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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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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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I’m pleased to announce that Renegade South was recently listed as one of the top Civil War blogs by Onlinecourses.net! To visit the Online Courses site, simply click the certificate below.

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On September 29, 2010, the Jackson Free Press published Byron Wilkes’s review of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.  Historian/genealogist Ed Payne kindly sent me the link, which I have posted below.

After summarizing the scope and arguments of the book, Mr. Wilkes ended his review with the following remarks:

“Although Bynum discusses the “multiracial community that endures to this day” in Jones County, she makes sure to frame the narrative realistically, particularly in noting that the Knights were not outspoken abolitionists. Rather, this was simply the way they lived, astonishingly so for their era and geography.

Bynum depicts the other communities in equally intimate lights, grasping each one’s complexity while providing an analysis that brings this history to modern relevance.”

to read the entire review, click below.

http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/index.php/site/comments/things_we_dont_know_092910/

My thanks to Byron Wilkes for his review and to the Free Press for including my book in the pages of their fine newspaper.

Vikki Bynum

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Unionist naming of Mississippi children:  1861-1880

By Ed Payne

In December of 1867, former Knight Band member and staunch Unionist Jasper Collins named his first son born after the Civil War, Ulysses Sherman Collins.   Federal forces had won the war but the victory failed to sway the hearts and minds of most white Southerners.  So naming a child in honor of the Union’s two most successful—and reviled—generals was a bold act of defiance.  The incident provides clear evidence of Jasper Collins’s steadfast adherence to his beliefs.  Given this, I wanted to learn how many other Mississippi children were given Unionist names.  For comparison purposes, I also searched for children who bore the names of Confederate leaders of comparable stature.

Naming children after political figures occurred with far greater frequency in the 19th century than in modern times.  A search through the Mississippi census of 1870, for example, yields 172 males named “Benjamin F.,” 337 named “Andrew J.,” and fully 964 with the given name of “George W.”   These patterns clearly suggest a tendency on the part of families to pay homage to early American luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, and George Washington.  Even flinty New Englander Daniel Webster apparently garnered enough respect for 53 Mississippians to have named their sons “Daniel W.”

For purposes of this inquiry, I researched male children residing in Mississippi at the time of the 1870 and 1880 federal household censuses.  The 1870 census search was restricted to males born between 1861 and the enumeration date of June 1, 1870.  Similarly, the 1880 census analysis dealt with those born from 1870 through June 1, 1880.  In evaluating naming patterns, my working assumption was that those given names which resembled the names of eminent Civil War figures in most cases did reflect such a connection. The assumption that this was generally true should not be construed as a belief that connections exist in every case.  For example, in compiling my data, I counted each “Robert E.” as connoting a child named after Robert E. Lee.  Yet a review of the 1860 census, two years before General Lee rose to fame, shows that 20 Mississippi children born in the period from 1850 to 1860 happened to be named “Robert E.” 

A second fact, which came as something of a surprise, is that only a relatively small percent of Mississippi children born during the study period were named after Civil War heroes, Confederate or Union.  The two censuses include some 330,000 Mississippi male children born within the 1861 to 1880 timeframe (171,000 black, 138,000 white, and 21,000 mulattoes).  Of these, only 1,695 (0 .5%) bear names that seem emblematic of the six Civil War figures analyzed.

Table 1 provides a count of given names coinciding with those of the selected Confederate and Union leaders.  Several variations of each name were searched using Ancestry.com.  For example, variations for Abraham Lincoln searched were: “Abe L.”, “Abraham L.”, and “Lincoln” (“Abraham” alone was not counted).  The given name “Ulysses” (with various misspellings) was considered to be associated with U.S. Grant.  The abbreviations “R.E.L.”, “U.S.G.” and “W.T.S.” (i.e. William Tecumseh Sherman) were also searched, although only instances of “R.E.L.” were found.  However, due to their commonality, “Davis” and “Lee” without supporting initials were not counted.  An exception to this general pattern was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  Since “Thomas J.” coincides with popular naming of children after Thomas Jefferson, only given names incorporating “Stonewall” were counted. 

