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Martha Rushing Walters Sumrall

by Ed Payne

The life of Civil War widow Martha Rushing Walters Sumrall was short.  Born in 1844, she would be laid to rest in a now forgotten Texas grave in the mid-1870s.  It might well have been otherwise.  When she married George Warren Walters in late 1860, the event seemed a promising union between the offspring of two of the more prominent families in the area:  the Powell and Walters lines.  In the Piney Woods ‘prominent’ did not equate to ‘wealthy’ in any sense that the term would have been understood in, say, Natchez.  But both families had risen to the upper rungs of the yeoman-farmer society of Jones County.

Martha was the grand-daughter of John Hathorn Powell, who was born in Edgefield County, South Carolina, in 1800.  By 1819 he had moved to central Georgia, a way station for many who would eventually settle in the Mississippi Piney Woods.  There he married and continued to live until 1843, when he resettled in Jones County.  He served as post master for three years before moving to the Gulf Coast.  But after several years he returned to Jones County, where he remained until events forced him to leave the state.

Martha’s husband was a member of the large Jones County Walters clan.  Originating with the arrival of four males from South Carolina into the Piney Woods in the early 1800s, it had expanded by 1860 to 125 individuals in 21 households.   One of the four progenitors was Willoughby Walters.  His son, George Willoughby Walters, had married Sarah Collins in 1830.  The couple prospered for two decades, to the extent that by 1850 their livestock holdings and agricultural yields were among the largest in the county.  This even though George Willoughby, like the majority of those in the Walters and Collins lines, did not own slaves.  But during an 1853 epidemic, George Willoughby Walters and three of the six children died.  His widow then undertook a brief, disastrous marriage to James Parker.  She abandoned Parker after one year and operated her own farm with her sole surviving son, George Warren, and hired men.  When faced with the prospect of her son’s marriage, Sarah Collins Walters Parker purchased a slave couple as farm laborers.  She thereby entered the small circle of Jones County slave owners that also included John H. Powell.

Like her new husband, Martha Rushing Walters had experienced the childhood loss of her father.  Her mother was Samantha Powell, born in Georgia in 1824, who married Joel Eli Rushing there around 1840.  Based on the birth states listed for their children, the couple remained in Georgia until sometime after 1846.  They then followed the trail of Samantha’s father to Jones County.  By the time of the 1850 census, however, Joel had died and left Samantha as the head of household with five children ranging in age from one to ten years old.  The middle child was Martha, age six.

Within two years Samantha had embarked on a new marriage.  And, compared to the second marriage of George Warren’s mother Sarah, this one proved more successful.  Samantha wed widower Marton W. Owens around 1852 and the couple started a second family.  Three of her unmarried daughters by Joel Rushing moved in with their grandfather, John H. Powell, with whom they were recorded living on the 1860 census. A short time after the October census enumeration, Martha Rushing married George Warren Walters. She had just turned seventeen; he was nineteen.

Although John H. Powell was a minor slave owner—he possessed a female slave and two children—he opposed secession.  When voting was held to elect delegates to the state convention on secession in December of 1860, Powell ran on an anti-secessionist platform and won by 166 to 89 over his secessionist opponent.  Upon his arrival in Jackson, however, he quickly judged that the sentiment for secession was overwhelming.  After siding with his fellow anti-secessionist on two test votes, Powell joined with the majority in the final 84-15 vote for secession—much to the displeasure of those who had elected him.

Once war became a fact in the spring of 1861, the opportunity to test one’s courage in combat which often motivates young men resulted in the formation of several volunteer companies in Jones County.  But most males in the Walters and Collins families were not swept up in this initial wave of enthusiasm.  George Warren and his bride had given birth to a daughter, Isabelle, in February of 1862.* When the Confederate conscription law went into effect that April, however, he had little option but to enlist.  He joined Company K (the Ellisville Invincibles) of the 8th Mississippi Infantry regiment.  After nine months of service, he returned home for the holidays in late 1862.  This brief stay produced a second child, Warren Vinson Walters, who would be born in August of 1863.

George Warren Walters remained with his unit throughout 1863 and 1864 as it took part in the Battles of Chickamauga and Atlanta.  But he was captured at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, and had the misfortunate to be shipped to Camp Douglas, Illinois.  The grim, protracted nature of the war had provoked increasing brutality on both sides and Camp Douglas mirrored some of the deadly aspects of its Southern counterpart, Andersonville.  Over the winter of 1864-65 Confederate prisoners were inadequately clothed and fed, which resulted in high death rates from exposure and disease.  George Warren Walters arrived in early December, 1864, and was listing as having died of “Genl Debility” on February 6, 1865.  He was buried in a mass grave along with 6,000 others who died at Camp Douglas.

