Part 2: No better than runaway slaves: Piney Woods enlistees in the Union 1st N.O. Infantry
By Ed Payne
Between November of 1863 and November of 1864, over two hundred Mississippi men—nearly all from the state’s southern Piney Woods region—trekked to Louisiana and joined the Union 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry regiments (Note 1). The names of the men thus far identified and the methods used to discover them were discussed in Part 1 of this series Reviewing the list of names, a question naturally emerges: what caused these men, many of them formerly in Confederate units, to join with the enemy?
Descendants who acknowledge their ancestors’ service in the Union Army often cite financial motives, saying it was done purely for U.S. greenbacks. While it is true that Confederate currency had collapsed, subsistence farmers and herders of the Piney Woods did not share our modern dependency on money. Their lives were rooted in a self-sufficiency which we can scarcely comprehend. The small amounts of money they obtained—usually from periodic sales of livestock in Mobile, Alabama—bought a few staple goods such as salt, sugar, coffee, flour and whiskey. Larger amounts of money could buy land but, prior to the timber boom of the 1880s, the Piney Woods included large tracts of open range on which all livestock could be set loose to graze. Yeoman herders only needed the modest acreage which they and their families could till. Given the passions engendered by the war, if money played a role in their decision I think it was a minor one.
It would be wonderful to discover a trove of letters or a diary written by one of these men. Based upon the ability to sign their names on enlistment papers, it appears that 30% of the Mississippian enlistees had basic literacy skills. This did not imply, however, that they possessed either the capacity or desire to compose lengthy passages justifying their actions. Elias Allen authored the single letter by a Piney Woods Union soldier that has come to my attention. In it, he wrote his sister-in-law to report the death of her husband, Alvin Sumrall. The letter contains a mere 180 words.
Even without further documents from individual Union enlistees, the following factors emerge as motives for their change of allegiance:
UNIONISM (or at least anti-secessionism) – While the state of Mississippi ranked second only to South Carolina in secessionist fever, the fever did not afflict everyone. Even so, it is difficult to identify those men who steadfastly held Unionist convictions simply because such opinions were rarely documented. In Mississippi’s heated late antebellum period, voicing anti-secessionist sentiments could be dangerous—unless one lived in an area where such contrarian views were widely shared. Several contemporary accounts point to Jones County as being one of those areas. Researcher Jeff Giambrone recently uncovered a newspaper item describing an anti-secessionist meeting in the county.
It should be noted that similar, if more muted, sentiments were also expressed by a number of wealthy slave-owners—although for very different reasons. These individuals were dubious about Southern chances of winning a war and worried about the prospects for slavery in the event of a loss. When the Mississippi Secession Convention was held in January of 1861, 15 delegates from 10 counties voted against leaving the Union. These nay votes came from counties with both small and large slave populations (Note 2).
Evidence shows some pre-war Unionists among the men who signed up at Fort Pike and in New Orleans. Riley J. Collins of Jones County was remembered by neighbors and kinfolk as an ardent defender of the Union, while documents found in the military file of Robert Spencer of Jasper County cast him in a similar light. For many others, however, Union enlistment represented a drastic turnabout in loyalties.
CONSCRIPTION & ENLISTMENTS – When the Civil War began in the spring of 1861, military service was—save for local social pressures—an entirely voluntary matter. It seems reasonable to assume that men who enlisted in 1861 were motivated by “the cause” or at least by notions of participating in a brief, glorious military adventure. One year later, an expanding war and mounting casualties forced the Confederate Congress to enact its first Conscription Act. This law applied to able bodied men ages 18-35 and eventually extended to ages 17-50. There were some occupational exemptions and provisions for hiring substitutes, but these applied to few men in the Piney Woods. In the wake of the Conscription Act, men had three choices: enlist in a locally raised company; await conscription, which was commonly viewed as dishonorable; or attempt to evade conscription, considered nearly unthinkable.