These tallies likely include some duplication of those children born January-May 1870 and still alive in 1880, who fell within the search parameters for both censuses.  Please bear in mind that my goal was not rigorous accuracy, but rather to obtain some indication of the relative frequency with which these names were bestowed.

1861 - 1870   1870 - 1880
Confederate name Blk Wh   Blk Wh
Jefferson Davis variations 46 168   6 22
Robert E. Lee variations 13 115   22 206
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson variations 21 24   5 13
  80 307   33 241
           
        Blk Wh
Confederate name totals (1861-1880)       113 548
           
  1861 - 1870   1870 - 1880
Unionist name Blk Wh   Blk Wh
Abraham Lincoln variations 50 5   53 0
Ulysses Grant variations 219 22   404 9
Wm T Sherman variations 139 12   115 6
  408 39   572 15
           
        Blk Wh
Union name totals (1861-1880)       980 54

Table 1: Count of the naming of Mississippi children for Civil War eminences, 1861-1880. The counts for those identified as mulattoes have been combined with those listed as black.

Table 1 indicates that among whites, names reflective of the selected Confederates occurred 10 times more frequently than those associated with the Union leaders.  Newly freed slaves, less restricted after 1865 in naming (or re-naming) their children—but still in large measure economically dependent on the white population—nevertheless chose names allied with the Union figures 8.5 times more than Confederate ones. 

The census search yielded a list of 54 white male Mississippi children who appear to have been named after Lincoln, Grant, or Sherman.   Their number is small but what seems remarkable, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, is that they exist at all.  And their existence raises other questions: were their parents Southerners or Carpetbaggers; in what areas of the state did they reside; and during what interval within the 1861 to 1880 birth range was Unionist naming most frequent?  The census information compiled in Table 2 provides some interesting answers.

Cnt Census YoB Name County Region Self Fthr Mthr
1 1870 1869 Ulysses Atkinson Leake PB MS AL AL
2 1870 1868 Sherman Beech Jones GC MS AL MS
3 1870 1868 Grant Bibb Monroe PB MS MS MS
4 1870 1869 Lincoln Bosman Tippah N MS SC TN
5 1870 1864 Lincoln Brannon Clarke PB MS n/a MS
6 1870 1868 Sherman Bunnsaw Jasper GC MS MS MS
7 1880 1872 Ulysses Butler Itawamba N AL AL MS
8 1870 1861 Lincoln Bynum Jones GC MS MS MS
9 1880 1870 Sherman Cawley Jones GC MS MS MS
10 1870 1868 Ulysses S. Collins Jones GC MS MS MS
11 1880 1880 Oaker Grant Conlee Pontotac N MS MS GA
12 1870 1869 Ulyssis Coon Monroe PB MS AL MS
13 1870 1870 Ulyssus Cotton Carroll D MS MS MS
14 1870 1868 Sherman L. Davis Rankin SC MS SC SC
15 1870 1869 Ulysses G. Dexter Tishomingo N MS Engl TN
16 1880 1876 Sherman Dunaway Lincoln SC MS MS MS
17 1880 1880 C. Sherman Eddy Hinds SC MS OH AL
18 1880 1874 U.S. Ford Lee N MS NC MS
19 1880 1879 Sherman George Grenada N MS Grmy MS
20 1870 1865 Ulyssus Hall Carroll D MS AL AL
21 1870 1866 Ulyssus Hamlin Tippah N IL TN SC
22 1870 1869 U.S. Grant Hillhouse Calhoun N MS SC MS
23 1880 1872 James Grant Hutson Tishomingo N MS TN TN
24 1870 1870 Sherman Jammison Itawamba N MS DE AL
25 1870 1869 Ulysses S. King Marion GC MS MS MS
26 1880 1879 Sherman Kinkaed Yazoo D MS Irelnd MS
27 1870 1863 Abraham L. Lee Jones GC MS n/a MS
28 1870 1865 Sherman Lee Lominick Tippah N MS SC SC
29 1880 1872 Grant Luten Grenada N IN IN IN
30 1880 1880 Grant McDade Kemper PB MS AL MS
31 1870 1869 William Grant McDowel Oktibbeha PB MS n/a AL
32 1870 1868 Grant McEwin Pike SC MS MS MS
33 1870 1866 Grant W. Millan Newton PB MS SC MS
34 1870 1863 Grant Nelson Holmes D MS VA VA
35 1870 1870 Sherman Parasot Holmes D MS n/a IN
36 1870 1870 Grant Perry Chickasaw PB TN TN TN
37 1880 1873 William Grant Pritchard Pontotac N TN SC AL
38 1870 1865 Grant Robinson Hinds SC MS KY MS
39 1870 1868 N. Grant Shumpert Itawamba N MS SC MS
40 1870 1866 Sherman Sivilly Harrison SC MS GA MS
41 1870 1865 Sherman Smith Jackson GC MS MS MS
42 1870 1869 Sherman Spence Pike SC MS Grmy Grmy
43 1870 1869 Ulyssus Sulivan Monroe PB MS MS MS
44 1870 1865 Sherman Swords Pontotac N MS TN NC
45 1870 1866 Grant Tacket Calhoun N AL AL TN
46 1880 1878 Grant Taylor Alcorn N MS MS TN
47 1870 1866 Grant Thompson Lowndes PB MS VA MS
48 1870 1869 U.S. Grant Townsen Lincoln SC MS LA LA
49 1870 1864 Sherman Walden Prentiss N MS NC NC
50 1880 1878 Grant L. Walker Chickasaw PB MS AL MS
51 1870 1866 Sherman Welborn Jones GC MS MS MS
52 1870 1865 Ulepes Grant Willborn Jasper GC MS n/a MS
53 1870 1870 Abraham L. William Choctaw PB MS NC GA
54 1880 1878 Sherman Wilson Warren SC MS TN LA

