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Free State of Jones, by Victoria Bynum

Gregg and I are excited to be heading off to Kansas City on January 26, where I’ll be a featured speaker for the 2012 Richard D. McKinzie Symposium.

The McKinzie Symposium will take place Thursday, January 26 – Friday, January 27, 2012, and will explore the topic, “Confederate Disunion: The War Beyond the Battlefield”

On  Thursday at 6:30 pm, Dr. Stephanie McCurry will present the keynote address, “Confederate Reckoning: The Politics of the ‘Homefront’ in the Civil War South.” Two plenary sessions, including my own, follow on Friday:

9 am–“Recalculating the Price of Freedom: Women and the Civil War”
Dr. Thavolia Glymph

10 am–“The Free State of Jones: Community, Race, and Kinship in Civil War Mississippi”
Dr. Victoria Bynum

For complete information on the symposium, including registration instructions, click here:

McKinzie-Program-2012

A Brief History of the McKinzie Symposium:

This year marks the 17th year of the Richard D. McKinzie Annual Research Symposium. The symposium is co-sponsored by the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences, the Kansas City Public Library, and the Organization of American Historians, the largest professional body of American historians in the country. Thanks to the generous support of the Bernardin Haskell Program, the McKinzie Symposium has grown into a highly anticipated event for our campus. The symposium offers a special opportunity for the participating faculty in the High School College Program—as well as UMKC faculty, students, and the broader Kansas City community—to interact with some of the nation’s leading scholars of American history and culture

If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

Vikki Bynum

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I first encountered the following letter from William D. Fitzgerald to President Lincoln on Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads post, “Black Confederates and White Southern Unionists,” and then again on the Southern Unionists page of Facebook. William Davidson Fitzgerald was born and raised in Nelson County, Virginia. By 1860, he and his family lived in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, where he taught school. I have found no evidence that he owned slaves. Fitzgerald’s letter to the President, written during his imprisonment at Castle Thunder, the Confederate prison in Richmond, was sent only weeks before his death on 27 July 1863.

Several parts of the letter stand out: first, Fitzgerald’s unequivocal belief that the destruction of slavery should be a prime object of the war, and, second, his advice to Lincoln to financially compensate slaveholders who supported the Union as a strategy for maintaining their support. Finally, Fitzgerald speaks forcefully to the question of why a Southern white man might support the U.S. government over the Confederacy. I have bolded the section of the letter I find most fascinating: that in which Fitzgerald offers a class analysis of white men’s loyalty to the Union and his reasoning for why so many non-slaveholders nonetheless joined the Confederate army. 

Vikki Bynum

From William Fitzgerald to Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1863

Castle Thunder

Richmond July 4 1863

As a Citizen of the United States I take the liberty of addressing you a short letter.

I am now, and for a considerable time have been incarcerated by the Enemies of our Country, in Castle Thunder, Richmond– Here I shall soon die; but before being consigned to my obscure grave, I desire as a Southern man to applaud and commend your efforts in the holy cause in-which you are engaged; not only of restoring the Union, but in rending the shackles of Slavery from millions of our fellow beings– Let me assure you that the prayers of thousands in the South ascend to heaven daily for your ultimate success, in the great work–

The heads of the wicked rebellion, and the public journals of the Country, would have the people of the North and of Europe believe, that the Southern people are unanimously in favor of a new government; but, Sir, a pretension more false was never promulgated– If the sense and will of the people, including the rank and file of the army, could be taken to-day, they would, by an overwhelming majority, declare in favor of the Union– Of the white population of the South more than two thirds of the adult males are non-slaveholders or poor– It is impossible for them to fraternize with such men as Jeff Davis, Yancey, Benjamin (Note 1), and their coadjutors– It would be unnatural for them to sympathize with this fratricidal rebellion, or revere an oligarchy founded on slavery, which the rebels leaders are seeking to establish– Slavery has been a curse of the poor white man of the south and he would be mad indeed to desire to perpetuate it– The wealthy planter has ever been the poor mans enemy and oppressor, and the latter would be too generous by half if he desired to increase his foes power over him– You may depend upon it that in general the rich of the South despise the poor, and the poor in return hate the rich–

True it is that the army of the Confederacy is composed principally of men non-Slaveholders but they are not in arms by their own volition.

