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Archive for the ‘Mississippi’ Category

Crossing the Rubicon of Loyalties: Piney Woods enlistees in the Union 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry

By Ed Payne

Part I

Two years ago I gave a presentation in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a portion of which dealt with the Knight Band.  Afterwards, three attendees approached me saying they wished to register a complaint.  These ladies were not upset, as one might suspect, about my broaching the subject of Piney Woods dissent against Confederate authority.  Instead, they expressed good natured consternation that “Jones County gets all the attention.”  They told me there were family stories, more openly discussed in recent years, about men from Marion and Perry counties who also opposed the Confederacy and even enlisted in the Union Army.   I solicited names from them and, later, from others who made similar claims.  In each case, research into military and pension files proved the rumor to be true.

My small but slowly growing list of Piney Woods men who became Union soldiers was augmented by those uncovered by Shelby Harriel .  Even so, several contemporary accounts mentioned not dozens, but hundreds of renegades (see preceding article).  This raised two questions:  How extensive was opposition to Confederate authority within the Mississippi Piney Woods during the final years of the Civil War?  And can this resistance be accurately ascribed to the leadership of a single man?  Seeking a new frame of reference, I undertook a complete review of the two Union regiments most frequently cited as those in which Piney Woods men enlisted:  the 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry.  The results may be found in the list of names accompanying this article.

Readers of “Renegade South” will be familiar with the fact that in the spring of 1864 Confederate forces, most famously those of  Col. Robert Lowry, were sent into the Piney Woods to quell resistance and compel deserters back into their units.  Many of those not caught up in the Confederate dragnet fled south to the swamps of the lower Pearl River, a region known as Honey Island.  At this point the refugees were encamped a mere 10 miles from the Union garrison at Fort Pike, Louisiana. Communications were established and groups of men began arriving at Fort Pike.

Aerial view of Fort Pike as it appeared prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005

Fort Pike was one of a series of fortifications, including Fort Sumter, built by the federal government in the wake of the War of 1812 for coastal defense.  The massive brick and mortar structure was completed in 1827. Situated on a peninsula of land, it guarded the Rigolets—a strait connecting Lake Pontchartrain with the Gulf of Mexico.  Louisiana militia occupied the fort at the outbreak of the Civil War, but it was abandoned by the Confederacy after New Orleans fell into Union hands in April of 1862.

When Piney Woods men made the decision to be ferried across the Rigolets and enter Fort Pike, they were also crossing a personal Rubicon of loyalties.  Henceforth, they were no longer simply resisting Confederate conscription and taxation; they were joining a Union Army whose mission, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, was to banish slavery.  If any were unclear about this fact, the sight of United States Colored Troops training at Fort Pike must have quickly educated them.

In counterintuitive military fashion, the 2nd New Orleans began enrolling troops in October of 1863, six months prior to the 1st New Orleans.  Never reaching full strength, it was disbanded in August of 1864 and its men transferred into the 1st New Orleans.  The 2nd New Orleans Infantry rolls cover 267 men, totaling 1,813 documents.    Those of the 1st New Orleans Infantry account for 1,377 men and comprise 20,829 documents.  The military files have been digitized and are available via the subscription service Footnote.com.  For purposes of this study, the records of every man in the two regiments were reviewed and summarized on spreadsheets.

At the outset my expectations were modest.  Several decades ago researcher Jean Strickland compiled information on 34 Union Army pension applications filed from Jones County.  During preliminary research, I located nine additional applications filed from other counties.  It seemed possible that by reversing the focus and examining all 1st and 2nd New Orleans records, perhaps another 30 or 40 names might be revealed.  But this proved to be a sizable miscalculation.  The records yielded the names of 206 Mississippians who enlisted in these regiments between November of 1863 and November of 1864.  Out of this total, 201 (97.6%) can be identified as inhabitants of the Piney Woods region (see note 1).

The names in the accompanying tables were ascertained by several methods: first, a table was created of all enlistees who reported Mississippi nativity.  It should be emphasized that enlistment documents recorded the birthplace of the recruit, not his pre-war residence.  Therefore, an attempt was made to crosscheck names against the federal censuses of 1850 and 1860.  It was not possible to establish matches in all cases, but the effort revealed the first evidence of kinship ties mirroring those explored by Victoria Bynum in Free State of Jones:  Mississippi’s Longest Civil War.  Of the 178 men whose military records identified them as native Mississippians, 170 reported Piney Woods nativity and census records indicate three others had apparently settled in the region by 1860.  These individuals are listed in Table 1 (see note 2).

To identify enlistees from Mississippi who had been born elsewhere, or whose files lacked nativity information, required delving deeper into census records.  Nearly all the military files recorded the date and location of enlistment.  It became evident early in the study that a large majority of Mississippians (84%) enlisted at Fort Pike, whereas other enlistees more typically joined at the New Orleans recruiting depot.  Therefore, census crosschecks were done on all men who enlisted at Fort Pike between January and August of 1864 using name, age, and state of birth.  This method identified men born in other states, but who later settled in the Piney Woods.  An example is John W. Axton, a 28 year-old farmer who enrolled at Fort Pike on March 25, 1864.  His enlistment papers state he was born in Morgan County, Alabama.  Census research shows that by 1850 his family had moved to Lauderdale County, Mississippi.  In 1860 he is found residing in Perry County with a wife and infant son.

Enlistment doc. of John W. Axton, who resided in Perry Co., MS in 1860, joined the 1st N.O. Infantry on 25 Mar. 1864, and died the following October.

About one-third of the regimental files are missing nativity information.   Still, the names and ages of those who enlisted at Fort Pike from January to August of 1864 provided some basis for crosschecking against 1850-1870 federal censuses of Mississippi.  In practice this method was less capricious than it may sound.   Common names that yielded too many possible candidates were excluded.   Of the names included, 70% can be verified through later pension applications.  Table 2 lists the 25 Mississippi recruits ascertained by these methods, along with census identification.  All lived within the Piney Woods region.

To determine if reliance on enlistment at Fort Pike as an indicator had been too exclusionary, a further check was made.  This focused on 63 men, all with records lacking nativity information, who enrolled between January and August 1864 at locations other than Fort Pike.  Among this group, only one emerged as a possible Piney Woods resident.

Fifty-one of the Mississippians identified on the 1st New Orleans rolls were initially assigned to the 2nd New Orleans.  As mentioned, this unit was disbanded in August 1864 and the men transferred to the 1st New Orleans.  However, the 2nd New Orleans records proved useful in establishing nativity for several men whose birth information was missing in the 1st New Orleans files.  Only three Piney Woods men appear in the 2nd New Orleans files but not subsequently on the 1st New Orleans rolls.  Their names are listed in Table 3, but they were excluded from all analysis pertained to the 1st New Orleans Piney Woods enlistees.

Finally, Table 4 lists other men who reported southern or even Mississippi nativity, but who are currently excluded from the count due to lack of supporting evidence.  While most probably resided in neighboring states, a few may be candidates for inclusion pending further research.  For example, Benjamin B. Patricks joined the 1st New Orleans at Fort Pike on March 25, 1864, stating he was 45 years-old.  Also attempting to enlist that same day was Edward Patricks, who claimed to be 17.  Both reporting being natives of Orangeville, South Carolina.  While Edward was rejected as underage, Benjamin was accepted and served until his desertion after the war.  The 1860 census of Jones County listed Richard Patrick, age 45, and a son named Edward, age 12—both natives of South Carolina.  Did Richard adopt “Benjamin B. Patricks” as a nom de guerre and if so why?  He later successfully applied for a pension and his file may provide an answer.

It should be kept in mind that the 206 men thus far identified formed a distinct minority among all those from their region who served during the Civil War.  Many others remained within the Confederate ranks, however faithfully or begrudgingly.  But the current research suggests that dissenters were more numerous and diffuse than previously thought.  While some might have harbored Unionist sympathies from the outset of the war, most probably developed growing resentment towards Confederate authority as the war dragged on.  The campaigns by Col. Henry Maury and Col. Robert Lowry in the spring of 1864, aimed at forcing them back into southern service, instead provoked a final severing of loyalties.

There is surprisingly little overlap between the men listed on the Newt Knight rosters and those who joined the Union regiments.  Of the 99 names associated with the Knight Band, only ten appear on the rolls of the 1st New Orleans.  In the years following the war, Newt Knight stated that he periodically revised his roster to eliminate men whom he felt had not maintained a proper Unionist stance.  Perhaps so, but given his efforts to obtain federal compensation for himself and his men, Knight may have also culled those he knew to be eligible for pensions based on their service in New Orleans.  This would help explain why over two dozen names on Union pension applications filed from Jones County are absent from Knight Band rosters (see note 3).

If Newt Knight chose to rewrite history according to his own dictates, he was neither the first nor the last to do so.   But the re-discovery of these 206 names provides testimony that opposition to Confederate authority in the Piney Woods extended well beyond the ranks of the Knight Band and far outside the boundaries of Jones County.  Newt Knight can be accurately credited with organizing the largest band of renegades in the region; however, it seems increasingly counterfactual to portray him as the sole prophet of Piney Woods dissent.

I believe that the list of names is substantially complete.  As noted, I am working to clarify the status of several other recruits, but possible additions are likely to number less than a dozen.  It seems worth noting that, even at the present count, the Piney Woods enlistees account for nearly 15% of all 1st New Orleans Infantry recruits.

In future posts in this series I will discuss some of the general characteristics of the enlistees, compare their performance as soldiers with others in the 1st New Orleans, and delve into some of the many individual and family stories that are coming to light.  I hope that by sharing the names of these Union enlistees, more descendants may come forth to share family lore and possibly documents which will help us to better understand this little known but intriguing chapter of Civil War history in the Deep South.

Note 1:  There are differing definitions of the area that comprises the Mississippi Piney Woods.  For purpose of this study, I included all Mississippi counties traversed by or south of a line from Vicksburg to Meridian, with the exception of those directly bordering the Mississippi River (Adams, Claiborne, Jefferson, Warren, and Wilkinson).  This encompasses 23 counties:  Amite, Clarke, Copiah, Covington, Franklin, Greene, Hancock, Harrison, Hinds, Jackson, Jasper, Jones, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Marion, Newton, Perry, Pike, Rankin, Scott, Simpson, Smith, and Wayne.