Plaque showing George Warren Walters as among POWs who died at Camp Douglas, Illinois, during the Civil War

Martha’s brother, Eli Franklin Rushing, demonstrates the way in which Jones County Civil War paths could converge and diverge.  Eli was among the early volunteers in the spring of 1861, when he joined Capt. Samuel Prince’s company of the 8th Mississippi Infantry regiment.  It was the same company, re-designated as Company K, which George Warren Walters would join a year later.  In April of 1862 Eli re-enlisted for two years and was promoted to 3rd Corporal.  But on February 28, 1864, he deserted and within three months enlisted as a sergeant in the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry regiment.  He remained with the unit until his discharge in June of 1866.  He moved to Texas in 1869 and died there in 1903.

Excerpt from Eli Rushing’s Union pension file

At war’s end Martha Rushing Walters faced life as a 21-year-old widow with two children.  Her grandfather, who in late 1862 had been appointed to the thankless and hazardous post of Provost Marshall of Jones County, left for Texas before the end of the war.  Her mother Samantha had lost her second husband in the war and was now managing a household with four children, ages nine through fifteen.  The carnage of the war had affected a significant portion of the adult male population.  If widows hoped to remarry and thereby gain some measure of security for themselves and their children, their choice of men was limited.  The men who survived the war unscathed were often those who had been either too old or too young to serve as combatants.  May-December marriages, certainly not unheard of in the antebellum Piney Woods, became much more common in the years following the war.

Martha Rushing Walters was more fortunate than many of the war widows.  Within three years she was able to remarry to Jacob Sumrall.  On the 1870 census, Jacob listed himself as age eighteen.  This implies he was no more than thirteen at the end of the war and probably about sixteen, compared to Martha’s twenty-four, when they wed.  Perhaps trying to minimize this eight-year age difference, Martha deducted two years from her reported census age.  In addition to Martha’s two children by George Warren Walters, the couple had a one-year-old son, Joel.

The background of Jacob Sumrall (Jacob Theodore Sumrall, according to some genealogical accounts) remains something of a mystery, due in part to the frequency with which the members of the Sumrall line bestowed the names Jacob and Elisha.  The most reasonable lineage is that he was the son of an Elisha Sumrall who married Nancy McCary in Wayne County.  This Elisha Sumrall was a son of a Jacob Sumrall born circa 1804 in South Carolina who had married Mary Ann Friday.  Elisha was born in Mississippi around 1831.  Confusing things further is the fact that Elisha’s mother gave birth to a son named Jacob in 1849.  It seems likely that the Jacob Sumrall who married Martha Rushing was the eldest son of Elisha, rather than his uncle of the same name who was only three or four years older.  The 1860 census might have offered support for this hypothesis, but no records have been found for the Elisha Sumrall family.   However, it can be noted that on the 1870 enumeration Elisha’s widow, who had remarried to Moses Holyfield, was listed with four Sumrall sons just seven households down from the farm of Jacob and Martha.

Shortly after the 1870 census, Jacob loaded up his family and set out for Texas.  They settled in Kaufman County, southeast of Dallas.  It was less than 70 miles east of the community where Martha’s grandfather and family had settled.  John H. Powell had died in Alvarado, Johnson County, Texas in 1867 but his wife and several other members of the family continued to reside there.  The year before, in 1869, Martha’s brother Eli had moved to Falls County, about 90 miles to the south.  But rather than settling near either of Martha’s relatives, the Sumrall family chose to set up housekeeping in Kaufman County.

Martha gave birth to another son, Eli Theodore, soon after their arrival.  In May of 1873 she gave birth to a daughter, Mary Magdalene.  But within two years, as later census records reveal, Jacob had remarried to Lucy Jane Williams.  It is apparent that Martha Rushing Walters Sumrall, mother of five and Piney Woods Civil War widow, had died of unknown causes.  Efforts to find any information concerning her burial site have thus far been unsuccessful.

Jacob Sumrall with second wife, Lucy, and daughter Martha Elizabeth, about 1898. Courtesy of Timothy Sumrall

The two Walters children who accompanied their mother and step-father to Texas remained there for several years, but by 1880 were back in Mississippi living with their 70-year-old grandmother, Sarah Parker.  Also listed in the household was two year old Carley (Charley) Walters, born in Texas.  He was cited, like Isabelle and Warren, as Sarah’s grandchild, but circumstances suggest he was Isabelle’s son.

