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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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My forthcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, will feature Unionist communities from the North Carolina Quaker Belt as well as Mississippi and Texas. Recently, I received a series of comments and questions from Amanda Hall and Kelly Atkins Hinson, descendants of the Hulin and Atkins families of Civil War Montgomery County, North Carolina. (See their comments following Unionists at War in the N.C. Quaker Belt).
 
Three Hulin brothers, John, Jesse, and William, and a cousin, James Atkins, were members of a Wesleyan Methodist community headed by patriarchs Hiram Hulin and Valentine Moore, and known for its anti-slavery views and opposition to the Confederacy during the Civil War. In early January, 1865, the Hulin brothers and Atkins were killed by pro-Confederate forces for refusing to serve the Confederate Army (see here and here).

Amanda and Kelly expressed interest in seeing the following letter written to Governor Zeb Vance during the midst of the war by John A. Beaman, grandson of Valentine Moore and brother-in-law to Hiram Hulin. The letter is undated, but was probably written before Beaman’s Hulin and Atkins cousins were killed.

I discovered the letter in the N.C. Governors’ Papers in 1983 while researching my doctoral dissertation (the basis for Unruly Women). As a graduate student, finding Beaman’s letter fueled my fascination with anti-Confederate sentiments among the southern yeomanry. In it, he does not discuss religious ideology or political philosophy, but does express the rage felt by many nonslaveholding farmers over Confederate exemption policies that privileged slaveholding planters and manufacturers over plain farmers.

Except for adding punctuation and a few dropped letters, I have transcribed Beaman’s letter just as he wrote it. Despite his frequent misspellings, John was more literate than most Southern farmers of the time, and he did not let his rudimentary education prevent him from addressing Governor Vance as an elected official who needed to hear the opinions of his constituents.

Mr. Z. B. Vance

Mr. Z. V., gov, I take the presant opertunity of droping you a few lines to inform you [of] the condition of my settlement and our county and the parciality of the conscript law [so] you know the rotnest of it and the men that is exempted by it; and unles it is repeald you can’t think us conscrps will obey the call that is made. You know the farmer is the life of hour country and I want you to tell me one farmer exempted unles he has twenty slaves; and I want you to tell me one of them that has anything to sell tht will sell for confedrt money

I have trid [to buy from] them and also I hav trid [to buy from] the manufactors that is exempted; and corn or bacon they must have [for payment] or you cant buy cotn [cotten] yarn or shurtin [shirting]. Confedrit money they will not hav, and I want you to tell me hough hour family will liv if we leav to fight for such men as these. We air forced to revlutionize unles this roten conscript exemption law is put down, for they are laws wee don’t intend to obey, for wee farmers had as well to be exempted as the slavholder and the manufactory for we air the life of the hole [country].

I hav made moor corn and mor wheat and more bacon than any slavholder in the confedret state for sale, and I hav dun more smithin than any smith in hour county–for nothin acordin to my fose [foes?]; and yet I must go to fight for the seeceders and all mechanics and men who air doing no good at tall at home.

Mr. Vance, I want you to send me some exemptions for I am doing no good at tall, for they want me to fight and I am bound not to go unless all the rest of the blacksmiths and manufactors do. 

Gov, I will close

John A. Beaman to Mr. Gov. Vance

Note: To visit this book’s page at the University of North Carolina website, click here.

 

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I’m pleased to announce that my current book-in-progress has a new title.  Southern Communities at War: Essays in Civil War Dissent and Its Legacies, is now The Long Shadow of  the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.

I love the new title, suggested by book-launch wizards at the University of North Carolina Press to give a more accurate sense of the book’s breadth. (Several essays extend well beyond the Civil War, although all connect to the war.) 

If you’re unfamiliar with my new work,  click here for an overview. For the table of contents, click here,  for an excerpt from the introduction, here.

A few more months, and The Long Shadow of the Civil War will be a finished product!

Vikki Bynum

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Widow and sons of Jesse Hulin, killed by vigilantes for refusing to fight for the Confederacy

Widow and sons of Jesse Hulin, killed by vigilantes for refusing to fight for the Confederacy

Post by Victoria Bynum; quoted passages by Thoburn Freeman, grandson of Sarah Ann Hulin Moore and great-nephew of Caroline Moore Hulin.

