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Archive for January, 2009

The full title of this essay, which will appear in my next book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, is “Occupied At Home: Women Confront Confederate Forces in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt.”

This history of North Carolina’s Randolph County area will certainly remind folks that the Free State of Jones was only one of many hotbeds of Southern Unionism during the Civil War. For several reasons, even fiercer inner civil wars occurred in NC than in Mississippi. For one, NC had fewer large slaveholders and more nonslaveholders than Mississippi; also, many more Confederate forces swept through the NC Piedmont on the hunt for deserters than through the Piney Woods of Mississippi.

Another difference between this inner civil war and that of Jones County, MS, was the presence of a small but devout Wesleyan Methodist community that opposed slavery as well as secession. Perhaps that is why women are particularly visible in the Randolph County area uprising–they shared their menfolk’s religious as well as political views.

If you read my “Renegade Women” post, you might remember Martha Sheets of North Carolina, who was arrested for threatening Sheriff Aaron Sanders with a visit from deserters if he did not provide corn for the starving women of her neighborhood. “You have told lies to get your sons out of this war,” she told the sheriff, “and you don’t care for the rest that is gone, nor for their families. . . . If you don’t bring that grain to my door you will suffer, and that bad” (spelling corrected).

Martha didn’t mince words.

In this essay, you will hear the voices of Martha Sheets and many other Unionist women from North Carolina. 

NOTE: In addition to appearing in Long Shadow of the Civil War, this essay appears in the anthology Occupied Women, edited by LeeAnn Whites and Alecia Long, LSU Press, 2009.

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This essay from my upcoming Long Shadow of the Civil War profiles the leaders of three guerrilla bands from three regions of the South known for Unionism and resistance to the Confederacy: the Randolph County area of North Carolina, the Jones County area of Mississippi, and the “Big Thicket” region of East Texas. The geographic and family ties that link the bands are fascinating. The parents of Newt Knight, leader of the Mississippi band, migrated west from North Carolina around the period of the American Revolution. The three Collins brothers who initiated the Texas band had North Carolina and Mississippi roots, and were the brothers of the three Collins brothers who served with Newt Knight back in Jones County!

Here are a few snippets from this chapter describing Bill Owen, Newt Knight, and Warren J. Collins, the respective leaders of the three renegade bands:

“Bill Owens . . . appears the most ruthless and least charismatic of the leaders. Owens’s Civil War exploits inspired no romantic tales of heroism.”

“Newt could be ruthless as well as charismatic.  The cold-blooded murder of Major Amos McLemore, Jones County’s most powerful Confederate officer, is universally attributed to Newt.”

“Warren Collins .  .  .  appeared more adept at eluding capture than murdering Confederate leaders.  .  .  .  An extensive folklore surrounds the life of this so-called “Daniel Boone” of East Texas.”

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Perhaps the longest-lived participant in the Free State of Jones, Alzade is middle person of middle row, 1926

Perhaps the longest-lived participant in the Free State of Jones, Alzade is middle person of middle row, 1926

I first discovered Southern Unionists while doing research on women in pre-Civil War North Carolina. Women, I soon realized, were central to the ties of kinship that bound together people who opposed the new Confederate nation. When I dug into the letter files of the state’s governors, I was immediately struck by how many women wrote to them during the Civil War: plaintive letters, desperate letters, angry letters.

As the long and bloody war dragged on, women’s letters became only more angry. Many of their voices appear in my first book, Unruly Women, and many more will play starring roles in my upcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.  Martha Sheets, who lived on the border of Montgomery and Randolph Counties in N.C., is one of my favorite renegade women. In early 1865, Martha threatened Montgomery County Sheriff Aaron Sanders with a visit from deserters if he did not supply her family with corn, “and make that good corn,” she added.

When I expanded my research from the North Carolina Quaker Belt to Mississippi’s Free State of Jones,  I was introduced to more extraordinary women–the fact is, renegade women existed in every state of the Confederacy. Many of them simply placed loyalty to family and neighborhood above all else, including the new Confederate government. Enslaved women, such as Rachel Knight of Jones County,  assisted deserters and guerrilla bands in hopes of undermining the institution of slavery. Others came from Unionist families that had opposed secession from the beginning. I think of Sarah “Sally” Parker, the sister, aunt, or cousin of  many stalwart members of the Knight Company guerrilla band.  Sally was Sarah Collins before she married, and the Collinses were among the staunchest Unionist families of the Jones County region. She risked her own life to shelter the Knight Company from Confederate forces, even though her own son, George Warren Walters, fought and died serving the Confederate Army. The expert on Sarah Collins Walters Parker is her great great great grandson, Ed Payne. Watch for his biography of her in the April 2009 issue of the Journal of Mississippi History.

