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A conversation with Victoria E. Bynum  

Author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies  

Published April 15, 2010  

$35.00 hardcover, ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0  

The Long Shadow of the Civil War

  

Q. There seems no end to books about the American Civil War. What does The Long Shadow of the Civil War offer that is new?
A.
Although Civil War books about the home front are not new, this is a new sort of home front study that focuses on three communities from three different states. Rather than close with the war and Reconstruction, The Long Shadow of the Civil War follows individual Unionists and multiracial families into the New South era and, in some cases, into the twentieth century. This historical sweep allows the reader to understand the ongoing effects of the war at its most personal levels.
   

Q. What led you to combine three Civil War home fronts, all noted as areas of violent disorder, in one study? Why these three?
A.
Most basically, I combined them in order to provide in-depth comparisons of the communities within the same volume. But there’s more to it than that; the communities have important links to one another. The North Carolina Piedmont was the ancestral seedbed of migration into what became Jones County, Mississippi. Later, East Texas attracted many non-slaveholding Mississippi families seeking a less-developed piney woods region.  

All three regions exhibited fierce Unionist activity during the Civil War, with brothers fighting in separate deserter bands across state lines in two of the communities. So, combining them in one study provided a wonderful opportunity to identify common characteristics of Southern Unionism, while also showing how different geographic settings influenced the nature of the inner civil wars.
   

Q. What were the most important similarities among the three communities of dissent? The most important differences?  

A. All three communities were located outside the South’s plantation belt and all had large non-slaveholding majorities. Important differences were religious practices and length of settlement. The North Carolina Quaker Belt had a history of religious dissent that included Moravian, Mennonite and Dunker sects as well as Quakers.   

Beginning around 1848, Wesleyan Methodism, with its anti-slavery ideals, gained popularity in this region. The Quaker Belt was also a long-settled region of expansive, deeply entwined family networks that lent force and stability to anti-Confederate sentiments.

By contrast, neither Jones County, Mississippi, nor Hardin County, Texas, exhibited significant or organized religious dissent against slavery. As in North Carolina, family networks were important to anti-Confederate activity; however, in East Texas, more recent migration from states like Mississippi meant that family networks were less extensive there. Less cohesive and deeply rooted communities, coupled with politicians’ successful linking of Texas’s 1836 revolution to the Southern cause of secession, undermined organized anti-Confederate activity among non-slaveholders in East Texas.  

Q. Why did you return to the Free State of Jones County, Mississippi, and to the North Carolina Quaker Belt, two regions that you wrote about in previous books, for this study?
A.
Ever since I discovered that a splinter band of Unionist deserters, led by several brothers of members of the Jones County band, kept Confederate forces at bay in the Texas Big Thicket, and after discovering ancestral links between the North Carolina Piedmont and Jones County, Mississippi, I have wanted to combine the inner civil wars of these three regions in the same volume. Doing so also gave me the opportunity to analyze research materials that were not included in my earlier works: two examples are documents concerning the lives of freedpeople and poor whites in Orange County, North Carolina, and Newt Knight’s 1887-1900 Mississippi claim files.  

Q. You cite abolitionism as a motive for anti-Confederate sentiments in only one of your three communities: that of the Randolph County area of the North Carolina Quaker Belt. How and why did religion play such an important role in this region, but not in Jones County, Mississippi, or the Big Thicket of East Texas?
A.
The Randolph County area of North Carolina (including Montgomery and Moore Counties) was the “heart” of the state’s Quaker Belt. Quaker opposition to slavery had faded over time because of the state’s changing demographics, but it never entirely disappeared, making this region fertile ground for Wesleyan Methodists who gained a foothold in the 1850s. In Montgomery County, the Rev. Adam Crooks condemned slavery from the pulpit of the Lovejoy Methodist Church. In contrast, Jones County, Mississippi and Hardin County, Texas, were Baptist strongholds during the secession crisis. I have found no evidence that any Baptist church in either county publically opposed slavery or secession; indeed, the Leaf River Baptist Church of Jones County publically supported the Confederacy.
   

Q. Newt Knight, the controversial “captain” of the Knight Company, is a polarizing figure who even today evokes heated arguments among readers. Why is this so, and how did it affect your historical treatment of him?
A.
As long as we continue to debate the causes, meanings, and effects of the Civil War, Newt Knight’s motives and character will also be debated. We know that he defied Confederate authority during the war, supported Republican Reconstruction afterward, and openly crossed the color line to found a mixed-race community. To neo-Confederates, such facts make Newt a scoundrel and a traitor to his country and his race. To neo-abolitionists, he is a backwoods Mississippi hero who defended his nation and struggled to uplift the black race. My response to such powerful and emotional narratives is to examine critically not only the documentary evidence, but also the mountain of published opinions about Newt Knight that have too often functioned as “evidence” for both sides of the debate.  

Q. Newt Knight, his white wife Serena, and former family slave, Rachel, were the founding parents of a multiracial community. What sort of a community was it in terms of racial identity? How did members of the community identify themselves racially, as opposed to how the larger white society defined them?
A. As segregation took hold in New South Mississippi (1880-1900), the descendants of Newt, Serena, and Rachel were increasingly defined by white society as black, i.e. as “Negroes,” despite being of European, African, and Native American ancestry. Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, however, few of these descendants identified themselves as “black.” Depending on their physical appearance, including skin shade and hair texture, descendants of Newt and Rachel variously defined themselves as white, Indian, or colored. Whereas white society applied a “one drop rule” that grouped together all people of African ancestry, these descendants self-identified in ways that reflected their multiracial heritage.  

There is no direct evidence of how Newt, Serena, or Rachel racially identified their multiracial descendants. Descendant Yvonne Bivins, the most thorough Knight researcher, was told by her elders that Newt Knight actively encouraged his descendants to identify as white. All that is certain—but nonetheless remarkable—is that they economically supported, nurtured, and lived openly among both white and multiracial kinfolk all their lives.  

Q. By crossing the color line, Newt Knight deviated from the norm by acknowledging and supporting his multiracial descendants. What may we deduce from those facts about his political views on race relations in the era of segregation?
A.
Since we don’t know that Newt Knight identified his multiracial descendants as “black,” we can’t deduce from his intimate relationships with them, or by his efforts to enroll them in a local school (one that he helped create) alongside his white descendants, that he supported equality for all people of African ancestry—that is, for people classed as “Negroes.” Only if we adhere to the “one drop rule”—and assume that Newt Knight did, too—can we conclude that Newt’s protection of his own kinfolk extended to all Americans of African ancestry.  

Newt’s efforts on behalf of freedpeople as a Republican appointee during Reconstruction do not necessarily make him an advocate of black equality, as some historians have argued. There were many Reconstruction Republicans who supported the same basic rights of marriage and military service that Newt upheld for freedpeople, while supporting segregation and opposing black voting rights. We simply don’t know Newt’s political position on these issues.  