Isabelle Walters married James Bush and gave birth to another thirteen children.  The couple did not attempt to obscure the chronology of Charley Bush’s birth.  On the 1900 census they identified themselves as having been married for eighteen years, while Charley’s age was given as twenty-one.  Isabelle Walters Bush died on March 4, 1915 at age fifty-three.  Her brother Warren Vinson Walters married Jessie Hattie Pack in 1890.  They had two children, only one of whom survived to adulthood.  Warren Walters served in various elective posts in Jones County before moving to Hattiesburg, where he died on August 26, 1937 at age seventy-three.

Although the two families of Martha Rushing Walters Sumrall had separated in Texas nearly sixty years before, there is evidence in Warren Walter’s obituary of his continuing bond with his half-sister.  It listed Mrs. W. E. Roundtree of Vera Beach, Florida as his surviving sister.  Mrs. Roundtree’s maiden name was Mary Magdalene Sumrall.

* Note:  On the 1900 census, Isabelle Walters Bush gave her birth month and year as February, 1863.  On the same census Warren Walters gave his birth month and year as August, 1864.   However, their gravestones list 1862 and 1863, respectively, which other circumstances suggest are the more reliable dates.

Eli Theodore Sumrall with wife, Lenora Rountree, and family. Courtesy of Timothy Sumrall.

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Note from Moderator Vikki Bynum: Author and independent historian Ed Payne will give a talk on “Sarah Collins and the Free State of Jones,” in Hattiesburg at the South Mississippi Genealogical and Historical Society (SMGHS) on January 5, at 7 p.m. The SMGHS Library is located on Park Avenue (rear of the Water Dept. Building).
 
The life of Sarah Collins provides insights into the harsh conditions faced by Piney Woods settlers and the circumstances that prompted a number of them to not only abandon the Confederate cause, but to take up arms against it. In the following essay, Ed shares some of his recent and broader research on the impact of the Civil War on the people of Jones County, Mississippi

Introduction—Collateral Damage:  Civil War Widows of Jones County

By Ed Payne

            Researching post-Civil War Jones County has led me to develop an interest in the women who were left widows as a result of the conflict and how they dealt with their often radically altered circumstances.  But compiling even a partial list of Jones County women who lost husbands in the Civil War is difficult.  The most basic product of war is death and the Civil War produced more deaths than all other pre-Vietnam American conflicts combined.  But Confederate records are notoriously incomplete.  A report submitted in 1866 cited a figure of 6,807 Mississippians dead or wounded, an absurdly low number.  Ben Wynne in Mississippi’s Civil War, on the other hand, states that of 78,000 Mississippians who served in the CSA, 27,000 never returned home.  Another calculation is that Confederate states suffered a death rate, on average, equal to about 2.84% of their 1860 free population.  The 1860 free population of Mississippi was 354,674 which would yield a death estimate of 17,627.  The same estimate applied to the 1860 population of Jones County (2,916) produces a casualty figure of approximately145.  

Going strictly by census data, there are some hints that Jones County men, largely non-slave owners and outside the cotton economy that had brought prosperity to other sections of Mississippi, may have died in disproportionately high numbers.  In September of 1860, seven months before the outbreak of the Civil War, the U.S. Census tallied 502 white males in Jones County who were native-Mississippians and born between 1820 and 1849—the prime age group to be impacted by the coming conflict.  A decade later the population of Jones County remained essentially static, with a total count of 3,313 persons versus 3,323 in 1860.  However, native-born males within the 1820-1849 timeframe now numbered only 257, a decline of 48.8%.  For Mississippi as a whole, the decline in men having the same criteria amounted to 12,061 (from 41,892 to 29,831), or 28.8%. 

Unfortunately, these numbers are insufficient to make the case, since other factors such as post-war migration out of the county could account for some of the disparity.  But other data can be used to infer some of the toll that the war took on Jones County males and, as a result, on their surviving spouses.  The 1860 census listed 482 household of which only 29 (6%) were headed by females.  Ten years later the household count, which now included those of freedpeople, stood at 562.  Of these, the number headed by white women had expanded to 94 (17%).  Even in 1880, 15 years after the end of the war, it stood at 82. 

Jones County Cabin

Another factor to consider is that Jones County women lost husbands and sons not only in service to the Confederacy, but in opposition to it as well.  There were casualties among those who fought with the renegade bands, including 15 hung during the campaign lead by CSA Col. Robert Lowry, and among those who joined Union regiments in New Orleans, at least 13 of whom died of disease after enlisting.