True it is that at the beginning of the war war many volunteers from this class were raised; but they did not realize the fact that they were to fight against the United States, against the Union– We are a sensation people; and they were carried away by the excitement of the moment– The leaders induced them to believe they were merely going to repel another John-Brown raid– The deception then successfully practiced by the heartless traitors, enabled them afterwards to enforce the conscription, and now the people are powerless– But let the war for the Union be prosecuted, let your armies advance, and wherever they can promise security to the people you will find the masses loyal–

In conclusion I will venture a single suggestion on another point– It would be arrogance and folly in an humble individual like myself to presume to council the chief Magistrate of a great nation but having closely watched the progress of this war, and the policy of your administration, I may be pardoned for expressing the result of my observations, and a single suggestion–

Your Emancipation proclamation opened the grandest issue involved in this sanguinary struggle, and may prove the heaviest blow dealt the rebellion– But as I understand it, and as it is unwisely interpreted in the South, it frees all the Slaves within the territory to which it applies without offering any indemnity to loyal citizens– In this respect it is wanting– There are many loyal slaveholders in the South, and your proclamation has driven some, and will drive others over to the rebels– I know within my circle of acquaintances several with whom it has had this effect– In my own town two gentlemen, who before the proclamation were regarded as union men, and furnished substitutes to the rebels with great reluctance, immediately after the promulgation of the document, entered the Confederate service, one as a Colonel, and another as captain– Not only were these two men added to the rebel army, but the influence of their example was by no means insignificant–

Since then you can not desire the innocent to suffer for the misdeeds of the guilty, that the loyal should recieve — the wages of treason, let another proclamation be issued, promising loyal citizens of the South reasonable compensation for the slaves liberated, out of the confiscated property of the disloyal, and the two proclamations together will quickly prove, with assistance of the army now in the field, the heaviest blows, and the death blows of the rebellion–

Such is the belief of your dying, and,

Obedient Servant–

Wm Fitzgerald

Castle Thunder Prison, Cary St., Richmond, VA, 1865. Wikipedia file

For historians such as myself, finding the actual words of a white Southern Unionist is always exciting.  Fitzgerald’s contention that non-slaveholding whites “are not in arms by their own volition,” and that they were fooled by secessionists into fighting against their own government by exaggerated stories of impending raids by the likes of John Brown is an opinion that many disputed, then and now.

Yet Fitzgerald was not alone in that view. During the same year in which he wrote to Lincoln, John A. Beaman of North Carolina wrote his governor that “farmers and mechanics” were ready to “revolutionize” rather than fight a slaveholders’ war. Guerrilla leader Newt Knight echoed Beaman in 1892 when he expressed regret that Southern nonslaveholders did not launch a successful uprising against the slaveholders who had “tricked” them into fighting their war. (note 2).  In 1912, Madison Bush (who would be mayor of Laurel, Mississippi, by 1920) agreed with Newt, telling the Jones County D.A.R. that ordinary white men and boys had initially joined the Confederacy only because “they thought it was big to get the big guns on.” (note 3).

These are but a few of the pro-Union and anti-Confederate words uttered by Southern men and women, whites and blacks, that are buried in documents, memoirs, and letters throughout archives and attics of the South.  Many Southerners viewed support for the United States government as the true sign of patriotism and loyalty; many (including a good number of slaveholders) viewed secession as utter madness. 

Footnotes:

1. Here, Fitzgerald refers to William L. Yancey, prominent leader of the Southern secession movement and member of the Confederate Senate in 1862, and Judah P. Benjamin, former U. S. Senator from Louisiana who served as Confederate Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State.

