The Free State of Jones

John M. Baylis: The Confederate Side of Jones County

Reading Renegade South, one might gain the impression that all of Jones County supported the Union during the Civil War. That was certainly not the case, although the county did give a substantial majority of its votes–166 out of 255–to John H. Powell, the county’s anti-secession delegate to Mississippi’s secession convention of 1861. The other 89 of those votes went to the pro-secession candidate, 33-year-old John M. Baylis.

John McCormick Baylis was from one of Jones County’s wealthiest families. His father, George Baylis, was a Methodist preacher who, in 1850, owned fifteen slaves. Only two men in the county–William Duckworth and Isaac Anderson–owned more slaves. In 1860, John himself owned seven slaves; his brother Wyatt owned five. 

By 1860, John had been married to Mary Rawls for some five years; the couple’s household included three children, as well as John’s younger siblings, Wyatt and Catherine. Like their father before them, the Baylis brothers were among the wealthiest men in Jones County. John was a physician who owned real estate valued at $11,000, and personal property (which included slaves) valued at $8,300. Wyatt, though only 21 years old, owned real estate worth $4,000, and personal wealth worth $5,000. Catherine, still a teenager, claimed a personal estate of $4,000.

Like everyone else, the Baylis’s lives would soon be transformed by the Civil War. John and Wyatt both joined the 7th battalion Mississippi Infantry, infamous for having contributed a multitude of deserters to the Knight Company, including its notorious captain, Newt Knight.  John and Wyatt Baylis, however, were not among those men; in fact, after the war, John was foremost among those men who opposed Newt Knight’s rise to power. Wyatt, however, was dead by then from wounds sustained at Vicksburg. 

Shortly after enlisting in the army, John Baylis was appointed official surgeon of the 7th battalion, giving him the authority to recommend medical discharges for the men of his unit. In the aftermath of the searing battle of Corinth (1862), he was detached from his unit and remained in Corinth with wounded men from his battalion. By December of that year, he himself was reported sick and absent from duty. Following Vicksburg (and the death of brother Wyatt), John was reported AWOL. He later returned to service, and, on February 8, 1864, was once again assigned to detached service. 

In the immediate aftermath of the war, on July 30, 1865, John expressed his contempt for Knight band renegades in a personal letter to Gov. William L. Sharkey. In the wake of Confederate defeat, several Jones County Unionists, including Newt Knight, received plum appointments from the reconstructed government. Outraged, John declared the new appointees dishonorable men and little more than bandits. He specifically accused the new sheriff, T. J. Huff, of having

united with a band of outlaws who have been engaged in murder and pillage during the war and who have stated frequently that they would not submit to authority of any kind.

He was referring, of course, to the Knight Company. Jones County’s Unionists wielded power for only a brief few years. by 1872, pro-Confederate Democrats had turned back the tide of Reconstruction.

Although the war had impoverished many families, John M. Baylis remained a wealthy man. In a county where few people in 1870 claimed more than a few hundred dollars in property, Baylis’s combined real and personal property was assessed at a whopping $15,000. 

Now, bear with me while I take a bit of a detour with this story. One would logically conclude from all this that the families of John M. Baylis and Newt Knight were miles apart in wealth, ideology, and probably just plain hated each other’s guts.  But not so fast. Remember that Newt’s grandfather, Jackie Knight, was one of the largest slaveholders of neighboring Covington County before the war.

Remember also that Jackie’s son, Jesse Davis, took a different route in life than did Jackie’s son Albert (Newt’s father). Jesse Davis Knight owned slaves (one of whom was Rachel, Newt Knight’s accomplice during the war and lifelong companion); Albert chose not to.

Jesse Davis Knight also married Sarah Elizabeth Baylis, daughter of George Baylis and sister of John M. Baylis, connecting the Knight and Baylis families. Later on down the road, Jesse Davis and Sarah Elizabeth’s son, George Baylis Knight (nicknamed “Clean Knight”), married Elmira Turner, who was kin to Serena Turner, who married Newt Knight.

Well, with all those family connections, you can guess what happened if you don’t already know: the nephew of John M. Baylis ended up becoming one of Capt. Newt Knight’s closest lifelong friends! Clean Neck lived to be a hundred years old, just long enough to defend Newt’s reputation against the charges hurled against him in Ethel Knight’s Echo of the Black Horn. I love it when history defies the odds.

Vikki Bynum

[Records used include federal manuscript population and slave schedules, 1850-1870; Confederate army military records, governors’ papers, and interview with Earle Knight]

2 replies »

  1. I have been confused by the discussions in this post and others about the election of delegates to Mississippi’s secession convention of 1861.

    I thought the choice was between delegates who favored immediate secession and those who wanted cooperative action. Yet I keep reading about anti-secession candidates. Were they truly anti-secession?

    Also a number of studies have shown that once Lincoln called for troops to put down secession, public opinion changed rapidly in favor of secession.

    So the votes for delegates may not have reflected public opinion a few months later.

    Would appreciate any thoughts and info about this.

  2. Ralph,

    Thanks for your questions; that word “antisecession” does indeed need clarification. You are correct that John H. Powell was the cooperationist candidate, as opposed to John M. Baylis, who was the immediate secession candidate. Cooperationists were not necessarily opposed to secession, just to immediate secession. They favored taking a wait and see approach to the election of Pres. Lincoln. Some favored passage of a national amendment (over secession) that would prevent the federal government from interfering with slavery.

    The problem in assessing the strength of Unionism in areas like Jones County is that cooperationist candidates generally were coalition candidates who represented views ranging from unconditional Unionism to a more cautious approach to secession.

    So, yes, I agree with you that the 166-89 vote against immediate secession likely lost strength once Lincoln called for troops in the wake of South Carolina’s secession. For example, Amos McLemore, the Confederate major murdered for trying to gather up deserters in Jones County, originally opposed secession and would therefore have likely supported the cooperationist candidate, Powell. Others in Jones County, however, are said to have hanged Powell in effigy for eventually voting for secession at the 1861 convention.

    As I’ve contended in The Free State of Jones, the core group of men who joined the Knight Company–especially but not limited to certain branches of the Collinses, Knights, Valentines, and Welborns families–likely represented the original unconditional Unionists of the county. And, of course, as the war dragged on, opposition to the Confederacy once again grew in areas like Jones County where support for immediate secession had been the minority position.

    Vikki

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