Note 2:  As a general rule, enlistees reporting Mississippi nativity but found to be residing outside the state on pre-war censuses were excluded from the list.  Exceptions were made in three cases, all owing to kinship ties with other enlistees.  In the first case, the family of Ellis Bounds moved to St Helena Parish, Louisiana shortly before the 1860 census. Ellis was related to several other Bounds men who enlisted.  The other two cases involved brothers Martin Van Buren Parker and Thomas Jefferson Parker.  Their family moved from Jones County, Mississippi to Washington County, Alabama (across the state line from Wayne County, Mississippi) in the late 1840s.  The censuses of 1850 and 1860 show them residing there.  However, they were cousins of several other Parkers who enlisted in New Orleans and Martin Parker resettled in Jones County after the war (his brother Thomas died while serving in the 1st New Orleans).

Note 3:  The figure of 99 names associated with the Knight Band comes from my cross-compilation of three rosters:  1) The 1870 roster Newt Knight submitted as part of his claim for federal compensation, 2) the roster included in Thomas J. Knight’s Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight (p 16-17), and 3) the roster published in Ethel Knight’s Echo of the Black Horn (p 89-89, 161).

TABLE 1:  1st New Orleans enlistees with Mississippi nativity recorded in their military files (refer to Note 2).

Died

  Name

Enlisted

Co

Age

  Birth Co

CW

  Elias A. Allen

05/19/1864

E

34

  Perry
  Willey Allen

05/19/1864

E

30

  Lawrence
  Elisha Anderson

05/23/1864

G

31

  Perry

X

  John Anderson

05/23/1864

G

29

  Perry
  James W. Arnold

06/11/1864

H

20

  Jackson
  Nora Belland

02/20/1864

F

20

  Jackson
  Harro Bellman

11/04/1864

I

18

  Jackson
  James O. Bennett

07/02/1864

H

22

  Jasper
  Henry Bond

06/24/1864

H

24

  Harrison
  William Boon

05/29/1864

H

19

  Marion

X

  Addison Bounds

03/30/1864

D

21

  Marion
  Daniel W. Bounds

06/24/1864

H

24

  Perry
  Ellis Bounds

05/23/1864

G

20

  Perry

X

  James Bounds

03/30/1864

D

23

  Marion
  John Bounds

04/21/1864

G

20

  Hancock

X

  Richard D. Bounds

03/25/1864

D

20

  Jasper
  William Bounds

04/21/1864

I

28

  Hancock
  William P. Boutwell

06/15/1864

I

18

  Pike
  James F. Braddy

06/21/1864

E

26

  Jones
  William Braddy

05/29/1864

H

20

  Covington
  Daniel Breland

05/19/1864

E

34

  Perry
  Meridy Broome

05/19/1864

E

27

  Covington
  John R. Burge

04/28/1864

E

19

  Hancock
  Prentice Bynum

05/26/1864

E

18

  Jones
  Joseph Byrd

12/23/1863

F

30

  Jasper
  Thomas Cameron

05/29/1864

H

19

  Marion
  James Clark

03/25/1864

C

19

  Perry

X

  Joel T. Clark

05/15/1864

H

20

  Perry
  Newton R. Clearman

04/18/1864

D

24

  Newton
  Riley J. Collins

04/30/1864

E

37

  Jones

X

  Isaac Cook

03/30/1864

D

19

  Newton
  Wylie C. Courtney

05/22/1864

G

24

  Smith
  Jacob Cox

04/18/1864

D

38

  Jones
  Elisha Crane

07/05/1864

H

19

  Rankin

X

  Rankin Crane

07/05/1864

H

18

  Rankin
  Charles J. Cuevas

02/02/1864

F

21

  Harrison
  John Culpepper

03/25/1864

D

18

  Jones
  Jessie Cunningham

05/19/1864

E

37

  Jasper

X

  William Dailey

04/28/1864

E

23

  Wayne

X

  Able Davis

05/26/1864

E

30

  Jones
  George W. Davis

05/23/1864

H

20

  Perry

X

  Henry F. Davis

06/29/1864

H

22

  Copiah
  James A. Davis

05/23/1864

G

23

  Perry

X

  Leroy T. Davis

05/03/1864

G

23

  Harrison
  James Dearman

05/29/1864

#

26

  Perry
  Allen DeBose

06/24/1864

H

23

  Jefferson *

X

  Riley DeBose

08/23/1864

H

30

  Perry

X

  Andrew Dement

04/19/1864

D

26

  Jones

X

  Hansford Dossett

03/25/1864

D

23

  Jones
  James A. Dossett

05/22/1864

G

24

  Jones
  Johnson Ellis

03/14/1864

A

36

  Lowndes *

X

  Marion H. Ellis

02/23/1864

C

18

  Lauderdale
  Asa B. Esterling

04/30/1864

E

21

  Perry
  William J. Finney

12/29/1863

C

32

  Pike

X

  Jessie T. Ford

06/11/1864

I

18

  Perry
  John Fortinbery

05/21/1864

E

24

  Marion
  Eugene Garcia

02/02/1864

F

16

  Hancock
  James Grantham

06/24/1864

H

24

  Perry

X

  Jesse R. Grice

04/18/1864

D

31

  Rankin
  John W. Gummell

06/15/1864

H

20

  Harrison
  Rutilles Harold

04/21/1864

G

25

  Jasper
  Jordan Harrington

04/28/1864

E

20

  Jones

X

  William J. Hatley

04/15/1864

G

25

  Lawrence
  Jeremiah Henley

05/19/1864

E

38

  Hancock
  Samuel D. Herron

06/25/1864

H

31

  Marion
  John Hester

06/14/1864

H

20

  Harrison
  John Hickman

06/14/1864

G

20

  Harrison
  William Hickman

05/03/1864

G

21

  Harrison
  George Hogan

05/03/1864

G

20

  Jasper
  John Holder

05/26/1864

E

18

  Jasper
  Brasille Holliman

05/12/1864

E

18

  Perry

X

  James Holliman

05/12/1864

E

18

  Perry

X

  Oliver Holliman

05/12/1864

E

26

  Smith
  Thomas Holliman

03/25/1864

D

33

  Perry

X

  William Holyfield

05/26/1864

E

24

  Jones
  Alexander Inman

06/20/1864

K

25

  Clarke

X

  Stephen Jenkins

03/25/1864

D

23

  Wayne
  Thomas Johnston

05/15/1864

E

24

  Jones

X

  William Jones

03/25/1864

D

32

  Marion
  William Knight

04/28/1864

E

24

  Jones
  Henry Landrum

03/25/1864

D

18

  Jones
  John Landrum

03/25/1864

D

19

  Jones

X

  Thomas Landrum

03/25/1864

D

43

  Jones
  William P. Landrum

03/25/1864

D

28

  Jones
  Nathaniel Lathiner

07/10/1864

H

18

  Hancock
  James W. Lee

04/13/1864

D

29

  Wayne

X

  Uriah Lee

05/03/1864

G

20

  Marion
  Ezekial Loftin

05/26/1864

E

23

  Lauderdale
  Thomas Loftin

05/26/1864

E

18

  Jasper
  Rutilles Loper

04/23/1864

G

32

  Jones
  Francis M. Lott

06/14/1864

H

20

  Harrison
  Bailey Martin

05/21/1864

E

18

  Attala *

X

  Caleb Martin

05/27/1864

H

34

  Perry

X

  Loth McArther

03/05/1864

H

18

  Hancock
  Enoch E. McFadden

11/18/1863

A

30

  Hancock
  James W. McFadden

11/18/1863

A

17

  Hancock

X

  Daniel McInnis

03/25/1864

D

19

  Greene
  George T. Mitchell

06/29/1864

K

21

  Hancock
  Mark W. Mitchell

03/30/1864

D

27

  Clarke
  John P. Myrick

04/21/1864

G

20

  Jasper
  William C. Nelson

07/05/1864

H

41

  Lowndes *
  John J. Newell

05/12/1864

E

26

  Perry
  Jacob Nicholson

04/28/1864

E

25

  Hancock

X

  General D. O Neal

07/08/1864

H

39

  Perry
  William Oadum

04/30/1864

E

18

  Perry

X

  Hezekiah Page

05/26/1864

G

22

  Jones
  Louis Page

05/26/1865

G

20

  Jones
  Robert Page

05/20/1864

G

24

  Jones
  John W. Parker

05/26/1864

E

23

  Newton
  Little B. Parker

07/13/1864

H

19

  Jasper
  Marion Parker

12/20/1863

F

27

  Jasper

X

  Obediah Parker

12/20/1863

F

40

  Wayne
  Pearson Parker

05/19/1864

E

34

  Coahoma *
  Thomas J. Parker

05/14/1864

B

19

  Clarke

X

  Elisha Perkins

07/08/1864

H

22

  Perry
  Daniel Pitts

03/25/1864

D

19

  Jones
  Elias Polk

03/25/1864

C

23

  Marion
  Calvin Raburn

05/21/1864

E

29

  Covington
  Thomas Redman

05/25/1864

G

20

  Jasper
  John W. Rester

06/14/1864

#

20

  Marion
  Ashberry Reynolds

05/12/1864

E

19

  Perry
  Charles Roberts

05/21/1864

H

19

  Lawrence
  Joseph Rowell

06/25/1864

#

25

  Marion
  William Rowell

06/25/1864

#

33

  Marion
  Samuel Sanders

05/26/1864

E

30

  Jasper
  Randolph Saucier

05/26/1864

G

21

  Harrison

X

  Anthony Seals

05/19/1864

#

18

  Hancock
  Thomas Shivers

06/25/1864

K

22

  Marion
  Martin V. Shows

03/25/1864

D

22

  Jones
  Jesse Slade

05/29/1864

B

19

  Marion

X

  Samuel Slade

05/29/1864

H

27

  Marion
  Andy Smith

04/19/1864

D

19

  Clarke
  Asbery Smith

03/25/1864

D

18

  Clarke
  Ira Smith

04/19/1864

D

18

  Clarke
  James Smith

05/12/1864

E

23

  Perry
  John L. Smith

06/20/1864

H

22

  Harrison

X

  Thomas R. Smith

05/26/1864

G

21

  Harrison
  William Spradley

06/14/1864

#

22

  Simpson
  Joshua Stafford

05/27/1864

#

26

  Perry
  William Steavenson

03/25/1864

D

19

  Wayne

X

  Alvin Sumrall

06/11/1864

F

29

  Perry

X

  Daniel Sumrall

06/11/1864

H

19