2. Bynum, Long Shadow of the Civil War, pp. 15, 96

3. Bynum. Free State of Jones, p. 95

The original copy of William D. Fitzgerald’s letter is in the Lincoln Papers at the National Archives (Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916). For more on Fitzgerald, see Carman Cumming, Devil’s Game, The Civil War Intrigues of Charles A. Dunham; also Scribd.com, “New Details Emerge on the Life and Death of William D. Fitzgerald in the infamous Castle Thunder.”

My thanks to Marilyn Fitzgerald Marme, Fitzgerald’s ggg- granddaughter, for posting his letter online and allowing me to post it on Renegade South.

Vikki Bynum

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James Richard Welch died on 6 September 1879 at the age of 62.  Like most of his Jones County contemporaries of modest means, he left no will.  Fortunately, his son-in-law Prentice M. Bynum was literate and, having once served as clerk in the Ellisville courthouse, knew a fair amount about the law.  Prentice petitioned the court to be appointed administrator of the estate.  As part of his duties, he compiled a list of all heirs. That list, which I’ll return to later, provides a useful vantage point from which to examine the political stances taken by ordinary families in Jones County, Mississippi, a county that gained notoriety during the Civil War for its rebellion against Confederate authority. 

 Early in the nineteenth century, Bryant Welch, the father of James Richard Welch, followed the same migration path to Mississippi Territory as did many other early Piney Woods settlers.  He left South Carolina and lived for several years in Georgia where, around 1817, James R. Welch was born.  The family’s first stop in Mississippi was in Wayne County.  Tax rolls reveal that Bryant next moved his family to the section of Covington County from which Jones County was formed in 1826.  For the rest of their lives, Bryant and his wife, Sabra “Sally” Martin, lived in Jones County, where they raised a family of nine children (see Note 1).

 Their son, James R. Welch, fit solidly within the mold of the yeoman herders who predominated in the central Piney Woods.  After marrying Mary Marzilla Valentine around 1836, he engaged in raising livestock and planting subsistence crops.  Fairly typical of their place and time, James and Mary produced children at a rate of one every two years—for a total of thirteen born between 1837 and 1862. 

 In 1860, James estimated the worth of his real estate at $1,000 and his personal estate at $1,165.  Typical of yeoman in that region, he did not own slaves.  But like most Southerners, the Civil War left him in greatly reduced circumstances.  In 1870, at age 53, he judged his land to be worth $466 and his personal affects at $875.  This might seem like a meager amount, but among the seventy-three households in Township 10 where James resided, only seven surpassed this total while eighteen reported no assets at all. 

 Following James’s death, Mary Welch received her allotted widow’s share of the estate, valued at $168, and a year’s worth of provisions.  The court then granted authority for a sale of the remaining property.  The sale failed to cover outstanding claims against the estate and administrative costs.  Nevertheless, Prentice Bynum submitted a second and more detailed list of heirs:

 W.M. Welch; Tabitha J. Walters; Elizabeth Jackson and James Jackson [her] husband; Geo. B. Welch; Joel Welch; Matilda Clark and John H. Clark, her husband; Virginia and B.T. Hinton, her husband [all of whom] reside in Jones County.  Martha Lard [Laird] and E.W. Lard her husband who reside in Smith County; Arsella Bynum and Mary M., James B. Bynum, minors who reside in Covington County; and James Collins and two other children… who are heirs to Ebaline Colins… and H.T. Collins (their) father… (who) reside in the State of Texas.

 A comparison of the Welch household census records from 1850 through 1870 with the court documents indicates that three children—Cynthia, J.E., and James—died childless prior to 1879.  The estate papers identified Frances Bynum as the deceased wife of Prentice Bynum and listed three children as her heirs.  Frances apparently died around 1876. 

 The identity of daughter “Ebaline Collins” is a bit more difficult to establish.  Like her sister Frances, she seems to have died prior to 1879, leaving several children as her heirs.  Best evidence suggests her full name was Samantha Eboline Welch.  The 1870 Jasper County census listed 19 year-old “Emaline Collins” in the household of H.T. Collins, age 21.  The couple had a one-year-old son named James.  By 1880, Harrison T. Collins had moved to Texas and remarried, all of which conforms to the information provided by Prentice Bynum. 