Q. For thirty years, Newt Knight petitioned the federal government to compensate his ad hoc military band, the Knight Company, for its support of the Union during the Civil War. What do those petitions reveal about the claims process itself, as well as the Knight Band?
A.
The transcripts from Newt Knight’s extensive claims files suggest the federal government’s hostility toward claims of Southern Unionism, especially after 1887, as the nation sank into a deep economic depression. That year, Newt renewed efforts begun in 1870 to win compensation.  

Several depositions of Jones County men made a strong case for Unionism among the Knight Company. The passage of time, however, doomed Newt’s claim to failure. His Washington, DC lawyers were unfamiliar with the Jones County uprising, while witnesses’ memories of the war faded over time. Most damaging, crucial evidence presented in Knight’s 1870 petition was misplaced by the government and never presented after 1887. At the same time, an expanding literature that portrayed the white South as having been unified around secession made Northerners all the more suspicious of Southern claims of Unionism.  

Q. The Long Shadow of the Civil War is as much about the legacies of Civil War dissent as about the war itself. Why did you include both topics in a single volume?
A.
To truly understand the Civil War, we need to understand its long-term impact on the lives of those who endured it. Southerners who took a Unionist stance lived with that decision all their lives, as did their children and grandchildren. Some struggled to put the war behind them and never spoke of it again; others, like Newt Knight and Warren Collins, defended their actions all their lives, and went on to fight new political battles.  

Multiracial communities that grew out of war and emancipation grew larger and more complex in the late nineteenth century. Faced with racial violence and segregation, many of their members exited the South during these years. But among those who remained, we witness the birth of a multiracial Southern middle class.
   

Q. You locate a long tradition of political dissent among certain Jones County families that found expression in third party political movements after the Civil War. How does this New South agrarian radicalism shed light on Civil War Unionism and vice versa?
A.
In all three regions, I found examples of emerging class consciousness among non-slaveholding farmers as a result of the Civil War. Late in life, Newt Knight, for example, offered a class-based critique of Southern society. Two prominent Unionist brothers, Jasper J. Collins of Jones County, Mississippi, and Warren J. Collins of Hardin County, Texas, went even further, carving out political careers as populists and socialists in two separate states.  

A close study of individual lives reveals how the Civil War reshaped their perspectives. Of course, the majority of Southern Unionists did not join third-party political movements in the aftermath of war. It appears, however, that some ideologically committed Unionists, such as the Collinses of Mississippi and Texas, grew ever more militant in their political views as the years passed.  

Q. Your epilogue, “Fathers and Sons,” compares and contrasts three twentieth-century histories of individual guerrilla leaders written by their sons. What do these biographical sketches reveal about the impact of kinship and politics on the Civil War memories of Southern Unionist families?
A.
All three biographies were written after the deaths of their subjects, and reflect the need for sons to defend notorious fathers against charges of treason, lawlessness, or ignorance—especially in the wake of New South glorification of the Confederate cause. Further complicating Tom Knight’s biography of Newt Knight was his effort to present his father as a hero to the segregated, virulently white supremacist society of the 1930s. At the time of Newt’s death, Tom was estranged from him and the family’s interracial community. He knew little about his father’s early years (his narrative is studded with factual errors) and his “memories” of Newt Knight during the Civil War and Reconstruction were profoundly influenced by his need to valorize Newt and thereby restore respect for his family. Though very different in tone and accuracy, Vinson A. Collins’s and Loren Collins’s biographies of their fathers, Warren J. Collins of Texas and Jasper J. Collins of Mississippi, are presented not only with a sense of each son’s relationship with his father, but also in the context of the nation’s politicized memories of the Civil War.  

###
This interview may be reprinted in its entirety with the following credit: A conversation with Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (University of North Carolina Press, Spring 2010). The text of this interview is available at http://www.ibiblio.org/uncp/media/bynum/.
                                                                                                                              PUBLISHING DETAILS
ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0, $35.00 hardcover
Publication date: April 15, 2010
240 pp., 9 illus., 1 map, bibl., notes, bibl., index
For more information: http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-7790.html
The University of North Carolina Press, http://www.uncpress.unc.edu
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
919-966-3561 (office) 1-800-848-6224 (orders) 919-966-3829 (fax)  

CONTACTS
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Sales: Michael Donatelli, 919-962-0475; michael_donatelli@unc.edu
Rights: Vicky Wells, 919-962-0369; vicky_wells@unc.edu

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I’m excited to announce that my new book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, has been released!  Click here to see its table of contents.

The Long Shadow of the Civil War

To purchase a copy directly from the University of North Carolina Press, click on the title, above. You may also order it from Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

To learn more about The Long Shadow of the Civil War, watch for my next post on Renegade South, which will feature my recent Question & Answer interview with the University of North Carolina Press.

Vikki Bynum

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Nancy Pitts Walters 

By Ed Payne

  

When Nancy Pitts Walters died in 1915 at the age of 82, she had the distinction of being the widow of not one but two Piney Woods men who journeyed to New Orleans in the spring of 1864 to join the Union Army.  Both of her husbands, Marada M. Walters and Hanson A. Walters, belonged to one of the oldest and largest family lines in Jones County, Mississippi.  The fact that Nancy’s mother was a Walters and that five more of her Walters kinsmen also enlisted in the New Orleans regiments indicates the extent to which some branches of this prolific Piney Woods clan adopted the Union cause.

Nancy was born on January 26, 1833, the fourth child of Daniel Pitts and Margaret Walters Pitts.  Daniel, a native of Savannah, Georgia, moved to Jones County sometime after 1820.  He homesteaded in the southeast quadrant of the county where the couple raised 13 children, all born between 1827 and 1849.  His wife Margaret was by most accounts a child of Jones County patriarch Willoughby Walters, previously identified in the profile of Civil War widow Martha Rushing as the grandfather of her first husband, George Warren Walters.  

In an era when many women married in their teens, 1860 found Nancy Pitts on the cusp of spinsterhood.  She was single and 27, with a decade of potential child bearing years already behind her.  That summer, however, she was betrothed to Marada Walters, son of Daniel Walters and his wife Nancy.  The two families were neighbors and it seems likely they attended the same church, Mt. Moriah Baptist, founded in 1854.  Marada (alternately spelled Meredy, Marady, and Meredick) was seven years Nancy’s junior, having just turned 20.  His father was one of the younger sons of Willoughby Walters whereas Nancy Pitts’s mother, Margaret, was one of his older daughters—possibly by a different wife.  Nevertheless, it was a marriage of first cousins.

