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Posts Tagged ‘Unruly Women’

Note from Moderator: Phebe Crook belonged to the same North Carolina community of Unionist women that I’ve been researching and writing about for 25 years as did Martha Sheets and Caroline, Sarah, and Clarinda Hulin.  Thanks to exhaustive research by historians in local, state, and federal records, we now know that women were active participants in the American Civil War. Particularly in southern regions that displayed strong Unionist sentiment, ordinary farm women like Phebe engaged in inner civil wars that centered around protesting Confederate policies that claimed the lives of their fathers, sons, and husbands, and which threatened them with impoverishment and even starvation.


Phebe Crook and the Inner Civil War in North Carolina

By Vikki Bynum


On September 15, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, a young unmarried woman of the Randolph/Montgomery County area of North Carolina, wrote an unusually detailed and articulate letter of protest to Governor Zebulon Vance. Phebe Crook began her letter with a polite salutation:

Mr. Vance, Dear Sir,  I imbrace this opertunity of writing you a few lines in order to inform you of the conduct of our oficers and leading men of this county as you are appointed govenor of the state and [because] I Beleave that you are willing to Do all that you can in trying to protect the civil laws and writs of our county.

Then Phebe got down to business, providing the governor with her eye-witness account of Confederate militia sent to her community to enforce conscript laws and arrest deserters:

Whearas I believe you are a Man of high feelings and one that is willing to Do your duty in every respect, I will now inform you of some of the conduct of our Militia officers and Magistrats of this county. Thir imployment is hunting Deserters, they say, and the way they Manage to find them is taking up poore old grey headed fathers who has fought in the old War.

Seizing fathers and grandfathers was one means by which Confederate soldiers sought to learn the whereabouts of men who evaded or deserted Confederate service. But according to Phebe,

Some of them [men who evaded service] has done thir Duty in trying to support both the army and thir family, [but] these men [home guard and militia] that has remained at home ever since the War commenced are taking them up and keeping them under gard without a mouthful to eat for severl days.

Militia and home guard also tortured deserters’ wives, claimed Phebe, by

taking up the women and keeping them under gard and Boxing thir jaws and nocking them about as if they were bruts and keeping them from thir little children that they hav almost wore our thir lifes in trying to make surport for them. And some of thes women is in no fix to leav homes and others have little suckling infants not more than 2 months old.

Nor were children exempt from torture. According to Phebe, Confederate militia were

taking up little children and Hanging them until they turn black in the face trying to make them tell whear thir fathers is When the little children knows nothing atall about thir fathers. Thir plea is they hav orders from the Govenner to do this and they also say that they hav orders from the govner to Burn up thir Barns and houses.

It seemed to Phebe that the mission of the Confederacy was to

Destroy all that [families] hav got to live on Because they hav a poor wore out son or husband that has served in the army, some of them for 2 or 3 years and is almost wore out and starved to Death and has come home to try to take a little rest. [Deserters are] Doing no body any harm and are eating thir own Rations, [whereas the home guard] has Remained at home ever since the Ware commenced, [and] take thir guns and go in the woods and shoot them down without Halting them as if they war Bruts or murderers.  [They] also pilfer and plunder and steal on thir creadits.

Phebe Crook ended her letter by asserting her own credentials:

As for my self, I am a young Lady that has Neither Husband nor father no Brother in the woods, But I always like to [see] peple hav jestis and I think if thes Most powerfull fighting men that has always remained at home would go out and fight the enemy and let thes poore wor out soldiers Remain at [home] a little while and take a little rest that we would have Better times. But they [Confederate militia and home guard] say that if they are called they will Lie in the Woods until they Rot Before they will go to the war. And now why should thes men have the power to punish men for a crime [when] they would Be guilty of the same?

Although she began and ended her letter with a tone of politeness, Phebe now demanded that Governor Vance respond to her description of the desperate situation faced by the ordinary war-weary people of the North Carolina Piedmont:

So I will close By requesting you to answer this note if you pleas, and answer it imediately.

Yours Truly,

Phebe Crook

Direct to Phebe Crook, Salem Church, Randolph County, N.C.

NOTE: If there are descendants or kinfolk of Phebe Crook among readers of Renegade South, I would love to hear from you. I have not been able to trace Phebe’s whereabouts after the war. I do know that she was the daughter of William and Rachel Crook and the sister of Clarinda Crook Hulin. After the war, Clarinda and her husband, Nelson Hulin, moved to Kentucky.