Table 2: List of Mississippi white males born 1861-1880 having possible Unionist names. Based on Ancestry.com searches of the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Censuses.

          
To begin, the large majority of children given Unionist names were born into families with Southern roots.  Of the 54 listed, 48 (88.9%) were born in Mississippi.  All but two (96.3%) were born in states that comprised the Confederacy.  The only exceptions were Ulyssus Hamlin (born in Illinois) and Grant Luten (born in Indiana).  Among the fathers, 14 (25.9%) were Mississippi natives with an additional 27 (totaling 75.9%) hailed from other secession states.  Only four came from states outside the former Confederacy (one each from:  Delaware, Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio) while four were born in foreign countries.  (The birthplace of five fathers was not recorded.)  Data for mothers shows even stronger Southern heritage:  29 (53.7%) were born in Mississippi and another 22 (totaling 94.4%) in other Confederate states.  Of the remaining three, two came from Indiana and one was born in Germany.

The census location of children shows the greatest concentration of Unionist names tended to occur, unsurprisingly, in those areas of Mississippi where the cotton economy was weakest and war time discontent against Confederate authority the strongest.  For purposes of analysis, census counties listed on Table 2 were grouped into five state regions: North (N), Delta (D), Pine Belt (PB), South Central (SC), and Gulf Coast (GC).  These are derived from the state’s current tourist regions—which correlate with accepted geographic and cultural areas of the state (see Map).  Note that in this division Jones County and the surrounding “piney woods” area fall within the Gulf Coast region.

The Northern region of the state had the greatest number of Unionist names with 18 (33.3%) followed by the Pine Belt with 12 (22.2%) and the Gulf Coast with 10 (18.5%).  Among the individual counties, Jones had the highest count with six.  The counties of Itawamba (N), Tippah (N), and Monroe (PB) had three each.

The peak period for bestowing names with Unionist associations took place in the years 1869-70 (16 names) followed by 1865-6 (12 names).  Of the 54 individuals listed, 40 (74%) were born between 1861 and 1870.  Only 14 names (26%) date from the later period of 1871 to 1880, when Federal Reconstruction policies waned and Southern Democrats began to reassert political control. 

It bears repeating that a given name of “Grant” or “Sherman” by itself is not proof of a Unionist connection.  On the other hand, it seems equally relevant to suggest that families with strong Confederate loyalties might have shied away from names tainted by their association with despised Union leaders.  Whatever the linkages or lack thereof, children who bore unpopular names doubtless came home with blackened eyes or busted lips as Civil War animosities carried over into playgrounds.