The nuptials of Marada Walters and Nancy Pitts were one or two rungs down the area’s social ladder from those of their mutual first cousin George Warren Walters and his bride Martha Rushing, who exchanged vows just a few months later.  The focus on livestock production and a paucity of fertile crop land resulted in a more homogeneous socio-economic order in the Piney Woods than was the case where the cotton economy predominated.  But the mother of George Walters and the grandfather of Martha Rushing owned a few slaves—enough to afford them a place at the outer edge of the small circle of “slave people.”  Marada and Nancy, on the other hand, were the offspring of subsistence yeomen herders.  They belonged to the majority of Jones County inhabitants who grew no cotton and owned no slaves, and were largely isolated from the newspapers and firebrand politicians who, as the secession crisis escalated, eagerly sought to convince one and all that such factors were beside the point.  

The Walters clan to which Nancy Pitts was related both by blood and by marriage was numerous enough to mirror these modest, but later crucial, Piney Woods class distinctions.  Among the 21 Walters households that included 125 individuals, there were four slave owners who possessed a total of 15 slaves—eight of whom were under the age of 14.  During the Civil War at least 16 of the Jones County Walters males fought in Confederate units. Three were listed on rosters of the Knight renegades, and seven would go to New Orleans and enlist in the Union Army.  It being Jones County, there was some overlap across these three categories. 

One month after Fort Sumter, as the first units of Confederate volunteers formed, Nancy gave birth to a daughter, Sarah.  Her husband Marada apparently shrugged off the early call to arms.  Within 18 months Nancy gave birth to second child, Marion, born in October, 1862.  By this time military circumstances had changed.  That April the Confederacy passed its first conscription act, requiring men of Marada’s age to enlist or be subject to a draft.  Did he comply?  Records show that “M. M. Walters” enlisted in Company D of Steede’s cavalry battalion in April of 1862, but later deserted.  There is no conclusive evidence this was Marada, but his later enlistment as a Corporal in the Union Army suggests that he claimed prior military experience.  

Whether Nancy’s husband deserted or simply evaded the draft, his tenuous position certainly compromised his ability to provide for their family.  He would have had to be constantly alert and prepared to flee at the sound of hoof beats.  With two infants to care for, Nancy probably lived in the household of her father or father-in-law.  Daniel Pitts was in his mid-60s (a vigorous man, he would live to age 94) while Daniel Walters was approaching his mid-40s.  But they, like others throughout the South, were subject to confiscation of their farm produce by any Confederate units who passed through the area.  Daniel Walters later testified that these periodic “requisitions” of goods made efforts at subsistence farming ever more tenuous.  But since Daniel himself had become subject to conscription in 1863, when the Confederacy raised the age limit to 45, he could scarcely afford to protest too publicly.

Conscription policies effectively stripped the area of most of its male workforce.  And, unlike in the cotton producing regions of the state, the Piney Woods lacked a substantial pool of slave labor to partially offset this drain on manpower.  In such hard scrabble areas, women, children, and the elderly were left to scratch out a living as best they could—or else starve.  

The reversals suffered by Confederate forces in central Mississippi, capped by the surrender of Vicksburg in July of 1863, prompted many Piney Woods men to desert and return home.  This, in turn, attracted the notice of Confederate officials who, alarmed that renegade bands such as the Knight Company had assumed effective control of the region, sent in troops to suppress this defiance and force deserters back into service as sorely needed soldiers.  The campaign conducted by Col. Robert Lowry in the spring of 1864 had a galvanizing effect on a group of men who had grown increasingly resentful of Confederate authority.  Those who managed to evade the roundup had no way of knowing that the campaign would be of relatively brief duration as a result of the pressing need to redeploy troops against Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. 

By late April, 1864 over 40 Piney Woods men, many of them not listed on the Knight Band rosters, made the decision to trek to New Orleans and enlist in the Union Army.  Among them were Marada Walters, his brothers Drury and Archibald, and four of his Walters cousins: Albert, Joel, Richard, and Hanson.

The motivations of the Piney Woods men who set out for the Crescent City remain unknown.  Some have argued the incentive was pecuniary: that these were poor men enticed by enlistment bounties and monthly wages paid in greenbacks.  If so, however, such an argument must acknowledge that their allegiance to the Confederacy was nil.  The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863 made the elimination of slavery a stated objective of the Union Army.  Furthermore, these men would serve in close proximity with units of the United States Colored Troops.  This was quite a different matter from deserting the Confederacy after a strategic defeat and banding together to ward off attempts at re-conscription.  It seems more likely that these men, whose original commitment to the Confederate cause was tentative at best, had become embittered by the in-kind taxation and confiscations endured by their families. 

Another point to consider is the mortality risk accepted by the enlistees.  Whether  they expected to see combat or not, those who had served in the Confederacy knew the lethal hazards of camp life.  It is often stated, though perhaps not adequately comprehended, that more men died during the Civil War of disease than from battle wounds.  Many soldiers who entered encampments from rural areas had never been exposed to childhood diseases such as measles and mumps, which often proved fatal when contracted by adults.  Poor camp sanitation added to death rolls by spreading dysentery and cholera.

One month before Marada left for New Orleans, Nancy gave birth to a son, Drayton.  She was now the mother of three children, the oldest of whom had not yet turned three.  It is unlikely that the rather abstract prospect of a Union soldier’s pay held much interest for her.  After all, the money would be difficult to pass across enemy lines and, in any event, it was no substitute for a missing husband.  If Nancy had forebodings, they were realized soon enough.  Marada Walters enlisted at Fort Pike, just outside New Orleans, as a Corporal in Company E of the 1st New Orleans Infantry Regiment on May 15, 1864.  Within four months he was admitted to the University General Hospital where he died of chronic diarrhea on November 27.

Nancy probably received word of her husband’s death in the same way Daniel Walters learned of his son Archibald’s death: from a local man who had ventured to New Orleans and came back with news.  The news was seldom good.  At least one quarter of the Piney Woods enlistees succumbed to disease during their term of service—most within the first nine months.  Drury, the third son of Daniel Walters to have enlisted in New Orleans, died of smallpox three days before his brother Marada succumbed.  Both Nancy and her father-in-law would have had to accept the news and struggle on because life at the margins did not permit devoting much time and energy to grief.   

The war ended in April of 1865 and surviving Confederate veterans, maimed or just emaciated, came home.  The surviving New Orleans enlistees followed a year later, given early release from their three-year terms.  But those who returned were far fewer in number than those who had marched away.  Therefore Nancy, like Confederate widow Martha Rushing Walters, must have counted it a true blessing when she had the opportunity to remarry.  In February of 1867 she wed Hanson A. Walters at the home of her parents.  Genealogies indicate he was the son of Arthur Walters, probably an offspring of the original group of Walters settlers.  Born in 1836, Hanson had married Elizabeth (Quilly) Hightower in 1855.  But she died in 1862 while Hanson was responding to the conscription act by enlisting in the Company C of the 7th Battalion, Mississippi Infantry.  He participated in the Vicksburg campaign and, following his parole after the city’s surrender, deserted and returned home.  He does not appear on any of the Knight Band rosters, but on May 24, 1864 enlisted in Company G of the 1st New Orleans.  He served until his discharge on June 1, 1866.