Vikki Bynum

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Last night, Harry Smeltzer, moderator of the Civil War blog, “Bull Runnings: A Journal of the Digitization of a Civil War Battle,” posted an interview with me about Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. I was especially pleased that Harry gave me the opportunity to discuss my new book in the context of my previous works, The Free State of Jones (2001) and Unruly Women (1992). To read the interview, click here:

http://bullrunnings.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/interview-dr-victoria-bynum-the-long-shadow-of-the-civil-war/

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By Vikki Bynum, Moderator

In recent weeks, The Family Origins of Vernon Dahmer, Civil Rights Activist, by Yvonne Bivins and Wilmer Watts Backstrom, published December 6, 2009 on Renegade South, has received increased attention and interesting comments from readers. I’m pleased that Tiffany Jones even republished it on her blog, Mulatto Diaries.

A few readers of Renegade South posed interesting questions after reading the Dahmer history.  “Ms T. A.”, for example, wondered what caused Vernon Dahmer, a man of limited African ancestry, to identify as “black,” and ultimately sacrifice his life working for black civil rights. Also, in regard to racial identification, A.D. Powell (author of Passing for Who You Really Are: Studies in Support of Multiracial Whiteness), drew attention to two instances in which the mixed-race infants of unmarried white women were reportedly given to mulatto families to be raised.

To better understand the ways in which economic class as well as race have historically shaped multiracial communities, I returned to my research files on mixed-race people, and also to a few books on my shelf.  In her 1986 history of the Horne family, for example, Gail Lumet Buckley illuminated the “old black bourgeoisie” from which her mother, Lena Horne, descended. That elite group, writes Buckley, was comprised of “three segments of black society in existence before the Civil War: free northern blacks, free southern blacks, and ‘favored’ slaves.” (The Hornes: An American Family, p. 4)*

Of course, most mixed-race people were not part of this black bourgeoisie. Two classic autobiographies proved especially helpful in understanding less elite families : Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), and Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956, 1978). Both the authors were defined legally as “black” despite having greater degrees of European than African ancestry.  White appearance notwithstanding, Harriet was born and raised a slave. Pauli, born after slavery was abolished, was the great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman who was impregnated by the sons of her master. On Pauli’s great-grandfather’s side, she was descended from a northern interracial marriage between a white woman and a mixed race man.

Both Harriet and Pauli had advantages denied to most people defined as black by white society.  Harriet’s father was not only mixed-race, but a skilled carpenter; her grandmother on her mother’s side was the daughter of a white planter who managed through her connections to white society to gain her freedom (but not her children’s).

Pauli’s southern ancestors were likewise slaves. Her grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters, however, were removed from their mother’s slave cabin by Mary Ruffin Smith, the sister of their wealthy white fathers, and raised in the “Big House.” Although Mary never publicly admitted that the four sisters were the daughters of her brothers (and therefore her nieces), she could not bring herself to treat them as chattel slaves.

My point in discussing Harriet Jacobs and Pauli Murray is not to retell their fascinating life stories, but to explore how white connections might mitigate the disadvantages of race, particularly among light-skinned people of African ancestry. Despite their white ancestry and advantageous connections, Harriet and Pauli, like Vernon Dahmer, identified first and foremost with their African American kinfolk. And why wouldn’t they? Despite light skin and interracial connections, Harriet was nonetheless a slave; Pauli was subjected to segregation. And, of course, both women witnessed abuse and discrimination against people of African ancestry all their lives. It was the cultural rather than biological experience of race that shaped their consciousness.

The lives of mixed-race children who had no favored place or acknowledged kinship with wealthy or influential whites were, of course, much different. Here, my research into North Carolina court records is most revealing. Not only were most mixed-race slaves raised in the quarters rather than in the Big House, but records indicate that being the mixed-race offspring of a single white woman or a free black woman often brought unwelcome attention from the courts, as such children were born free in a slaveholding society.

In chapter four of my book, Unruly Women (1992), “Punishing Deviant Women: The State as Patriarch,” pp. 88-110, I covered in some detail the multiracial communities of Orange and Granville Counties in North Carolina. Susan Williford of Granville County provided a particularly vivid example of the ways in which southern lawmakers punished poor white women for crossing the color line.  Although Susan, a white woman, remained in a stable relationship with Peter Curtis, a free man of color, for most of her adult life (the two were forbidden by law to marry), all of their mixed-race children were removed by the courts from their home and apprenticed to white farmers or planters of the community. The children were forced to live and work for these “masters” until they reached adulthood.