Determining what made fierce Unionists of some southerners is not always easy. Was it class? religion? distance from the cotton belt? In the case of Unionists who lived on the borders of Randolph and Montgomery counties, in the North Carolina Piedmont, the answer is easy: it was all three. Several interrelated families in this region–principally the Hulins, Moores, Beamans, and Hurleys–were nonslaveholding yeoman farmers who lived in the heart of North Carolina’s Quaker Belt and outside the South’s plantation belt. They were also devout members of the antislavery Wesleyan Methodist Church, which grew in numbers throughout the 1850s (for more on this community, click here).   

I wrote about these families in my first book, Unruly Women (Chapel Hill, UNC Press, 1992), and I return to their story in the forthcoming Long Shadow of the Civil War. Recently, I got in touch with Linda Beaulieu of the Montgomery Herald in Troy, NC, who graciously put me in touch with Elaine Reynolds, the keeper of the Hulin family papers. It was Elaine who generously provided me with the photos that accompany this post. She also sent me an essay written by Hulin/Moore descendant Thoburn Freeman, which was originally published in Winnie Richter’s Heritage of Montgomery County, NC (1981). I quoted from this essay in Unruly Women, and I am happy to quote from it again here on Renegade South.

The lives of these men and women differed greatly from those of wealthy slaveholders:

During the years before the civil War, the people lived quietly, going about their affairs with pride and purpose. The men were busy clearing land, building fences, homes, schools, and churches. The women were busy carding, spinning and weaving, not to mention cooking on open fire with coals on the hearth, tending children and house cleaning. Everyone worked in the fields. . . . In the fall, they would hold their Camp Meetings, when the families would move out and live in “tents” constructed of logs and later, boards.

“Everyone worked the fields” meant women and children as well as men. Making a living from the soil was a family endeavor that required the hard labor of all. Still, they enjoyed family visits back and forth, which included “quiltings, log-rollings, corn shuckings, spelling bees, and, in some communities, dancing.” Then came the war . . . .

During the war, most social activities, even hunting, were interrupted and came to a halt, except for some of the older men and young boys. All were afraid of the bands of Rebels that roamed the countryside. The church at Lovejoy was Wesleyan at the time, and their ministers preached against slavery. One preacher, Adam Crooks, was arrested in the pulpit. . . . Since most of the people in the area were opposed to slavery and not in sympathy with the Southern Cause, many men chose to hide out and were called “Outlyers” by the Rebels. Among them were 3 sons of Hiram and Nancy Sexton Hulin: Jessie, John, and William.

The men relied on the aid of women to elude capture by Confederate soldiers and vigilantes (Carolina Hulin, pictured above, was the wife of Jessie). One cold January morning, their luck ran out. . . .

Near the end of the war, the three Hulin brothers were arrested and held for several days in an old mill house near Uwharrie. Then without proper trial, in the early morning hours of January 28, 1865, with a light snow on the ground, they were taken to Buck Mountain and shot to death–less than four months before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered. The bodies were loaded onto a wagon and taken to Lovejoy Church by their father, Hiram Hulin [for more on Hiram, click here]. . . . The only offense the boys were guilty of was: they obeyed their conscience, which is the only personal contact we have with God–

Triple grave of William, John, and Jesse Hulin, Troy, NC

Triple grave of William, John, and Jesse Hulin, Troy, NC

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The following post appeared a few months ago on Southern Unionist Chronicles . I’ve decided to post it here as well because it relates so closely to my posts on Civil War Unionists from the North Carolina Piedmont. Hiram Hulin, the author of the letter reproduced below, was the father of Jesse, John, and William Hulin, three brothers murdered for their refusal to serve in the Confederate Army. The Hulins lived in Montgomery County, N.C., and were Wesleyan Methodists who opposed slavery as well as secession. They are the topic of chapter 3 of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, excerpts of which may be accessed here and here.

Many years ago, historian Bill Auman called my attention to Hiram Hulin’s 1867 letter to Col. M. Cogwell, Commander of the U.S. Post at Fayetteville in Reconstruction North Carolina. Hulin was seeking justice for his sons, who were murdered during the Civil War by Confederate home guard troops.