 Thus the estate papers of James R. Welch offer us the identities of six children who entered adulthood during and just after the Civil War—one son and five daughters.  The court documents also provide the names of the men whom these daughters married.  From this starting point, what does an examination of war records of the males within this group reveal?

 1)  Born on 1 November 1837, WILLIAM M. WELCH married Amanda Coats sometime before 1860.  Two years later, on 13 May 1862, following passage of the first Confederate conscription act, he enlisted with many of his fellow Jones Countians in Co F of the 7th Battalion MS Infantry.  But on the July-October 1862 muster roll he is listed as AWOL, suggesting he deserted before or just after the battles of Iuka and Corinth.  William’s name appears on Thomas Knight’s version of the Knight Band roster (as “W.M. Welch”).  He was also identified as one of the men captured by troops under command of Confederate Col. Robert Lowry on 25 April 1864 (see Note 2).  Col. Lowry’s men had been deployed to the Piney Woods region to suppress renegade activity.  Due to chronic manpower shortages in the Southern army, the men they arrested were simply forced to return to their unit which shortly thereafter was pressed into the defense of Atlanta. 

 The last major battle prior to the siege of Atlanta took place at Kennesaw Mountain, about 25 miles north of the city.  Situated behind a strong defensive line, the Confederate forces of Gen. Joseph Johnson scored a tactical victory over Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops.  However, on 3 July 1864, at least twenty-three men from the 7th Battalion became Union captives.  Of these, eleven can also be found on the Knight Band roster—including William Welch.  He was processed and assigned to Camp Douglas, Illinois, on 17 July 1864.  His muster records, as well as those of four other men belonging to Co F and sent to Camp Douglas, include the following comment:

 Claims to have been loyal, was forced to enlist in Rebel Army to avoid conscript, and deserted to avail himself of amnesty proclimation [sic] etc.

William M. Welch, prisoner of war

William Welch managed to survive the harsh conditions at Camp Douglas, although four of his fellow captives did not (see Note 3).  He was discharged on 16 May 1865 and returned to Jones County where he spent the rest of his life.  William’s wife Amanda died on 13 October 1895.  He died on 24 September 1908.  Both are buried in Union Line cemetery.

2)  TABITHA J. WELCH was born on 19 April 1840.  Union pension files document that she married JOEL W. WALTERS on 26 Sep 1860, shortly after he was granted a divorce from his first wife.  On 13 May 1862 a “J.W. Walters” enrolled in the 7th Battalion, Co F.  It is unclear if this was Joel W. Walters, but the soldier was AWOL as of the January-February 1863 muster roll and never returned. 

What is clear is that Joel W. Walters enlisted in the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry on 25 March 1864.  He earned promotions to corporal and then to sergeant.  A month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Joel deserted and returned home.  He died of tuberculosis on 28 July 1868.  Tabitha raised their three surviving children and never re-married.  In 1885 changes in the pension laws permitted the desertion charge against Joel to be removed and the next year Tabitha was approved for a pension, effective from the date of her husband’s death.  Tabitha died on 23 November 1924.

Tabitha/Tobitha J. Welch Walters, Antioch Methodist Church, Jones County, MS. Author's photograph

 3)  MARY ELIZABETH WELCH was born around 1842.  She married JAMES EULIN (aka Yulin / Youlin) shortly before the 1860 census.  Little is known about Eulin’s family background.  A James Youlin, possibly his father, can be found on the 1840 census of Scott County.  The 1850 census listed 10 year-old James Eulin in the family of Abraham Laird, residing in Smith County.  By 1860 the Laird family had moved to Jones County where James Eulin apparently met and wed nearby neighbor Mary Elizabeth Welch.