Free women of color were likewise forbidden to marry across the color line, or to marry slave men. By law, any child born to a free woman was also free, regardless of the woman’s race or the father’s status.  Therefore, if free women of color bore children to either white or enslaved men, those children were also subject to being apprenticed by the courts to white families.

In North Carolina, the pre-Civil War system of apprenticeship thus supplemented slavery in controlling the mobility and labor of free people of mixed ancestry. It also served to create the fiction of a society divided between “white” and “black” people, when in fact many free “blacks” (and a good many slaves) had more European and Indian than African ancestry.

Reviewing historical records and autobiographies makes it clear that economic class and gender, as well as heritage and physical appearance, played an integral part in shaping one’s racial identity. This was true in the North as well as the South, where even among Northern abolitionists racial discrimination was commonly practiced. For example, after escaping to the North, Harriet Jacobs wrote that she “found the same cruel manifestations of that cruel prejudice which so discourages the feelings and represses the energies of the colored people,” as in the South (p. 176).

Harriet E. Wilson’s 1859 autobiographical novel, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, highlighted the racial hypocrisy of white northerners who viewed slavery as only a southern problem. This Harriet, who was the abandoned mixed-race daughter of a poor white woman of New England, expressed contempt for white abolitionists “who didn’t want slaves at the South,” but also did not want people of color in their homes: “Faugh!” she wrote,  “to lodge one; to eat with one; to admit one through the front door; to sit next to one–awful!” (129)

A final word about “passing”. This term might best be eliminated from our vocabulary, as it legitimizes the basis for the “one drop rule” of race. To “pass” implies that even though people might look at you and believe that you are “white,” you are nonetheless “black”–and should identify yourself as such–if you have an African ancestor lurking in your past. The assumption is not only that race is an objective biological category of distinction, but furthermore that African “blood” somehow overwhelms all other “blood” in determining who a person really is.  The late Mae Street Kidd, a former “black” representive from Kentucky, exposed the absurdity of the one drop rule and the concept of “passing” when she said, “I’ve been passing for black all my life because I’m almost 90 percent white. . . . It’s so very obvious that I’m so much whiter than I am black that I have to pretend to be black.”  (Wade Hall, Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd (1997), p. 177)

The Dahmer family history certainly raises provocative questions and provides tantalizing insights into mixed-race or multiracial communities.  For those interested in exploring the topic further, I recommend visiting Mixed Race Studies and  Study of Racialism, both great bibliographic resources for both online and printed sources.

And here’s a hopeful sign, brought to my attention by A.D. Powell, that we are moving beyond simplistic and dualistic notions of race:

Emerging Paradigms in Critical Mixed Race Studies,” the first annual Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference, will be held at DePaul University in Chicago on November 5-6, 2010.

http://las.depaul.edu/aas/About/CMRSConference/index.asp

* Note: To view a tribute to Lena Horne’s life and work, see the webpage posted by the Institute of Jazz Studies, a special collections unit of the John Cotton Dana Library on the Rutgers University Newark Campus:
http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/IJS/

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I returned from Falmouth/Fredericksburg Virginia last week, where I spoke on women in Civil War North Carolina. Two major topics of my paper were interracial relations before the war, and the Wesleyan Methodist community of the Randolph County area (including northern Montgomery County), located in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt.

Jesse Hulin’s widow, Caroline, and their children are pictured below on the event’s brochure. For a clearer print of the photo, click here.


The Hulins were Wesleyan Methodists who opposed slavery; Jesse was killed during the war for deserting the Confederacy.

It was a wonderful visit. The turnout was great, and my hosts, Beate Jensen and Anita Dodd, went out of their way to show me a good time, even treating me to a tour of artist Gari Melchers’ (1860-1932) studio and home.

I am also pleased that Jan Coxey, who frequently posts about her Mississippi kin on Renegade South, came over for the presentation. We had never met before, and had a great time getting to know one another in person. She even brought a camera, as evidenced by the photo below.

I’m now preparing to move to Missouri, so expect my posts to be a bit more sporadic. I will continue to moderate comments as best I can for the next few weeks!

Jan Coxey and Vikki Bynum, Gari Melchers Pavilion, Belmont, Falmouth, Virginia. March 21, 2010.

