The Free State of Jones

Renegade Women: Eliphar Chain of the Free State of Jones

During the booksigning portion of my recent trip to the Laurel-Jones County Library, where I gave a presentation on Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones, I met Jan Dykes, who told me that the Dykes family had a photograph of Eliphar Chain, remembered for having provided supplies for Newt Knight and his Knight Company guerrilla band during the Civil War. Below is that photograph, as well as the story of Eliphar Chain. My thanks to Jan Dykes.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

 

In Ethel Knight’s imaginative restoration of the legend of the Free State of Jones, The Echo of the Black Horn, she tells the story of Eliphar (Elly Fair/Alafair/ etc.) Chain. “Elly Fair,” Ethel wrote, was likely the only woman from Jones County, Mississippi, to actually fight in the American Civil War. She “fought along beside her husband until he was killed,” Ethel claimed, and “carried ammunition in her checkered apron and kept handy a fresh load of powder for the nearest man that needed it.” (p. 107).

Eliphar Childs Dykes Chain, courtesy of Jan Dykes

Yet, despite fighting for the Confederacy, Ethel tells us that Eliphar returned to relatives in Bear Creek, Jones County, after her husband was killed and became an ally of the infamous anti-Confederate guerrilla band headed by “Captain” Newt Knight. In fact, one of Ethel’s most detailed stories of women’s role in the Free State of Jones is about Eliphar’s brave diversion of Confederate soldiers from the path of discovering Newt’s men, hidden in the swamps of the Leaf River. The story goes that Eliphar ran “smack into a gray uniformed officer” (p. 108) and had to think quickly to cover for the deserters. She ingeniously asked the officer if he’d seen a certain heifer that had strayed from the farm. When the officer replied he had not, Eliphar declared that she might as well change direction and seek the stray elsewhere. She then headed across the swamp as quickly as her mule could carry her and warned the Knight band that a cavalryman was scouting the area for them.

Despite Ethel Knight’s disdain for Newt Knight, she held women like Eliphar who supported him and his band to a different standard. Describing her as one of the “good women who aided the Deserters,” Ethel explained that such women “were only helping themselves.” She believed that Newt Knight was guilty of treason and even murder, but that his women supporters were loving wives and mothers simply trying to keep body and soul together. And in early 1864, Ethel explained, “people were looking upon Newt as a great benefactor of the community.”

Fair enough. But Ethel never addressed the question of why a woman who allegedly fought courageously alongside her husband for the Confederate Army would turn around and fight for an armed band of deserters bent on destroying that very Confederacy. Nor does she offer any evidence that Eliphar actually served alongside her husband on Civil War battlefields. Was this possibly an attempt by Ethel to claim a heroic figure for the Confederate side of Jones County (at least in part), as she had with Ben Knight when she claimed he had furlough papers in his pocket at the very moment that Col. Robert Lowry’s men hanged him as a deserter? In the absence of documentary evidence or published stories that predate Ethel’s 1951 book, we cannot know whether Eliphar Chain actually served on Civil War battlefields, although we know that at least 250 women did manage to do so (usually by disguising themselves as men).

We do know, however, that Eliphar’s husband, Isaac Newton Chain, died around 1863 while serving as a private in Co. B, 27th Mississippi Infantry, CSA. That fact does not preclude Eliphar having pro-Union sentiments, however. Her first marriage was to Louis Dykes, a woodcutter from Livingston, Louisiana, who was likely kin to Benjamin F. Dykes, Newt Knight’s friend and neighbor. During the war, Dykes and Newt deserted the 7th battalion Mississippi Infantry together. Both were reported AWOL on the Nov./Dec., 1862, muster, with the added sentence “lost in retreat from Abbeville.”

Nor were all Chains loyal to the Confederacy. Military records indicate that Isaac Chain’s brother, James Alexander Chain, deserted the 7th battalion in October 1862 after hospitalization for wounds sustained at the battle of Corinth. Although there is no direct evidence that James ever James never formally joined the Knight band, he remained AWOL until December 1863. Another Chain, first name uncertain, was similarly reported AWOL following the battle of Corinth, and again in early 1864. Like so many Piney Woods men, the Chains and the Dykes alternately served and deserted the Confederacy. By late 1863, many of these men (including Newt Knight) refused to go back, and joined the Knight band instead. By April, 1864, many more were joining the Union Army in New Orleans (see Ed Payne, “Crossing the Rubicon of Loyalties”).

