North Carolina

Renegade Women

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:

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

7 replies »

  1. My name is Anniece Buckman.
    I have recently retuned to Jones County after 42 years of living in Florida and most recently in England. I have become interested in my roots. I am a cousin to Ralph Kirkland. His grandfather, Marin Tucker and my grandmother, Maudie Arcola Tucker were siblings. They are both included in the bigger, complete version of the photograph that shows Alzada Courtney. The correct spelling of Grandma Courtney’s given name is ALZADA.
    I have a couple of photographs of her that are better than the one you are using.
    I will be forwarding copies of those to Ralph, with whom I have recently become re-acquainted. I am attempting to secure a death certificate on Grandma Courtney.
    My 87 year-old Mother who is also in the bigger picture, has vivid memories of her and a couple of good stories about her. She also has the clay-bowl pipes that she used to smoke. Ralph has her walking cane.
    I would be interested in seeing any informtion you have one her and currently have a geneologist doing some research on her.
    There is a discrepency in her date of birth. My Mother had always believed it to be 1828–that is what is listed on the Laurel Leader Call clipping of her obituary and is also listed on her headstone. Some records seem to indicate 1948 (or ’45.)
    I will be happy to share information with you if you will do the same. I have always been intrigued with Grandma Courtney especially after I found out some years back that “there was no grandpa Courtney”.
    I am not computer savy–hate the thing–so I do not have a website or other mode of communication other than e-mail, snail mail and telephone.
    Let me know if you are interested in sharing information.
    Anniece Buckman


  2. It’s great to hear from you, Anniece. Ralph Kirkland has for some time been a great correspondent as well, sharing his insights into the Tucker and Courtney family with me.

    First, thanks for the corrected spelling of “Alzada”; I have just enough time to get that corrected on the proofs for the new book in which her photo will appear. Unfortunately, the book is too far along in press to replace the photo with a better one. However, I’d love to post any photos you might have of Alzada here on Renegade South. You can either send me a hard copy or a digital copy.

    I am happy to share with you any information I have on Alzada, but I believe pretty much everything I know about her went into my book, The Free State of Jones. As to her age and the year she may have died, I can offer some speculation that might be useful, although much of the information is contradictory.

    According to the federal manuscript censuses of 1850, 1860, and 1870, Alzada was born in 1841, perhaps 1842. In the 1880 census, her birth year is closer to 1845. In 1900, it has been pushed back to 1839. By the time of the 1930 census, where “Alzany” is listed as 95 years old, her birth year has been pushed back even further–to 1835!

    Tom Knight brings her birthdate forward a bit in his first version of his history of Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones. That history is dated 1935, and in it, Tom refers to Alzada (“Mrs. Courtney”) as being 97 years old, making her birth year 1838. The problem is that we don’t know the exact year that Tom wrote those words; the manuscript was copyrighted 1935, but he could have written that description of Alzada a few years earlier.

    I suspect that Alzada’s age was incorrectly expanded as she got older, either by her or the family member who reported it to the census taker. Here is why I believe that. In 1850, she is reported as nine years old. If she had been born in 1835, the census taker would be mistaking a fifteen-year-old teenager for a nine-year-old girl–not a likely occurance. Also, her age consistently increases 9-10 years for the next two decades: she is 18 in 1860 and 29 in 1870. Then, beginning in 1880, her age begins to inconsistently jump around, suggesting that family members might be guessing at her age to census takers. The biggest increase comes in 1920, when she would have to have been born in 1832 to be 88 years old as reported.

    If Alzada was born in 1841, as I suspect she was, she would have been 107 in 1948! It’s not impossible that she lived so long, but perhaps the 1940 census, which will be released next year to the public, will settle the matter of whether or not she died before that year.

    How I wish I would have heard from both you and Ralph before Free State of Jones was published! I would love to have included more stories about such a colorful life in my book, Free State of Jones! but we can always include them here on Renegade South, if you care to share



  3. Dear Vikki,
    Thank you for responding to my comments.
    I can see the problem in attempting to establish a birth date for Grandma Courtney. I do feel sure her death date was 1936 as my Mother has the original obituary clipping from the Laurel Leader Call. I have sent to Jackson for copies of her death certificate and will be interested to see if it lists a birth date as well (still possible speculation.)

    I will share what I do know that may not already be public information.
    According to my Mother she was a tall woman. Mother would have noticed as she herself was 5’10” at the age of 14 when Alzada died. She was blind for a number of years before her death, and from the photos, it looks like she may have lost most of her teeth. She walked with a cane in her latter years–and Ralph has that cane. She smoked CLAY-bowl pipes which my mother has. The stems are missisng as I suspect they were made of some hollow reed or other fragile or disposable material that did not survive with time.
    She wore the traditional bonnet seen in the prairie movies. I have two photos of her wearing a black one. I heard both my mother and my grandmother tell that she set her bonnet on fire while attempting to light her pipe after she had gone blind. She would sit in a rocking chair in front of the fireplace. When she wanted to smoke, she would pull a straw from the sage-broom on the hearth and stretch forward to light the straw. After it burned to a shorter length, she would light her pipe. After setting the bonnet on fire, someone else always lit her pipe for her.