On 13 May 1862, James also enrolled in Co F of the 7th Battalion.  Like his brother-in-law William Welch, James Eulin appeared as AWOL on the July-October 1863 muster roll.  And his name also appears on the Knight Band roster (as “James Ewlin”).   Another name on the Knight Band roster was “Elijah Welborn.”  In actuality, he was Elijah Welborn Laird—a son of Abraham Laird.  Adding yet another strand to this web of yeoman connections, Elijah would later marry Martha Welch. 

Captured by Col. Lowry’s troops on 25 April 1864, James and the others were shipped back to the 7th Battalion.  He, too, was captured by federal forces on 3 July 1864 and sent to Camp Morton, Indiana.  By this date, prisoner exchanges had largely ceased except for those in very poor health.  James Eulin seems to have fallen into this category, because he was selected for exchange on 19 February 1865.  However, he died at Piedmont, West Virginia, on 23 February 1865 while en route to the exchange point.  James and Mary Elizabeth had one daughter, Mahala Jane.  Mary Elizabeth’s efforts to cope with her post-war status as a Piney Woods widow will be the subject of a future article.

4)  MARTHA M. WELCH was born on 27 March 1846.  She married ELIJAH WELBORN LAIRD after the Civil War.  As noted, Elijah was the son of Abraham Laird whose family had adopted James Eulin.  Elijah enlisted in the 20th MS Infantry on 13 January 1863 and was listed as AWOL on 8 February of same year.  He is found under the name “Elija Welborn” on the roster printed in Thomas Knight’s book.  When Confederate forces moved into the area, he fled south and joined the 1st New Orleans Infantry as “Elijah Wilborn” on 30 April 1864.  He served until the regiment was disbanded on 1 June 1866 and then returned to Jones County where he married Martha M. Welch on 14 March 1867. 

Elijah moved his family to Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, around 1890.  He obtained a Union pension for an injury to his right hip.  His pension file documents that he died at the home of “S. Barnes” in Covington County, Mississippi on 31 March 1897 and was buried in the Barnes Cemetery (see Note 4).  Martha died on 21 September 1898 and was interred in the Provencal Cemetery, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.  At the time of her death, Martha was attempting to obtain a widow’s pension.  Although the couple left three minor children, they apparently never received any pension benefits.

5)  Born around 1847, FRANCES S. WELCH married PRENTICE M. BYNUM in 1866.  Prentice was the son of Benjamin F. Bynum and Margaret (“Peggy”) Collins.  When the first Confederate conscription law went into effect in 1862, Prentice was sixteen and so temporarily exempt.  Eighteen months later he joined the Knight Band.  In the aftermath of the Lowry campaign he enlisted in the 1st New Orleans Infantry.  Within six months he became seriously ill and entered University Hospital.  He was transferred to New York General Hospital on 1 April 1865 and discharged from McDougall Hospital on 20 May 1865. Prentice returned to Jones County and served as Clerk for the Jones County courts under the Reconstruction administration.  As noted, Frances died circa 1876.  Prentice re-married to Nancy C. Rawles in Perry County on 4 December 1878.  He moved to Marion and Lamar counties where he farmed and participated in Populist politics.  He died in Lamar County in 1906.

6)  The estate documents suggest that the deceased wife of HARRISON T. COLLINS was SAMANTHA EBOLINE WELCH, born circa 1849.  Harrison Collins, also born around 1849, apparently avoided conscription on account of his age.  As the son of Simeon Collins and grandson of Stacy Collins, however, Harrison belonged to Jones County’s most avowedly Unionist family.  Simeon Collins, like his brother Jasper, deserted the 7th Battalion following the Battle of Corinth and became a member of the Knight Band.  He was among those who surrendered to Lowry’s troops and were transferred back to the 7th Battalion—and then were captured at Kennesaw Mountain on 3 July 1864.  Along with two other sons, Simeon spent the remainder of the war in Camp Morton.  He was released under oath on 18 May 1865 but died soon thereafter. 

Harrison T. Collins would have been around sixteen years old when his father died.  The estate papers and census records suggest Samantha Eboline Collins’s death occurred circa 1876.  During this same time period Simeon’s widow Lydia (nee Bynum) and several of the sons moved to Texas, with Harrison among them.  He married twice more before dying in Polk County, Texas in 1936.

