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!