Reverend John R. Kelly, a recent graduate of Wake Forest, was living in Columbus County when the war began. On March 7, 1862, the 24-year-old minister joined the Columbus Light Infantry, which was forming in response to Raleigh’s call for more troops. Ten days after enlisting, Kelly was elected captain of the company. A few weeks later, the Columbus Light Infantry travelled to Wilmington, where it was assigned to the 51st Regiment North Carolina Troops as Company H.
Captain Kelly did not remain in command very long. The unsanitary conditions of camp life almost immediately overwhelmed the young commander’s immune system. Just a month after arriving in Wilmington, he was hospitalized. He was not able to fully recover from his illness, and in September 1862, he resigned. Kelly’s health continued to suffer, and he died on March 26, 1864.
While I was researching John R. Kelly, I discovered that he was the half-brother of Private Luther Toon, who also served in Company H. This relationship aroused my curiosity. Using information available on Family Search and Find-A-Grave, I discovered that Kelly had no brothers or sisters, but he did have ten half-siblings and nine stepsiblings. This extended family of twenty brothers and sisters began when John Kelly’s mother married her first husband.
Mary McMillan Kelly
Mary McMillan married John R. Kelly around 1835. Mary was seventeen years old; her husband was ten years older. John was a successful farmer in Columbus County. The couple settled into married life. Sometime in 1837, Mary gave birth to a son. She named the son John R. Kelly. Tragically, the senior John Kelly became ill and died on September 9, 1837. It’s unclear whether he died before or after his son was born.
Mary McMillan Kelly Toon
In 1839, the Widow Kelly married Anthony Fentress Toon. Anthony, fifteen years older than Mary, was a widower with a son and two daughters. He owned a small plantation in Columbus County. The couple began building a family, having six sons in the next twelve years. But in 1853, tragedy struck again. Anthony Toon died on March 3 of that year.
Mary McMillan Kelly Toon McRackan
Mary Toon was a widow again, this time with eight children to feed (the two oldest Toon sons had left home by 1850). On October 25, 1854, Mary wed for the third time. Her new husband was Robert M. McRackan, a wealthy planter from Brunswick County. McRackan was thrice widowed and had six children from his previous marriages.
McRackan moved his household to the Toon plantation in Columbus County and left his Brunswick County plantation under the supervision of an overseer. The couple added three more children to the clan over the next six years. The McRackans prospered, and by 1860 their net worth was estimated at $95,000 ($3.3 million today). The household contained thirteen children: John Kelly, six Toon brothers, and six McRackans. The final two McRackan children were born in 1860 and 1863.
Robert McRackan, who was 12 years older than Mary, died on February 12, 1883. Mary died the following year. Mary and all three of her husbands are buried in Western Prong Baptist Church Cemetery, Whiteville, North Carolina.
The Kelly/Toon/McRackan clan, from John R. Kelly’s perspective, was composed as follows: John R. Kelly, three Toon stepsiblings, six Toon half-brothers, six McRackan stepsiblings, and four McRackan half-siblings. The children’s parents were three different men and three different women. And for a final twist, John married his stepsister, Sarah Maria McRackan in 1860.
Copyright © 2021 – 2023 by Kirk Ward. All rights reserved.