Behavior that may appear erratic and politically confused today likely did not appear so during the Civil War. The main goal of these soldiers was to remain alive, but also to avoid being arrested by Confederate officers for desertion or imprisoned by Yankees after a battlefield defeat. For the most part, women shared the goals of their male kin. Some, but certainly not all, Jones County women had Unionist political views; others were simply loyal to family and friends. Although we don’t (yet) know Eliphar Chain’s views on secession and the Confederacy, she does appear to have been one of numerous women of the Mississippi Piney Woods who aided deserters and evaders of Confederate service in resisting capture by Confederate militia and home guard.

I encourage readers who have information on the life of Eliphar Chain (no matter how you spell her name!) and her kinfolk, to please consider sharing it with Renegade South.

Vikki Bynum

11 replies »

  1. I can’t help but think that the Confederate tax collectors had a lot to do with the desertion of Jones County men from the Confederate Army. It is my belief that the tax collectors knew the Union sympathizers and took all they had as punishment for their alliegence to the Union. This left women and children destitute. When word of this reached their men in the Confederate Army they did what was necessary to preserve and protect their families from starvation. These men were not renegades. They were fathers and husbands who cared for thier families. They were renegades because they put their family ahead of the lost cause of the Confederacy.

  2. Hi Vikki,

    Judge McKenzie’s keen observations are indeed interesting. I’m always impressed with both the research and the qualit writing skills of those who post information on your website. And of course, Vikki, your own observations and postings are always of interest.

    Vikky (Wilburn) Anders in San Diego….it just so happens that I have Childs cousins. I noticed this in regards to Dykes Chain and her many names.

  3. A variation of Judge McKenzie’s hypothesis can be found in William Pitt Chambers’ Civil War journal (also published as “Blood & Sacrifice,” Richard Baumgartner, editor). In late April 1864 (page 133), Chambers mentions Lowry’s hunt for deserters back home (Chambers, and my Duckworth ancestors, were from eastern Covington County).

    Just weeks (and 2 pages) prior, Chambers describes his unit being transported, and some of the men “shooting stock as they passed.” The commanding officer doesn’t stop it. Chambers is aghast at his fellow Confederate soldiers wantonly destroying the property of their own citizens, and wonders at how the citizenry can continue to view their own soldiers as defenders of the cause when such acts are occurring.

  4. J. A. Chain (Sr.) Correction

    James Alexander Chain, *(Sr.) 1832-1905 enlisted 14 May 1862 Company G (Covington Sharpshooters), 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry, CSA. The 7th Btn was attached to Gen. M.E. Green’s Brigade at the Battle of Corinth, 3-4 Oct 1862. Pvt. Chain was wounded at Corinth, date and place unknown as Company G fought into Corinth the second day of the battle. He was reported being “left at hospital, taken prisoner and then paroled”. Going home to recuperate, he returned to his unit in December 1863. His service ended 4 May 1865 when the unit surrendered at Citronelle, Alabama in 1865. He was again paroled at Mobile and returned home.

    Private J. A. Chain (Sr.) was reported AWOL after being wounded at Corinth. It was not uncommon in the Civil War for soldiers to return home to recuperate after being wounded. These soldiers, being lost from their unit, were often labeled AWOL. Additionally parole after capture often required a pledge of remaining a non- combatant. Thus there were likely two factors in his return home for a period.

    There is absolutely no evidence that Private Chain joined the Newt Knight Band as suggested by Vikki Bynum. A list of members in Ethel Knight’s book, The Echo of the Black Horn does not list any Chains (but does list a couple of Bynums). Additionally the fact that my grandfather, James Alexander Chain, (Jr.) was conceived while Private Chain was home would suggest home life and not the life of a Band in the wilds of Jones County some forty miles west of his home in Mount Olive, Mississippi.

    The Chain family has served honorably in all wars. Private Chain’s grandfather, John Chain served in the Revolutionary War enlisting on 15 May 1777 and appearing on a role of Captain Brown’s Company along with his brother Isiah on 13 November. Private Chain’s father, William Chain served as a private in the War of 1812 from St. Tammany Parish in the 12th and 13th Consolidated Regiment, Louisiana Militia. His name along with Hugh Chain, probably his brother, appears on a monument in front of the courthouse in Franklinton, LA erected to honor the persons who served in the War of 1812 form Washington Parish, LA. William moved to Covington County shortly after the war where his son James Alexander Chain (Sr.) was born.