Despite her remarriage, Nancy was eligible for a Union widow’s pension to help support her children.  She began the application process in June of 1867 and within a year was approved for payment of eight dollars per month, commencing upon the date of Marada’s death and continuing through March of 1880.  She received an additional two dollars per month per child, to continue until each child reached sixteen years of age.  This payment totaling $168 per year would have been a major boost to the fortunes of any family living in the post-war Piney Woods, where annual the value of farm production often amounted to less than $500.  

Pension application for minors of Marada Walters

Nancy and Hanson settled into a life of farming and child rearing.  Years later, when Hanson applied for a disability pension, he listed six children:  Quilla (1868), Eugene Amon (1870), Theodocia (1871), Laura (1873), Renvy (1874), and Isabella (1877).  (Another child, a daughter born circa 1875, apparently died in the interim.)  He operated a modest farm east of Ellisville where, among other activities, he kept bees that he reported in 1870 produced 84 pounds of honey.   

Over time, animosity about the area’s renegade reputation, which provoked returning Confederate veterans to have Jones County briefly renamed Davis County (in honor of Jefferson Davis), mellowed.  Indicative of the emerging tolerance of the choices soldiers made after the surrender of Vicksburg is the fact that Hanson was allowed to join the Ellisville Chapter of Confederate Veterans.  In the 1890s he was elected as his district’s representative on the County Board of Supervisors–a post also held by doggedly unrepentant former Knight Band member Jasper Collins. Even in the midst of Lost Cause glorification of the Confederacy, many of the aging Unionists retained the esteem of their neighbors 

But it was Union service that made one eligible for federal benefits.  So in 1898, at age 61, Hanson applied for a Union disability pension.  He underwent a medical examination that reported him to be 5’ 10” tall, a lean 135 pounds, and still having dark hair.  His application was rejected based on his acknowledged service in the Confederate Army.   A later decision overturned this exclusion and Hanson began receiving ten dollar per month in 1904. 

Pension application, Hanson Walters

The pension bureaucracy was not as well disposed towards Daniel Walters.  Three of his sons had died after enlisting in New Orleans, but Drury and Marada left wives who had rightful claims as widows.  Beginning in 1890, a 72 year old Daniel sought a pension as a dependent of Archibald, who he claimed was a source of partial support prior to his Unions service.  But the Bureau of Pensions was skeptical and demanded further evidence.  Months turned into years and the claim was finally denied in 1898.  The 1900 census showed him living with two boys, ages 14 and 11, who were apparently grandchildren.  Daniel survived for another decade on whatever charity he received from his relatives and died in 1908.    

 

Daniel Walters's letter to Commissioner of Pensions

   By 1910, the wear and tear of Piney Woods life had taken its toll on Nancy and Hanson.  That year’s census showed them living in a household that included their unmarried daughter Renvy, age 33, and a 17 year old grandson.  On December 24, 1910 Hanson died in his home, age 74.  He was buried the next day, a Christmas Sunday, in the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church cemetery.   

Nancy Pitts Walters survived her first husband by 50 years and her second by four.  She died of “senile paralysis” on January 18, 1915.  She was buried next to Hanson Walters in the Mt. Moriah cemetery.  To the right of her tombstone is a funeral home marker for daughter Renvy A. Walters, who died in 1966.  It is assumed that Marada Walters was buried in the Chalmette, Louisiana, national cemetery along with other Piney Woods men who died in the 1st and 2nd New Orleans Regiments—but no record of his gravesite has yet been found.  

(Acknowledgement to the article “Willoughby Walters Family” by Jimmye Walters Watson in Echoes From Our Past, Vol 1 published by the Jones County Genealogical & Historical Organization.  Other information comes from the Union pension files of Archibald Walters, Drury E. Walters, Hanson A. Walters, and Marada M. Walters.)

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Researching Civil War Home Fronts and Beyond

by Vikki Bynum

Back in fall, 2001, just months after the release of my book, Free State of Jones, David Woodbury (moderator of Battlefields and Bibliophiles) interviewed me for the Civil War Forum Conference Series. As I read today the questions that he and others posed, and my answers to them, it becomes clear why I wrote The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. There was so much more I wanted to know, or knew and wanted to tell. For example, although I identified the Collins and allied families as representing the heart of Jones County Unionism, I had only touched on the parallel renegade band led by another branch of the same family in the Big Thicket of East Texas.  Likewise, I had barely tapped into records detailing the postwar political activism of Collinses in both Mississippi and Texas.  And then there was Newt Knight himself. I obtained copies of Newt’s voluminous claim files of 1887-1900 from independent researcher Ken Welch shortly before Free State of Jones went to press. Although the claim files did not change my essential understanding of Newt Knight, they provided such rich detail about the claims process, and the men who either joined or opposed the Knight Band, that I decided to devote a chapter to them in the new book. In yet another chapter, I expanded on the history of the multiracial Knight community that resulted from collaboration between Newt Knight and Rachel, the former slave of his grandfather. For the new book, I also returned to my research on the Unionists of the North Carolina Piedmont who figured so prominently in my first book, Unruly Women. The inner civil war that raged in North Carolina’s “Quaker Belt” (Montgomery, Moore, and Randolph Counties) had stimulated me to research the similar “war” of Jones County.  Yet, despite their similarities, I soon discovered important differences between these Civil War home front wars. That’s when I decided to compare all three communities of dissent–those of Jones Co., MS, the NC Quaker Belt, and the Big Thicket of East Texas–in the same volume. And so the idea for Long Shadow of the Civil War was born. As you read the 2001 question and answer session that follows, I think you’ll understand why I felt compelled to continue my research on southern dissenters, and to expand the story even further beyond the Civil War. My thanks to David Woodbury for permission to repost his Q & A session with me.

 

Transcript of the 35th session of the Civil War Forum Conference Series. GUEST: Dr. Victoria Bynum TOPIC: The subject of her book, “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” Date: October 25, 2001 ——————————– Greetings, and welcome to the  35th session of the Civil War Forum conference series. We are very pleased tonight to have with us Dr. Victoria Bynum, professor of history at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, discussing the subject of her new book: “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). Let’s get started.

Q. (David Woodbury): Welcome Dr. Bynum.  Since this is probably a fairly obscure topic even among Civil War buffs, can you begin with an overview of Jones County, and what set it apart from the rest of Mississippi (e.g., the paucity of slaves there), and the events that gave rise to stories of the so-called “Free State,” or Kingdom of Jones?