For decades after the end of the conflict, Mississippi war widows—with the exception of the few whose husbands died in the Union regiments—received no governmental compensation.  The state’s economy was shattered.  It is an oft repeated fact that in 1866 one-fifth of the state budget was earmarked for the procurement of artificial limbs for veterans.  The first state pension for Confederate veterans and their survivors was not instituted until the late 1880s.  By 1894 a mere 44 Jones County citizens were receiving modest pro rata shares (ranging from $20 to $30 per annum) from the $64,200 allocated for veterans who had lost a limb and war widows of limited financial means (property worth less than $500).  Later legislative pension acts, primarily passed during the period from 1916-30, raised the total number of Jones County veteran and widow claims to 395.  It should be noted that this count includes claims by surviving wounded veterans and later claims by their widows as well as claims by the same individuals under separate legislative acts.  Also, a number of these claims were filed by persons who relocated to Jones County during the turn-of-the-century timber boom.

Although fewer in number, the pension files of those who enlisted in the 1st and 2nd New Orleans Union regiments offer abundant detail.  Thus far Union pension files have been located for forty Piney Woods enlistees or their survivors.  Their files, housed at the National Archives, average 20-40 documents each—but in some cases run to over 150.  As this indicates, the bureaucratic paperwork necessary to prove one’s eligibility was formidable.  But those who persevered received compensation well in excess of that provided under state Confederate pensions.  Eli F. Rushing, who deserted from the 8th MS Infantry in February of 1864 and then enlisted in the 1st New Orleans Union regiment in May, was receiving a monthly disability payment of $10 shortly before his death in 1903.  The availability of this rich deposit of Union pension material should not, however, obscure the fact that the vast majority of Jones County war widows lost husbands who served in Confederate units and thus have left us only a thin trail of records.   

Despite these problems, a list of Jones County Civil War widows is slowly emerging.  Over the coming months I hope to post brief portraits of some of these surviving spouses.   Since women held decidedly secondary roles within 19th century society, the information available is primarily derived from census and pension files.  And, even then, their stories necessarily come to us largely as reflected in the lives of the men around them.  Those who are familiar with Jones County will not be surprised to learn that several of the widows I have studied are connected through kinship or marriages.  None of the biographical and genealogical vignettes will be offered as definitive.  Indeed, I hope that family members with more specific information will be prompted to comment on, expand upon, and correct the information which I post. 

In the series I plan to provide information about widows of combatants on both sides of the conflict.  Although “Renegade South” deals primarily with those who rebelled against the Confederacy, Jones County owes its special place in history due to the fact that an isolated population in the Deep South was brought into conflict with itself by the same forces that divided a nation.  As noted, while the majority of the county’s Civil War casualties occurred among those who served in the Confederacy, members of renegade bands and Union enlistees also contributed to the toll of widows.  These deaths were emblematic of the way in which the war splintered the Piney Woods community.  In its aftermath, a stark commonality that bound women of the region was their effort to survive.  If men were the principle casualties of the Civil War, these widows represent its collateral damage.

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THE LONG SHADOW OF THE CIVIL WAR, forthcoming, UNC Press, Feb., 2010

I am delighted with the cover designed by University of North Carolina Press for The Long Shadow of the Civil War, forthcoming February 2010. The cover’s shadowy figures and shrouded landscape not only suggest the enduring importance of place, family, and kinship in the South, but also the clandestine, rural world of Civil War Unionists.  Hazy outlines of a makeshift structure put me in mind of the deserter hideouts in the North Carolina Piedmont woods, the swamps of Piney Woods Mississippi, and the Big Thicket forests of East Texas that inspired the essays contained within (to learn more about the book, click here).

My thanks to UNC Press, long known for the high quality of its publications and the highly effective “first impression” quality of it’s book jackets, for showcasing so beautifully The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Vikki Bynum

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My forthcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, will feature Unionist communities from the North Carolina Quaker Belt as well as Mississippi and Texas. Recently, I received a series of comments and questions from Amanda Hall and Kelly Atkins Hinson, descendants of the Hulin and Atkins families of Civil War Montgomery County, North Carolina. (See their comments following Unionists at War in the N.C. Quaker Belt).
 
Three Hulin brothers, John, Jesse, and William, and a cousin, James Atkins, were members of a Wesleyan Methodist community headed by patriarchs Hiram Hulin and Valentine Moore, and known for its anti-slavery views and opposition to the Confederacy during the Civil War. In early January, 1865, the Hulin brothers and Atkins were killed by pro-Confederate forces for refusing to serve the Confederate Army (see here and here).

Amanda and Kelly expressed interest in seeing the following letter written to Governor Zeb Vance during the midst of the war by John A. Beaman, grandson of Valentine Moore and brother-in-law to Hiram Hulin. The letter is undated, but was probably written before Beaman’s Hulin and Atkins cousins were killed.

I discovered the letter in the N.C. Governors’ Papers in 1983 while researching my doctoral dissertation (the basis for Unruly Women). As a graduate student, finding Beaman’s letter fueled my fascination with anti-Confederate sentiments among the southern yeomanry. In it, he does not discuss religious ideology or political philosophy, but does express the rage felt by many nonslaveholding farmers over Confederate exemption policies that privileged slaveholding planters and manufacturers over plain farmers.