    My Grandmother, Maudie Tucker Long (one of the 17 Tucker children) told me how Alzada cut a black man’s hand off with her wood chopping axe. Apparantly she was alone in her home when a man came and would not go away. She did not know who he was, and he refused to leave when she demanded that he go. She was obviously frightened and when he put his hand through the door to undo the latch she chopped his hand off. As Mama would say: “He was up to no good!”.

    I found out today that at some point she attended Hickory Grove Baptist Church billed as Laurel’s oldest Baptist Church. The church name was later changed to Parkview Baptist. It was confirmed for me just today that they have a record of her request in 1913 for a ‘letter’ of transfer to another church. I have also called the church where she is buried (Eastview Baptist in rural east Laurel) to see if they have a record of her having transferred her membership to them. I hope to get copies of both soon. For years her headstone was a home-poured concrete slab with crudely scribed lettering. At some point in the last few years, it was replaced by a very small, but legible one. Apparently by a historical society. I will check that out. I would have loved to have had the original one!

    I will be away until the end of the month, but will send along anything I can. I mailed photos to Ralph today and as I don’t ‘compute’, perhaps he will scan and send those to you.
    When I return, I plan to get my mother together with Ralph’s mother and see what they can remember about their g-grandmother Alzada. Ralph’s mother, Edith is 92 years old and still works at Wal Mart as a greeter, so you see, the longevity gene runs in the family. Edith would have been almost 20 before Alzada died, but whether or not she spent much time at the Tucker home, I do not know.

    You obviously know something of the Tuckers of Tuckers crossing. My Mother has a portrait sized photograph of Martain Van Buren Tucker and his wife. I had not seen it in years, but she pulled it out from behind as old trunk today and I have it here. I will photograph it and get a copy to you if you are interested. Martin Van Buren donated the land for the railroad to be built through his land, therefore, Tucker’s Crossing. His name was in the Laurel Paper just last week as the Tucker’s Crossing Baptist Church was celebrating it’s centennial and acknowledged that he had donated the land for building the church as well. Ralph’s father was named Martin.

    Where can I get the book about Renegade Women? What is the correct title of the book that specifically mentions Alzada?

    As I get more information, I will share it with you.


  4. Anniece,

    This is all so fascinating! If I had “met” you earlier, I clearly could have provided a fairly detailed description of Alzada in The Free State of Jones, where her story appears on four different pages of the book.

    I love knowing that she was tall, that she wore bonnets (can’t wait to see the photos!), and that she smoked a pipe into old age, after going blind. I can just imagine the family decision being made to no longer allow her to light her own pipe!

    Since you have Alzada’s obituary, you can be fairly well certain she died in 1936, close enough to 100 years old to have quite impressive genes, indeed! I would never want to romanticize working in the fields, but it seems that outdoor work may have made these women strong, while the sun kept their bones from shrinking! I remember back in 1992 when I was about to visit the Newt Knight cemetery on Jerry Jones’s property. Mr. Jones’s ninety-something mother (or perhaps grandmother) was heading toward a field to do some work!

    The long lives of these women, including your and Ralph’s mothers, certainly helps with the passing on of family history. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot once those two women get the chance to reminise with one another.

    I’m pleased to know the churches Alzada attended. Since a number of Tuckers, Kirklands, and Collinses joined the Universalist church, I thought perhaps Alzada might have, too. It doesn’t appear that she did, however.

    By my “Renegade women” book, do you mean my first book, Unruly Women? It is about North Carolina women, and includes two chapters on their reactions to the Civil War. There are women very much like Alzada in it, but Alzada herself does not appear. My forthcoming book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (University of North Carolina Press), will feature Alzada’s photograph as someone who knew Newt Knight. But I don’t tell her story there, since it already appears in my book Free State of Jones.

    Look forward to hearing from you whenever you get the chance to contact me again.



  5. Dear Victoria,

    I am a student currently undertaking a dissertation at Queens University Northern Ireland. I am very interested in the topic of dissent during the war especially that of lower class women. I have read your books Unruly Women and The Long Shadow of the Civil War and I found them very interesting and compelling. My main focus for my dissertation was on the Richmond Bread Riots but due to a lack of primary sources I am finding it hard to write on the topic and have made the decision to move away from it. I was wondering if you had copies of documents on dissent from lower class women before the war and during the Civil War in Northern Carolina that you might be willing to share? Or if you have any advice on web resources that are useful to use for finding primary sources on the topic? Any help you could provide would be very much appreciated.

    Many thanks,
    Jonathan Trainor.


    • Jonathan,

      Very nice to hear from you, and I’m delighted to learn about your research topic. I agree that the Richmond Bread Riot may not have enough primary sources to warrant a dissertation, although I did only a cursory search on that topic for my book, Long Shadow of the Civil War.

      I do indeed have some interesting documents on women dissenters in my files. Unfortunately, I am on an extended visit to Texas, which will soon be followed by an extended road trip through Louisiana and Mississippi. I likely won’t return to my Missouri home, where my files are kept, until late March. I will be happy at that time to visit them with your request in mind. In the meantime, I’ll add your name to a file I’ve created that lists requests that I need to answer once I get back home.

      Thanks for your kind words about my works on dissent.



      • Vikki,

        Many thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment and I look forward to hearing from you in the future.



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