A. (Victoria Bynum): Jones County was founded in 1826, and it’s part of one of the earlier-settled sections of Mississippi (because of Native Americans already being pushed out of that part of the state, but not out of the more fertile portions of Mississippi). Many of the earliest settlers were veterans of the War of 1812, especially. I won’t go too much into it, but because it was the Piney Woods region, you didn’t have a great many slaveholders there. Slavery was important — there were slaveholders — but not many *big* slaveholders. It had the lowest number of slaveholders of any county in the state, and almost 80 percent of those slaveholders owned fewer than four slaves. So, just to leap forward to the Civil War itself, this was a region that was pretty ripe — by around 1862 — for seeing the war as a “rich man’s war” and “poor man’s fight,” because they were the poorest men in the state. I don’t want to imply that they were landless, because they were small landowners, but in terms of slaveholders, they were the poorest in the state. [The county] voted almost 2-1 against secession. Moving ahead to the 20th century about how all these stories got started — what made this story so legendary and why it has persisted so long is that the leader of this band of deserters crossed the color line. Now, it’s not that crossing the color line was so unusual, it’s the way that Newton Knight did it. He not only crossed the line, but two of his children intermarried with the children of the slave woman who was his chief collaborator (it was after the war that they intermarried — she was his collaborator during the war). And that resulted in a mixed-race community that’s still very vibrant today — a very large mixed-race community that claims descent from Rachel the slave, and Newton, the leader of the deserter band. …So you’ve had this ongoing battle — this is why I make the second part of the title, “Mississippi’s Longest Civil War,” because factions of this family have been debating the meaning of this uprising since the Civil War. And with the racial aspect, it has made the debate particularly volatile. Those who wanted to defend the Unionism of the Knight band generally just erased the story of the race-mixing, and those who were pro-Confederate . . . used the racial mixing as just further examples that these were deviant men who committed treason against the country, against the Confederacy, and against their race. That’s why the story has lasted, [and] because there have been several books written, and a novel, and even a movie made from the novel.

Q. (David Woodbury): One of the fun things about reading your book is the spirit of investigation, or discovery, in unmasking the past. Can you recall any major breakthroughs during the course of your research, or any particular surprises you encountered upon digging deeper?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I believe some of the most delightful surprises were the ongoing discoveries I made about the Collins family — I believe that their story is one that was buried because of the notoriety of Newt Knight. The discovery that their ancestors were both Regulators back in the 1760s and Populists in the 1890s kind of gave me a whole view of Southern dissent as represented by this family, in a way that just stood right out — and made them the core of the Unionist group there, rather than Newt Knight. And I want to add that probably the biggest surprise was that the Collinses had brothers in Texas who were leaders of their own deserter band, so there were actually two deserter bands which existed simultaneously. It just showed the uncompromising nature of their Unionism; not nearly all the deserters were as Unionist as the Collins’s. There was a core group of about five different families that I would call truly Unionist. Putting that together was very exciting, because I kept finding connections between the very distant past, and the Civil War era, and connections between the  various families as well.

Q. (Margaret  D. Blough): What was the reaction of the Confederate authorities? Was it as  brutal as the suppression of the earlier East Tennessee Unionist uprising?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I’m not sure just how brutal that was, in terms of making an exact comparison, but the Confederacy did send two expeditions into Jones County to put down the uprisings there, and in the Official Records [of the Confederate and Union Armies] there is quite a bit of discussion of Jones County. The most important example is Colonel Lowry’s raid on Jones County. In the space of a few days, they executed ten members of the Knight Company –the Knight Band. That was the worst experience that the  Jones County group experienced. I imagine that it was probably worse in East Tennessee due to the geographic location. Jones County was still pretty remote, and there weren’t as many raids.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock): So nice to have you here to tell us more about your book! My co-workers, not Civil War buffs, were intrigued by the subject, and seemed ready to read more on the topic. One question I had is about “jeans” cloth. Can you tell us anything about it?

A. (Victoria Bynum): [You're] referring to when Newton Knight — in 1865, he was relief commissioner — had an order from the military government in place at that time to seize a certain amount of goods from the former CSA representative of the county, who was a merchant, and they refer to Jeans cloth in there…

Q. (Stevan F. Meserve): Jeans cloth is not denim, but a particular weave of wool. It was  commonly used in uniform trousers. I just had to stick that in. My question is about Unionist sentiment in Jones County. How many precincts of the county voted to remain in the Union? Here in Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, three of 16 precincts voted to remain in the Union.  Overall, the county voted 2:1 to secede.

A. (Victoria Bynum): All I know — that I’ve been able to find — is that 166 people voted against secession, and I believe it was about 89 who voted for it… Let’s see… Yes, 166 for the Cooperationist Candidate, and 89 for the Secessionist Candidate. In fact, neighboring Perry County (I don’t have those numbers with me) was even more Unionist. So Jones County was not isolated in that respect. The Perry County delegate held out longer.

Q. (Margaret  D. Blough): Did any of the Jones County Unionists articulate why they supported the Union? The pressure must have been intense in the Deep South for secession?

A. (Victoria Bynum): Yes, of course in their county they didn’t feel that so directly — more so when the war began — but (after the war) they cited the 20 Negro Law [when] citing reasons for their desertion from the Confederacy. The only articulated Unionist statements are by the Collins family, who did not believe that the election of Abraham Lincoln was grounds for secession. And there’s a quote of a certain Collins brother counseling men to try to get duty in the hospitals as nurses if they did join the service — that they should not fight against the Union. And one more statement attributed to the Collinses is that while they didn’t believe in slavery, they also did not believe that the federal government had the right to end it.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock): Early in the book, you describe rivers that were dammed to provide power for mills, but preventing fishing for those needing to do that. It seems such a conflict! I know the Jones County deserters were really against the 20 Negro Law, which was the objection to “government” in their era.

A. (Victoria Bynum): One of the things that I found, as you no doubt noticed, were that these were people who were very touchy about the government’s role in their lives. And again to use the Collinses as an example, since they were always in the thick of it — as they moved across the frontier they continued petitioning the government to respect their rights as citizens and to provide them protection, not only against Indians, but against corrupt local officials. So this is a theme that runs throughout their history, and I think that’s the point that you’re making with your comment.

Q. (David Woodbury): It sounds like your research benefited nearly as much from elderly locals and descendants as it did from archival work. That is, they were able to show you things, like the grave sites of Newt and Rachel Knight. Could you have written this book 20 or 30 years from now, after many of these people are gone?

separate photos of tombstones of Rachel (left) and Newt Knight. Photos by Victoria Bynum

A. (Victoria Bynum): I agree that my personal contacts with descendants was really crucial to the book, and no I couldn’t have written the same book. I could have written *a* book — a study — but in fact when I started writing this book I had no idea that I would achieve the kind of contact with local people that I did. It brought perspectives that I just don’t think I could have pieced together from archival documents. In particular, I don’t think I could have described the mixed race community if I hadn’t spent a lot of time among the descendants of Rachel and Newton Knight… And I don’t believe I could have written *nearly* the kind of study of their community without that personal contact. That was crucial.