  Perry
  James Sumrall

03/25/1864

C

23

  Perry
  James Taylor

06/15/1864

H

29

  Monroe *
  Jones R. Temple

06/25/1864

K

33

  Marion
  Henry Thomas

05/29/1864

#

28

  Perry
  William M. Thompson

11/11/1864

I

18

  Marion
  Joseph Tillman

07/13/1864

H

20

  Jasper
  Seaborn Tisdale

04/30/1864

E

23

  Perry
  James Truss

03/25/1864

C

19

  Jones
  Dreyden Tucker

03/25/1864

D

19

  Jones
  James Tucker

05/15/1864

E

18

  Jones
  John Tucker

05/15/1864

E

36

  Jones

X

  Martin Tucker

05/15/1864

E

23

  Jones
  John Underwood

05/18/1864

E

30

  Covington

X

  Robert Underwood

05/19/1864

E

35

  Warren *
  Andrew Walker

12/24/1863

B

37

  Warren *
  Albert Walters

04/28/1864

E

38

  Jones
  Archy Walters

05/15/1864

E

19

  Jones

X

  Drury Walters

05/15/1864

E

25

  Jones

X

  Joel W. Walters

03/25/1864

D

26

  Jones
  Hanson A. Walters

05/24/1864

G

27

  Jones
  Marada M. Walters

05/15/1864

E

23

  Jones

X

  Richard Walters

05/15/1864

E

22

  Jones
  James P. Watts

07/02/1864

H

21

  Covington
  Frank Weatherbee

05/29/1864

H

26

  Lawrence

X

  Richard T. Welch

04/28/1864

E

21

  Jones
  Elijah Wilborn

04/30/1864

E

20

  Smith
  Tolbert F. Wilborn

05/26/1864

E

20

  Jasper

X

  William Wilborn

05/26/1864

E

32

  Jasper
  James Williams

04/21/1864

G

23

  Marion

X

  John Williams

07/02/1864

H

21

  Jones
  Joshua G. Williams

05/04/1864

G

26

  Perry

X

  Thomas Williams

05/03/1864

G

22

  Perry
  Frank Wilson

07/20/1864

H

28

  Lawrence
  John Worden

03/30/1864

D

19

  Marion
  Benjamin F. Young

05/23/1864

G

21

  Jackson
  Thomas Young

05/14/1864

G

20

  Jones

X

A pound sign (#) in the regimental company (“Co”) column on this and subsequent tables indicates the enlistee failed to report for muster and therefore was never assigned to a company.

An asterick (*) appearing after the nativity county indicates that it is located outside the Piney Woods region.  The 1860 census records suggest that Bailey Martin, James Taylor, and Andrew Walker had relocated to the Piney Woods.

TABLE 2:  1st New Orleans enlistees with Mississippi residency established through cross-checks of the 1850, 1860, and 1870 federal census records.

Census

Died

  Name

Enlisted

Co

Age

Year

  County

CW

  John Adams

03/25/1864

D

19

1860

  Jones
  John W. Axton

03/25/1864

D

28

1860

  Perry

X

  Irvin E. Elzey

04/28/1864

E

43

1860

  Jones
  William Ford

06/11/1864

K

43

1860

  Jasper

X

  Hamilton Haden

03/25/1864

D

24

1860

  Clarke
  John M. Jones

04/30/1864

E

19

1860

  Jones
  Willis B. Jones

04/30/1864

E

21

1860

  Jones
  Augustus Lambert

03/25/1864

D

25

1860

  Jones

X

  Blakely Lambert

03/25/1864

D

32

1860

  Jasper

X

  James C. Law

05/05/1864

E

26

1860

  Jones

X

  William Martin

05/26/1864

H

40

1860

  Perry

X

  William Mauldin

04/30/1864

E

27

1860

  Jones

X

  David McBride

03/25/1864

D

45

1860

  Jones

X

  William McBride

03/25/1864

D

18

1860

  Jones

X

  Robert McIntire

11/06/1863

C

35

1850

  Smith
  Lorenzo D. Nobles

03/14/1864

C

33

1860

  Jackson
  Martin Parker

12/20/1863

F

28

1870

  Jones
  Eli Rushing

05/23/1864

G

23

1850

  Jones
  James L. Seals

04/28/1864

D

27

1850

  Hancock
  Robert Spencer

05/03/1864

G

22

1850

  Clarke
  James Swilley

06/20/1864

K

37

1870

  Harrison
  Henry F. Taylor

04/30/1864

E

19

1860

  Perry
  Pleasant P. Terry

04/18/1864

D

34

1860

  Newton
  William J. Tippet

03/14/1864

C

44

1860

  Smith
  Aaron T. Wilborn

05/23/1864

G

27

1860

  Jones

TABLE 3: 2nd New Orleans enlistees with Mississippi nativity who did not subsequently appear on the 1st New Orleans rolls.

Died

  Name

Enlisted

Co

Age

  Birth Co

CW

  Elijah G. Brown

05/23/1864

B

31

  Perry
  James R. Davis

05/22/1864

B

29

  Perry

X

  Thommas Simons

05/23/1864

B

22

  Perry

TABLE 4:  Other 1st New Orleans enlistees who reported southern nativity, but for whom evidence of later Mississippi residency is currently lacking.

  Name

Enlisted

Co

Age

  Birth Co / State
  John A. Allen

01/23/1864

A

20

  Franklin, AL
  Josiah A. Allen

06/13/1864

H

32

  Columbus, MS
  Thomas  Bonner

03/30/1864

D

19

  Monroe Co, AL
  William Cameron

05/29/1864

#

na

  (Not listed)
  John  Cody

03/30/1864

C

25

  Mobile, AL
  John  Cotton

07/05/1864

#

18

  Mobile, AL
  John A. Graham

03/25/1864

D

20

  Butler, AL
  William  Graham

04/30/1864

H

18

  Montgomery, AL
  John W. Haley

04/17/1864

D

19

  Pike, AL
  David D. Hanscum

06/06/1864

#

na

  Natchez, MS
  William  Hull

02/18/1864

C

26

  Augusta, GA
  Joseph  Kelly

04/12/1864

D

23

  Carroll Co, TN
  Thomas  Kelly

02/23/1865

E

19

  Natchez, MS
  John Martin

05/02/1864

G

20

  (Not listed)
  John P. Moseley

02/23/1864

A

24

  Butler Co, AL
  Frank  Nata

10/09/1863

B

20

   Biloxi, MS
  Edward  Patricks

03/25/1864

#

17

  Orangeville, SC
  Benjamin B. Patricks

03/25/1864

D

45

  Orangeville, SC
  Warner B. Pittman

03/25/1864

E

47

  Washington, GA
  William  Pittman

03/25/1864

E

17

  Washington, GA
  Stephen H. Tourne

04/17/1864

D

19

  Macon Co, AL
  William  Wasdon

03/12/1864

C

23

  Jefferson Co, GA
  John H. Watson

04/27/1864

E

20

  Perry Co, AL
  Jucalion  Wedgeworth

07/08/1864

H

20

  Green Co, AL
  Jacob W. White

03/25/1864

D

34

  Steward Co, Ga
  Pleasant L. Williams

04/14/1864

G

28

  Hinds Co, MS
  William J. Williams

03/11/1864

G

20

  (Not listed)

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During the past six months, I have received several messages from independent researcher Jeff Giambrone, who sent me a number of Civil War letters and newspaper articles that he has uncovered through his research. The following two selections seem particularly appropriate as a way of introducing Ed Payne’s upcoming post on men from the Mississippi piney woods who joined the Union Army at New Orleans during the Civil War. The newspaper articles are followed by a letter uncovered by Ed in the course of his research for that upcoming post.

The first article, published 11 March 1861, comes from the Times Daily National Intelligencer, a Whig newspaper that in 1860 supported pro-Union, Constitutional Union Party presidential candidate, John Bell:

“Anti-Secession in Mississippi”

There was an anti-secession meeting at Smith’s Store, Jones County, Mississippi, on the 16th of February. We learn from the [staunchly pro-Confederate] Brandon Republican, says the [pro-Union] Nashville Patriot, that “there were many speeches made on the occasion protesting against secession and the increased taxation of the people on the part of the State, and calling for a still larger meeting at Tallahoma.” The proceedings of the meeting were furnished the Republican for publication, but were declined on the ground that the will of the majority of the State as expressed for secession ought to be respected. It has come to a pretty pass that the freedom of the press must be denied to any portion of the people because the majority is believed to be against them.

Censorship of pro-Union activities by pro-Confederate newspapers such as that described above helped, of course, to create the image–still popular today–of a “Solid South.” It’s worth noting that the location of the above anti-secession meeting, Smith’s Store, Jones County, was also the location where, in October 1863, members of the Knight Company pledged their loyalty to the U.S. government, according to testimonies provided before the U.S. Claims Commission in regard to Newt Knight’s three petitions for financial compensation (1870-1900).  An earlier pro-Union meeting in Jones County was described in 1936 by Benjamin Sumrall in an interview by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). According to Sumrall, his ancestor, Riley James Collins (who later joined the Union Army in New Orleans), called the meeting at Union Church, where he delivered a passionate anti-secession speech (see Bynum, Free State of Jones, pp. 98-99).