Except for adding punctuation and a few dropped letters, I have transcribed Beaman’s letter just as he wrote it. Despite his frequent misspellings, John was more literate than most Southern farmers of the time, and he did not let his rudimentary education prevent him from addressing Governor Vance as an elected official who needed to hear the opinions of his constituents.

Mr. Z. B. Vance

Mr. Z. V., gov, I take the presant opertunity of droping you a few lines to inform you [of] the condition of my settlement and our county and the parciality of the conscript law [so] you know the rotnest of it and the men that is exempted by it; and unles it is repeald you can’t think us conscrps will obey the call that is made. You know the farmer is the life of hour country and I want you to tell me one farmer exempted unles he has twenty slaves; and I want you to tell me one of them that has anything to sell tht will sell for confedrt money

I have trid [to buy from] them and also I hav trid [to buy from] the manufactors that is exempted; and corn or bacon they must have [for payment] or you cant buy cotn [cotten] yarn or shurtin [shirting]. Confedrit money they will not hav, and I want you to tell me hough hour family will liv if we leav to fight for such men as these. We air forced to revlutionize unles this roten conscript exemption law is put down, for they are laws wee don’t intend to obey, for wee farmers had as well to be exempted as the slavholder and the manufactory for we air the life of the hole [country].

I hav made moor corn and mor wheat and more bacon than any slavholder in the confedret state for sale, and I hav dun more smithin than any smith in hour county–for nothin acordin to my fose [foes?]; and yet I must go to fight for the seeceders and all mechanics and men who air doing no good at tall at home.

Mr. Vance, I want you to send me some exemptions for I am doing no good at tall, for they want me to fight and I am bound not to go unless all the rest of the blacksmiths and manufactors do. 

Gov, I will close

John A. Beaman to Mr. Gov. Vance

Note: To visit this book’s page at the University of North Carolina website, click here.

 

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Reading Renegade South, one might gain the impression that all of Jones County supported the Union during the Civil War. That was certainly not the case, although the county did give a substantial majority of its votes–166 out of 255–to John H. Powell, the county’s anti-secession delegate to Mississippi’s secession convention of 1861. The other 89 of those votes went to the pro-secession candidate, 33-year-old John M. Baylis.

John McCormick Baylis was from one of Jones County’s wealthiest families. His father, George Baylis, was a Methodist preacher who, in 1850, owned fifteen slaves. Only two men in the county–William Duckworth and Isaac Anderson–owned more slaves. In 1860, John himself owned seven slaves; his brother Wyatt owned five. 

By 1860, John had been married to Mary Rawls for some five years; the couple’s household included three children, as well as John’s younger siblings, Wyatt and Catherine. Like their father before them, the Baylis brothers were among the wealthiest men in Jones County. John was a physician who owned real estate valued at $11,000, and personal property (which included slaves) valued at $8,300. Wyatt, though only 21 years old, owned real estate worth $4,000, and personal wealth worth $5,000. Catherine, still a teenager, claimed a personal estate of $4,000.

Like everyone else, the Baylis’s lives would soon be transformed by the Civil War. John and Wyatt both joined the 7th battalion Mississippi Infantry, infamous for having contributed a multitude of deserters to the Knight Company, including its notorious captain, Newt Knight.  John and Wyatt Baylis, however, were not among those men; in fact, after the war, John was foremost among those men who opposed Newt Knight’s rise to power. Wyatt, however, was dead by then from wounds sustained at Vicksburg. 

Shortly after enlisting in the army, John Baylis was appointed official surgeon of the 7th battalion, giving him the authority to recommend medical discharges for the men of his unit. In the aftermath of the searing battle of Corinth (1862), he was detached from his unit and remained in Corinth with wounded men from his battalion. By December of that year, he himself was reported sick and absent from duty. Following Vicksburg (and the death of brother Wyatt), John was reported AWOL. He later returned to service, and, on February 8, 1864, was once again assigned to detached service. 

In the immediate aftermath of the war, on July 30, 1865, John expressed his contempt for Knight band renegades in a personal letter to Gov. William L. Sharkey. In the wake of Confederate defeat, several Jones County Unionists, including Newt Knight, received plum appointments from the reconstructed government. Outraged, John declared the new appointees dishonorable men and little more than bandits. He specifically accused the new sheriff, T. J. Huff, of having

united with a band of outlaws who have been engaged in murder and pillage during the war and who have stated frequently that they would not submit to authority of any kind.

He was referring, of course, to the Knight Company. Jones County’s Unionists wielded power for only a brief few years. by 1872, pro-Confederate Democrats had turned back the tide of Reconstruction.