Q. (Margaret  D. Blough): To tie into what Terry asked, I’ve seen some opinions that many of the Unionists areas in North Carolina, etc., in the mountains had had no experience with the US government, except for the postal system and the first experience they had with an intrusive government was Confederate authorities enforcing the conscription and impressment laws?  Is that what you saw?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I would say that in general that was true, once they settled in Jones County, that they had a lot of local autonomy. Some writers suggest there was no real government in Jones County before the war, but that just isn’t true. But it is fair to say that they had very limited contact with state government at the top, or federal government. However, I would still point out that their frontier petitions do show quite an interest in the Federal government and  its power. They have a long history of protest of corrupt local government, and I suspect that during the Civil War they developed a similar relationship with the Federal government, because they saw the Confederacy as another example of corrupt local government. That tradition goes all the way back to the Regulators.

Q. (David Woodbury): You include a photograph of the Leaf River in your book, “site of Deserter’s Den — the Knight Company’s Civil War hideout.” Were you able to pinpoint the actual location, and what is there today  (presumably private property)?

The Leaf River, intersection of Covington and Jones Co., MS, site of Deserters’ Den. Photo by Victoria Bynum

A. (Victoria Bynum): It is private property today. I took the photo myself and I was taken there by one of those local old-timers. Not very far from that river — the site of that river in the photograph — is the cemetery of Newton Knight’s grandfather. That land is now in the hands of a private company, and we had to be escorted into the cemetery by someone who had a key… But all of those lands used to be owned by the core members of the deserter band.

Q. (Stevan F. Meserve): On the subject of “intrusive” government, how much intrusion did Jones County see during the war from officials on either side? The territory between Hattiesburg and Meridian was pretty much no man’s land, wasn’t it?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I think it was pretty much considered no-man’s land between those areas. The Confederacy managed to have a Home Guard unit down in Jones County, headed by a local Confederate officer, and that was Amos McLemore, reputed to have been murdered by Newt Knight and his men. By April of 1864, when more and more reports were reaching Confederate officials elsewhere that Jones County was under the control of deserters, and they had murdered some of the tax agents, then they sent the two expeditions I mentioned earlier… Col. Maury, in March (1864), subdued the deserters a bit but they came back just as strong, so then they sent Col. Robert Lowry in April. Now that really did splinter the band. He executed ten of them, and that’s when a number of them fled to New Orleans and joined the Union army. About 40 — they weren’t all members of the band — about 40 Jones County men joined the Union Army in New Orleans… And then about 15 men were captured and forced back into the Confederate army. That left about 20 more whom they never caught, including Newt Knight, still out in the swamps.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock): You describe the prominent role of women in the book. Using “polecat musk and red pepper” to throw off the scent of the men from the dogs was rather emphatic. How did that come to be known as the thing to use?

A. (Victoria Bynum): Well, according to Ethel Knight, who wrote the best known book (The Echo of the Black Horn, 1951), the white women learned it from Rachel, the slave. I don’t know where she got her information from.

Q. (Azby): In your opinion, at what point did the Civil War become “inevitable”?  question?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I would suppose that once Lincoln called for troops from the South, and even many who opposed secession turned the other way — when the image of invasion became a vivid one, the firing on Fort Sumter and the call for troops, one could say that’s when it began to appear inevitable. Or you could look at it more broadly, and simply say that when the Northern states put in their constitutions gradual emancipation while the South simultaneously began designs for expanding slavery into the Southwest, some would say that’s when war became inevitable. But I’m not real big on “inevitability.”

Q. (David Woodbury): When did you first hear of the legend about Jones County in the Civil War? And what first drew you to this as a subject of scholarly research?

A. (Victoria Bynum): I first learned about Jones County around 1976 when I was an undergraduate in college. I saw it in a footnote in the Randall and Donald — the old Civil War text [Randall, James G., and David H. Donald. The Civil War and Reconstruction]. I did not hear about it from within my own family, even though my father was born in Jones County. What drew me to it as a subject of scholarship was writing my first book, Unruly Women. I have two chapters on the Civil War there, and one of those chapters centers on a county very similar to Jones County in many ways, and that’s Montgomery County, North Carolina. …But I just became fascinated with the topic of Southern Unionism, and the way that entire families were involved in resisting the Confederacy. It was both the class element in it, and the participation of women and free blacks in North Carolina that made me then want to look at Jones County. So, it was only as I developed as a historian myself that I decided I would like to do a study of Jones County.

Q. (David Woodbury): Would you talk a little bit about the so-called “white Negro” community in Jones County after the war, the trial of Davis Knight in the 1940s, and why this is such an important part of the story of “The Free State of Jones.”

A. (Victoria Bynum): I think it’s incredibly important because it reveals how 20th century race relations and segregation buried the story of the Free State of Jones beneath all these stereotypes about race-mixing, and then combined with the Myth of the Lost Cause, which presented Unionists as treasonous. The story had just become so distorted. And so I began and ended the book with the trial to basically look at why race was such a volatile part of the story, and then to move from there to look at the story of a class-based uprising of white men that is an important story in its own right, and would not have been buried so deeply if it had not been for the obsession with Newton Knight’s interracial relationship with Rachel. And so I was determined to tell both stories, and particularly to try to bring back the stories of all these other members of Knight’s band who had just sort of been lost from the picture. Thanks everyone. The questions were good ones, I enjoyed them.

The Long Shadow of the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010)

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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: With David Woodbury’s permission, I have posted here his interview with author Leonard Todd as a followup to “A Beautiful Craft; A Wonderful Book: Dave the Potter and Carolina Clay.” This Q & A was originally published on November 02, 2009, on David’s blog, Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles

A sidenote to Leonard’s sensitive discussion of the life of Dave, a slave within his ancestors’ household, is his mention of his ancestral name of Landrum. The Landrums of Jones County, Mississippi, were originally from South Carolina. Many of them were Unionists during the Civil War. Leonard tells me that his great-great-great granduncle, Dr. Abner Landrum, was one of the foremost Unionists in the South Carolina upstate.

My thanks to David Woodbury for his generous lending of this and the previous post on Carolina Clay!

Dave the Slave
a Q&A with author Leonard Todd

At left. Leonard Todd with some of Dave’s pottery. Photo by Brook Facey.

Faithful readers with better than average recall and few distractions in their lives will remember a blog entry from a month ago when I first became enthralled with Leonard Todd’s book, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave. Since that time, I took time to read it cover-to-cover, and corresponded with the gracious Mr. Todd about his uniquely American story.

I sent him six questions, and received six answers, presented here unedited.