Taking the six children in Jones County with “Union names” as a sample, what can be discovered in researching their fathers?  Let’s return to our starting point: Ulysses Sherman Collins.  Civil War records, pension testimony, and newspaper articles all concur that his father Jasper came from a family of Unionists.  In 1862, however, passage of Confederate conscription laws impelled him and several relatives to enlist in Co. F of the 7th Battalion MS Infantry.  Jasper participated in the battles of Corinth and Iuka, but deserted in October 1862 after stating his opposition to a newly enacted Confederate law granting military exemptions to slave owners with 20 or more slaves.  One year later, he joined with Newton Knight in the formation of the Knight Band. 

After the war Jasper Collins repeatedly stated that his course of action was the correct one.  Whether admiring or excusing his forthrightness, Jones County neighbors elected him to the county Board of Supervisors.  Upon his death in 1913, the local paper published a laudatory, if somewhat evasive, obituary.  His son Ulysses (‘Lyss) found neither his name nor his family’s Unionism a barrier to being elected, like his father, to the Board of Supervisors and later to the position of Chancery Clerk.  He died an honored and respected member of his community in 1941.

The father of Sherman Cawley is identified through census records as Franklin P. Cawley (aka Corley).  Frank P. Cawley joined Co. C of the 37th MS Infantry on March 8, 1862 but was listed as absent without leave from March 11, 1863 until May 11, 1864.  This, of course, overlaps with the most active period for the Knight Band and the spring 1864 campaign by C.S.A. Col. Robert Lowry that rounded up a number of the deserters.  The Knight Band rosters list “B.F. Cawley” as a member, but this is not definitive proof he was the same person.  Franklin Cawley returned to his unit and was captured at Nashville on December 15, 1864.  Imprisoned in Camp Douglas, Illinois, he proved more fortunate than some of his Piney Wood comrades in surviving the harsh conditions there until released in June 1865.  Both Franklin P. Cawley and his son Sherman were last found on the 1880 census.

Abraham Lincoln Lee appears on the 1870 census as a seven year-old in the household Delphine Lee.  Working backwards to the 1860 census, his father turned out to be James W. Lee.  Although James W. Lee was of conscription age (born circa 1835), no records have been found of him serving in the Confederate military.  On April 13, 1864, however, he joined the ranks of Piney Woods men who travelled south and enlisted in the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry.  He was assigned to Co. D and served until his death from typhoid fever on 28 July 1864.  His son Abraham grew up to be a Jones County farmer who, like Ulysses S. Collins, died in 1941.

Lincoln Bynum’s single census listing is in 1870 as a nine year-old.  Thus it seems he was given the name “Lincoln” in 1861, at the very outset of the war.  No military records have been found definitely referring to Lincoln’s father, Hiram James Bynum.  Nor does his name appear on the Knight Band rosters.  But an inquiry into his family connections reveals a man living amid Unionists.

Hiram Bynum’s familial Unionist connections can be summarized as follows:  1) sister Lydia married Simeon Collins, an older brother of Jasper, in 1839.  Simeon and several of his sons appear on the Knight Band rosters.  2) Another of Hiram’s sisters, Sarah, married William Holifield (aka Holyfield).  He, too, appears on the renegade rosters and, following the Lowry campaign, enlisted in the 1st New Orleans Infantry.  3) Hiram’s first cousin Prentice M. Bynum is found on the Knight Band rosters and also subsequently joined the 1st New Orleans Infantry.  4) First cousin, Tapley Bynum, rode with the Knight Band and was killed by Lowry’s forces.  5) First cousin Dicey E. Bynum married William H. Mauldin, another of those who enlisted in the 1st New Orleans Infantry in the spring of 1864.  He died of typhoid pneumonia the following December.  Lincoln Bynum apparently died in childhood.  Hiram Bynum is said to have died circa 1883 in Jasper County.

Sherman Welborn was a son of Thomas Newton Welborn and grandson of Younger Welborn (1805-1880).  In Free State of Jones, Victoria Bynum quoted a descendent as stating that, although of conscription age, the sons of Younger Welborn refused to join the Confederate army.  No military records have been located for Thomas but, as in the case with Hiram Bynum, an examination of family connections uncovers Unionist activities.  In the wake of the Lowry campaign, Thomas’s older brother William and younger brother Tolbert made their way to Louisiana and joined the Unionist 1st New Orleans Infantry.  Tolbert Welborn died of disease during his enlistment while his brother William was discharged in June 1866 and later drew a pension for his service.  Thomas Welborn died in 1917 and his son Sherman, a farmer, in 1929.        

