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Many people, perhaps most, think of “race” as an objective reality. Historically, however, racial categorization has been unstable, contradictory, and arbitrary. Consider the term “passing.” Most of us immediately picture a light-skinned person who is “hiding” their African ancestry. Many would go further and accuse that person of denying their “real” racial identity. Yet few people would accuse a dark-skinned person who has an Anglo ancestor of trying to pass for “black,” and thereby denying their “true” Anglo roots!

So why is a white person with an African ancestor presumed to be “really” black? In fact, in this day of DNA testing, it’s become increasingly clear that many more white-identified people have a “drop” or two of African ancestry than most ever imagined. Are lots of white folks (or are they black?) “passing,” then, without even knowing it?

Having said all that, I’d like to provide some historical examples of the shifting and arbitrary nature of racial categorization. Those familiar with Newt Knight already know about the 1948 miscegenation trial of his great-grandson, Davis Knight. According to the “one drop rule” of race, Davis was a black man by virtue of having a multiracial great-grandmother (Rachel Knight). Yet, social custom and the law differed. One was legally “white” in Mississippi if one had one-eighth or less African ancestry, and Davis eventually went free on that legal ground.

Despite Davis Knight’s legal victory, custom (and often the law) at times went even further than applying the “one drop rule.” After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation of the races was legal (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896), census enumerators in the segregated South of 1900 were instructed to list people’s race as either “black” or “white”; there were to be no “in-between” designations. Some enumerators went even further than that. To reinforce the image of a racially-segregated society, they categorized many formerly white-identified people as “black” simply because they lived in multiracial neighborhoods. Hence, Newt and Serena Knight, and their children who lived (and married) among Rachel and her children, were listed as “black” in the 1900 federal manuscript census.

Similar contradictions of racial identification may be found throughout Southern court records as segregation ordinances were written into law. An example of one absurd, yet utterly serious, effort to determine whether an individual was “white” or “black” (which I pieced together from North Carolina state and federal records) follows:

In 1884, Mary Ann McQueen, a young white woman about 33 years old, was suspected of having “black” blood. So strong were these suspicions that her mother, who had always been accepted as white, swore out a deed in the Montgomery County Court that “solemnly” proclaimed her daughter to be “purely white and clear of an African blood whatsoever.” But why did suspicions about the “purity” of Mary Ann McQueen’s “blood” arise in the first place?

It all began before the Civil War, when Mary Ann’s mother, Diza Ann, ended her marriage to Mary Ann’s father, Calvin McQueen. Almost immediately afterward, she married Wilson Williams (aka Wilson Wright). By 1861, when the Civil War began, Diza had given birth to four more children. Meanwhile, Mary Ann’s father, Calvin, enlisted in the Confederate Army in February 1862 and marched off to war. Barely five months later, in July 1862, he was dead from wounds suffered in the battle of Mechanicsville, Virginia. Calvin had lived and died as a white man.

The same was not true, however, of Diza’s second husband, Wilson Williams, who was listed as a “mulatto” by census enumerators. This meant that Mary Ann McQueen grew up in a multiracial household with a stepfather and several siblings all classified as mulattos. By 1884, as segregation expanded and lines of race correspondingly hardened, many folks wondered how this white woman could have mixed-race kinfolk without being mixed herself.

With racially discriminatory laws a fundamental part of segregation, Mary Ann had a lot to lose in civil rights, as well as social standing, if she could not rid herself of the “one drop” taint. Perhaps because she lived in a small community with a long memory, her mother’s sworn statement, which reminded the court that Calvin McQueen and not Wilson Williams was Mary Ann’s biological father, seems to have won Mary Ann her whiteness, at least legally. By 1900, the federal manuscript census for Montgomery County, N.C., listed a Mary McQueen, born 1851, as “white.”

That does not mean however, that Mary Ann’s social status was restored. If this is our Mary Ann, she apparently never married, despite having given birth to a son, also listed as white. Were Mary Ann’s chances at marriage to a white man compromised by her mother’s interracial marriage? In the era of segregation, most certainly they were.

Today, most scientists agree that there is no genetic basis for the idea of humans as separate “races,” or subspecies. But, as we see in the case of Mary Ann McQueen and the more recent trial of Davis Knight, societal beliefs about race were written into law and political policy, and reflected historical struggles of power over slavery, segregation, and civil rights.