The second article, published 23 March 1864, is from the Springfield Republican (Mass.):

 “Devastation in Mississippi”

Internal reports are given by a Union Scout, lately arrived at New Orleans from a trip through Hancock, Marion, Perry, Jones, and Jasper Counties, Mississippi. He had been absent a month, and as the fruit of his visit to these counties he had recruited 115 men for a Union regiment. He also brought away several women and children. He states that the Union sentiment now predominates and that the Union men have things their own way, completely turning the tables upon their enemies. Instead of being driven to the swamps and other hiding places for shelter, they have driven the secessionists to those places to preserve their lives. They had declared a war of extermination and hunted down the rebels and shot them wherever found. This man is a native of Mississippi, and well acquainted throughout the region through which he passed. He states that most if not all of the old men of his acquaintances are in their graves, shot in their very own homes.

The above article dovetails with events known to have taken place in the Jones County region in early 1864. On 2 March, Col. Henry Maury was sent to Jones County to quell an anti-Confederate uprising. That mission failed, and, just a few days after this article’s publication, on 29 March 1864, Confederate Capt. W. Wirt Thompson reported on the “deplorable” state of affairs in Jones County to Secretary of War James Seddon. Yankees, Wirt lamented, were “frequently among” the Jones County deserters. And, only one week before Col. Robert Lowry’s famous raid on Jones County took place, Jones County deserters were reported to have “gone down Pearl River to and near Honey Island where they exist in some force . . . openly boasting of their being in communication with Yankees.” (see Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 117)

And there’s this, recently discovered by Ed Payne: a request from Lieut. Col. Eugene Tisdale of the 1st New Orleans Vol. Infantry to Major George B. Drake, Assistant Adjutant-General of the Dept. of the Gulf, for passage by one James L.  Seals into the state of Mississippi for the purpose of guiding recruits back to the 1st New Orleans Infantry.

To Major George B. Drake, A.A. Gen, Hd. 2nd D. of G,

I would most respectfully ask that permission be granted Private James L. Seals, 1st Regiment New Orleans Vol. Infantry to pass into the state of Mississippi via Fort Pike, LA, for the purpose of guiding within Federal lines a party of recruits already engaged for the Regiment. And I would further respectfully ask that the families of the Recruits of this Regiment be allowed to come at the same time from Pearl River and Honey Island, Mississippi, via Fort Pike to the City of New Orleans.

This same private James L. Seals has already aided in bringing into the 1st New Orleans Vols. Nearly one hundred and fifty men of Mississippi; but now, on account of existing orders, he cannot go beyond Fort Pike without a pass from the Commanding General of this Department.

I am Major

Very Respectfully

Your Obedient Servant

Eugene Tisdale

Lieut. Col., 1st New Orleans Infantry

With these documents as a point of reference, we may eagerly anticipate Ed Payne’s upcoming article on Mississippi piney woods men who joined the 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry.

My deep thanks to Ed and Jeff Giamborne for providing the above documents for publication on Renegade South!

Vikki Bynum

Moderator

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Nancy Stevens wrote the following memoir some months after we began communicating about our mutual descent from the Bynum family of Jones County, Mississippi. Nancy was kind enough to send me excerpts from the Bible of her distant ancestor, Drury Bynum (b. circa 1806), the brother of my own ancestor, William Bynum II (b. circa 1795). A discussion of  our ancestral roots followed, and, soon, Nancy decided to read my book, The Free State of Jones. Like so many descendants of families that participated in Jones County’s inner civil war during the nation’s Civil War, including myself, Nancy had very little knowledge of this incredible time of upheaval, or of the cultural and political history that led our ancestors to take the stands they did.  Her reflections remind us that history not only shines a light on how we got to this place in time as a society, but also illuminates who we are as individuals by stimulating memories that place us in the stream of that very history.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

The history of the Free State of Jones has given me so much insight into the ways that my values were formed and why.  My family never fully bought into the “Lost Cause” mentality as did so many of our neighbors and my peers.  I always thought that my mother’s being from Appalachia was the reason for our family being a bit more “liberal” than our neighbors; however, I now realize that my thoughts on this were much too simplistic. 

I was born in 1945 and grew up on a farm in Clarke County.  We had to build a new house “up on the road” (gravel) so that the school bus could pick me up and take me to school.  Daddy was a farmer and had 2 black tenant families living on our land.  Because our house was so far back in the woods and my playmates all black, I did not realize the significance of my being white and my best friend being black until it was time for us to start first grade.  When mother told me that because my best friend was black she therefore would not be attending my white school, I threw a fit.  I can still remember our school bus passing the black school and my wishing I could be in that school with my best friend. 
 
Florene left Mississippi for Chicago when she graduated from high school and has remained there living in a middle class neighborhood.  We continue to keep in touch and visit each other from time to time for we alone share a common history that we share with no one else.  Recently, Florene reminded me of how much she always enjoyed going into Quitman, the county seat, with my mother because mother would take her into all the white establishments with us – even have her eat at our table in restaurants!  I guess my mom was considered a “foreigner” by Clarke County standards!
 
After reading The Free State of Jones, I now realize that intermingling of whites and blacks in remote areas of MS was not such a radical thing.  Although by the 1950s, intermingling on an “equal” basis was quite controversial and not socially acceptable.
 
I also remember an old judge, last name Fatheree, speaking to our Methodist congregation in the ’50s about the supposed racial and intellectual inferiority of blacks, citing the difference in the white brain vs. the black brain.  Now, my mother forbade my brother and me from attending this lecture, but we walked up to the church anyway and stood under the windows listening.  I left quite puzzled and frightened; but because I had disobeyed them, I could not ask my parents about Judge Fatheree’s comments.
 
Reading about the Free State of Jones has brought all this back so clearly.  I have so many tales to tell; maybe I should jot them down.  I realize how fortunate I was to have been raised by parents with an accepting value system although I did conform to most cultural rules in order to survive.  However, to quote Van Buren Watts:  “As soon as I realized where I was, I got out” (Free State of Jones, page 177).
 
Nancy Stevens
 

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The following essay is crossposted on the special Civil War Sesquicentennial website hosted by the University of North Carolina Press.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

Reflections on the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War

Victoria Bynum

As a historian of the Southern Civil War home front, I am continually confronted by the destruction of communities, as well as the deaths on and off the battlefield, that the Civil War visited upon the United States.  As we commemorate such an important event on its 150th anniversary, it is important to remind ourselves that our system of government is capable of stunning failures of leadership as well as inspiring moments of greatness.

A popular sound bite among our politicians today—one repeated ad nauseam—is that Congress should no longer “kick the can down the road” in regard to this problem or that problem. Well, slavery was the “can” that our antebellum politicians kicked down the road. Slavery did not emerge suddenly as a problem during the sectional crisis of the 1850s, it was a problem–a contradiction of our Revolutionary principles–from the nation’s inception. Over time it became ever more thoroughly embedded in our national economy, so fundamental to the wealth of slaveholders and cotton merchants that they employed the most virulent racism to justify its continuance.

Yet despite the thousands of books written about the Civil War, one wonders if the lessons of this war will ever truly be understood or agreed upon. In today’s political discourse, we hear debate over whether or not the flying of the Confederate flag is inherently racist, or whether individual states might nullify an act of Congress. In fact, we even hear talk of secession movements in the name of protecting state sovereignty against the so-called tyranny of a federal government that just happens to be headed by the first African American president. 

This return to Confederate principles is pushed by the new “tea party” wing of the Republican Party—the same party that symbolized Big Government in the 1850s; the same party that urged the federal government to use its power to limit slavery’s expansion into the western territories of the United States. While neither that Republican Party, nor its presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln, advocated slavery’s abolition in 1860, the party’s belief in the superior power of the federal government, coupled with an aggressive abolitionist movement that urged party leaders to end slavery once and for all, finally convinced southern proslavery Democrats to secede.

Over 150 years ago, Northern warnings of a “slave power conspiracy” were met by Southern warnings about the North’s determination to dominate and transform cherished southern institutions. Southern concerns about the effects that a wage-based, industrial society would have on a rural society of independent farmers effectively masked slavery as the preeminent cause of war. And so, southern white soldiers, the majority of whom owned no slaves, fought for principles of liberty, honor, and a way of life that seemed threatened by a too-powerful federal government.

Still, southerners were never unified in their support for the Confederate cause. In regions throughout the South, Unionists, dissenters, and deserters—not just men, but neighborhoods of men, women, children, and slaves, engaged in inner civil wars against the Confederacy. Newt Knight, the leader of a band of deserters in piney woods Mississippi, is the most famous of these renegades. For well over a century, people have debated whether he was a traitor and an outlaw, or a Unionist and patriot.

I believe such debates miss a larger point: that Newt Knight was only one of a sizable minority of nonslaveholders throughout the South who concluded it was the Confederacy that threatened their way of life—in fact, their very lives. With crucial support from their families, many of these men organized and armed themselves to fight against the Confederacy.  Others joined the Union Army.

Unless we believe that the Confederate cause—and make no mistake, its ultimate cause was the preservation and expansion of slavery—was a just one that served the interests of the Southern people, most of whom either owned no slaves or were slaves, how can we help but be inspired by those who refused any longer to serve?

In commemorating the American Civil War, I hope that we will reflect on what lessons the Civil War teaches us about political motives, people’s economic interests, and the meaning of dissent—and that we apply those lessons to the similarly toxic and dangerous political environment that threatens us today.

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While conducting his ongoing research on men who joined the Union Army from the Piney Woods region of Mississippi, Ed Payne discovered the following story buried in the military files of one Robert Spencer.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

Unionism and a murder in the family: Robert Spencer

By Ed Payne

 

On a Friday in the middle of July, 1865, Sergeant Robert Spencer, while serving in the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry, abandoned his post. Oddly, he left conspicuously dressed in his uniform. It later emerged that word reached him that his stepfather, who killed his mother three years previously and fled, had returned to Jasper County, Mississippi. Robert headed north with a kinsman, hoping to apprehend him. After an absence of two weeks, they returned to their regiment and turned themselves in.