Although the war had impoverished many families, John M. Baylis remained a wealthy man. In a county where few people in 1870 claimed more than a few hundred dollars in property, Baylis’s combined real and personal property was assessed at a whopping $15,000. 

Now, bear with me while I take a bit of a detour with this story. One would logically conclude from all this that the families of John M. Baylis and Newt Knight were miles apart in wealth, ideology, and probably just plain hated each other’s guts.  But not so fast. Remember that Newt’s grandfather, Jackie Knight, was one of the largest slaveholders of neighboring Covington County before the war.

Remember also that Jackie’s son, Jesse Davis, took a different route in life than did Jackie’s son Albert (Newt’s father). Jesse Davis Knight owned slaves (one of whom was Rachel, Newt Knight’s accomplice during the war and lifelong companion); Albert chose not to.

Jesse Davis Knight also married Sarah Elizabeth Baylis, daughter of George Baylis and sister of John M. Baylis, connecting the Knight and Baylis families. Later on down the road, Jesse Davis and Sarah Elizabeth’s son, George Baylis Knight (nicknamed “Clean Knight”), married Elmira Turner, who was kin to Serena Turner, who married Newt Knight.

Well, with all those family connections, you can guess what happened if you don’t already know: the nephew of John M. Baylis ended up becoming one of Capt. Newt Knight’s closest lifelong friends! Clean Neck lived to be a hundred years old, just long enough to defend Newt’s reputation against the charges hurled against him in Ethel Knight’s Echo of the Black Horn. I love it when history defies the odds.

Vikki Bynum

[Records used include federal manuscript population and slave schedules, 1850-1870; Confederate army military records, governors' papers, and interview with Earle Knight]

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RACHEL KNIGHT

BY

SONDRA YVONNE BIVINS

Rachel Knight was about sixteen years old when John “Jackie” Knight of Covington County, MS, came into possession of her in the spring of 1856.  Rachel was born on March 14, 1840 in Macon, GA.  Mormon Missionary records show that her parents were named Abraham and Viney.  That is all we know of her past life.  At about the time Rachel arrived on Jackie Knight’s place his brother, James Knight, moved from Monroe County to Bibb County to live with his son, Thomas.  It is quite possible that Rachel was first owned by James Knight.  One of the constant threats that slaves faced was the danger of being sold away from family.  By the time Rachel was fifteen years old, she had two children, Rosetta and George Ann. The fact that George Ann was nearly white possibly caused some dissention in Georgia, and may be the reason Rachel and her girls were sold.  I have no proof that this was the case; however, I do know that historically, a white slave child born on a plantation caused friction in the family of the owner.  Ironically, the white mistress typically blamed the slave woman for her husband’s indiscretion; thus, the vixen described in Echo of the Black Horn was born.

My grandfather, Warren Smith, described Rachel as a “Guinea Negro,” meaning she was racially mixed but did not look white, nor was she light-skinned, but had “nice hair”–not kinky and shoulder length. To get an idea of how Rachel must have looked, I began to prod my mother to tell me exactly what my grandfather said about Rachel. According to my mother, he said that she looked like another woman who had lived in our community when she was growing up. This woman was short in stature, had a dark brown complexion and long thick coarse black hair that was not kinky. Hearing this, I realized that Rachel undoubtedly looked very much like her daughter, Martha Ann Knight who, in my opinion, could easily pass for an Australian Aborigine.

Martha Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight and probably Newt Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Martha Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight and probably Newt Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Shortly after Rachel arrived on John Knight’s plantation, his son, Jesse Davis, began a sexual relationship with her.  His relationship with Rachel resulted in the birth of Jeffrey Early on March 15, 1858. Given the tenuousness of her condition, it is doubtful that Rachel would have seduced Jesse.  She already knew what happened when a slave woman gave birth a “white child,” because it had happened to her before; she was sold.  In John Jackie Knight’s will, dated September 4, 1860, he willed Rachel and Jeffrey to Jesse Davis.  The will reads as follows:

“…and to my son, Jesse D. Knight I do will and bequeath a certain Negro woman named Rachel and Jeffrey, her child with her increase, if any, on his paying to each of the heirs of my son, Benjamin Knight, deceased.”

The estate was auctioned on March 20, 1861 almost a year before shots were fired at Ft. Sumter, SC.  After Jesse came into possession of Rachel, Edward was born on February 8, 1861 and then Fanny was born March 18, 1863.  Now mind you, Jesse had a wife and ten children with the last born in January 1863.

Jesse Davis was mustered in the 27th Mississippi Infantry of the Confederate States of America in November or December 1861. In December 1863, Jesse Davis contracted measles during the Battle of Atlanta and died of pneumonia. He was buried in the Civil War Cemetery in Atlanta, GA.