NOTE:  The stories of Davis Knight and Mary Ann McQueen are discussed in my new book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Vikki Bynum

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Continuing my focus on North Carolina Unionists, the following is an excerpt from the essay “Guerrilla Wars,” chapter one of The Long Shadow of the Civil War. The ruthlessness of the Bill Owens band reminds us that many Unionists and deserters of the Confederate Army were armed, organized, and ready to do battle in their own communities.

Early in 1863, in Civil War North Carolina, a band of guerrillas led by Bill Owens took over the workshop of Pleasant Simmons, a Montgomery County slaveholder and silversmith. The band of Confederate Army deserters proceeded to use Simmons’s shop to repair guns they had obtained by theft and trade.

The intrusion of Bill Owens and his men turned Simmons’s world upside down. Where he had once employed the labor of men such as Riley Cagle, a member of the Owens band, the same men now assumed control over his property. It was enough to make a man fear for his life, and, just two months after the men’s “visit,” sixty-three-year-old Pleasant Simmons wrote out a new will and filed it in court.

Before the war ended, that will was executed. In February, 1864, less than one year after the Owens band took over Simmons’ workshop, a deadly shoot-out ended his life. According to newspaper accounts, a gun battle erupted when Simmons and Jacob Sanders, a neighbor, rushed from the house to protest the Owens band’s latest forced entry, this time into Simmons’s smokehouse. Sanders fired on the intruders, wounding two of them, including Bill Owens, but the gang members fired back, killing both Simmons and Sanders. “Damned secessionists,” they cried out as they fled the scene. Reported one witness, “the yard was strewn with human gore. . . . it stood in some places in puddles where the men lay.” The Civil War had converted neighbors into coldblooded killers of one another.

Pleasant Simmons belonged to a social network of slaveholding artisans, planters, and lawyers who actively supported the Confederacy. Militia officer, Peter Shamburger, was his son-in-law. His nephew Alexander P. Leach, was captain of the Montgomery County Home Guard. Too often, it appeared to plain folk, wealthier folks escaped the worst effects of war. Unwilling to risk their lives any longer, they not only deserted the army, but regularly harassed their pro-Confederate neighbors. Resentment of a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” gathered steam, pitting family against family, slaveholder against nonslaveholder.

As the Owens band’s takeover of Pleasant Simmons’s property revealed, divisions of class and kinship quickly eroded reciprocal economic relations between planter and yeoman, employer and employee. Still, wartime divisions were not always drawn cleanly along lines of slaveholding status. The murdered Jacob Sanders, a carpenter who owned no slaves, may also have worked for Simmons. Yet Sanders remained a fierce supporter of the Confederacy, said to favor the “extermination” of all deserters.

The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, is scheduled for release in Feb., 2010, by the University of North Carolina Press.

Vikki Bynum

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Unionist communities existed throughout the Confederate South during the Civil War. “The Free State of Jones” is an exciting story with its own unique characteristics, but it was only one of many inner civil wars between Unionists and Confederates across the South. 

The following excerpt from “Occupied At Home: Women Confront Confederate Forces in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt,” chapter two of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, features the Hulin family of Montgomery County, NC. The Hulins were among the best known Wesleyan Methodist Unionists of the North Carolina Piedmont, which, significantly, was the birthplace of many ancestors of the Free State of Jones uprising.  

Because Unionist women in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt abetted men’s avoidance of Confederate service, many Confederate supporters viewed torture and deprivation of deserters’ wives as the product of simple necessity. Torturing the wife of guerrilla leader Bill Owens, after all, had resulted in his capture and imprisonment. In some counties, pro-secessionist millers also denied deserters’ wives government grain even though there was no official Confederate policy to that effect.

Women who sheltered male kin in the nearby woods eagerly told their side of the story. In separate letters to Governor Vance, Phebe Crook and Clarinda Crook Hulin, daughters of a Montgomery County Methodist schoolteacher and kin to numerous deserters, blasted their Confederate occupiers. Clarinda, who had three “outlier” brothers-in-law (she did not mention this in her letter), implored Governor Vance to consider the plight of farm women. “I hav three little children to werk for and I have werk[ed] for ever thing that I have to eat and ware,” she wrote. But military men sent to the region to restore order were “destroying every thing they can lay hans up on.” Troops had taken her “last hog,” and poured her molasses all over her floor. “It ant only Me they air takeing from . . . ,” she added, “they take the women’[s] horses out of the plows,” she explained, for their own use.