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On Sunday, 2 p.m., March 21, 2010, I will present “Defying Convention: Women, Race, and Class in the Civil War South,”  in Falmouth, Virginia.  Here is the official announcement, which Jan Coxey kindly supplied to Renegade South a few days ago:

Presentation by Dr. Victoria Bynum

From her first book, Unruly Women, to her most recent publication, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, Dr. Bynum has continued to stimulate the public with her close look at Southern dissenters: women who did not behave like “ladies”; whites who crossed the color line socially and sexually; African Americans who did not follow Jim Crow rules; and families that opposed secession and the Confederacy. Her lecture will focus on these Southern dissenters living in the American South—a subject of great interest to Moncure Conway himself and directly related to many individuals living in Falmouth and Stafford during the Antebellum period and throughout the Civil War. A reception to follow.

The Pavilion at Gari Melchers
Home and Studio at Belmont
224 Washington Street, Falmouth

Sunday, March 21, 2010

2:00 p.m.

Sponsored by the Moncure Conway Foundation & the National Park Service.

This event is to generate attention to Falmouth’s rich historic heritage.

Directions to the Gari Melchers estate may be found at http://www.umw.edu/gari_melchers/visit/mapdirections.php.

My thanks to the Foundation for this invitation, and I hope to see you there!

Vikki Bynum

NOTE: To learn more about the life of Moncure Conway, see my earlier post, Moncure Conway, Southern Abolitionist

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When I wrote Unruly Women, (published 1992) I focused primarily on showing how the lives of nonslaveholding women–poor white, free black, and farm women–were impacted by living in a slaveholding society. I was particularly interested in what sorts of behavior marked a woman as “deviant.” I soon discovered that women who crossed the color line, thereby blurring the boundaries of race in a slaveholding society, were most consistently hauled before court magistrates for their crimes of passion.

One women who did not make it into Unruly Women was Mary (Polly) Harris of Granville County, North Carolina. One reason I passed her over was because she lived a generation too soon for the framework of my study (1830-1865). It certainly was NOT because Mary obeyed the rules of society. But, unlike most unruly women, Mary’s behavior was rarely reported in court records, probably because she was from the slaveholding class, for whom personal matters were often settled privately.

Nevertheless, I did discover Mary Harris while working in the North Carolina State Archives in 1983, and I took notes on the interesting circumstances of her life, which included giving birth to children–lots of them–without the benefit of marriage. Nothing more defined a woman as “deviant” than this, and yet I didn’t discover Mary’s habits in the county court’s bastardy bonds, but, rather, in the estate papers of Amos Gooch, who died around 1821. Gooch was a Granville County bachelor who fathered five of Mary’s children: William, Nancy, John G., Jane, and Elizabeth (Betsy).

I was reminded of Mary Harris and Amos Gooch last week when I received an email from Daniel Mahar of San Francisco. Descended from one of Amos’s brothers, Daniel discovered Mary in the records of the North Carolina Archives many years ago, and wondered if I had also encountered her while researching Unruly Women. Daniel’s expansive knowledge of Mary’s life, as well as the lives of her children, stimulated me to return to my files and, with his help, piece together a fascinating chronicle of unorthodox living arrangements among members of North Carolina’s early slaveholding class. 

In 1804, Amos and Mary’s illegitimate daughter, Betsy, received a slave from her mother. The following year, Amos recognized Betsy as his daughter, and pledged in a guardian bond to support her and her slave. Eventually, Betsy Harris became Betsy Gooch. Curiously, the Gooch name was not bestowed on Amos and Mary’s other four children.

Among the descendants of Amos Gooch and Mary Harris, slaves and land were passed from one generation to the next, with courtroom battles occasionally fought over who deserved to inherit what. For example, Nancy Harris, the “natural born” daughter of Amos, owned four slaves when she died in 1826. After Nancy’s estate was dispersed, her half-sister, Susan Harris, sued its administrator, Thomas Jones, and won a judgment for $211.25 from the state supreme court.

That only begins the task of sorting out the tangled skeins of a distinctly unruly family of North Carolina’s early upper class. According to family researcher Arnom Harris, Mary Harris gave birth to a total of twelve children: five fathered by Amos Gooch; three of uncertain paternity (one of whom, Susan, appears either to have been mixed-race or the mother of mixed-race children); and four by Moody Fowler, whom Mary married in 1830 (yes, this unwed mother did eventually marry!).

Mary Harris’s life story raises intriguing questions about deviant behavior among upper-class Southern women; about interactions between Granville County’s “free black” population (which was overwhelmingly multiracial) and the white slaveholding class; and about the distribution of property among intricate kinship groups that included “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children.

Need I add that were I writing Unruly Women today, Mary Harris would be prominently featured?

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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