Early on, I assumed that Mississippians who joined the 1st New Orleans had entered Confederate service in 1862 or later under pressure of conscription. I expected an examination of Confederate records to verify this assumption. Establishing matches can be difficult since the CSA files seldom recorded the soldier’s age or birthplace, and given names were often rendered as initials. On the other hand, companies were typically raised within specific counties and retained their local identity. Also, family members usually enlisted in the same company. Using these clues, 101 strong matches were found between the New Orleans recruits and earlier Confederate enlistees (Note 3).
The Confederate records revealed—in utter disregard for my reasoning—that out of the 101 former Confederate soldiers, 31 enlisted in 1861. These men joined local companies well before pressured to do so by conscription laws. Another eight volunteered between January and March of 1862. Of the 31 earliest volunteers, 14 joined Gulf Coast companies that became part of the 3rd MS Infantry in October of 1861. Among them were D.W. Bounds, Charles Cuevas, Enoch E. McFadden (Captain of the “Gainesville Volunteers”), G.T. Mitchell, Robert Page, and James L. Seal. All would later serve in the 1st New Orleans. Even in the heart of the Piney Woods, seven future Union recruits enlisted in the 8th MS Infantry regiment on May 4, 1861: Wiley Courtney, Hansford and James Dossett, William Holyfield, Eli Rushing, Martin V.B. Shows, and William Tippet. To explain the change of heart in these men, we must examine their wartime experiences.
“RICH MAN’S WAR, POOR MAN’S FIGHT” – In October of 1862, six months after instituting conscription, the Confederate Congress passed the “20 Negro Law.” The legislation granted planters one military service exemption for every 20 slaves owned. In those sections of the South where slaves comprised a large percent of the population, whites were perpetually apprehensive over possible uprisings. Lawmakers felt it prudent to retain a certain number of men on plantations to manage their bondsmen. However, many non-slave owning soldiers took an understandably dim view of the law. Those given to pondering such matters questioned whether the war had become one of poor men fighting to protect the slave property of rich men. Some of these men began leaving the ranks in the winter of 1862.
WAR FATIGUE AND FAMILY NEEDS – By the early spring of 1863 a scattering of yeoman farmers, now realizing the war would be a lengthy one, left their units to return home and plant crops—without which their families’ lives would be precarious. The first report of a Piney Woods deserter problem came from 2nd Lieutenant H. C. Mathis of the 8th MS Infantry, who wrote Governor John J. Pettus on June 1, 1863 notifying him of “between seventy-five and one-hundred deserters” in Jones County. Mathis, who had settled in the area prior to the war, said he received word of the situation from “responsible men” in his community.
At the same time, other men from the region were huddled within the defensive perimeter around Vicksburg. Confederate forces included the 7th Battalion MS Infantry and the 36th, 37th, 38th, 40th, and 46th MS Infantry regiments, all of which contained companies organized in the Piney Woods. After enduring 47 days of constant bombardment and dwindling supplies, Confederate General John C. Pemberton finally surrendered on July 4, 1863. Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, not wishing to assume responsibility for 30,000 prisoners, decided to offer paroles. The parole documents pledged each man not to take up arms against the United States until properly exchanged for a Union prisoner (Note 4).
The Piney Woods men saw a Union Army firmly in control of central Mississippi while contemplating the privations endured by their families. These realizations caused a number of them to conclude that their obligation to the Confederacy had been fulfilled. They began walking home. Among them were later Union enlistees Richard D. Bound, John C. Culpepper, Asa Easterling, James Grantham, William McBride, Daniel Sumrall, and Hanson Walters. Following the surrender, General Pemberton issued furloughs requiring the parolees to report to exchange camp by August 23. The date appears in several records as the point from which these soldiers were considered absent without leave.
IN-KIND TAXATION – When war-weary soldiers returned home, they found another reason for distress. In April of 1863 the Confederacy enacted in-kind taxation. Regional quartermasters and their agents were authorized to seize 10% of agricultural produce and 10% livestock raised for slaughter. They could confiscate more if they deemed the individual noncompliant. The state troops enforcing these laws were frequently led by men of the planter class, who viewed the hard scrabble yeomen with disdain. A Confederate officer who took part in Col. Robert Lowry’s campaign noted that such attitudes “have done more to demoralize Jones County than the whole Yankee army.” Since Federal troops made very few incursions into the Piney Woods, the poorer inhabitants began to view Confederate tax agents and state troops as greater enemies.
