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Nancy McCary Sumrall Holyfield Sumrall
& Elizabeth Hinton Coats Sumrall


by Ed Payne

At the end of the Civil War, widow Nancy McCary Sumrall entertained a marriage offer tendered by widower Moses Holyfield.  Nancy was 28 and the mother of four young sons.  Moses, although inconsistent in reporting his age, had probably entered his seventies.  His children from his first marriage were all grown and on their own.  Like most of his Piney Woods neighbors, Moses was not a wealthy man.  Still, he owned 450 acres of land, of which 80 were cleared for cultivation.  He had not been a slave owner, so he suffered no finance losses due to emancipation.  Nancy’s husband had died while serving in the Confederate Army in 1862.  We do not know how long Nancy deliberated over the matter, nor do we know whether her practical considerations and emotional sentiments were in harmony or in conflict.  What is known is that in due course Nancy accepted Moses Holyfield’s proposal and became his bride.

Marriages between men of advanced years and women several decades their junior did not begin in the wake of the Civil War.  Throughout the nineteenth century women bore the burden of frequent pregnancies that often began in their teens and—if their health, endurance, and luck proved sufficient—might continue for another three decades.  If any of these attributes failed them, their death usually necessitated the search for a new wife; preferably one still comfortably within the range of childbearing years.  Second and third marriages resulted from a pragmatic understanding of the workload required to maintain a household in a subsistence level economy.  The death of a wife left children without a mother in an era when children attended privately operated schools only sporadically, if at all.  In addition to child care, women performed an array of essential functions:  cooking and cleaning, making of clothing and numerous household items such as soap and candles, and cultivating vegetable gardens.  If there were no daughters old enough to assume these duties, the absence of a wife would be keenly felt.  This was true even in the higher realms of Piney Woods society.  Slave owner Isaac Anderson was among the wealthiest men in Jones County when his wife Teresia Powell Anderson died in 1850.  After a decent interval, the widower Anderson set about courting Sarah Rebecca Deason, the daughter of a local merchant with whom he was well acquainted.  Two years later, the sixty-six year old Isaac had successfully won the hand of twenty-three year old Sarah Rebecca.

The toll the Civil War exacted upon the male population of the South had a discernable, if not necessarily radical, impact on the institution of marriage.  In 1870 Jones County contained 449 white females between the ages of 20 and 40, compared to only 332 males.  And within this reduced pool of men, it can be assumed that some portion had lost limbs or otherwise been seriously impaired by the war.  Despite these obstacles, Piney Wood women, whether single or widowed, could and did marry local men during the Reconstruction era.  But in order to do so, many had to revise their concepts about what constituted a suitable domestic partner.

Nancy McCary was born in Alabama in 1837.  Her parents, Tandy and Cloah McCary, were both natives of South Carolina.  The birth states for their children indicate that around 1843 the McCary family moved across the state line to Wayne County, Mississippi.  Nancy became the bride of Elisha Sumrall in1852 when she was 15 and he was 21.  The location of the couple over the next decade is unknown.  But later records reveal that Nancy gave birth to at least four sons:  Benjamin (1854), Theodore (1856), James (1858), and Jefferson (1861).  The question remains as to whether the Jacob Sumrall (1852) who later married Martha Rushing Walters was the eldest son of Elisha and Nancy (see part two of Jones County Widows).

Like many other men having a family to support, Elisha did not join in the first wave of Confederate volunteers in the spring of 1861.  On March 26, 1862, however, he enlisted in Company I of the 36th Alabama Volunteers and was dispatched to Mt. Vernon Arsenal, outside of Mobile.  There his military service came to an abrupt end on June 4 when he died, probably of a camp disease, a scant two months and 10 days after his enlistment.  On October 17, 1862 Nancy filed papers to obtain his back pay.  A Confederate paymaster computed the amount due as $50.66.  The request made its ponderous way through the war time bureaucracy until, on November 28, 1863, approval was granted by the Comptroller’s Office.  Nancy signed a receipt for the payment on January 15, 1864.  During the interval while she and her children waited, Confederate currency had suffered an inflation rate exceeding 700%, rendering her settlement essentially worthless.

