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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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