Only in the instance of Sherman Beech has a Unionist link not been found.  His father was Thomas Beech (aka Beach).  A Thomas Beech who appears to match the parentage of Sherman enlisted in Co. B of the 25th Alabama Infantry on May 15, 1862 and was given an unconditional discharge due to illness that same November.  Sherman Beech is last found in Jackson County on the 1880 census, while his father is reported to have lived until 1922.

Thus of six children seeming to have Unionist names, four had fathers who took part in Unionist activities or else had close relatives so engaged.  There is a possible link in one case (Sherman Cawley) and insufficient information for another (Sherman Beech). 

One final observation: some families may have given a child a Unionist name and then thought better of it.  While searching the 1930 Ancestry census transcriptions for Ulysses Collins by his given name, a record was found for Ulysses Pearson Walters.  His name had not appeared among those compiled in the searches of the 1870 and 1880 censuses.  Working backward, I found him to be a son of Richard Herrin Walters (1841-1911).  Coincidentally or not, the mother of Richard H. Walters was a member of the Unionist Collins family.  On the 1870 census (Smith County) Ulysses Pearson Walters was listed simply as “Pierson Walter” and in 1880 (Jones County) as “E.P. Walters.”  It was not until the 1900 census, as a married adult of 28 living in Laurel, Mississippi, that he reported his full name as “Ulysses P. Walters.”  When he died in 1947, his gravestone listed him as “U.P. Walters.”

Despite this modest sampling of names and the current lack of evidence that all those on it are, in fact, indicative of Unionist sympathies, it’s my hope that the names on Table 2 will provide some basis for further inquiries into Unionist sentiment found in the heart of the Deep South.

Resources utilized:  Ancestry.com; Footnote.com; Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s longest Civil War by Victoria Bynum; Echoes from our Past by the Jones County Genealogical and Historical Society; and The Bynum and Herrington Connections by Ruby Bynum Sanders.

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My thanks to historian Michael Perman of the University of Illinois at Chicago for his thoughtful review of Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies in the Summer 2010 issue of Civil War Book Review:

 

http://www.lib.lsu.edu/civilwarbookreview/index.php?q=3655&field=ID&browse=yes&record=full&searching=yes&Submit=Search

Vikki Bynum

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Note from Moderator: Phebe Crook belonged to the same North Carolina community of Unionist women that I’ve been researching and writing about for 25 years as did Martha Sheets and Caroline, Sarah, and Clarinda Hulin.  Thanks to exhaustive research by historians in local, state, and federal records, we now know that women were active participants in the American Civil War. Particularly in southern regions that displayed strong Unionist sentiment, ordinary farm women like Phebe engaged in inner civil wars that centered around protesting Confederate policies that claimed the lives of their fathers, sons, and husbands, and which threatened them with impoverishment and even starvation.


Phebe Crook and the Inner Civil War in North Carolina

By Vikki Bynum


On September 15, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, a young unmarried woman of the Randolph/Montgomery County area of North Carolina, wrote an unusually detailed and articulate letter of protest to Governor Zebulon Vance. Phebe Crook began her letter with a polite salutation:

Mr. Vance, Dear Sir,  I imbrace this opertunity of writing you a few lines in order to inform you of the conduct of our oficers and leading men of this county as you are appointed govenor of the state and [because] I Beleave that you are willing to Do all that you can in trying to protect the civil laws and writs of our county.

Then Phebe got down to business, providing the governor with her eye-witness account of Confederate militia sent to her community to enforce conscript laws and arrest deserters:

Whearas I believe you are a Man of high feelings and one that is willing to Do your duty in every respect, I will now inform you of some of the conduct of our Militia officers and Magistrats of this county. Thir imployment is hunting Deserters, they say, and the way they Manage to find them is taking up poore old grey headed fathers who has fought in the old War.