Sometime after receiving her token payment, Nancy moved to Jones County.  She may well have sought to remove herself and her young sons from harm’s way.  The Mobile and Ohio Railroad, which passed through Wayne County, held strategic value for both armies.  Jones County was devoid of railroads and had a sizable community of Sumrall in-laws, making it an attractive haven.  In her new surroundings Nancy made the acquaintance of Moses Holyfield.  He had been born in South Carolina, probably circa 1796, and moved his family to Jones County in the 1830s.  Based on the 1840 and 1850 censuses, Moses and his wife Milly had seven sons and one daughter.  By 1860, the only child remaining in the household was a grown son named Mark, age 33.

Although Moses did not own slaves, evidence indicates he felt strongly about the secessionist cause.  On May 4, 1861 he enlisted in the 8th Regiment, Mississippi Volunteers at Ellisville and traveled 57 miles to the rendezvous point at Enterprise.  Upon ascertaining that Moses was 65 years old, the officers doubtlessly saluted his determination and vigor, but sent him home.

Millie Holyfield, who was approximately the same age as her husband, died towards the end of the war.  This left Moses facing his final years with a sizable farm and an empty house.  If the growing number of young widows around him did not fill Moses with delight—since each widow suggested the role attrition was playing in determining the final outcome of the war—at least it made him aware that his prospects for another marriage had been greatly enhanced.  What may well have encouraged him to initiate a courtship of Nancy was not just her youth, but the prospect of welcoming her four boys into his household.

As mentioned previously, Moses Holyfield had carved out a modest yeoman’s existence.  In 1870 he possessed 80 acres of crop land, with another 100 acres in pasture and 270 acres of woodlands.  His livestock holdings were small for the region:  six cows, seven sheep, and 10 pigs.  The previous year the farm had produced 100 bushels of corn, 75 bushels of sweet potatoes, and a cash crop of two bales of cotton.  His farm clearly stood to benefit from the additional labor of four young stepsons.  The census of 1870 captures the transformation taking place within the Holyfield household.  Moses gave his age as 75 while Nancy stated she was 32.  Her sons ranged in age from nine to 16.  With them was 14 year old Richard Holyfield, a young relative of Moses, working as a farm laborer.  In addition, Moses and Nancy had started a new family, consisting of son William, three, and a six month old daughter named Mary.  For Moses it could truly be said that life had begun, again, at 70.

Nancy must have understood when she agreed to the marriage that it would not be a long term relationship.  Moses died in the mid-1870s and Nancy again found herself a widow, having added three small children to the household (another son, Charles, had been born in 1874).  But, owning to her second marriage, her circumstances were more secure.  The interlude with Moses had provided time for her sons to reach manhood.   Although sons James and Jefferson remained in Nancy’s household in 1880, they were leaving their teens.  Their older brother Benjamin, married and a father, lived next door.  Having regained some security in her life, for perhaps half a decade Nancy remained single.  When she did marry again, it was in the fall of 1883 to Carney Slay Sumrall, a man who had lost his wife four months earlier.

Marriage license of Carney S. Sumrall and Nancy Holyfield

The Sumrall’s were among the early settlers in south Mississippi.  Patriarch Thomas Sumrall was born in South Carolina in 1740 and died in Marion County in 1821.  He was the great-grandfather of Elisha Sumrall, Nancy’s first husband.  (This line descended from son Levi Sumrall and his son Jacob Sumrall, who was Elisha’s father.)  He was also the great-grandfather of Carney Slay Sumrall.  (This line descended from son Moses Sumrall and his son Howell Sumrall, who was Carney’s father.)  Thus Carney was a second cousin of Nancy’s first husband.  There may have been a closer connection linking the couple: some genealogies give the maiden name of Carney Sumrall wife as Catherine (‘Kitty’) McCary.  This matches the name of Nancy’s older sister on the 1850 census.