Fourteen months earlier, on May 3, 1864, Robert Spencer had joined the 2nd New Orleans Infantry Regiment at Fort Pike, Louisiana. His enlistment papers describe him as a 22 years-old native of Clarke County, Alabama. He had brown eyes and black hair, stood five feet eight inches tall, and was able to sign his name. Robert was just one of over two hundred individuals, ranging from teenagers to men in their forties, who had fled the Mississippi Piney Woods in the wake of Confederate Col. Robert Lowry’s campaign during the spring of 1864. After regrouping at Honey Island on the lower Pearl River, many crossed the river and enlisted in the Union Army at nearby Fort Pike. Robert was mustered on May 11 and given a $25 bounty plus $13 advance pay. Apparently viewed as good soldier material, he was enrolled as Corporal in Company B. That August the 2nd New Orleans Infantry was disbanded and its men reassigned to the 1st New Orleans Infantry. Robert joined Company G and in December received a further promotion to 4th Sergeant.

Following more than a year of unblemished service, Robert Spencer left his unit on July 14, 1865. However, unlike those who deserted after the war’s end to return to their farms and families, he reported back to his company commander on July 28. He was reduced to private and placed in confinement. On August 12 a court martial panel convened to hear the case against him. The charges were desertion and being absent without leave. Apparently no defense was offered at the trial. It was only several weeks later, in the interim between the hearing and the anticipated publication of sentences, that a lawyer representing Spenser wrote to describe mitigating circumstances. This letter, transcribed below, provides evidence that the Unionist stance of some Piney Woods men produced deadly consequences within their families (key passages appear in italics):

Brig General Sherman

Commanding Post of New Orleans

Dear Sir.

I would respectfully (on behalf of Private Robert Spencer of the 1st New Orleans) represent that he was tried on the 12 of August 1865 by general court martial convened by your orders, upon a charge of desertion. The sentence of said court martial has not yet been published, and he is ignorant thereof.

But apprehending that the circumstances of his case have been or will be misunderstood to his prejudice, I request your indulgence for a statement of the facts.

At the beginning of the war he was unfortunately in the southern states and when the conscript law was passed he was forced to hide in the woods, or take up arms against his principles; during this time he was harboured by his mother but persecuted by his step father, who finally killed his mother, for her kindness to her son, and fled from justice. Just before leaving his regiment he received information that his step father had returned to home, to settle his business and in hopes of bringing him to justice he left immediately in order to loose no time, in making sure of this desirable object, fearing that if he delayed for the usual formalities of obtaining permission to go that he would loose forever the opportunity of causing his mother’s murderer to be punished. He left in uniform and returned in same. He reported at Jackson, Miss and obtained a pass to return, showing he had no intention of deserting.

I also have the honor to enclose herewith the recommendation of one of his officers, who is well aware of his general character.

And respectfully submit that his previous good character, and the cause of his absence, should go far in mitigating his sentence of punishment. I hope in your decency you will cause his sentence to be as light as possible, and published as soon as practical that his imprisonment, already since the 3 of August may be abbreviated to the shortest time.

I have the honor to be

Very respectfully

 your obd srvt

Anderson Miller

Counsel for Spencer…

The letter, which was placed in Spencer’s military file, was accompanied by a character reference submitted by Lieutenant James E. Bissell, commander of Company G, dated September 21, 1865. On October 2 Robert Spencer was sentenced to three months at hard labor. The plea letter apparently had been effective since those found guilty of desertion during this period commonly received a year’s imprisonment. In January 1866 Robert rejoined his unit, where he served as a cook until the regiment was disbanded on June 1, 1866.

 —————-

Antebellum census records provide only a small amount of information about Robert Spencer. The 1850 census listed a Robert Spencer, age 7, residing in Clarke County, Mississippi—not Alabama. He is found in the household of 24 year-old Nancy Spencer, along with Elizabeth, age 4, and Silas Nelson, age 9. Since there was no adult male in the household, it would seem that young Nancy was already a widow.

Internet genealogies, which must be utilized with caution, reference Abraham E. Spencer as Nancy’s deceased husband. According to these sources her maiden name was Nancy Nelson and she had been born in Georgia in the 1820s. This offers a partial explanation for the presence in her household of the child named Silas Nelson. These genealogies report that in 1851 Nancy married Shadrach Hogan. The 1850 census corroborates that a Shadrach Hogan, age 60, resided in Clarke County not far from the widow Spencer. Furthermore, a decade later “Shadric” Hogan is found in Jasper County with wife Nancy, a native of Georgia who reported her age as 38, and an eight year-old daughter, Sarah. Shadrach is purported to have died shortly after the 1860 census and Nancy to have wed recent widower John Angus McGilvray (sometimes rendered as “McGilvery” or “McGilberry”). No census record has been found for Robert Spencer in 1860, but since his mother and future wife resided in Jasper County, it is likely he was in the vicinity but overlooked.

The question that emerges is whether John Angus McGilvray was the unnamed stepfather who Robert Spencer claimed killed his mother. Genealogists report that Nancy died in Jasper County in 1862. ‘Family lore’ is cited for the information that John Angus McGilvray died in either Texas or Oklahoma in the mid-1860s. Whether dead or relocated, his absence from the Piney Woods is evident on the 1870 census, where his four youngest children are found living with relatives in Covington County.

Among the genealogies, however, one (“Haynes Ferguson Families”) contains an “Alternate Death” entry which matches Robert Spencer’s description of events. The entry states that Nancy Nelson was “Killed by 3rd husband John Angus McGilvray” and references the book Family, School, Church and Pioneer History by Reverend Angus G. Ferguson. A native of Jones County born in 1858, Rev. Ferguson published his book of recollections in 1935. Early on he provides this short summary of the life of Nancy Nelson:

Aunt Nancy married a Spencer. They had two children and he died. A little later she married a Hogan and they had two children, John and Sarah; both died. Then she married John McGilvery and not long after, in a heat of passion, he killed her with a stick cut from a clothes pole. (pg 11, my emphasis)

Rev. Ferguson’s account of his ancestry outlined the family connection: Nancy Nelson was his mother’s half-sister. Nancy’s widowed mother—Elizabeth McScrews Nelson—re-married to Robert P. Boyce and had three additional children by him. One of these was Catharine Boyce, who married John Ferguson, the reverend’s father, in 1857.

The book provides no further information concerning John Angus McGilvray, but other records show him to have been a son of Perry County settler Alexander McGilvray. The McGilvray clan did not differ markedly from their Piney Woods neighbors. Of Alexander’s five sons only one, William, owned slaves. Both the 1850 and 1860 Jones County censuses show him possessing six slaves. None of the five McGilvray men of military age in the spring of 1861 were early volunteers for military service. A year later, as the first Confederate conscription law went into effect, four of them joined the gray ranks: Angus and Joseph, sons of William, enlisted in cavalry units; two of their uncles, Daniel and Murdock, went into infantry regiments. John Angus McGilvray, approximately 46 years-old at the time, was exempted by age.

If Robert Spencer’s account is correct, John Angus McGilvray’s murderous rage stemmed from the knowledge that his new wife’s son sought to evade conscription—and that she had contrived to assist him. Once he had struck and killed Nancy, McGilvray apparently left the area to avoid judicial action or, perhaps more likely, revenge at the hands of Nancy’s relatives.

Robert Spencer, along with other Piney Woods men who were unwilling to join the Confederacy from the outset of the Civil War, lived a fugitive existence for the next two years. By the summer of 1863 he no doubt felt less wary as a result of the increasing number of deserters and Vicksburg parolees returning to the Piney Woods. It was during this time that he wed Mary Emeline Hogan. Emeline was a granddaughter of Shadrach Hogan, his late mother’s second husband.

But any sense of security was demolished when Col. Robert Lowry led his troops into the Piney Woods in the spring of 1864. The campaign was designed to quash the Knight Band and pump desperately needed manpower into the Confederacy. Men like Robert came to the conclusion that their options had dwindled to two: join either the Confederate or the Union Army. He joined the procession of men who headed south. One of those in the group was Emeline’s brother, George Hogan, who enlisted in the 2nd New Orleans the same day as Robert. A little over a year later George accompanied his brother-in-law on his trip back to Jasper County. When they returned, probably due to Robert Spencer’s assumption of responsibility, Private Hogan suffered only temporary confinement and the forfeiture of $20 in pay.

 —————-

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Robert remained in Louisiana. The 1870 census listed him as a farmer in St. Helena Parish with his wife and two sons, ages six and four. In 1895 he applied for and received an invalid pension for his Union service. The pension card and a Louisiana death record show that Robert Spencer died on August 16, 1925 in Zona, Washington Parish, Louisiana.

The plea letter in the military file left unanswered the tantalizing question of whether Robert was successful in his mission—suggesting that he was not. John Angus McGilvray disappeared from the records. If he eluded Robert’s efforts to take him into custody, the only trace remaining was the family story that he ended up in Texas (or Oklahoma) and died soon thereafter. The burial site of Nancy Nelson Spencer Hogan McGilvray seems similarly lost. But, given his presence in the area at the time of her death, her son surely knew the location. Thus, it is not unreasonable to imagine that while engaged in his quest for justice that July, Robert Spencer may have taken the time to visit his mother’s grave dressed in his blue Union uniform.

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Newt Knight by VB

Visitors to Renegade South often express interest in where Newt Knight and his band of deserters hid out during the Civil War; there’s even an essay devoted to the question on this blog. Recently, Jones County historian Ed Payne pointed out to me that a pretty good description of the location was provided by local citizen Ruby Huff during the 1930s. Huff was an unabashed admirer of the Knight Company, and I quoted liberally from her essay in my book, FREE STATE OF JONES, to demonstrate how vividly the story remained seared in the minds of  local people.

Ruby Huff’s essay was part of the Works Projects Administration’s (WPA) historical research on Covington County, Mississippi. My thanks to Ed Payne for suggesting that I reprint it on Renegade South. The section that describes the location of “Deserters’ Den” appears below in italics.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

“A Skirmish – Cavalry versus Deserters – Where in Newt Knights men raid Lowrey’s Raiders”

By Mrs. Ruby Huff

After the 20 Negro Act was passed, by the Confederacy, the men, to whom fighting (in so one side a struggle as the Civil War was) was abominable and seemingly very un-called for, became rebellious; therefore, after the damnable siege and slaughter at Vicksburg many officers, privates and younger recruits left the lines of battle to join a rank of men, who dare to rebel; these rebels were termed deserters, at many points in the south these men had haunts suitable for protection; because of this act of their desertion at so critical a period in the struggle enraged higher officers to the extent that orders were given to the cavalry to bring the men back or shoot them dead in their tracks.