Seizing fathers and grandfathers was one means by which Confederate soldiers sought to learn the whereabouts of men who evaded or deserted Confederate service. But according to Phebe,

Some of them [men who evaded service] has done thir Duty in trying to support both the army and thir family, [but] these men [home guard and militia] that has remained at home ever since the War commenced are taking them up and keeping them under gard without a mouthful to eat for severl days.

Militia and home guard also tortured deserters’ wives, claimed Phebe, by

taking up the women and keeping them under gard and Boxing thir jaws and nocking them about as if they were bruts and keeping them from thir little children that they hav almost wore our thir lifes in trying to make surport for them. And some of thes women is in no fix to leav homes and others have little suckling infants not more than 2 months old.

Nor were children exempt from torture. According to Phebe, Confederate militia were

taking up little children and Hanging them until they turn black in the face trying to make them tell whear thir fathers is When the little children knows nothing atall about thir fathers. Thir plea is they hav orders from the Govenner to do this and they also say that they hav orders from the govner to Burn up thir Barns and houses.

It seemed to Phebe that the mission of the Confederacy was to

Destroy all that [families] hav got to live on Because they hav a poor wore out son or husband that has served in the army, some of them for 2 or 3 years and is almost wore out and starved to Death and has come home to try to take a little rest. [Deserters are] Doing no body any harm and are eating thir own Rations, [whereas the home guard] has Remained at home ever since the Ware commenced, [and] take thir guns and go in the woods and shoot them down without Halting them as if they war Bruts or murderers.  [They] also pilfer and plunder and steal on thir creadits.

Phebe Crook ended her letter by asserting her own credentials:

As for my self, I am a young Lady that has Neither Husband nor father no Brother in the woods, But I always like to [see] peple hav jestis and I think if thes Most powerfull fighting men that has always remained at home would go out and fight the enemy and let thes poore wor out soldiers Remain at [home] a little while and take a little rest that we would have Better times. But they [Confederate militia and home guard] say that if they are called they will Lie in the Woods until they Rot Before they will go to the war. And now why should thes men have the power to punish men for a crime [when] they would Be guilty of the same?

Although she began and ended her letter with a tone of politeness, Phebe now demanded that Governor Vance respond to her description of the desperate situation faced by the ordinary war-weary people of the North Carolina Piedmont:

So I will close By requesting you to answer this note if you pleas, and answer it imediately.

Yours Truly,

Phebe Crook

Direct to Phebe Crook, Salem Church, Randolph County, N.C.

NOTE: If there are descendants or kinfolk of Phebe Crook among readers of Renegade South, I would love to hear from you. I have not been able to trace Phebe’s whereabouts after the war. I do know that she was the daughter of William and Rachel Crook and the sister of Clarinda Crook Hulin. After the war, Clarinda and her husband, Nelson Hulin, moved to Kentucky.

Vikki Bynum

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For thirty years, guerrilla leader Newt Knight of Jasper County, Mississippi, sought compensation as a Unionist from the U.S. government on behalf of himself and 54 men who had belonged to his Civil War “Knight Company.”* These men included deserters and a few draft evaders who banded together in the swamps of the Leaf River in neighboring Jones County to fight against the Confederacy.

In my recent book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, I analyze in depth Newt’s unsuccessful efforts to gain compensation from the federal government. Aiding my analysis were numerous depositions, including those provided by Newt Knight, H.L. Sumrall, Jefferson Musgrove, J.M. Valentine, E.M. Devall, William M. Welch, J.E. Welborn, J.J. Collins, B.F. Moss, A.B. Jordan, O.C. Martin, E.M. Edmonson, T.J. Huff, T.G. Crawford, and R.M. Blackwell.** Among these men were members, friends, and enemies of the Knight band. Some former members of the band testified on behalf of Newt, the claimant; others testified for the U.S. government, the defendant. In several instances, the defense called on witnesses friendly to Newt Knight in hopes that the testimonies of wartime allies would contradict one another.

R.M. (Montgomery) Blackwell, a 48-year-old farmer, was one such Knight band member called to testify on behalf of the U.S. government. On March 7, 1895, at 5:30 p.m., Montgomery was deposed at the Ellisville, Mississippi, courthouse by Jesse M. Bush, clerk of the circuit court. After establishing Blackwell’s identity, defense attorney John C. Dougherty asked him whether he had “belonged to any body of men during the war,” and to “state what it was, at what time and what place you joined and what purpose you had in connecting yourself with the same.”