Alzade Courtney is another favorite of mine (see photo, courtesy of Ralph Kirkland). Separated from her husband, Alzade worked her fields alone during the war, and depended on the Knight Company for protection. She in turn opened her home to them. Alzade may be the longest-lived participant in the Free State of Jones. Although in her late nineties by 1934, she provided Tom Knight with a testimonial that year for his famous biography of his father, Newt Knight. You can learn more about Alzade–and the Free State of Jones–on the wonderful website administered by her great-great grandson, Ralph Kirkland: http://www.squidoo.com/freestateofjones

I ‘m sure many of you have Civil War renegade women in your family history. I hope you’ll tell us about them here!

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Several members of the extended Knight family are gathered here.

Several members of the extended Knight family are gathered here.

After posting my blog about Serena Knight, I returned to my research and photo files. There, I located this photograph of the Jeffrey and Ella Knight family, which is particularly revealing about Serena’s life after she left the home of her husband, Newt Knight. In my book, The Free State of Jones, I included this picture, but mis-identified it. I had thought that it was a photo of Jeffrey Early Knight (son of Rachel) and his first wife, Martha Ann (Mollie) Knight, the daughter of Newt and Serena Knight. Well, it is a photo of Jeffrey, and I was correct in identifying the elderly woman seated in front as Serena, Jeffrey’s mother-in-law. But this photo was taken after  the 1917 death of Mollie, Jeffrey’s first wife and Serena’s daughter. I have Dianne Walkup of Monterey, CA, a descendant of Jeffrey and Mollie Knight, to thank for setting me straight.

The woman standing next to Jeffrey is not Mollie, but rather is his second wife, Sue Ella (called Ella) Smith. Like Jeffrey, Ella was descended from a multiracial family. Her grandmother was Martha Ann Ainsworth, the only slave of Sampson “Jeff” Ainsworth of neighboring Smith County. All six of Martha Ann’s children are believed to have been fathered by Jeff Ainsworth. Like Rachel Knight, Martha Ann was herself multiracial. She was of Native American and probably African and European ancestry. After the Civil War, the multiracial Ainsworths intermarried extensively with the Knights and another multiracial family of the area, the Smiths, who may have descended from Mahala Smith, born in 1832 in Alabama and identified by Mississippi census enumerators as a mulatta.*

Back to the photograph. The children and young adults who surround Jeffrey, Ella, and Serena represent an extended, blended, and genealogically complex family. On the far left is Ada Knight, the daughter of Newt and Serena’s youngest daughter, Cora. Next to Ada is Mabry Knight, Ella’s son by her previous marriage to Henry Knight, who was Jeffrey’s nephew. Standing behind Ella is Wilder Knight, the son of Floyd Knight, whose parents were Rachel and, allegedly, Newt Knight. Wilder’s mother was Lucy Ainsworth Knight, the daughter of Martha Ann Ainsworth and, allegedly, Sampson “Jeff”Ainsworth, making him Ella’s half-brother. The remaining two children on the right are Ella’s son, Lacy, and her daughter, Nobie. Their father is alleged to have been Charlie Knight, a son of Jeffrey and Mollie Knight. If true, these children were both the grandchildren and stepchildren of Jeffrey Knight.

Represented in this extended family portrait are descendants of slaves, slaveholders, and non-slaveholders, Native Americans, African Americans, and Euro-Americans. Serena Knight, like her estranged husband, Newt, lived among her multiracial kinfolk until the end of her long life. She died in 1923 at the age of 85, having outlived Old Newt by one year.

*My knowledge of the Ainsworth, and Smith family lines has been greatly enhanced by the research of Dianne Walkup, Yvonne Bivins, and Shirley Pieratt.

A caveat to the above identifications:  The 1920 census listed Lacy as two years older than Mabry, making me suspect that their identities should be reversed on the photograph.

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