Ten more months of armed warfare between militia and deserters brought a more detailed letter from Clarinda’s sister, Phebe. As a single woman, Phebe Crook could not anchor her protest in the time-honored trope of the soldier’s wife or mother. She seemed eager, however, to describe herself as “a young lady that has Neather Husband, son, father, no[r] Brother in the woods” (although she did have male kin hiding in the woods). Invoking the moral authority of republicanism rather than motherhood, Crook informed Governor Vance of the “true” conditions of her community. Calling on him to “protect the civil laws and writs of our country,” she denounced the militia and magistrates of her county for arresting “poore old grey-headed fathers who has fought in the old War and has done thir duty . . . .”

Enraged by home guard who, Crook insisted, had no intention themselves of fighting in the war, she condemned their physical abuse of women and children and their burning of barns, houses, and crops, all done in the name of fulfilling the governor’s directive to force deserters in from the woods. Following such orders was merely an excuse, she wrote, for pro-Confederate men to “take their guns and go out in the woods and shoot them down Without Halting them as if they war Bruts or Murder[er]s.” Once again, Crook emphasized rights of citizenship rather than victimhood by assuring the governor that her motive for writing was that “I always like to [see] people hav jestis.”

Despite the sisters’ separate appeals to Governor Vance, they could not prevent the killing of their three brothers-in-law on January 28, 1865. Jesse, John, and William Hulin were executed along with James Atkins, who had been identified as a draft evader by Sheriff Aaron Sanders during the previous fall court term. Both the Crooks and Hulin families belonged to the county’s network of Wesleyan Methodist families who opposed slavery and refused to fight for the Confederacy.

NOTE: In addition to Long Shadow of the Civil War, this essay will appear in the anthology, Occupied Women, edited by LeeAnn Whites and Alecia Long, forthcoming from LSU Press. Readers who would like to know more about the Unionist Hulin family of Montgomery County, NC, should consult my 1992 book Unruly Women.

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I think of historians as investigative journalists of the past. I especially feel that way when I write an essay or book based on court records. My first book, Unruly Women, was such a work, and so is the essay “Disordered Communities: Freed People, Poor Whites, and ‘Mixed Blood’ Families in Post-Civil War North Carolina,” a chapter in my upcoming collection of essays, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Studying court records from a different century is the ultimate revival of “cold cases.”  “Disordered Communities” investigates the years following the Civil War known as Reconstruction and recovers the experiences of ordinary black and white citizens, men, women, and children, who struggled to survive this dark period of history.

The era of Reconstruction, 1865-1875, was both exhilarating and horrific for Southern Unionists, particularly those of African American descent. This essay traces the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan in 1868 by studying some of the South’s best preserved court records, those of Orange County, North Carolina. In Orange and surrounding counties,  the Klan effectively restored the power of slaveholders and wreaked havoc on the lives of former slaves and Unionists.

Women, some of whom resisted the Klan alongside their husbands, appear prominently in this chapter. Many simply struggled to make a life for themselves in a war-ravaged, violent society. There is Pattie Ruffin, newly freed from slavery, who was coerced by a prominent white politician into withholding the name of the white father of her unborn child from court officials. There is Ann Bowers Boothe, a widow who lost her farm to a white family after they claimed she had African American “blood,” and therefore could not inherit property from her white husband.  Many, many more cold cases are brought to life in this chapter, and they speak to communities throughout the South that witnessed similar post-Civil War struggles over power. And, always, the stories are about real people fighting, sometimes literally, for their lives.

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The full title of this essay, which will appear in my next book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, is “Occupied At Home: Women Confront Confederate Forces in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt.”

This history of North Carolina’s Randolph County area will certainly remind folks that the Free State of Jones was only one of many hotbeds of Southern Unionism during the Civil War. For several reasons, even fiercer inner civil wars occurred in NC than in Mississippi. For one, NC had fewer large slaveholders and more nonslaveholders than Mississippi; also, many more Confederate forces swept through the NC Piedmont on the hunt for deserters than through the Piney Woods of Mississippi.

Another difference between this inner civil war and that of Jones County, MS, was the presence of a small but devout Wesleyan Methodist community that opposed slavery as well as secession. Perhaps that is why women are particularly visible in the Randolph County area uprising–they shared their menfolk’s religious as well as political views.