OBAB: Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to some questions about your book. First let me say that I enjoyed reading it very much. It’s a powerful and poignant journey of discovery, and fascinating in the way your effort to piece together the life of this illusive historic figure is simultaneously a fleshing out of your own family history and roots. Could you begin by relating a little bit about the experience of first learning about Dave’s pottery in The New York Times, and of the dawning realization that you had familial ties to the potter?

Leonard Todd: I can remember the exact date on which I first learned of Dave. I was in New York City, where I had lived for almost thirty years. I opened The New York Times on January 30, 2000, to find an article announcing an exhibition of his work. I read that, while in bondage, Dave had created pots of great size, utility, and beauty—many bearing original poems that he had inscribed on them while their clay was damp. The article indicated that he had lived in South Carolina, which increased my interest because I had been born and raised there—in Greenville—before moving north.

Information at the end of the piece, however, took my breath away: Dave had been owned for much of his life by pottery manufacturers named John Landrum and Lewis Miles. Their names matched those of ancestors of mine, who had lived in a small, central South Carolina town called Edgefield, not far from the Georgia border. I saw that Dave also had lived in Edgefield. With sudden understanding, I realized that my family had owned Dave!

That moment of discovery was like finding a door flung wide to the past: Through it, I could glimpse a complex world of clay and kilns and pottery workers—that I had known nothing of. I was pleased to find that I was linked to Dave, one of the south’s great artisans, yet dismayed that slavery was the mechanism that connected us. Like many white southerners of my generation, I had grown up with a vague sense that my ancestors had been slaveholders. It seemed so long ago, however, that I regarded it as almost unreal. Now, I couldn’t do that anymore.

OBAB: On the surface, this is an account of a skilled slave—exceptional in that he could read and write—whose utilitarian workmanship has transcended to the realm of valuable museum pieces. But the story is so much more than that with your personal connection to the artist. Like the author Edward Ball in Slaves in the Family, you were compelled to face potentially uncomfortable truths about family history. Quite frankly, it would have been easy to concentrate on the pottery and present this as the story of a well cared for servant of kindly masters, and left it at that (an apologist alternative still commonplace today). I thought you treated “the elephant in the room” honestly, and without flinching. Did you struggle with that at all, or do you feel far enough removed to be dispassionate in recounting simple history? Was there any resistance on the part of present-day family members along the lines of letting sleeping dogs lie?

Leonard Todd: My ancestors were Dave’s owners throughout most of his life. When I began writing Carolina Clay, I was so uncomfortable with this fact that I bent over backwards to judge them harshly. Over the course of several drafts, however, I began to understand that my role was not to judge but simply to tell what happened. This would leave the reader free to come to his or her own conclusions.

By telling the story in a straightforward way, I hoped to reach a deeper understanding of both sides caught up in the slavery system. Only by seeing the slave owner and the slave in all their complexity—their strengths and their weaknesses—could I begin to penetrate the world that produced Dave.

My relatives were uniformly supportive of my project. Their only qualm was that I would not be able to find enough material about Dave in the historical record. And, indeed, mentions of him are sparse. As anyone who has tried to research the life of an individual slave can tell you, the institution of slavery so complicated the lives of those in bondage and at the same time so completely erased the record of what it had done that it is often impossible to discover what happened to them. I was able to put together clues about Dave and his fellow workers in the potteries of Edgefield by learning all I could about the men who owned those factories. In an odd way, I first had to know the slave owner before I could know the slave.

OBAB: I learned a lot about the history of pottery in this country from your book, all very interesting—in particular, the workings of groundhog kilns, the development of different glazes, and the mysterious adoption of some ancient Chinese techniques in antebellum America. You mentioned a new program at the Piedmont Technical College in Edgefield that planned to construct a groundhog kiln of the type Dave used. Your book’s been out for a year or more—how’s that kiln coming along? What a cool idea. At the very least they should get you to lead a class out to Pottersville (I know the location of the Stony Bluff kiln remains a secret—damn relic hunters!).

Leonard Todd: The ground was broken for the construction of the school’s outdoor kiln on July 12, 2009. This date fell on the 200th anniversary of Dr. Abner Landrum’s discovery of a bountiful supply of fine clay in Edgefield District, a discovery that led to a century of successful pottery making here. I was invited to be among the speakers at the ceremony. I took that opportunity to present a very special guest to the audience. She was Mrs. Thomasina Holmes Bouknight, who was the only person I had found who knew of a link to Dave in her life: He had made a large jar with an inscription on it for her mother, whose parents had been slaves in the area where Dave lived. She had recounted the fascinating history of the jar to me when I was writing my book (see page 205 of Carolina Clay). After I introduced her to the crowd, she rose and took a bow in response to the protracted applause. A few weeks later, she died. With her passing, the last known connection to Dave disappeared.

Though construction on the kiln is temporarily on hold, it will, when completed, be one of the major attractions of Edgefield. Its site is only a few steps from Main Street. Crowds will be able to gather for firings, as they did when Dave made his pots in the district.

OBAB: If tenderly cared for, do the surviving jugs and containers have a shelf life before they begin to crumble or disintegrate? Or will they effectively last forever, like stone?

Leonard Todd: I asked an expert to answer this one. He is master potter Gary Clontz, Coordinator of the Professional Pottery Program at Piedmont Technical College in Edgefield. He says, “Pots treated in a normal manner will last virtually forever. They will break, of course, if they are dropped, and they will crack if liquid is left in them to freeze. But there are pots in museums that are thousands of years old and still have their integrity.”

Dave touched on this question in one of his inscriptions. In June of 1854, his owner, Lewis Miles, apparently told him that the handle on the jug he had just made was not sturdy enough. To let posterity be the judge, Dave wrote, “Lm says this handle will crack” down the side of the jug at issue. More than 150 years later, the handle is still intact!

OBAB: Dave spent his entire adult life producing pottery. It’s exciting to think that there are still extant pieces, like bits of treasure, scattered across the regional landscape. You write of a number of examples, such as an inscribed “Dave” pot sitting in an old barn, or the one in the yard of Thomasina Holmes Bouknight that she remembers playing around as a little girl. I’m dying to know if you’ve learned of any new pieces coming to light since the publication of your book (“Hmm, that old pot says ‘Dave’ on it”). Are there any pieces on permanent display (in Charleston or elsewhere)? Do you personally own any of Dave’s pottery?

Leonard Todd: Word of several newly discovered Dave pots has come to me through my web site (www.leonardtodd.com). Because the world of pottery collecting enjoys its secrets, I am usually sworn to silence when the news arrives. I think I can safely say, however, that there will be some interesting auctions in the months to come!