With no apparent hesitation, Montgomery Blackwell replied that he had “belonged to Captain Knight’s company; joined in Jones county near Reddoch’s Ferry; I believe it was in Sept. 1863. Knight had a squad of Union men, and I had enough of kin in the Confederate ranks, and I concluded to go with the Knights.”

Two things stand out in Blackwell’s answer. First, he contradicted Newt Knight’s testimony that the Knight Company was formed on October 13, 1863. Second, he did not identify his family as solidly Unionist, but rather indicated a fair amount of support for the Confederacy within its ranks. This is not surprising since many families in the Jones County area, including the Knights, were split over the war. The most solidly Unionist family, as I have pointed out on this blog as well as in Long Shadow and Free State of Jones, were the Collinses.  They and their kinfolk comprised the majority of band members. Joining ranks with the Knight Company, however, forged a new kinship link between the Knight and Blackwell families when, in 1869, Montgomery Blackwell married Newt’s cousin, Zorada Keziah Knight.

Blackwell’s tentative answer in regard to when the Knight Company was formed was a minor discrepancy given that thirty years had passed since the war’s end. Perhaps for this reason, defense attorney Dougherty immediately shifted to a more important area of contradiction by asking Blackwell to explain whether or not he “took any oath” at the time the band was formed, and if so, to “state what oath, before whom, and when and at what place” it was taken.

This talk of an “oath” harkened back to an affidavit certified in 1870 by justice of the peace T. J. Collins which stated that the Knight Company had not only organized itself on October 13, 1863, but had elected officers and taken a “sollomn [sic] vow to be true to each other and to the United States and to fight on behalf of the United States during the war.” This document, signed by four Jones County men, made no claim that any Union official had administered an oath of allegiance, only that the men had spoken one among themselves.

With the passage of time, however, the facts surrounding this elusive oath became hopelessly confused. In their 1895 depositions, several members of the band testified that T.J. Collins had delivered the oath in 1863, when in fact he had certified a statement from several witnesses in 1870 that the Knight Company had taken such an oath–likely without the benefit of any public official.

Others, Montgomery Blackwell among them, testified in 1895 that “old man V.A. Collins” had likely administered the oath.  But if anyone presided over this moment, it probably was Benagah Mathews, as suggested by Jasper Collins in his testimony. The elderly Mathews, who had close ties with the band, was a probate judge by 1869. It was he who took responsibility for filing Newt Knight’s initial claim file in 1870, acting in lieu of a lawyer for the Knight Company.

The problem in 1895 was that Newt Knight’s new lawyers were not familiar with the internal workings of the Knight Company, as Benagah Mathews had been, and, in their efforts to embellish its Unionist credentials, they created a trap for themselves. The notion that a Unionist official had administered an oath of allegiance to the Knight Company during the midst of the Civil War was easily shot down by the government’s defense team.  By distorting the evidence in this and other instances, Newt’s lawyers put witnesses such as Montgomery Blackwell in predicaments where they were asked to remember “facts” that had been altered by Newt’s lawyers in an effort to strengthen the evidence.

At the same time, the government misplaced Newt Knight’s truly factual evidence, offered in his first petition of 1870, that the reconstructed government of 1865 had recognized him as a staunch Unionist. None of that evidence was presented in his second and third petitions (see Long Shadow of the Civil War, pp. 77-96). Not surprisingly, the Knight Company lost its bid for compensation as an ad hoc military unit that had fought on behalf of the Union Army during the Civil War.

Vikki Bynum

* NOTE: Although lawyers for Newt Knight identified the Knight Company as the “Jones County Scouts” between 1887 and 1895, I have found no evidence that the band ever referred to itself by this name. It’s my opinion that Newt’s lawyers manufactured the new name to give it more of an official military ring.

**Newt Knight’s 1887-1900 claim file is located in Records of the U.S. Court of Claims, 1835-1966, Record Group 123, Committee on War Claims, Claims of Newton Knight and Others, #8013 and 8464, National Archives, Wash. D.C.

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