Newt’s relationship with Rachel began toward the end of the Civil War when it is believed she helped him and his band of deserters and marauders evade capture during his raids on supply trains. Rachel was very superstitious and practiced using herbs for healing and warding off wild animals and such.

During the five years after the War Newton’s and Rachel’s relationship was firmly established. Newt set Rachel and her children up in a house next door to his family and brought them up as white. Unlike most whites in the Piney Woods who were keeping “open secrets,” he did not hide his relationships with Rachel and her daughter George Ann. This was taboo and disturbing to local residents both white and black. Newt’s reputation for punishing anyone who crossed him kept anyone from attempting to harass his family.  Before he died in 1922, he had become a living legend and the centerpiece of the legend of the Free State of Jones.

According to census records, on July 14, 1870, Rachel and her children lived next door to Newt and Serena in the Southwest Beat of Jasper County. Rachel was described as a black female, age 30, born in Georgia. In her house were six children: George Ann, a mulatto female, age 17; Jefferson (Jeffery), a mulatto male, age 15; Edmond, a mulatto male, age 13; Fancy (Fan), a mulatto female, age 11; Marsha (Martha), a mulatto female, age 9; and Stuart, a mulatto male, age 7. Newton ran his home in a harem-like fashion having simultaneous relationships with Serena, his wife, Rachel, and George Ann, Rachel’s daughter. During the early 1870s, George Ann gave birth to two children that many believe were fathered by Newton: John Howard, born August 1871, and Rachel Anna, born March 1874.  However, Cleo Garraway, Howard’s granddaughter, said that she never heard anyone say that Newt was the father of her grandfather, Howard, or her Aunt Anna. After Rachel’s death in 1889, Gracie was born in November 1891 and Lessie was born in May 1894. Cleo was so ashamed of the circumstances of her birth, she did not care to know from whom she was descended.

Cleo Knight Garraway, daughter of John Howard Knight, son of George Ann Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Cleo Knight Garraway, daughter of John Howard Knight, the only son of George Ann Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

As soon as Rachel’s children and grandchildren were old enough to marry, Newt encouraged them to marry whites or at least someone nearly white.  According to information I have gleaned from family stories, he wanted to erase that “one drop” of Negro blood in their veins.  Many whites believe or want to believe that Newt forced his two older children to marry Rachel’s Jeffrey and Fan as claimed in Echo of the Black Horn, but family history says “not so.” Contrary to popular belief, Rachel’s children coexisted in relative harmony with their white kin and neighbors, including Tom.

While having children with Rachel, the domineering, larger-than-life Newton continued to have children with his wife, Serena Turner, whose last child was born in 1875.  Indeed, Serena was the quintessentially dutiful southern wife, dependent on her husband and silently suffering the personal degradation of Newt’s relationships with Rachel and George Ann.  The 1910 census shows her living in the home of her daughter, Mollie.  Was she simply tired of living with Newt, or was she so old and infirm that she had to move in with the daughter for care?

Serena Knight in old age. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

Serena Knight in old age. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

In June, 1880, Rachel Knight and her children still lived next door to Newton and Serena.  On the census, she is described as a black female, age 40 (prior to June 1), born in Georgia.  Her parents are listed as born in Virginia.  Living in the household were George Ann, a mulatto female, age 26; Jeffrey, a mulatto male, age 22; Martha Ann, a mulatto female, age 15; John S[teward], a mulatto male, age 12; John Floyd, a mulatto male age 10; and Augusta Ann, a mulatto female, age 7.  This census contains several mistakes; e.g. Jeff Knight is listed two houses down from Rachel at dwelling 105 and also included in Rachel’s house at dwelling 107.  George Ann is also listed twice, first as daughter then as granddaughter.  George Ann’s household included herself, a mulatto female, age 26 (erroneously identified as Rachel’s granddaughter); John H[oward], a mulatto male, age 9 (grandson); and Rachel (Anna), a mulatto female, age 6 (granddaughter).

George Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins

George Ann Knight, daughter of Rachel Knight. Collection of Yvonne Bivins

The Mormon Church began proselytizing throughout the South and in particular Jones County in the early 1880’s.  Rachel, along with Fan and her family, was convinced to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. According to Knight researcher Kenneth Welch, Rachel traveled out to Utah but came back to Mississippi because it was too cold.

At Rachel’s place, located near Newt’s, family members worked very hard but made a good living on the self-sufficient farm, They earned money to pay for things like coffee, sugar and goods like shoes and dishes. They raised cows for milk and butter; raised chickens and sold eggs; planted fields and sold the produce; canned vegetables from a small garden, and even made their clothes.  Life was hard; they lived on a farm in an isolated community located near the Jasper-Jones county line.