HANGINGS AND DOGS – Desertions were a vexation for Confederate commanders, as they continue to be for Lost Cause devotees seeking unblemished Confederate pedigrees among their ancestors. Because Southern military records grew more sporadic as the war continued, it is difficult to determine how many Piney Woods men left their units and how many remained in the ranks until the war’s end (Note 5). By spring of 1864, however, reports describing the number of deserters and their influence goaded officials into ordering troops into the Piney Woods. Back-to-back campaigns were mounted, the first led by Col. Henry Maury in March and the second by Col. Robert Lowry in April. Their primary objectives were to restore Confederate authority and to force deserters back into service.
In a society grounded in a sense of personal honor, abandoning a military unit in which one’s relatives and neighbors also served must have been a wrenching decision. Returning home to find one’s family in destitute conditions increased the strain. Only a few years earlier these men had existed in a realm largely free of external authority. Now they found themselves conscripted, taxed, and pursued by those who claimed to be protecting their rights.
Col. Robert Lowry felt stern measures were necessary. His troops hanged seven men on April 15-16. He took fathers hostage to coerce their sons into surrendering. And he deployed dogs to track down the deserters. Accounts handed down by member of the Newt Knight Band make frequent mention of these dogs—and for good reason. Our modern sensibilities have been dulled by years of watching movie depictions of wily prison escapees eluding bloodhounds. We fail to appreciate the way in which these men perceived the use of dogs. Planters employed tracking dogs to hunt down fugitive slaves; now the same animals had been unleashed on those who took pride in being free white men. The sounds of the pack hounds must have produced a bitter realization in the minds of the Piney Woods deserters: Confederate authorities deemed them no better than runaway slaves.
The above factors help us to understand the stresses that caused some men to make profound breaks with their past. The timing of the influx of Mississippians into the New Orleans Union regiments clearly reflects the anger and humiliation evoked by the Maury and Lowry campaigns. In the end, circumstances forced two hundred Piney Woods men—including some of the earliest volunteers in the Southern cause—to conclude that the costs of Confederate loyalty had finally become too onerous to bear.
Note 1: As described in Part 1, the 2nd New Orleans Infantry was disbanded in August of 1864. All but three of the 2nd New Orleans Piney Wood enlistees subsequently appear on the 1st New Orleans rolls. Therefore, this and future posts will focus exclusively on the 1st New Orleans recruits.
Note 2: The vote was 84 in favor of secession and 15 opposed. Mississippi counties casting votes against secession were: Adams, Amite, Attala, Franklin, Itawamba (split vote), Perry, Rankin, Tishomingo, Washington, and Warren (split vote). Jones County elected a representative, by a 166 to 89 margin, pledged to oppose secession. However, after realizing the declaration of secession would pass handily, he cast his vote in favor.
Note 3: More problematic matches with Confederate military records were found for 29 other 1st New Orleans recruits. In eight cases the commonality of the names produced too many possibilities. No CSA service matches were identified for the remaining 65 New Orleans recruits. Of these, 36 (55.4%) were under age 21—suggesting that as the war continued, some Piney Woods youths reaching conscription age failed to report and had local support in doing so.
Note 4: Five days after the surrender of Vicksburg, the fortress at Port Hudson, Louisiana capitulated on July 9, 1864 following a 48 day siege. Among the surrendering forces was the 39th MS Infantry, composed mostly of companies mustered in the Piney Woods. As was the case in Vicksburg, the men were released on parole.
Note 5: Those who enlisted in the 1st New Orleans were a minority, even among the population of Piney Woods deserters. If we assume that 90% of men ages 15-39 on the 1860 census ended up serving in Confederate military units, Union enlistees would comprise 2.7% of the number from Jones and its bordering counties (98 of 3,668). Using the same calculation applied to just Jones, Marion, and Perry counties, the percent of Union enlistees is 7.1% (90 of 1,261).