Many skirmishes and drives were staged in Jones and Covington Counties because the notorious deserter leader, Newt Knight and his cohorts lived near the boundaries of these counties and the most outstanding hide out or secret haunt intersects the boundary between the two counties; this historical land mark (unorthodox) is known as Deserters’ Den Lake and is situated about .5 mile east of Leaf River (Reddoch’s Ferry) Bridge south of Highway 84; to the general public this unique natural feature is unknown, but in its course of time many a weird tale, many a heart rending sob and much beautiful bravery has centered around this particular protector.  The lake is situated so the entrance faced the old Reddoch’s Ferry, another mark of history now so contritely in the background.

While in the reminiscent trend let me retell of a skirmish or drive that marked quite a turning point in General Lowrey’s * dare-devil squad of Cavalry men.

In May of ’65, the Cavalry under the leadership of General Lowery * decided to break camp at Jimmy Knight’s old mill which was located on the Etahoma part of Big Creek above Gitano, to gain trail back toward Raleigh, the County seat of Smith where a Confederate Divisional Headquarter and a hospital (now Harrison Hotel) were located; in order to get to Raleigh from their location in Jones, they had to sallie forth to Reddoch’s Ferry, be ferried across Leaf River, then cross Cohay at the old Jackson Trail Ford near Hot Coffee (bridge now in construction at the point on U.S. Highway #35).

The Cavalry had done much harm while encamped at the old mill in the way of robbing helpless widows of their last bit of “grub”, chasing down and slaying innocent men who knew nothing of the Deserters, too, of unmercifully hanging and slaying the Deserters without so much as giving them a chance to return to service or make explanation.  This had enraged the Deserter Crew, so much that when the signal was given that Lowery’s bunch was crossing the ferry about fifty Deserters, who knew the lay of the land quite well, slipped hurriedly through the old Jackie Knight’s home field, swam to Cohay and rushed into secreted hiding places in and around the old Ford and when the tramp, tramp of the weary men in uniform about a thousand strong, neared the banks and ventured into the water one brave Deserter hollered “Newt here they air”, at which signal the Deserters shook the bushes and dispersed tumultuously into a panic and simultaneously Newt fired a few wild shots, the “rookus” was, so unexpected and so riotous the 1000 strong Cavalry did pretty much like ole’ sis’ cow in Uncle Remus’ tales “dey hist deir tales and away dey flewd.”

Sometimes this spirit of the South, gets so unsouthy as to want to clap my hands and say three cheers for the most daring troop that ever tramped the Southern soil—the Deserters

“The Deserters”

The Deserters, were men, honest good and true, men, who liked to live and let live as well as I or you.  Men, who were hounded in chase, like creatures of the lower animal race.  No home, no church, no school could withhold, The Cavalry from those ill-treated pioneers out in the cold.  So refuge these much abused citizens did take, in the protecting arms of Mother Nature’s (Deserters’ Den) Lake.

*Huff was referring to Col. Robert Lowry

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“The Collins and McLaurin Families: Diverging Paths in the Piney Woods”

Ed Payne, a frequent guest blogger on Renegade South, will present his original research on two Scottish families, the Collins and the McLaurins, at the Covington County Genealogical & Historical Society at 10:00 a.m, February 19, at the Depot in Seminary, MS. 

Ed will discuss the separate economic paths taken by these two families of Scottish ancestry. The Collins and Mclaurin families arrived in the United States in the late 18th century and lived in the Carolinas. When the Mississippi territory opened to settlement in the early 1800s, both families resided for a brief period in Wayne County but eventually moved further west into the Piney Woods region.

Those who have read Ed Payne’s articles and Renegade South posts, or attended his numerous presentations in the Jones County area, know that his commitment to meticulous research and judicious analysis assures an event well worth attending! Guests are welcome.

For more information, click here

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Recently, I received an email message from Richard A. Jermyn, Jr., whose great-great grandfather and great grandfather both participated in Confederate Col. Robert Lowry’s raid on the Unionist/deserter stronghold of Jones County, Mississippi, during the Civil War.

The Jermyn family was from Handsboro and Mississippi City of Coastal Mississippi, where James Jermyn was actively engaged in trade between Mississippi City and New Orleans. “Mobile, the Mississippi Coast, and New Orleans,” writes descendant Richard Jermyn, “were intimately tied together via coastal shipping, . . . . Handsboro and Mississippi City were centers of commerce in the region up to the Civil War.” Great-great grandfather James, “born in Yarmouth, England, was a cabin boy on a British ship, jumped ship in New Orleans at the age of nine years old, fought in the Mexican war, eventually settled in Handsboro/Mississippi City as a schooner/packet boat captain, and was enlisted [in the Confederate Army] for the duration of the Civil War.” (1)

 In spring 1861, James Jermyn enlisted in Co. E of the 20th Mississippi Infantry (“Adams Rifles” of Harrison County), which was later joined with the 6th Mississippi Regiment to quell unrest in the Jones County region of the state. Later, his son, Robert Alfred Jermyn, enlisted in the same company. I find it particularly interesting that the father and son participated in the Lowry raid as regular soldiers, and thus might have offered a different perspective on events than the two officers, Col. Lowry of the 6th Miss. Reg’t., and Col. William N. Brown of the 20th Miss. Inf., who also provided eye-witness accounts.  

Alas, despite the fact that James Jermyn’s narrative diary survived the war, and despite a note that he wrote to his wife Samantha from Knight’s Mill on May 5, 1864 (just following the Lowry raid), James provided few details about the raid itself.  What he does provide, however, is possibly the only written day-by-day description of the men’s movements during the course of that raid. For those details alone, the diary of James Jermyn is invaluable. (2)  Portions of that diary are reproduced below, with original spelling and punctuation left intact.

 On April 14, James Jermyn wrote:

Left camp near Raleigh [Smith Co., MS] at 11 a.m. marched 12 miles and rested about 2 hours and then Scouted all night.

On April 15, he reported that his unit had

Stopped at Mr. Rob’t Hawthorn’s at sunrise and slept in the Ginroom till 12M when we marched to the Leaf River and crossed at Mr. Blackwell’s and marched to Knight’s Mills & Bivouaked Dist 8 miles.

At that point, the two units were amid deserters. All three of the above surnames—Hawthorn (Hathorn), Blackwell, and Knight—may be found among men listed on Newt Knight’s roster.

On the 17th, James wrote in somewhat unclear language that Co. E had

Left camp near Knight’s Mills and deployed as Skirmishers & drove Black Creek to the mouth crossed Tallahoma creek and marched about 3 mile and Bivouaked at night.

On April 18, he wrote, the men

Left at sunrise deployed skirmishers and drove the rest of Tallahoma & Tallahala Creeks and then marched to Ellisville and rested until 4AM.

On April 19,

Left Ellisville at Daylight marched 3 miles and then deployed skirmishers. Skirmished about 10 miles up Tallahala and then marched 8 miles to Mile’s Mills & Bivoaked.

On April 20,

Left Mile’s Mills at Sunrise and marched 7 miles and Bivoaked at Copeland’s Mills at 11 A.M. and marched 16 miles crossed Bogohoma and Bivoaked near Mr. Williamson’s place.

On April 25,

Left our Bivoak at Sunrise and marched about 5 miles S.E. and rested till 4 P.M. when we marched back to Tallahala and guarded the Fords and foot logs & Bridges and drove the swamps with dogs marched in all about 21 miles sweeping Bogohoma 3 or 4 times.

On April 26,

Left our posts on Tallahala and marched about 2 miles and Bivoaked about 1 mile from the Widow P(?)ouilk’s Place.

On April 27,

Left our Bivoak at 10 A.M. marched a 10 miles and Bivoaked near Wm Hodges farm in the N.W. corner of Wayne County.

On April 28,

Left our Bivoak at 10 A.M. marched a____mile and deployed as Skirmishers and Skirmished 8 miles in the Forks to Thompson’s Creeks then marched 4 miles and Bivoaked at dark on Little Thompson Creek near the Bridges.

On April 29,

Left Bivoak at 12 a.m. marched 1 mile and deployed as Skirmishers and Skirmished 8 miles and then marched 4 miles down the Creek and Bivoaked in Perry County.

On April 30,

Started at Sunrise and marched____miles and Bivoaked near Mr. Finche’s in Wayne County.

On May 1,    

Left our Bivoak at 8 a.m. marched 3 miles South deployed as Skirmishers, Skirmished ___ miles then marched 4 miles & Bivoaked at Henderson’s Farm in Green County.

Finally, the skirmishes ended. On May 2, Jermyn reported, we

left our Bivoak at 7 a.m. and marched 25 miles and Bivoaked at night at Mr. Wm. McGillberries on Bogohoma Jones County.

On May 4,

Left our Bivoak at Mr. McGillberries at 6 ½ a.m. and marched to Tallahala Creek by 12 Rested 2 hours At 2 P.M. Marched to Ellisville and out on Raleigh road 6 miles & Bivoaked. Dist 31 miles.

On May 5,

Started at Daylight and marched to Knights Mills by 10 a.m. Dist 10 miles.

It was on this date that James Jermyn wrote the following words to his wife, Samantha, in which he surely referred to the Jones County raid when he alluded to “very arduous duty,” but now believed that “prospects look brighter than they have for a long time”:

Dear Wife, I added these few lines to you informing you that I am enjoying a reasonable position of good health, and hope this will meet you enjoying the same blessing. Since I last wrote to you we have been performing very arduous duty from which we have just arrived at camp. I have not received a letter from you since the 4th or 5th of March last. I have no news to write you of interest though our prospects look brighter than they have for a long time and hope this year will bring about peace. Alfred is well I expect he will write to you. All the rest of the boys are in good health. Give my love to all. Write to me the first opportunity you have and believe me your ever Affectionate Husband, James Jermyn. (3)

On May 7,

left Knights Mills at 7 a.m. and marched 26 miles to Bivouac 1 mile north of Tallahala.