I do not own any Dave pieces, but I take great pleasure in visiting the excellent examples on public display. The art museum in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, has recently purchased a magnificent jar inscribed with a poem that speaks of stars and bears (pronounced “bars” by Dave.) The Charleston Museum owns the two largest jars he ever made, turned on the same day in 1859. Two museums in Columbia, (the South Carolina State Museum and the McKissick Museum) own Dave pots, as do two museums in Atlanta (the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta History Center.) Other repositories of Dave’s work are the Augusta Museum of History, the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison, Georgia, the Mint Museums in Charlotte, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Washington Historical Museum in Washington, Georgia, and the Smithsonian Institution.

OBAB: I’m intrigued by the fact that—in the course of this exploration—you actually relocated with your wife from Manhattan to live in Edgefield, the center of the story. Has living there—amongst your own distant relatives, and certainly some descendants of Dave as well — helped you gain a better understanding of Dave’s life experience, or some other insight into the day and age in which he and your ancestors lived? Have you uncovered any more information on Dave from local sources since the publication of Carolina Clay (you mention the emergence of an African American historical society, and a surge in the writing of local histories, with the tantalizing prospect of new connections)?

Leonard Todd: Edgefield is one of those rare spots that the poet W. S. Merwin calls “an unguarded part of the past.” Once a powerful place—ten governors have come from here — it virtually echoes with historical incident. By walking on the very sites where Dave and my ancestors lived and worked, I often begin to get a sense of what their lives were like. Some of the buildings and homes and landscape are unchanged since Dave’s day.

Though I have located descendants of many of the players in Dave’s story, I have not yet found members of his own family. I have traced what I believe is one branch of that family up through the 1930 census (see page 226 of Carolina Clay.) The 1940 census will be released to the public in a very few years. I have great hope that it will bring Dave’s descendants closer to us.

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Professor Stauffer is angry at me; I mean really angry. He’s furious that I don’t think more highly of his and Sally Jenkins’s book, State of Jones, but especially that I have the temerity to publicly say so. To get it all off his chest, he just let off more steam on page 2 of the December 10th issue of the Jones County ReView.

Why, he even called me a gadfly–again. His definition: one who “builds her reputation by constantly annoying, irritating, or slandering others.” Well, I prefer Socrates’ description of the gadfly’s role:  “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” Under those terms, I plead guilty, having criticized the sloppiness of his research and the distortions of his arguments. That’s what reviewers (and gadflies) are expected to do, when warranted, in our profession.

Professor Stauffer claims that he and Sally Jenkins have in turn treated my work with respect. Go back and listen to you and your co-author’s remarks about me in your interviews last May and June with Mike Noirot of This Mighty Scourge, and on NPR’s Diane Rehm show. Who are you kidding?

Aside from gadfly, what I really am is a history professor who has taught at the same university (in that “small Texas town” he sneeringly mentions) for almost 24 years; a historian who has written three books published by the University of North Carolina Press, a premier academic press.

I could say more about my credentials, but then I’d begin to sound like Stauffer, who ritualistically trots his out. So let’s get to the point. Mr. Stauffer says that I have slandered him. As he kindly explains for us, that means “saying something false or malicious that damages somebody’s reputation.”  He then proceeds to attribute words to me that I have never uttered (how’s that for slander?)! Such as that I “dismissed” him and Ms Jenkins as “Yankees and carpetbaggers.” Mr. Stauffer is not only confused, he repeats himself a lot. You can read my response to these and other phony charges by clicking here.

There is a new charge against me. Stauffer now accuses me of having launched a “blitzkreig” against his and Jenkins’s work on the Internet. Gee, all I did was review their book. They were the ones who asked Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory to let them post a response to that 3-part review, and Kevin graciously did just that. An internet debate followed in which the authors and I, and anyone else who cared to, participated.

So, what’s all this talk about me refusing to debate? Seems to me we’ve already had that debate. Virtually every charge that Stauffer raises anew in his ReView column I have answered either on Renegade South or Civil War Memory. In any case, Mr. Stauffer has never extended an invitation, as he claims, to debate me face-to-face. Now, Mark Thornton, the editor of the Jones County ReView, did once extend such an invitation–Oh, my, has Mr. Stauffer appropriated Mr. Thornton’s idea as his own? Tsk, tsk, imagine that.

Having misrepresented not just the history of Jones County, but also the history of the present debate, Stauffer goes on to confidently proclaim my book, Free State of Jones, a failure. Most remarkable are his standards for that judgment: sales figures and fame. You see, my university press book hasn’t sold nearly the copies that his mass-produced, media-hyped Doubleday version has.  

Here I was, thinking it was great that people from around the United States continue to contact me eight years after Free State of Jones was published. But, no, Stauffer assures us that my book was “virtually unknown outside of Jones County, the Texas town where she teaches, and a community of some 50 scholars who write on Southern Unionists.” Why, he says, I was just a poor little nobody who had never even had my name in the New York Times (just imagine!) before he and Ms. Jenkins opened the door to fame and fortune for me. Silly me for thinking that fame and fortune have about as much to do with high-quality scholarship and history as pop stardom does with perfect pitch. Mr. Stauffer can explain that, too: he says I simply don’t understand his book’s “genre.”

Despite Professor Stauffer’s tactics, which represent the worst in academic class snobbery, one might expect that he, an academic himself, would understand that the vast majority of historians don’t spend years in graduate school because they hope to write bestsellers that will entertain the masses.

Which reminds me. Years ago, when I was in the final years of my Ph D work at the University of California, San Diego, I proudly wore a shirt sold at conferences by Radical History Review.  The logo on the front featured Karl Marx holding a copy of the Review and the words “Earn Big Money; Become a Historian.” My fellow graduate students and I loved that shirt–it epitomized the passion we felt for the research and writing of history. No, we were not in it for the money.

Vikki Bynum, wearing her Radical History T-shirt in 1986.

(To see a copy of the t-shirt logo, visit Radical History Review and scroll to the bottom of their page. You might even want to order one for yourself!)

The same, evidently, can’t be said for all history professors. For some, it is, rather, all about the money.

It all comes down to this: John Stauffer and I have very different approaches to the profession of history, and I have a very different personal story from his, one that he apparently can’t fathom from his lofty Harvard perch. You see, I earned a PhD the hard way–as a divorced mother of two children and the daughter of parents who, through no fault of their own, never graduated from high school. It may surprise Mr. Stauffer to learn that I never aspired to be either an Ivy League professor or a bestselling author; that my hard-won goals were to write honest, deeply-researched histories about ordinary people of the past who acted in extraordinary ways, and to teach students from backgrounds similar to mine that intellectuals are not confined to elite institutions.

Mr. Stauffer, in contrast, evidently loves to write about poor, downtrodden folks from the past, yet exhibits contempt for present-day renegades who have beat the odds, achieved success on their own terms, and have the gall to proclaim a flawed book just that–no matter who wrote it.

Why, Mr. Stauffer, you’re all lit up like a Christmas tree, and all because of the words of this little old Texas gadfly.

With the sting of truth,

Vikki Bynum

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