This inquiry into a single branch of the Welch family demonstrates the links between Civil War dissent and marriages within the Jones County yeoman class.  Rudy H. Leverett’s pioneering Legend of the Free State of Jones made a brief reference to kinship ties between the Knight Band and the surrounding population.  But Victoria Bynum’s Free State of Jones offered the first comprehensive exploration of these intricate kinships and the yeoman culture that set Jones County apart from much of the rest of Mississippi.  Among the early settlers she investigated were the Bynum, Collins, Knight, Sumrall, Valentine and Welch families.  Tracing nineteenth century female lines is, as any genealogist can tell you, far more difficult than tracing male lines.  County records of marriages, even when they were recorded, often fell victim to courthouse fires.  Without family Bible records or other documents, female lines often became lost.  Yet, the marriages of females tell an important half of the story—or, as in the case of these five daughters of James R. Welch—over 80% of it.

By simply recording the names of the men that the Welch daughters married, Prentice Bynum permitted us to unravel the extent of Unionist ties found among the older children of James R. Welch.  This is not to imply that exploring other Jones County female lines would invariably expose a similar preponderance of Unionist connections.  What can be said is that the records of the older children of James R. Welch demonstrate a web of anti-secessionist activities that rivals that of the Collins family.

But it is reasonable to question the relationship between war time dissent and the selection of marriage partners.  It seems highly unlikely that during their pre-war courtships Tabitha and Mary Elizabeth Welch—or Amanda Coats, who married William Welch—engaged in probing conversations to discern the attitudes of their suitors about slavery, states’ rights, and secession.  Unlike much of the antebellum South, these issues meant little to the yeoman herders of Jones County.  Slave-ownership was rare, the population widely dispersed, literacy rates low, and newspapers few.  Nor is it likely that Martha, Frances, or Samantha Welch accepted post-war marriage proposals based on their husbands’ Civil War records.  What seems more probable is that these young people belonged to a common yeoman culture; and that the Civil War brought a number of young men steeped in that culture into conflict with slave-owners, secessionists, and Confederate authorities of the larger South.

The records of the son and sons-in-law of James R. Welch demonstrate the shortcomings of attempts to depict the revolt in Jones County as emerging from the leadership of a single individual: Newt Knight.  This scenario has been put forth with Newt Knight assigned the role of  nefarious villain (Ethel Knight, Echo of the Black Horn) and, alternatively, socially enlightened hero (Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, State of Jones).  The limited records available to us suggest that Newt Knight was decisive, shrewd, and—if the circumstances required it—deadly.  There are situations in which such characteristics are highly esteemed, from bar fights to wars.  But unless we are prepared to grant Newt Knight the role of preeminent molder of antebellum Piney Woods society, the fallacy of applying a Great Man theory to events in Jones County becomes apparent.  Rather, research into the children of James R. Welch provides further evidence of the underlying cultural roots of Piney Woods dissent during the Civil War.

Notes:

 I would like to express my appreciation to Randall Kervin, whose inquiry about Mary Elizabeth Welch on “Renegade South” led me to explore the web of Unionist connections among the children of James Richard Welch.

 1)   Tax records indicate that James R. Welch’s grandfather, Richard Welch, arrived in Wayne County in 1813 with 2 slaves.  However, the Welch families of Jones County are recorded as owning no slaves from the time of the 1830 census forward.

 2)  Thomas J. Knight’s The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight, was first published in 1934.  The revised 1946 edition has recently been reprinted by Carolyn and Keith Horne of Laurel, MS.  Thomas Knight’s version of the Knight Band roster appears on pages 16-17.  The men captured by Col. Lowry’s troops on 25 April 1864 appear on pages 18-19.

 3)  Those members of the 7th Battalion MS Infantry, Co F, captured on 3 July 1864, who died while prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, Illinois, included Thomas N. Coats, William A. Lyons, Henry O. Parker, and William P. Valentine.

