Guest columnist Gary B. Sanders, who is kin to the Sanders family of Montgomery and Randolph Counties of North Carolina, has ancestors on both sides of the U.S./Confederate divide. Here, Gary tells the story of his great, great, grand uncle, Joseph Sanders of Jackson County, Alabama, who was murdered during the Civil War on account of his Unionist views.
Vikki Bynum, Moderator
Confederate-Unionist Conflict in Jackson County, Alabama: The Murder of “Uncle Joe” Sanders, 1863
By Gary B. Sanders
Jackson County, Alabama, lies in the northeast Alabama hill country, near the Tennessee border, a region of yeoman farmers who were only reluctantly persuaded to join the Confederacy in 1861. As the war progressed and the fortunes of the Confederacy waned, there was a breakdown in social control in such counties, often leading to guerrilla warfare, revenge killings, and general lawlessness. The story of the murder of the elderly Joseph Sanders on April 10, 1863 on his own farm in Jackson County was one such incident, briefly mentioned in newspapers of the time but long remembered by Joseph’s descendants as they passed down the family tradition of their ancestor who died a martyr to his loyalty to the Union. As always with such stories, embellishments along the way and varying renditions of the event may not reflect what actually happened. A closer look at the life and death of Joseph Sanders, however, may help us understand the disrupting impact of the Civil War on life in Jackson County.
Scene from Jackson County, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Gary B. Sanders
Joseph Sanders was born in 1793, in Randolph County, North Carolina, the son of Joseph and Rebecca Sanders. The elder Joseph, a Revolutionary War patriot, died in 1803 and made provision in his will that if any of his children became orphaned before they came or age or were married that they should be apprenticed to Quakers. This provision of the will never took effect, as all the children were married within six years of their father’s death. Five of senior Joseph’s seven children married children or grandchildren of Isaac Saunders of Randolph County, who, according to DNA tests of his descendants, was not related to Joseph at all. This close relationship between these two unrelated Sanders lines has baffled genealogical researchers among their descendants, but it helped to cement family ties and loyalties whenever descendants of Isaac and Joseph moved from North Carolina.
The younger Joseph was the last of his siblings to marry when he wed Martha Sanders on August 21, 1809 in Randolph County. In the late 1820s, Joseph and Martha, their large family of children, and many of their relatives moved to Jackson County, Alabama. As the Cherokee and other Indian groups were pushed further west, the northeast Alabama region along the Tennessee River became a prime destination for white settlement. Joseph bought land in Jackson County in 1831 and farmed there the rest of his life. Many of his Sanders cousins also moved to Jackson County as did his brother George and his brothers-in-law Francis Sanders and Benjamin Sanders, along with their numerous families.
During the late 1830s, Martha died, and Joseph began seeking a new wife. He re-married about 1838 to Deborah Saunders who was another granddaughter of Isaac Saunders of Randolph County. One of the descendants of Joseph’s second marriage, Lottie Kingery Hoge, later wrote of Deborah,
I don’t know how she first got acquainted with my Alabama grandfather, Mr. Joseph Sanders, but she went to Alabama and they were married. He was much older than her for he had been married before and had 12 children, most of them grown and married, probably at ages of 14-16. I don’t know when they [Joseph and Deborah] were married but probably about 1838 for their oldest son was born about 1840. That was Uncle Henry.
Joseph and Deborah had three children together before she died about 1854. Joseph married for the third time on November 11, 1860 to a widow, Mahala Harper Shelton of Jackson County. The 1860 census list Joseph as age sixty seven with personal property worth $1500 and real estate worth $1500. While he was not a wealthy man, these assets were enough to indicate his farm was prosperous by the standards of the time. Joseph Sanders, by 1860, was the acknowledged patriarch of the Jackson County Sanders. Nearly everyone called him “Uncle Joe,” regardless of whether he was actually an uncle, cousin, granduncle, or some other relative. In fact, nearly every Sanders in the county was related to him, in some cases as double cousins.
When the Civil War began, the citizens of Jackson County were split far more evenly in loyalty than in most southern counties. There were few large slave owners in the county and many residents were subsistence farmers who had little regard for the institution of slavery. In 1850 only one man named Sanders in the county owned slaves. Nevertheless, there was still substantial support for the Confederacy, and those who refused to accept secession were regarded as traitors by those who supported the Rebel cause. Although too old to serve as a soldier, Joseph Sanders remained loyal to the national government and his sons and many of his nephews and grand nephews joined the Union Army.
