By Lerma E. Hearn
The War Between the States broke out in April 1861. Six months later, 16-year-old Thomas Young Conner enlisted. The following year he re-enlisted, in Company D of the 2nd Georgia regiment. For a while things went exceedingly well, but during the fall Thomas was captured and imprisoned in Louisville, Kentucky. Shuttled from one Union prison to another, including one in Cairo, Illinois, he was eventually put on a boat and sent to a prisoner exchange in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After going home to Georgia for a few days, the seventeen-year-old rejoined his company at Murfreesboro, Tennessee in December of 1862--in time for the Battle of Stones River. Late the following year he fought in the Battle of Chattanooga. When the war ended a month and a half after his 20th birthday, the young veteran was free to go home to stay.
Soon, however, he moved to Tuskegee, in Macon County, Alabama, and after about three years he married Mary Virginia Covington, five feet tall with gray eyes and brown hair. Seven inches taller than his bride, Thomas had black hair and black eyes. Over a period of 21 years, Thomas and Mary Virginia had nine children, all of whom survived to adulthood. In fact, with the exception of one who died in an influenza epidemic, and another (Thomas Ganaway Conner, the father of Florence Conner Hearn) who died in a gas plant explosion, the children all survived to an average age of eighty-four.
Thomas himself apparently had only a limited education, yet during the last twenty years of his life he gave a great deal of his time to the cause of education, being especially interested in the country schools of Macon County. Of his nine children, all seven sons and at least one daughter attended college. Most, perhaps all, attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute (renamed Auburn University)--as have several generations of his descendants. Many studied engineering.
By the late 1890s, Thomas owned a cotton seed oil mill in Gadsen, about a hundred miles north of Tuskegee. His son Thomas Ganaway Conner became Operator of the mill a few years before his marriage to Lena Allen; another son "Covey" took over the operation and moved it south to Enterprise in 1904. A third son, Herschel Henry Conner, later served as President of the Eufaula Cotton Oil Company, "Manufacturers and Dealers in Cotton Seed, Peanuts, and their Products". This H. H. Conner became the long-term mayor of Eufaula.
In 1916, Thomas' oldest son, Robert, together with the youngest two sons, Hornady and Frank, founded Conner Brothers Construction Company in Auburn. This company exists today. Its website (www.connerbros.com) proudly announces that it is "Celebrating 89 Years of Excellence in Institutional Construction". The site lists several multimillion dollar projects.
Two of Thomas & Mary Virginia's grandsons, Clarence Lee Conner Atkeson and his brother John Conner Atkeson, became Rear Admirals in the U.S. Navy. John was awarded a Navy Cross for heroism in WW II, and Clarence served the entire year of 1953 as Base Commander of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
Thomas was baptized into the fellowship of the Tuskegee Baptist Church in 1881, and was ordained a deacon six years later. He continued to serve as Deacon until his death in 1924. During a 1916 thunderstorm, lightning struck the tower of the church, setting it on fire, destroying most of the building and also a new organ installed only the month before, but leaving the walls "practically intact". 71-year-old deacon T. Y. Conner chaired a general committee to erect a new building. Church historian W. W. Campbell wrote in 1924, "Everyone did his part well, but we must mention the devotion and zeal displayed by Bro. T. Y. Conner in looking after the work as it progressed, giving with pleasure his time and experience to the church."
In Thomas' obituary, one of his sons wrote, "His was a quiet and unassuming character, but those who knew him best recognized him as a strong man, with an unfaltering faith in God, confidence in his fellowman, rare judgment of men and things, courage of his convictions even though he stood alone, determination to carry on in things he undertook and patience to wait for results even though the time seemed long."
The son continued, "His children are thankful for such a father, his love, sympathy, and splendid kind advice will ever be remembered as will also the lively interest he always felt in the care and advancement of his grandchildren, who loved him and always counted it a special privilege to be allowed to visit him because of his loving smile and unfailing kindness to them."
Through their nine children, Thomas and Mary Virginia had 54 grandchildren, of whom a very few are still living. They had at least 94 great grandchildren.