In February, 1889, Rachel died; she was only 49 years old.  She did not leave a will but left about 180 acres of farm land for her children. According to family members, she died from having too many babies too close together.  A child was born to her every two years beginning at the age of fourteen. In 1914, Rachel’s children filed a lawsuit against J. R. McPherson in order to keep their land inheritance.

Yvonne Bivins

click here for part three!

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I’m pleased to announce that Ed Payne’s long-awaited article on Sarah Collins (aka Sarah Collins Walters Parker) is now in print! Look for “Kinship, Gender, and Slavery in the Free State of Jones: the Life of Sarah Collins,” in the spring issue of the Journal of Mississippi History.

Sarah Collins was Ed’s GGGGrandmother, and Ed is one of the leading experts on the history of the Collins family of Jones County, Mississippi. Here, he tells the unique story of a woman who was the sister of several members of Newt Knight’s Knight Company. Prepare for some interesting surprises that remind us that history must be told in all its complexities, and with judicious use of evidence.

Congratulations, Ed!

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 I received the following email message on Sunday from Ingrid Leverett, the daughter of historian Rudy Leverett, author of The Legend of the Free State of Jones (University of Mississippi Press, 1984). Rudy’s book demolished once and for all the myth that Jones County seceded from the Confederacy. While he and I differed in our opinion of whether or not Newt Knight was an outlaw or a Unionist, we engaged in a mutually-respectful dialogue in which we shared materials and ideas.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

Dr. Bynum,

Thank you very much for your defense of serious and careful scholarship in connection with the history of Jones County, Mississippi.  As a daughter of Rudy Leverett, I was dismayed to read of the distorted and ahistorical treatment of the subject by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer and of the publicity their work seems to be receiving.  My father would have endorsed your superb rebuttal of their unsubstantiated claims for Newt Knight which, as you explained, make for colorful drama but poor history.  Indeed, the purpose of my father’s book, Legend of the Free State of Jones — ten years or more in the researching and writing — was precisely to lay to rest, once and for all, perpetuation of the myths about Jones County and Newt Knight advanced by Jenkins and Stauffer.
Best regards,
Ingrid Leverett

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[Jonathan Odell has written extensively about his native state of Mississippi and is the author of the novel, The View From Delphi.  This post was adapted from comments Jon made on Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory blog.]

 

After interviewing many of the “Black Knight” descendants, one thing I’ve learned that concerns them is how easily whites are convinced to idealize the “romantic” relationship between Newt Knight and the ex-slave Rachel. I don’t think they would agree with a commenter who, as quoted on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog, wrote that “it’s less problematic” that Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, authors of State of Jones,  “sexed up a romantic relationship for the sake of a film” then if they generally misread the meaning of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones.

Black women in the days following the Civil War were at the bottom of the heap power-wise. Whether Knight’s assumed romantic feelings for Rachel were reciprocated is missing the point. We will never know, because in the context of that era, it was irrelevant. Good for her if she did, but for black mothers in those days, romantic love was not the driving motivation. Who they loved was immaterial to surviving. She had to find the least worst choice that would keep her and her children alive. Sexing up the relationship for a more satisfying (and modern) ending, further obscures the wrenching sacrifices made and amazing courage displayed by black women of that era.

Just another thought. I was raised in Jones County and have been fascinated to find that the Knights were not the only family line that diverged down two paths after the Civil War. Several former slave owners sired black offspring, and in this part of the country, many thought that even your black children were to be cared for. Many acres of land are still owned by descendants of slaves who were bequeathed the parcel by a white father. But in none of these incidents do the direct black descendants assume that anything like romantic love played a part. According to them black women after the War were as much sexual slaves to white men as they were before the war. And interestingly enough, neither do they call it rape. “Taking somebody to the barn,” as they commonly refer to the occurrence, was just the nature of things. I guess that’s why context is everything. Projecting 21st century notions of romantic love onto 19th century southern interracial relations, as Jenkins and Stauffer have done, won’t take us far toward understanding the lives of black, multiracial, or for that matter white women.

Jonathan Odell

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I’m pleased to announce that my current book-in-progress has a new title.  Southern Communities at War: Essays in Civil War Dissent and Its Legacies, is now The Long Shadow of  the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.

I love the new title, suggested by book-launch wizards at the University of North Carolina Press to give a more accurate sense of the book’s breadth. (Several essays extend well beyond the Civil War, although all connect to the war.) 

If you’re unfamiliar with my new work,  click here for an overview. For the table of contents, click here,  for an excerpt from the introduction, here.

A few more months, and The Long Shadow of the Civil War will be a finished product!

Vikki Bynum

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