On May 8,

Started at Daylight passed through Paulding at 7 A.M. and Bivoucked at 5 ½ miles from Enterprise at 5 P.M. Dist 20 miles.

On May 9, James Jermyn reported that Co E,  20th Miss. Inf., had left Mississippi for Alabama:

Started at Daylight and marched to Enterprise at 12 M left on the Rail Road from Maridian—here shifted cars and left Maridian [Meridian] at 4 P.M. on the Ala & Miss Rail road and arrived at Bigbee River at 10 P.M. went up the river about 4 miles on the Steamer Marengo, and landed at the Parole Camps near Demopolis Alabama and Bivoucked.

Although James Jermyn reported his health as “good,” and their son Alfred as “well,” to his wife on May 5, 1864, the war took a great toll on both. According to Richard, his great grandfather (Alfred) “lost all of his toes to frostbite—because of no shoes—and was said could not wear shoes again.” James Jermyn died during the year following the war.

Richard Jermyn offers this speculation about his ancestors’ war experiences:

My personal/general feeling is that the people of Coastal Mississippi who fought in that war, were thoroughly whipped, felt that the war’s intense suffering and misery—marching, hunger, cold, capture, exchange, fighting, disease, sickness, death, exhaustion, etc.—for what seemed like forever, was all for naught, and they were not particularly proud of some of the things that they did or witnessed and they didn’t really want to talk about it. They were proud that they served—that they didn’t suffer the embarrassment of having shirked their duty. Although the Mississippi Coast had small amounts of slavery, most of the men who fought were simply fighting because it was expected for the men to do their duty. It was said that the women would have nothing to do with deserters or men who avoided their service duty.

Of course, many of the Piney Woods men who refused to serve the Confederacy believed themselves to be the South’s true patriots—and their women supported them, too. When one moves beyond issues of loyalty and motive, however, one sees Southern as well as American men caught in a brutal civil war that pitted them against one another, and which brought lasting destruction and poverty to the South. 

The words of author Lionel F. Baxter, whose grandfather, Marion Francis Baxter (also from Handsboro, MS), likewise served in Co. E of the 20th Miss. Inf. during Col. Robert Lowry’s raid on Jones County, capture well the grisly nature of guerrilla warfare. In his 1977 biography of his grandfather, based on extensive research in the National Archives, Baxter wrote that Jones County deserters were “as ruthless a pack of bushwhackers as any found in the border states.” Still, he pointed out, Capt. Wm. B. Thompson of Co. H, 6th Miss. Reg’t., was “appalled by the sight” of the hanging of four young men who were court-martialed by Col. Lowry after they “shot into our troops” (p. 87). (4)

Whether privates or officers, probably few Confederate soldiers would have objected to executing deserters who shot at them from the swamps. Capt. Thompson’s misgivings, however, reflected the raw, personal nature of home front battles. According to Lionel Baxter, his grandfather Marion had “similar reservations” as did Thompson about the inner civil war in Piney Woods Mississippi that spring of 1864. As he looked back on his unit’s hanging of a group of deserters that included a boy of 16 (Baxter’s own age), he concluded that “it was a mistake to have hanged that boy as undoubtedly he was led into that kind of life by the older men” (p. 87). As Lionel Baxter noted, this was the “seamy, unromantic side of warfare” (p. 88).

My deep thanks to Richard Jermyn for sharing precious family documents with Renegade South!

Vikki Bynum

1. Email, Richard A. Jermyn, 23 Dec. 2010, to Victoria Bynum.

2. “The Sojourns of James Jermyn During the War Against the Southern Confederacy, 1861 to 1864,” Transcribed copy of diary by David T. Hale, Biloxi, Mississippi, April 1995. Copy provided to Victoria Bynum, moderator of Renegade South, by Richard A. Jermyn, Jr.

3.  Excerpt from letter by James Jermyn, 5 May 1864. In a letter to one of his daughters, James added this note to his wife, Samantha (Email from Richard A. Jermyn, Jr., 3 Jan. 2011, to Victoria Bynum).

4. The War Service of Marion Francis Baxter, C.S.A, by Lionel Francis Baxter & John Medders, published by John W. Baxter.

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by Vikki Bynum


Over the past few years, the following passage from the 1938 book, Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State, has prompted several folks to write me at Renegade South:

On February 2, 1864, [B.J.] Rushton was shot through the door of his cabin by Babe White, a member of the Newt Knight band. (p. 448)

So, who was Babe White? His name does not appear on any rosters of Newt Knight’s band of Confederate army deserters that I’ve ever seen. Did he nonetheless run with the Knight Company? To try and answer that question, I’ve been researching this alleged outlaw and the crowd of thieves and rustlers he hung out with.

In 1936, the White family of the Myrick region of Jones County was remembered by at least two residents of that area —B. A. Boutwell and Jim Bingham Walters— as having comprised the core of a post-Civil War band of outlaws well known for its wide-ranging horse thieving and cattle rustling.

In separate interviews conducted by employees of the Federal Writers’ Project.* Boutwell and Walters told essentially the same story. On September 21, 1936, in an essay entitled “Early Horse Thieves and Cattle Rustlers,” an unnamed  WPA interviewer wrote the following, based on what she or he had learned from Boutwell:

Jones County, like all other early settled counties of pioneer days, had its horse thieves and cattle rustlers. The most notorious and conspicuous of these and by far the most active in plying the nefarious traffic, were men by the name of Obe Lyons and Dorsen [Dawson] Holly, and also the White brothers, Bud and Babe, and a lady by the name of Sussie [Susie].

Boutwell’s memories open the door to historical verification. Both Obe Lyons (Lynes, Lines) and Dawson Holly appear in the federal manuscript censuses, and so also does the White family, though I have thus far been unable  to find members named either “Bud,” or  “Babe,” which were likely nicknames. Susie, however, appears in the 1860 census as the wife of Samuel W. White, identified in a WPA essay on the community of Myrick as a member of the same outlaw band.

In December, 1936, Jim Bingham Walters told interviewer Addie West that “the Dawson Holly ring was the most notorious in this section.” Holly’s “big swamp pasture in the Tallahalla Creek swamp” was used to “recondition” stolen stock before selling them off. Walters identified the “White brothers, Sam, Fate, and Van,  . . .  together with the wives of Sam and Van (Susie and Mandy, who were sisters)” as members of the Dawson Holly ring.

I was excited to discover both Susie and Mandy in the federal manuscript census of 1860, each one living with the brother they were reported as married to. Furthermore, the two White families lived in the same vicinity as B. J. Rushton, the man that “Babe” White allegedly murdered.  In 1860, Rushton was a 45-year farmer who claimed $1000 in real estate and $14,275 in personal estate (mostly slaves). Five households away was O.E. Rushton, a 25-year-old “jug maker” who was likely the son of the elder Rushton. Only seven households from that of the younger Rushton was that of W. H. White, age 60, and his wife Mary. Their son, Martin Van, and his apparent wife, Amanda (Mandy) lived with them.  Brother Sam, age 28, headed his own household, seventeen households away from B. J. Rushton’s. He lived with his 27-year-old wife, Susan (Susie), and their son, John C., age 8.

Given the proximity of the Rushton and White families, and the Whites’s reputation as outlaws, it’s not hard to imagine the circumstances in which the murder of B. J. Rushton probably occurred.  According to Boutwell, the outlaws lived east of where the city of Laurel is today, on Boguehoma Creek. Around 1870, he said,

these people would visit over the county and surrounding counties and gather up horses, and cattle and drive them to an isolated pasture on upper Boguehoma where they would keep them and fatten them up and hold them until such time as they could drive them off to some distant market where they would dispose of them for cash.

Then, as now, organized crime activity created dangerous social conditions for all who lived nearby. “This band of rustlers,” Boutwell told his interviewer, “had a president who directed other members of the gang and sent them out on searches for stock.” Jim Walters provided Addie West with a similar description of the same band’s mode of operation. Identifying the gang’s leader as Dawson Holly, Walters described him as “glib of tongue, fleet of foot and pretty sharp.” Holly, he said “served as sort of a counselor” among the thieves. “His big swamp pasture in the Tallahala Creek swamp was used to recondition poor stock” before selling it.

According to Boutwell, citizens organized to protect themselves against this type of robbery. He described how “more active members” of the gangs were watched by “vigilant citizens” determined to  protect themselves against the thieves. Perhaps the Rushtons were among those citizens who armed themselves for protection and struggled to bring down the rustlers by whatever means necessary.

It may have been during one such struggle that Babe White killed Bennet Rushton. Neither Boutwell not Walters mentions such a murder, but both claim that one of the outlaw sisters was killed, presumably by vigilantes. Boutwell’s words were vague; he commented only that “in a manner of which I am unable to ascertain, Sussie was killed.”  Walters was much more specific and identified the murdered sister as Mandy rather than Susie. And Mandy, he made clear, was herself a full-fledged outlaw:

The men would bunch the horses and Mandy would run them through the swamps to some market.

Walters further emphasized to West that there was no honor among the thieves:

One time Mandy carried Dave Blackledge’s mare to Newton and sold her and at the same time she took a fine horse that belonged to Daws Holly’s daughter, Elizabeth, and it was a great joke to everybody.

We get a clear image of post-Civil War outlaw gangs from these WPA narratives. Although the facts are not always accurate, the scenes of theft and mayhem probably are, at least in a general sense. Still, narratives such as these—which were often memories passed from one generation to another—easily result in a mangling of the truth. Boutwell, for example, thought Susie had been killed; Walters said it was her sister Mandy. And what about that sentence in the quotation above, that “Mandy carried Dave Blackledge’s mare to Newton”? I believe that Jim Walters and Addie West were referring to the TOWN of Newton, Mississippi, but might someone else reading that sentence have concluded that they were referring to Newton Knight? With Newt Knight’s reputation as a Civil War outlaw, it would be all too easy to then conflate his band of men with the Dawson Holly Ring. And might that be how Babe White came to be described as a member of Newt Knight’s band of men?