If you read my “Renegade Women” post, you might remember Martha Sheets of North Carolina, who was arrested for threatening Sheriff Aaron Sanders with a visit from deserters if he did not provide corn for the starving women of her neighborhood. “You have told lies to get your sons out of this war,” she told the sheriff, “and you don’t care for the rest that is gone, nor for their families. . . . If you don’t bring that grain to my door you will suffer, and that bad” (spelling corrected).

Martha didn’t mince words.

In this essay, you will hear the voices of Martha Sheets and many other Unionist women from North Carolina. 

NOTE: In addition to appearing in Long Shadow of the Civil War, this essay appears in the anthology Occupied Women, edited by LeeAnn Whites and Alecia Long, LSU Press, 2009.

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This essay from my upcoming Long Shadow of the Civil War profiles the leaders of three guerrilla bands from three regions of the South known for Unionism and resistance to the Confederacy: the Randolph County area of North Carolina, the Jones County area of Mississippi, and the “Big Thicket” region of East Texas. The geographic and family ties that link the bands are fascinating. The parents of Newt Knight, leader of the Mississippi band, migrated west from North Carolina around the period of the American Revolution. The three Collins brothers who initiated the Texas band had North Carolina and Mississippi roots, and were the brothers of the three Collins brothers who served with Newt Knight back in Jones County!

Here are a few snippets from this chapter describing Bill Owen, Newt Knight, and Warren J. Collins, the respective leaders of the three renegade bands:

“Bill Owens . . . appears the most ruthless and least charismatic of the leaders. Owens’s Civil War exploits inspired no romantic tales of heroism.”

“Newt could be ruthless as well as charismatic.  The cold-blooded murder of Major Amos McLemore, Jones County’s most powerful Confederate officer, is universally attributed to Newt.”

“Warren Collins .  .  .  appeared more adept at eluding capture than murdering Confederate leaders.  .  .  .  An extensive folklore surrounds the life of this so-called “Daniel Boone” of East Texas.”

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Perhaps the longest-lived participant in the Free State of Jones, Alzade is middle person of middle row, 1926

Perhaps the longest-lived participant in the Free State of Jones, Alzade is middle person of middle row, 1926

I first discovered Southern Unionists while doing research on women in pre-Civil War North Carolina. Women, I soon realized, were central to the ties of kinship that bound together people who opposed the new Confederate nation. When I dug into the letter files of the state’s governors, I was immediately struck by how many women wrote to them during the Civil War: plaintive letters, desperate letters, angry letters.

As the long and bloody war dragged on, women’s letters became only more angry. Many of their voices appear in my first book, Unruly Women, and many more will play starring roles in my upcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.  Martha Sheets, who lived on the border of Montgomery and Randolph Counties in N.C., is one of my favorite renegade women. In early 1865, Martha threatened Montgomery County Sheriff Aaron Sanders with a visit from deserters if he did not supply her family with corn, “and make that good corn,” she added.

When I expanded my research from the North Carolina Quaker Belt to Mississippi’s Free State of Jones,  I was introduced to more extraordinary women–the fact is, renegade women existed in every state of the Confederacy. Many of them simply placed loyalty to family and neighborhood above all else, including the new Confederate government. Enslaved women, such as Rachel Knight of Jones County,  assisted deserters and guerrilla bands in hopes of undermining the institution of slavery. Others came from Unionist families that had opposed secession from the beginning. I think of Sarah “Sally” Parker, the sister, aunt, or cousin of  many stalwart members of the Knight Company guerrilla band.  Sally was Sarah Collins before she married, and the Collinses were among the staunchest Unionist families of the Jones County region. She risked her own life to shelter the Knight Company from Confederate forces, even though her own son, George Warren Walters, fought and died serving the Confederate Army. The expert on Sarah Collins Walters Parker is her great great great grandson, Ed Payne. Watch for his biography of her in the April 2009 issue of the Journal of Mississippi History.

Alzade Courtney is another favorite of mine (see photo, courtesy of Ralph Kirkland). Separated from her husband, Alzade worked her fields alone during the war, and depended on the Knight Company for protection. She in turn opened her home to them. Alzade may be the longest-lived participant in the Free State of Jones. Although in her late nineties by 1934, she provided Tom Knight with a testimonial that year for his famous biography of his father, Newt Knight. You can learn more about Alzade–and the Free State of Jones–on the wonderful website administered by her great-great grandson, Ralph Kirkland: http://www.squidoo.com/freestateofjones

I ‘m sure many of you have Civil War renegade women in your family history. I hope you’ll tell us about them here!

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