Vikki Bynum

 

 September 28, 1867

Sir,

Permit me to address a line to you in which I ask your opinion of the course proper to be pursued in regard to the arrest and trial of certain persons who in the time of the war murdered my three sons Jesse, John, and William Hulin and also James Atkins who were evading the military service in the Confederate Army; after arresting them they took them before two Justices of the Peace for trial. From the only information which we can get the Justices committed them to jail. They were delivered into the hands of the murderers who were home-guard troops and while on their way to the pretended prison they deliberately shot and beat to death with guns and rocks my three sons and Atkins while tied with their hands and handcuffed together. One Henry Plott now residing in the County of Cabarrus was the officer in command of the s[q]uad of murderers at the time of the murder was committed. Most of the murderers were strangers to the people of the County and their names are entirely unknown to us except one George W. Sigler who now resides quietly in Marshall County, Mississippi. Against him a bill has been found by the Grand-jury of this County. His Post office is Byhala about 16 miles from Holly Springs, Mississippi. I have informed the State Solicitor of his where abouts and nothing is done for his arrest. Permit me to pray you in the name of my departed sons to lend aid of the Military force of the government to arrest and bring to trial the felonious murderer. I beseech you by all the paternal feelings which a father should hold for a son to lend us aid in this matter.

We would earnestly commend that you arrest Henry Plott as so-called Captain in the Confederate Army in command of the murderous squad and that he be held in custody till he reveals the names of the remainder of the murderers. Henry Plott was heard to say soon after the murder “we caught four,” and the question was asked, “what did you do with them?” Answer “we put them up a spout.”  “Did you kill them?” “Yes we did.” All the facts above stated can be proved by the best of testimony.

You will please inform us by your earlyest convenience what course you can take in [this] matter and what it may be necessary for us to do in the premises. With Great respect I am sir

Your Obedient servant

Hiram Hulin

Published in Elizabeth Gregory McPherson, ed. “Letters from North Carolina to Andrew Johnson,” North Carolina Historical Review vol. 28, no. 1 (Jan. 1952): 118-119.

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Note, Oct. 18, 2009: The title of this book has officially been changed to The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.

I’m pleased to announce that my forthcoming book, Southern Communities at War: Essays on Civil War Dissent and Its Legacies, is now officially in press. On May 6, the editorial board of the University of North Carolina Press met and approved it for publication. After a long, arduous process of research, writing, submission, revision, and resubmission, it now enters the (also arduous) copyediting  and production stages. It should be available by spring 2010. To see a description of the book, click here, for an excerpt from the introduction, here, and for the table of contents, here.

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james-a-keith-reward1

One of the grisliest mass murders of Southern Unionists occurred in 1863 in Madison County, North Carolina. Popularly known as the “Shelton Laurel Massacre,” this Civil War story was told by the late historian, Philip Paludan, in his moving book, Victims: A True Story of the Civil War (1981). Robert Moore revisited the story on Southern Unionist Chronicles in 2008, and you can also find detailed descriptions of the murders on the Southern Unionist Forum hosted by Genforum.

Back in 1983, while researching my first book, Unruly Women, at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, I transcribed and copied several documents detailing this case that I would like to share with you.  In the Governors’ Papers, for example, I found S. A. Merrimon’s report of Feb. 24, 1863, to Governor Zebulon Vance. Merrimon told Vance that at least 13 men and boys were taken into the woods, made to kneel down, and shot to death on the mere suspicion that they had participated in a robbery in the town of Marshall. Three of the murdered “men” were described as 13, 14, and 15 years old. Merrimon added that “several women were severely whipped and ropes were tied around their necks.”

The man who ordered the murders was Lt Col. James A. Keith of the same county. In his defense, Keith claimed that Brigadier General Henry Heth had directed him to kill the Madison County Unionists and deserters, to take no prisoners, and to file “no reports” of the matter. Heth responded that he had advised Keith to take no prisoners only in the event that there was an “engagement” between forces, but denied that he had authorized maltreatment of prisoners, women, or children. (Some believe that Gen’l Heth was indeed complicit.)