The conflicting loyalties in northeast Alabama created a very chaotic and lawless situation in which it is often difficult to determine the motivations of the people involved. Confederate and Union armies moved back and forth across the county, as did bands of deserters, often with no loyalty to either side. Murders, shootings, and acts of violence were commonplace toward the end of the war. “Uncle Joe” Sanders was killed in one of these incidents in 1863 while at his farm at Mud Creek.
The following letter by Louie Richard Davis of Texas was written to friends in Scottsboro, Alabama, July 24, 1974, and was published in Sanders Siftings, July 2000, p. 1:
I know you have some information on the Sanders that was killed by bushwhackers. I have heard a story here in Texas passed down through generations (may have changed some). One of the Sanders, close relation to Phoebe was caught off guard while plowing in a field by bushwhackers. They took him and his horse to the top of a hill and made the Sanders dig a grave. Then the bushwhackers killed both man and horse and buried both in the grave with the legs of the horse sticking up out of the grave. This is some tale and may not be exactly true but is what I have heard. [This Phoebe was the daughter of Joseph’s sister Mary and her husband Benjamin Sanders. Louis Davis was a descendant of Phoebe.-gs]
Other accounts of the killing differ somewhat in the details. A second version was e-mailed to me in 2007 by Bob Dean, a descendant of Rebecca Sanders, Joseph’s niece:
Mud Creek is located north of Scottsboro, and there is a cave there, the one that we have always known as Blowing Cave. Joseph Sanders patented 80 acres of land in 1831 that contained this cave. I will tell you the story told [to] me as close as I can remember it. It is not exactly like the story that we have heard before but close.
Bob’s informant, John Dolberry, owned the Mud Creek property that belonged to Joseph Sanders and he remembered listening to his grandmother talk about the murder many times when he was a child. His grandmother was the daughter of John Sanders, a son of Mary Sanders, Joseph’s sister, and her husband Benjamin Sanders. In his conversation with Bob Dean, John Dolberry pointed to the cove behind the house and said they hanged Joseph
back in the cove at the foot of the mountain on a big mulberry tree. It had a big limb that ran out and then turned up. His grandmother said that was the limb that they hung Joseph on. He was hanged by southerners who thought he was giving help to the Yankees. There were three of the rebels, one a neighbor by the name of Barbee. After killing him they left with a horse they were using as a pack mule to carry, I suppose, the things that they had taken. After they killed Joseph, they left, leading their horse. That evening, not long after the rebels left, a group of Yankees came down out of the mountain and went after the rebels. They caught up with them near the foot of the mountain close to the old Moody Brick. The Yankees killed the horse and made the men dig a grave for it. When the grave was dug, they killed the men, put them in the hole and rolled the horse in on top of them. This could be the story of putting Joseph in the grave with the horse on top of him and the horse with its legs sticking up.
They [Joseph’s family] buried Uncle Joe and there were four cedar posts put at the corners of his grave. These were moved after somebody in Texas had the marker put in. [This grave marker was erected in the 1990s.-gs]. The mulberry tree was there for a long time; it had a limb that stuck out and turned up. That was the limb upon which they hanged Uncle Joe.
His [great] grandmother sat over there with the body until someone came to help get him to the house. So, apparently he was not killed where he was buried. But the fact that he was buried there would seem to indicate that he lived there.
Bob concludes, “It may be as close to eyewitness information as we can get even though his information did not come directly from someone that was there. It did come in a direct line from someone that was a witness to the events. I’m sure that the story is not without flaws, mistakes, and bad memory but may be as close to the truth as we’ll ever get.”