 4)  Census records suggest that “S. Barnes” was Sebastian Barnes, Elijah’s son-in-law.  He had married Elijah’s daughter Jena C. Laird in 1886.

Ed Payne

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 Mixed Chicks Chat

Earlier this year, on February 16, I announced my upcoming interview on the award-winning show, Mixed Chicks Chat. This live weekly show, launched by co-producers and co-hosts Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow in 2007, addresses different aspects of mixed-race experience each week with guest authors, community leaders, and everyday people who share their own stories. So, I was excited to be a part of the show! Sadly, however, the interview scheduled to take place on Wednesday, March 2, 2011, had to be cancelled because of technical difficulties.

I’m happy to report that Fanshen Cox invited me once again to be a guest on the show, and this time things went beautifully. On August 10, I had a great time discussing Mississippi’s Newt, Rachel, and the “White Negro” Knight community with Fanshen and co-host Jennifer Frappier. I also enjoyed fielding questions from members of the audience, one of whom was Steven Riley from Mixed Race Studies: Scholarly Perspectives on the Mixed Race Experience.

If you’re not familiar with this program, I urge you to visit the Mixed Chicks site. If you find Renegade South’s posts about the history of mixed-race families interesting, you will surely find the “Mixed Chicks” interviews and dialogues fascinating!  

You may listen to interviews on Mixed Chick Chats by visiting Talkshoe.com and signing up as a listener.

My compliments to the hosts, and my thanks to them for rescheduling the interview. 

Vikki Bynum

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

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

 

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

Eliphar Childs Dykes Chain, courtesy of Jan Dykes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikki Bynum

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Interview by Wisconsin Public Radio

The Long Shadow of the Civil War

This has been a busy week, and the upcoming week will be even more so! As part of Wisconsin Public Radio’s observation of the 150 year anniversary of the Civil War, I was interviewed on Friday, July 8, on the Veronica Rueckert Show.  The topic was my latest book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, and the discussion included Southern Unionists, participation by Southern women in anti-Confederate uprisings, Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones, and Wesleyan Methodist Unionists in North Carolina. After the first half hour the show was opened to callers, whose questions and comments took us beyond a discussion of the book’s contents. If you’d like to hear the interview for yourself, click on the arrow below:

Upcoming presentation in Jones County

In a few days, Gregg and I will head out for Laurel, Mississippi, where I’m scheduled to present “Newt Knight, Southern Renegade: Patriot or Traitor?” at the Laurel-Jones Public Library. The Library is located at 530 Commerce St., Laurel, and my talk will take place on Friday, July 15, from 11:30 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. If you’re in the area, come on by!

My thanks to Dan Walters of Laurel for arranging this. 

Gregg’s and my day at the Laurel library will be followed by our attendance at the biennial Knight-Booth Family Reunion in Soso, where we’re looking forward to reconnecting with good friends like Florence Knight Blaylock and Olga Watts Nelson, pictured below.

Vikki Bynum

Florence Blaylock, Olga Watts Nelson, and Vikki Bynum, January 2011

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By Vikki Bynum

Ed Payne’s current series on Mississippi Piney Woods Civil War Unionists, “Crossing the Rubicon of Loyalties,” provides a timely context for a closer look at Oquin C. Martin, a former Confederate soldier and Piney Woods neighbor to the infamous Newt Knight. Although Martin joined neither Newt Knight’s band of deserters nor the Union army, his 1895 deposition,* gathered during Newt Knight’s federal claims hearing, indicates that were he forced to live the war all over again, Martin might not have remained loyal to the Confederacy.  When asked whether he had been a “Union man or a secessionist,” he answered, “I was a right smart of a secessionist until I was converted.”

There was no follow-up question to Martin’s intriguing statement that he had been “converted.” Clearly, the government was far more interested in what Martin had to say about Newt Knight’s loyalty than his own, particularly since he and Newt had served together in the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry of the Confederate Army. When asked how long Newt served, Martin replied that Newt had deserted at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi—before the 7th battalion moved on to Vicksburg–and, to his knowledge, “never returned” to service. More on that later.

