburg and a battle opened and lasted nearly all day, resulting in the enemy being driven back upon and through the town our men capturing some seven or eight thousand prisoners, the entire battlefield, their dead, hospitals, arms upon the field, the town, etc. Our Div. and Longstreet’s Corps, which is [Gen. George Edward] Pickett’s, [John Bell] Hood’s and [Nathaniel] McLane’s Div. got up just at dark and were placed in position. On the morning of the 2nd the enemy were in position upon rugged hills or rather mountains just back of the town strongly fortified, and soon in the day Early, who occupied the town and who had fought so well and successfully tried the first hill immediately back of the town and after a long and hard fight took the hill from a superior force who did not move their artillery, but owing to this hill being commanded by other hills, he had to leave it.
Soon Pickett tried another hill farther to the right and after having his Div. cut all to smash had just the same success that Early had and had to abandon the hill. Late in the evening Johnson’s Div., who occupied our extreme left, moved up 24 pieces of artillery and opened on the hills on the left, and after an hour of the hardest artillery fighting I ever saw our forces had to be withdrawn with the loss of many men, horses and several cannon damaged and very quick the 2nd 3rd and 4th Brigades of our Div. was formed into a battle line to storm the heights, leaving the first, or Stonewall’s Brigade, to protect our flank. We formed and on we went and for about ½ or ¾ mile or a mile the same artillery that caused ours to leave the field volleyed and thundered at us, but on we went, our colors flying, men with their heads erect, arms carried properly in as handsome a line as I ever saw upon drill morning with a steady step. Our skirmishers [those in minor fights] in front encountering and driving the enemy’s skirmishers.
We reached and rushed through the creek at foot of the mountain and right here we encountered the enemy’s infantry and our line opened and pressed forward and commenced climbing rocks and bluffs, fighting at every step. The whole mountain was a blaze of fire. Owing to the nature of the ground and the contracting our lines as we ascended the mountain a perfect line could not be maintained. After a long and hard fight we got to top of the hill drove every man of theirs inside of their works [fortified structures such as forts, earthen barricades, or trenches—Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.] which we did not know existed until then, and got us near as their felled timber and their artillery opened again at a murderous revenge. The third Brigade on the extreme left took the works there, but the 2nd and 4th brigade could not take the main hill and works.
It was now half after eight o’clock in night, our lines in bad order and we were ordered to fall back near the foot of the mountain which we did and where we stayed there night and the next day, and the night skirmishing with the enemy. And next day the 1st and 3rd brigade and some other troops tried the hill again but failed, and that day (the 3rd of July) heavy fighting took place on the right but with no material gain to our side and night of the 3rd our Corps were withdrawn from the left and formed farther back. And that evening our [wagon] trains with wounded commenced leaving for Virginia. No fighting of any consequence took place on 4th the enemy remaining in their works and we did not attack, and night of the 4th troops were withdrawn, and the 5th, 6th, and 7th we marched and got here which is 25 miles from Gettysburg, Ewell bringing up the rear. We were a little annoyed [harassed] the first evening in the rear, but I believe the enemy did not follow in force.
We have been here since middle of the day on 7th. I do not know whether or not Gen. Lee intends crossing the [Potomac] river. Our wounded are being sent over the river. Many of the badly wounded was left in the enemy’s hands, including Gen. [James L.] Kemper. The enemy Cavalry attacked our train and destroyed some 30 wagons and got the horses. Our Cavalry has done a fine service on this trip, passing between enemy’s army and Washington. I can give you but little account of what the Cavalry has done but you will get it all in the papers in a day or so.
Col. Robert C. Allen of Bedford was killed. John Wm Headen was wounded but not seriously. I hear our losses estimated from ten to twenty thousand. This division lost about 1500 killed, wounded and missing. A similar loss in other divisions would make the loss between fourteen and fifteen thousand.
I will write again in a day or two. I received Susie’s [his sister’s] letter the other day, and will try and write her soon.
I feel that if I could get on some clean clothes, get a meal from your table, and a seat in your office I could interest you more about the present campaign, but as this is not likely to happen this evening you must put up with this.