The Governors’ Papers also contain a petition signed a few months later, on May 1863, by eleven Shelton Laurel women who requested that Gov. Vance appropriate money for them to buy provisions, “being as we will be bound to suffer on account of [Confederate] troops eating up all our provisions & killing our men and property and destroying the country.” The women included seven with the surname Shelton–Judah, Sarah, Marthy Jane, Rachel, Elizabeth, Polly, and Margaret–as well as Rody Hall, Nancy King, Liney Norton, and Emeline Riddle.

Efforts to prosecute James A. Keith dragged on for years. You can clearly see Sheriff S.G. Brigman’s frustration and desperation to apprehend Keith in the two letters he wrote to Provost Marshal Edward W. Hinks on September 18, 1867 (the letters are quoted below). Those letters apparently resulted at long last in Keith’s arrest on several counts of murder.  On February 22, 1869, however, Keith escaped from the Buncombe County Jail along with two other prisoners (see reward notice, above). Keith was never recaptured. But even had he not escaped, President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Act of 1868 caused all charges against him to be dropped.

[Excerpt from letter #1 from Sheriff S.G. Brigman to Provost Marshal Edward Hinks]:

Col: In compliance with your request endorsement Sept. 3, 1867 I have the honor to make the following report of James A. Keith – He is full six feet high, Dk hair, and very heavy black beard, generally wears his beard long,–weighs 180 to 185 lbs,–rather slow spoken but very intelligent and well posted on matters of history, etc.—was in the Mexican War and practicing physical while in this county. Age, about 43 or 45 and, while talking or interrogated, keeps one eye shut. The said James A. Keith was at one time a Col in the Rebel Army but was dismissed for robbery, murder, and a general plunder. He then organized a band of robbers and went about plundering & murdering on his own hood. He remained in the county (Madison Co) until about the time of the surrender, when he left and went to Greenville Dist., South Carolina, where he now lives.—Keith formerly lived in this County, in fact he has lived here all his life until he left about the [time of the] surrender. He bought the farm formerly owned by Col. L. M. Allen on South Tiger River 3 miles or 6 miles from Weavers old factory .— He bought this farm with property stolen from this country   —.

                His residence is 18 miles from Greenville C.H. North near the Spartanburg Dist. Line, not very far from the foot of Blue Ridge – Near a road leading from Henderson, N.C. to Spartanburg C. H., S. C.— Lives in a nice small white house [with] a portico in front, stables, and out houses below, stairway going up in center. It appears from the statement that the officer who made the search did not go near the directions, as this man Keith who he arrested lived in Pickens Dist., while James A. Keith lives near the Spartanburg line, the opposite direction. South Tiger River is very noted and he lives ¼ of a mile of said river. This same man Keith was seen but a few weeks ago lurking in this county and is well known and feared by every man in Western Carolina.

                Keith has a wife and one or two small children, his wife’s maiden name was Jones and lived in Tenn – Keith was [arrested?] one time before the war for forging a Bank Check.

                Keith’s Post Office is Travellers Rest.—I forwarded you last Mail affidavits of his guilt and Certificates of Clerks. I have capias, State warrants, and all manner of papers against Keith. He would likely be very easily arrested now, but soon he will commence his  ramble of plunder.

                If anything further is required of me you will advise me of the same.

                                                I am Col Very Respectfully

                                                Your Obdt Servant

                                                S. G. Brigman

                                                Sheriff of Madison Co., N.C.

[Excerpt from letter #2]:

I have the honor to forward affidavits of Several persons in regard to James A. Keith murdering several union men in this county. I can if you require send more than fifty affidavits of this kind. There are several true bills against him in the courts of this county for murder and one for arson for burning Thos. S. Denver’s mills long after the surrender. The said James A. Keith . . . intended to burn and destroy every union man in the county –commencing on T. S. Denver, a leading union man.—Denver has again rebuild his mills at the cost of several thousand dollars. Keith has since been seen lurking about and has said they should not stand long. I have had capias and papers against him and have them now but he is [beyond?] our search. If Keith could be arrested and brought to the county there is sufficient charges against him to hang 500 men.

S.G. Brigman, Sheriff of Madison Co., N.C.

                                                               

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