Carney Slay Sumrall, named after a Wayne County Baptist minister, was born in 1830.  He was a Confederate veteran who had enlisted in Company E (the Shubuta Guards) of the 37th Regiment Mississippi Volunteers on March 8, 1862 at age 32.  Unlike his cousin Elisha, Carney seemed able to cope with camp life, suffering only one recorded bout of illness.  Although records are sketchy, they suggest he took part in the siege of Vicksburg and was paroled.  He is documented as having surrendered with his unit at Citronelle, Alabama on May 11, 1865.  He returned to farming in Jasper County where, in 1870, he was enumerated with his wife and a daughter named Mary.  By 1880 he had moved to the small Jones County community of Pinelville, where he and Catherine scratched out a merger existence in a childless household.  Catherine died in May of 1883 and soon thereafter the new widower must have begun calling on Nancy Holyfield.

Carney Sumrall appears to have ranked below the widow Holyfield in terms of economic status.  He reported the value of his 1879 farm production as $95, paltry even by contemporary Jones County standards.  But Nancy may have reached a point where she could afford to let sentiment play a larger role in her decisions. On September 17, 1883 Carney Sumrall and Nancy McCary Sumrall Holyfield applied for a marriage license and solemnized their vows six days later.  At the time Nancy was 46 and Carney 53.  She was leaving her childbearing years behind and may well have looked forward to a long marriage.  If so, it was an unfulfilled wish.  Just six years later, on December 12, 1889, Carney Sumrall applying for another marriage license—this time to Elizabeth Hinton Coats.  The absence of any divorce proceedings in the surviving court records indicates Nancy had died.   Although some genealogies list her as dying in November of 1902 and being interred in Wayne County, they have apparently confused her with another Nancy Sumrall, born in 1847, who was the wife of Enoch S. Sumrall.

Marriage license of Carney S. Sumrall and Elizabeth Coats

In wedding Elizabeth Coats, Carney had once again chosen a Civil War widow.  Born in 1838, Elizabeth Hinton had been the wife of Thomas N. Coats.  He, like other married men facing conscription, enlisted on May 12, 1862 and was mustered into Company F of the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry.  He also participated in the siege at Vicksburg and, following its surrender, was paroled.  A muster roll in the Mississippi Archives indicates Thomas N. Coats went absent without leave from January 3 until April 10, 1864, during which time Elizabeth became pregnant with their third child.  Five days before Col. Lowry led troops into Jones County to deal with the deserters, he rejoined his unit.  Thomas was subsequently captured on July 4, 1864 at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, near Atlanta.  From there he was shipped north to Camp Douglas, Illinois where he died of pleurisy on February 9, 1865—three days after his fellow Jones Countian George Warren Walters had died in the same camp.   (see part two of Jones County Widows). Perhaps unwilling to loosen her standards regarding potential suitors, Elizabeth remained a widow and reared her three children.  Twenty-four years elapsed between the death of her husband and her acceptance of Carney Sumrall’s proposal.

Carney and Elizabeth were last enumerated on the 1900 census.  Elizabeth died in July of 1902 and was buried in the Union Line cemetery near Soso.  In May of 1907 Carney was admitted to Beauvoir, the former gulf coast residence of Jefferson Davis that had been converted into a Confederate retirement home.  But he later discharged himself and returned to Jones County, where he died in 1909.  His grave is beside that of wife Catherine in the old section of Hickory Grove cemetery in Laurel.  The author has been unable to locate the grave sites of Moses Holyfield and Nancy McCary Sumrall Holyfield Sumrall.  It is known that Nancy’s sons by Elisha Sumrall continued to reside in Jones County until their deaths in the 1920s and 30s.

Hayes Cottage, Beauvoir Soldiers Homes, Biloxi, MS, where C. S. Sumrall once resided.

Nancy McCary Sumrall and Elizabeth Hinton Coats demonstrate how two Piney Woods women, eventually fated to marry a common husband, reacted to their status as Civil War widows.  When given an early opportunity to re-marry, albeit to an elderly man, Nancy accepted the offer as a practical partnership necessary to sustain her family through difficult times.   We can surmise that Elizabeth was less inclined to make such compromises, with the result that she retained her widow’s status for two dozen years after the war.  Whether accepting or rejecting prospective mates found among the reduced pool of post-war men, however, both women coped with the circumstances life had presented them.

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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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