More detail about the identity of the men who killed Joseph Sanders is found in a January 27, 2004 posting on the Sanders Ancestry.com forum by Don E. Schaefer, editor of Sanders Siftings, and a descendant of Benjamin Sanders who married Joseph Sanders’ sister Mary:
Here is some information about the Joseph Sanders (1793-1863) often referred to as Joseph, Jr.:
Concerning the murder of Joseph Sanders, this is what I have picked up from several sources. From notes in the Scottsboro library: “Joseph Sanders was taken from his home during the Civil War and was shot while on his knees by a rock because his boys were in the Union Army. Everyone called him Uncle Joe. He was shot by Jeff Barbee, Thomps Houston, and John Teeters on his farm near Mud Creek, these men were tories never served on either side during the Civil War.” Ann Barbee Chambless of Scottsboro told me that she has been searching for the real story of what happened. A brother of her great-grandfather was one of the “whippersnappers” and she can find no record of a trial. Her ancestor had a record of an estate settlement about that time. Possibly some vigilante justice or Union troops took care of things, without leaving a record. With the lack of a trial or record, I guess many versions of what happened cropped up, slanted to whatever a person’s sympathies were during and after the war. Glenn (Chick) Sanders of Huntsville says that there was no marker for Joe Sanders and he and some other relatives had one put up on his grave. He also said he has been told that two of Joseph Sanders’ sons, Henry A. and John G., killed two of the men who murdered their father.
Don Schaefer’s account is based partly on the testimony of Carroll Jackson Brewer in 1876 to the Southern Claims Commission concerning the compensation claim of John Sanders, Joseph’s nephew: “James Hawkins and others searched for his uncle often and did take out him, J. Sanders who was seventy years old, they taken him out of the field when he was at work and shot him on the side of the mountain.” Carroll Jackson Brewer was married to John Sanders’ half-niece and therefore related by marriage to Joseph.
Don Schaefer also contributed some material he received from Ann Barbee Chambless who was related to one of the men who killed Joseph:
I keep hoping you will unearth the real story about the murder of Uncle Joe Sanders, even though my great grandfather’s brother was one of the three culprits. One of the older men in this county has told me the “hanging tree” still stands at the head of Mud Creek where justice was administered. I still do not know if it would be labeled “roadside justice” or as you suggested Federal troop intervention. I do know that a group of Federal troops stationed in this area took over the Barbee home for their winter quarters one year. My great-great uncle was a very young boy at the time. He lived until I was about six or seven years old, so I remember hearing him repeat stories from that time period. Of course, he never told about his brother being hung. His stories were about his father’s death just before the Civil War (died in 1860) and how another brother died of measles after enlisting in the CSA. That brother was buried at Corinth, MS. My own great grandfather was a CSA Scout and was in the Federal prison at Rock Island. Uncle Lewis told what a difficult winter he, his mother, and his older sisters had the winter they were forced to live in what had been slave quarters. That is one reason I have always been so interested in learning more about the murder of Uncle Joe Sanders and what happened to the culprits. If your Madison County contact provides you with any part of the story, please be sure to share with me.” [From Ann Barbee Chambless, the Jackson County (Ala.) Historical Association].
Although John Dolberry’s family tradition was that Joseph was hanged, the only document contemporaneous with the murder, a brief newspaper article from the Huntsville Confederate for April 23, 1863, stated that Joseph was shot: “On the same day, we learn, an old man, named Saunders, who affiliated with the Abolition Army, when they occupied Jackson county, and went off with them, but returned to depredate on the neighborhood, was shot and killed by some unknown person, on Mud Creek in that county.”
Just as we do not know for certain whether Joseph Sanders was shot or hanged (or possibly both), we have no firm documentation on what happened to the men who killed Joseph Sanders. The family tradition from John Dolberry states that the killers were slain by federal troops shortly after the murder; another account mentioned by Don Schaefer is that “vigilante justice,” possibly by Joseph’s sons, took care of the killers. Whatever may have happened during the war as the aftermath to the incident, after the war the event lived on for the most part only in the tradition of the Sanders family and their relatives. There are no records of legal investigations and no suggestion of any enduring blood feuds. Probably, for whatever reason, the murderers did not live long after the killing.
The impact of the War, of course, endured for the rest of the lives of the participants. Joseph’s widow and her stepsons appear to have quarreled over his estate. In 1874, eleven years after his death, she was given as her dowry rights a one-quarter distribution from his estate.
Three of Joseph’s sons served in the Union Army and two of them were wounded at the Battle of Nashville. When Henry, one of the sons, returned home and discovered that his young wife was pregnant, he divorced her and had nothing to do with her or the baby. He married again and eventually had eight children. Joseph’s nephew, John Sanders, returned home after serving in an Ohio Regiment and later became a justice of the peace in Jackson County. In 1876 in testimony to the Southern Claims Commission, John’s friend and relative by marriage, Carroll J. Brewer, stated that John had been a firm Union supporter even before the War:
I knew him about twenty-five years for all that time and live about three miles from him at Mainard cove, PO, Jackson county. I have heard him discuss that he could not sustain the secession principles…all of his talk with me was in the side of the union and he always voted in support… Claimant went into the Regular Federal Army and served nearly three years, and he caused nineteen men with him when he went.