Memories—and narratives about others’ memories—provide a rich source of information about the past. But memories should not be confused with facts, of which historians often have far fewer than even they would like to admit. And so it is that much of what actually happened in the past remains in dispute and ever will. Ironically, if we remember that we only rarely know exactly what happened in a long passed event, and that one person’s eye-witness memory may differ radically from another’s, we can move much closer to understanding the truths of the past—as distinct from the “facts.”


* During the 1930s, old folks’ memories about slavery, the Civil War, and the era of Reconstruction were collected in interviews carried out by the Federal Writers’ Project, a component of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), created during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. Many of those interviews have been published in various collections (most notably the ex-slave narratives), but most ended up as loose papers filed away in state archives. In Mississippi, these unpublished WPA records are organized by county and subdivided by topic.


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Note from Moderator: Jonathan Odell has given me permission to reprint the following essay.  For more of Jon’s creative writings, visit him at http://jon-odell.com/




Rachel Knight: Slave, White Man’s Mistress and Mother to a Movement”

by Jonathan Odell


Rachel’s Children

I can’t help but think of the Old Testament Abraham when I hear stories about Newt Knight. Both men sired children by a wife and a slave. In Newt’s case it was Serena and Rachel. With Abraham, Sara and Hagar. According to religious texts, one of these women went on to become the matriarch of God’s chosen people. Exactly which one depends on what you happen to be reading, your Bible or your Koran. Jews and Christians claim the wife Sarah and Muslims claim the handmaiden Hagar. Several Crusades were launched trying to settle thatmatter.

In Jones County, there’s always been a fierce crusade of competing stories about Rachel, the white account versus the black account. Like most stories, the white interpretation gets written down and called history, while the black story gets handed down by word-of-mouth and called folklore.

Growing up as a white boy, I swore by Ethel Knight’s written-down version. According to her, Rachel was a light-skinned temptress with blue-green eyes and flowing chestnut hair. But evil as the day is long. Ethel alternately calls her a vixen, a witch, a conjure woman, a murderer and a strumpet.

Serena, Newt’s white wife, is but an innocent captive, forced a gunpoint to live in this den of iniquity, and like Newt, powerless as Rachel’s sorcery wrecked and degraded their family.

As a child of Jim Crow, this narrative satisfied my budding sensibilities about race. In my white-bubble world, there could never be any possibility of true love or affection between a white man and a black woman. Nor would any white man sire children by a black woman and then choose to live amongst his mixed-race offspring. Unless of course, the black woman had either seduced him unmercifully or mysteriously conjured him, or both. It just wasn’t possible that he actually loved her, or her children.

Imagine my surprise when I heard, as they say, “the rest of the story.” It was as shocking as sitting down in church and listening to the preacher get up and declare from the pulpit that Abraham’s birthright went to Hagar’s kid Ishmael, instead of Sarah’s son, Isaac, and it was we Christians who were the infidels!  Boy would that turn some peoples world upside down!

I felt something akin to this when I listened to a gathering of Rachel’s descendents tell me their side of things.  First of all Rachel wasn’t some immoral viper. To Pat and Flo and Peggy, Rachel was a role model—a strong black woman with no legitimate authority in a racist society, doing what needed to be done for her children, regardless of the cost to herself. Somebody you would like your daughter to grow up like.

“Was she the green-eyed slave with long flowing hair like Ethel said?” I asked.

“She was what we called a Guinea Negro,” answered Yvonne, another of Rachael’s great-grandchildren. “That means she was dark, not light-skinned like Ethel writes. She had course hair and she was short. Similar to Australian aborigines. She was mixed, but not white-looking.”

It was beginning to sound like a white conspiracy against Rachel, but then Yvonne let me in on a little secret. Whites weren’t the only ones who liked the story of Rachel appearing white. “That’s the way some of my cousins who pass for white want her to be depicted. They deny that they had any black in them so they don’t want Rachel to be black, either.”

“That was partially Newt’s fault,” Yvonne continued. “My mother said that Newt was trying to cleanse the black out of Rachel’s children. Because of the one-drop rule, he wanted to get rid of that drop of black blood. That’s why he married his white children to each other black children.” Yvonne grins at her relatives around the table. “As for me, I proudly claim my one drop!”

There is a burst of laughter. All these women agree on that point.

“And how about the part about being Rachel being a vixen and a witch?” I asked.

“It was always assumed that the slave was to blame for the husband’s indiscretions,” Yvonne explained. “She had to have some special power over him. It couldn’t be that he cared for her.”

Yvonne was right. That’s what I was always told. Slave owners were mostly noble men and succumbed only when mightily tempted. Why else would Newt isolate himself from his community and willingly be labeled as a deviate if he weren’t bewitched?

“In my family we believe that Newt really loved Rachel,” Pat said.

“It was not a casual relationship,” Yvonne added. “And he loved all of his children. My understanding is that they were all raised up on the same land. They all lived together, played together, ate together. My grandmother was Newt’s granddaughter, said she didn’t know she had a drop of black blood until she was all raised up.”

“I guess you can’t believe everything you read,” I said. “How do the black Knights feel about Ethel’s book?”

“My grandfather was Warren Smith,” Yvonne said, “He was Rachel’s grandson and he said that Ethel’s book was a pack of lies.  Said she was smart enough to create an entertaining account of Newt and Rachel’s relationship. But unfortunately,” Yvonne concluded, “white people tend to believe every word.”

Yvonne was right. I sure did. But now I’m not sure what to think. Rachel’s people have got me thoroughly confused. That’s what happens when folks start messing with the stories you were raised on.

So it comes down to that old, nagging question once more—which story is true? The truth is…I don’t know. I think they all might be. The way a story shapes a person is the truest thing there is.

The Italians say it better: All stories are true. Some even happened.

Gregory “Butch” Knight

There is probably no sadder task in the world than trying to get to know your father after he has died. Yet Butch Knight told me that was something he was determined to do.

I first met Butch at a gathering of the Knights who proudly trace their roots back to the ex-slave Rachel and the infamous Newt. Some of their descendants are called “black Knights”. Some are called “white black Knights”, because of their Caucasian features. Their history is complex. They are caught right in the crosshairs of our absurd national obsession with color.

For instance, Butch’s father, Hayston Knight, was the great-grandson of Newt and Rachel Knight. Butch showed me a photo of his father. There was nothing in the picture that would cause me to think this man black. His features were of a light-skinned, fine-boned white man. Butch said many of the Knights with his father’s appearance were encouraged to leave the area so they could pass for white, and raise their children as white. Of course they could never return home, lest their children discover their ancestry. The break had to be complete. Those who stayed were pressured into choosing marriage partners with their shade of pigmentation or lighter. Never darker.

“Not my father,” Butch recalled. “He said that foolishness was going to stop with him. He said he wanted to marry the blackest woman he could find. He was going to break the cycle.”

Butch said his father never denied who he was. On his first day in the army, Hayston’s sergeant ordered all the whites in one line and all the blacks in another. When Hayston placed himself with the other black soldiers, the sergeant shouted, “Didn’t you hear me? I said, only the n______’s over there!”

Hayston said defiantly, “Well, I guess I’m in the right place because I’m a n______!”

In the 1950’s Hayston got a job with a local grocery wholesaler and because of his intelligence and his white appearance was given significant responsibility in managing the operation. He was also put in charge of breaking in the new white trainees, who were inevitably promoted over Hayston. The family believed that the stress and the humiliation sent him to an early grave.

“My daddy wasn’t proud. He could have passed,” Butch says. “I wanted to write about my father. How he had to live in the black world and work in the white world.”

Butch admits being ashamed of his father while he was alive, seeing one white man after the other promoted over him. And his father never talked back.

“I admire him now,” Butch admits, with tears in his eyes. “He did it for us, his children. So he could support his family.”

“I’m starting to understand the struggle he had to go through,” Butch continued, “Not white enough to be accepted by whites. And too white to be accepted by blacks.”

I encouraged Butch to write about his father, as I’m doing with my dad after losing him last year to cancer. Sometimes it’s a lonely undertaking, with many ghosts, especially those missed moments when feelings went forever unspoken. But writing it down seems to help soothe the grief.

I didn’t need to encourage him. Butch had already begun the research. He even went so far as to sit down with Ethel Knight, the author of Echo of the Black Horn, to see what he could learn from her about his father.

“What did you think about her book?” I asked.

“Lies,” he said, referring to the way she denied the black descendants of Newt Knight in her book. “But when I went to see her, she treated me like long lost kin. It was very strange.”

I offered to work with Butch on his father’s biography. I could tell he was feeling some sense of urgency. Then he explained. Butch’s father died when he was 58. “An aneurism. Runs in family,” Butch said. “Comes from both sides.” Butch went on to say that this year, he had turned 58.  “I’m shaking in my boots.” His sisters who were present that day assured Butch that wouldn’t be the case for him. Butch didn’t appear comforted. I got the sense that he thought he might have waited until it was too late to discover the truth about his father.

Butch and I agreed to meet the next time I was in Mississippi and continue our discussion about his dad.  I put together a list of questions for Butch and was excited about dedicating a chapter in my upcoming book about his search for his father. When I called from Minnesota to arrange a meeting, his sister answered the phone.

“Butch died last month,” she said. “He collapsed while he was out mowing his yard.”

I wasn’t sure why that hit me so hard. In a way, it was like losing my father all over again. Perhaps I had hoped that by helping Butch discover his dad, in the process, I could also become closer to mine.
But that’s not to be. Perhaps, in the end, that is something a person can do only for himself. And maybe, looking for our fathers is like looking for our reflection in a mirror that has gone dim. We can never get close enough to make it out.

I’ll miss my friend, and I hope that where he is now, the reflection he gazes upon is bright and true, and he has found the answers was searching for.

For more columns on the Knights, white and black, see:

Newt Knight: Emperor Of The Free State Of Jones

White Negro Communities: Too White To Be Black And Too Black To Be White

By Jon Odell

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