    Private Chain had three grandsons who served honorably during World War I, Mardis Neil Chain, William Odell Chain, and Charles Ebb Chain. He had eight great grandsons who served in WWII, several seeing substantial combat and all serving honorably. Five great grandsons served honorably during the Korean War.

    Thus the Chain family resents the implication that James Alexander Chain, (Sr.) failed to serve honorably for the Confederacy during the Civil War. We also oppose the denigration of the Chain name in serving patriotically whenever called or volunteered.

    Isaac Chain was a brother of James Alexander Chain, (Sr.). Actually he was a half-brother as their father, William Chain, lost his first wife, Phebe Smith in natural death. In regard to Isaac’s widow, Ellie Fair, her precise role is lost to written history. Our family verbal history from several sources is that she went to the Civil War with Isaac and returned home when he was killed. Her role with Newt Knight’s Band is conflicted, but family verbal history suggests that she in fact did assist the Band.

    Submitted by:

    Bela J Chain, Jr.
    Major General Retired
    United States Army
    Great Grandson of Private James Alexander Chain, (Sr.)

    • The “Sr.” is in parenthesis as his son and my grandfather was also named James Alexander Chain. The “Sr.” nor the “Jr” were never used by them.

  5. Thank you, Mr. Chain, for taking the time to provide information on James Alexander Chain’s military history for Renegade South. As you point out, there is no evidence that J. A. Chain joined Newt Knight’s band of guerrillas, and I have revised the post to clarify that. My suggestion that he might have done so is based on his having been AWOL during the relevant months, and on stories about Eliphar Chain’s participation with the band.

    You also wrote that “the Chain family resents the implication that James Alexander Chain, (Sr.) failed to serve honorably for the Confederacy during the Civil War. We also oppose the denigration of the Chain name in serving patriotically whenever called or volunteered.”

    At no point in my post did I denigrate the Chain name. However, Renegade South is dedicated to the proposition that there was not a unified Confederate South during the Civil War and that many Southerners did not accept the Confederacy as a legitimate government. Others did not find the cause of slavery one worth fighting for. My effort here is to tell those people’s stories.

    As a historian, I do not judge soldiers’ views of the war as evidence of either their “honor” or their “patriotism.” One can argue, after all, that it was the men who crossed over to New Orleans to join the Union Army who were the true patriots. My sympathies are with ALL the soldiers–whether Confederate or Unionist–who were sent to fight a brutal war that devastated communities and destroyed lives.

    Vikki

  6. […] Renegade Women: Eliphar Chain of the Free State of Jones …Jul 25, 2011 … Private Chain had three grandsons who served honorably during World War I, Mardis Neil Chain, William Odell Chain, and Charles Ebb Chain. […]

  7. Eliphar (Ely Fair) is my g-grandfather (Henry Norris Dykes) Grandmother. She was blind in her latter years. She served as a lookout who ran pigs in the woods during the Civil War. I will correct you on something. Her husband was already deceased when she began her part. It was noted that she was the only renegade in the group protecting mainly her children. The Chain(s) (the best of my memory) were very honorable people. It is not likely that any of them were part of the rebel group. Eliphar had no children by her Chain(s) husband. The only children she had were all Dykes. She did though (to my understanding) help raise Gabe Chain(s) because he and one of her sons were close. I will tel you this. Ethel Knights book is faulty. James Street’s book “Tap Roots” the fiction is more apt to be accurate. That was told to my mother and (I can’t think of her name off the top of my head) an elderly retired woman who was a history teacher at JC Jr. College back in the early 1970s. I have some of her papers. Also when getting into some of the Sovereignty Commission files and reading about the Knight family sort of discounts what Ethel Knight wrote.

    • Julia Burns,
      Thank you for sharing your information about your g-grandmother, Eliphar/Elly Fair! I was pretty sure, as you say, that she was already a widow when she served as a lookout for the Knight Band during the Civil War. Ethel Knight claimed that she fought along side her husband, but there is no evidence to support that.

      I’m sure that the Chains were honorable people. So also were many of the men who joined the Knight Band, such as the Collinses, Walters, Valentines, Sumralls, etc.

      Would love to know who your history teacher was back in the 1970s. In regard to the MS Sovereignty Files, they are indeed quite revealing! I consulted them while writing The Free State of Jones.

      Again, thank you so much for clarifying the Civil War history of Eliphar Chain–she was a remarkable woman!

      Vikki
      Moderator

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