The loyalty of the Sanders family of Jackson County to the Union probably had more to do with the unique political climate of the county rather than with any philosophy unique to this family. Close relatives of Joseph and his nephew John who lived outside the county often joined the Confederate Army. John Sanders himself recognized the influence of geographical location in his testimony to the Southern Claims Commission:
I have a brother said to be in the Confederate army. I did not see him [join?] Isaac Sanders, forty-four or five years of age on entering the Confederate army in Montgomery County, Arkansas. I have no influence on him. He lived in Arkansas when he joined the army. [He or I?] contributed nothing to his outfit. [He] would not of have been living here.
This may mean, possibly, that in John’s opinion Isaac would not have joined the Confederates if he had still been living in Jackson County.
In John’s testimony and in that of his neighbors, we can ascertain his intense national loyalty. We see much the same intensity in the affidavits filed in support of pension claims of the other Sanders men who fought for the Union or in testimony to the Southern Claims Commission concerning their claims for compensation for property losses during the war. With Joseph Sanders, however, the record is silent on any voiced expressions or writings he may have made in support of the Union cause. All we have as a record is his actions in encouraging his sons and neighbors to support the Union, efforts that ultimately led to his death.
John Dolberry, the descendant who still lived on Joseph Sanders’ farm as of 2007, stated that Joseph was not buried near the mulberry tree where he was killed. Instead, he was buried some distance away near where an infant child of Joseph and Deborah had been buried earlier. There may very well be other family members who are buried nearby, but no other markers are present today.
Photo courtesy of Gary B. Sanders
Originally four cedar posts were erected to mark Joseph’s grave. Later, in the early 1990s, someone erected a modern tombstone marker. Unfortunately, the dates on the new tombstone are incorrect and the name is given as Joseph B. Sanders, although there are no records that give him a middle name or initial. His real birth and death dates are 1793 and March 10, 1863, according to census records and the testimony to the Southern Claims Commission of his friend Carroll Jackson Brewer.
Joseph Sanders gravestone, photo by Gary B. Sanders
The grave is located under a tree at the end of County Road 111 in Jackson County. Local people call this site “Dolberry Hollow.” My sister and I visited the resting place of our ancestor in 2007. Today, one sees only a pastoral view of thriving fields of corn and mountain scenery. It is difficult to imagine the strife that engulfed the area at the time of Joseph Sanders’ death.
Also located across the road is the “Blowing Cave,” which is something of a local tourist attraction. A strong breeze blows from the cave, hence the name by which it has been known since before the Civil War. In her book Sanders and Bean Families: Past and Present Virginia Retan describes the Blowing Cave as follows:
Mother Nature provided an air conditioner during the terribly hot season of summer, known as the Blowing Cave. The cave was named Blowing Cave because of the cool breeze that forever flowed from the entrance in the summer and the warm breeze which flowed in the cooler months. This cave was, and is today, quite an attraction.
Inside the cave, there are many rooms. People have used the Blowing Cave many times for shelter from tornadoes and other storms. Unfortunately, many of the rooms have been washed away by great gushes of water which are known to come unexpectedly from the cave. Some people say that the end of the cave comes out in Winchester, Tennessee. Some have said that they have traveled all through the cave and it took them three or four days to reach the other side.
Photo courtesy of Gary B. Sanders
Now (1986), many groups enjoy exploring the cave, with experienced guides, of course. Scouts enjoy staying overnight there, checking out the remaining rooms of the cave. The cave is now posted and people enter at their own risk. Young couples used to take walks there on Sunday afternoons; even now in 1986, it is said there is evidence of courtships of days long ago, in the names carved on trees or scraped in the rocks at the entrance of the cave.
Although the cave is no longer open to the public (as of 2007, the time of my visit), one can still stand about several yards away and get a good view of the cave opening, and sometimes even feel the cool breeze from the cave, just as Uncle Joe Sanders and his family and friends probably used to do on hot summer days before the Civil War.
–Gary B. Sanders
Great great-grand nephew of Joseph Sanders
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