We now know that Newt Knight was not unique among Piney Woods soldiers in his decision to bolt the Confederate Army. As Ed Payne’s research demonstrates, the disheartening course of the Civil War contributed to a growing number of Mississippi men who not only deserted the Confederacy but also joined the Union Army. These were in addition to a good many southerners who opposed secession in the first place, and remained devoted to Union.

Like so many soldiers, O.C. Martin left behind a wife and family when he went off to war. While not among the 200-plus Piney Woods soldiers who fled to the Union Army’s 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry, he was reported AWOL following his parole from Vicksburg. Most likely, concerns for his family, which included a wife, two children, and three stepchildren, as well as war-weariness after the ordeal of Vicksburg contributed to his decision to take an unauthorized leave.

Assuming Martin returned to his Piney Woods home while AWOL, he would have found plenty of other soldiers there who had done the same thing. A number of these men joined the Knight band, organized in October 1863; many more joined the Union Army. Martin, however, eventually rejoined the 7th Battalion. When asked by the government when he finally returned home for good, he replied that his battalion was “captured at Blakeley, Ala. and taken thence to Vicksburg as prisoners at which place we were released and disbanded and returned to our homes, the war being over.”  His military records bear him out, reporting the date of his capture as April 9, 1865, and that of his transfer to Vicksburg as May 1, 1865.

O.C. Martin was called by the U.S. government to testify against Newt Knight’s claim, probably because of his wartime loyalty to the Confederacy at a time when many of his neighbors turned to guerrilla warfare or Union service. But unlike those defense witnesses who painted Newt Knight as an outlaw with no known Union affiliations, upon cross-examination Martin portrayed Newt and his band as having “fought our cavalry and certainly against the South”—hardly what the government was hoping he’d say! Furthermore, when asked by Newt’s lawyer whether it was not a “notorious fact” that Newt Knight had “raised a company of Infantry in opposition to the Confederacy and in favor of the Union,” Martin replied, “that was my understanding; heard it often and believed it.”

Lending credence to Martin’s statements was the obvious care he took to answer questions accurately. He had known Newt since boyhood, he said, but “never knew his political sentiments.” And, since he and Newt belonged to different companies of the same battalion, he declined to identify Newt’s military rank, or to comment on whether or not he had “evaded all duty and refused to go into any battles against Union troops.”

An important component of Newt’s case was an 1870 affidavit claiming he had been sorely abused by Confederate authorities because of his Unionist beliefs. Martin claimed to have no knowledge of such abuse, or the related claim that Newt’s “dwelling house and its contents” had been burned down by his enemies. Still, Martin said, he did remember a time when “the captain threatened to have him shot.”

The careful, precise, and confident nature of O.C. Martin’s responses to questions administered under oath lends credence to his remark that Newt Knight’s final desertion from the Confederate Army occurred at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi, the 7th battalion’s last place of engagement before Vicksburg.  Martin’s recollection is particularly important because Newt’s own military record is blank between February and June 1863, thus omitting the time period when the 7th battalion was pinned down at Vicksburg.

Really, none of this should matter, since Newt himself never claimed to have served at Vicksburg; nor did any of his contemporaries report him there. The reason it does matter is because that gap in his military record allowed Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, in their 2009 book, State of Jonesto feature fifteen pages detailing Newt’s allegedly grueling experiences at—yes, Vicksburg.

O.C. Martin’s deposition is a reminder that federal and state records, many gathered years after the Civil War, often yield information about the lives of soldiers and their families that might otherwise never come to light. Only because Martin was asked point blank about his political views do we learn that this Confederate veteran, once a “right smart” secessionist, had at some point been “converted.” And only because the U.S. government was intent on learning whether or not Newt Knight was a true Unionist do we learn, inadvertently, that Newt Knight deserted the Confederacy at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi–and not at Vicksburg.

*O. C. Martin deposition, March 6, 1895, Newt Knight claim file, 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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