The Free State of Jones

Harmon Levi and William Wesley Sumrall, Unionist Brothers in The Free State of Jones

By Vikki Bynum

William Wesley Sumrall is the only man with the Sumrall surname listed on Newt Knight’s roster. He and his brother, Harmon Levi Sumrall, were nonetheless among Jones County’s strongest Unionists.

Being over the age of military conscription, Harmon Levi never joined the Knight band, but was every bit—perhaps more—of a Unionist than his younger brother. Born in 1817, H.L. was 23 years older than W.W., and may have been more like a father to him than a brother, especially given that W.W. lived with him and his family in 1860. It’s quite possible that H.L. influenced W.W.’s views on secession and his decision to ditch the Confederate Army and join the Knight band. In fact, H.L. seems to have been one of those “old and influential” citizens described by Confederate Col. William N. Brown (of Col. Lowry’s raid) as having imbued the younger generation with “Unionist ideas” based on the principles of the “agrarian class.”

If by that remark, Col. Brown meant independent and prosperous nonslaveholding farmers who believed secession was madness, Harmon Levi indeed fits the description. He was also one of five men, all past the age of conscription, who signed a letter of support for Newt’s government claim in 1870. Those five men were of an older generation that opposed secession and likely encouraged their sons, nephews, and younger brothers to desert the Confederate Army, just as Col. Brown reported. They also fed, hid, and even helped arm those young men during the war. After the war, they supported their petitions for federal compensation for having served as unofficial Union soldiers in the Knight Company. Again in 1890 and 1895, H.L. Sumrall testified on behalf of Newt Knight’s claim.

As we’ve come to expect, ties of marriage and kinship bound the Sumrall brothers to other men and families who joined or supported the Knight Company. And, again, the Collins family was their strongest kinship tie with the band. In 1861, the same year the Civil War erupted, William Wesley Sumrall married Nancy Emeline Collins, daughter of Simeon and Lydia. That meant that he joined the Knight Company along side a father-in-law and three brothers-in-law.

Long after the war ended and his first wife had died, W.W. Sumrall married Mary Olivia (Mollie) Knight, daughter of Newt Knight’s cousin, George Baylis (Clean Neck) Knight. At the time of their marriage, W.W. was 68; Mollie was 24. The couple had one son together.

Harmon Levi Sumrall also had close ties to the Collins family. One of his daughters, Sarah Palestine (Pallie), married Thomas Jefferson (Jeff) Collins; another, Lucinda, married Morgan Collins. Both Jeff and Morgan were sons of Simeon and Lydia Collins. H.L.’s son, Benjamin Franklin, also married a Collins (Sabra), while other of his children married into Unionist branches of the Mathews and Valentine families.

The Sumrall brothers’ immersion in the Knight Company reinforces two important points about the Jones County Civil War uprising: first, that branches of at least eight area families—including Collinses, Bynums, Valentines, Mathews, Welborns, Welches, Walters, and Knights—exhibited strong Unionist views traceable to an older generation of pioneers born before 1820; second, that this network of families intermarried extensively, reinforcing cultural and economic principles that would predispose them to oppose secession in 1861.

By late 1863, many men from these families were not only unwilling to serve in the Confederate Army, but had organized and armed themselves to fight for the defeat of the Confederate Government. Their Knight Company did not secede from that government, however, as “Lost Cause” legends claimed. In their minds they had never signed on in the first place.

12 replies »

  1. This is an old post, but I hope that this message comes to your attention.
    I am a descendent of Drury Sumrall and have been researching and attempting to document my family lines. I have run into a brick wall trying to find death/probate/obit. info on Drury and his son John. I’m beginning to wonder if the community shunned them because of involvement in Southern Unionism. Am I being paranoid or is there information out there that I am not finding?

    • Hello Bonnie, welcome to Renegade South. I am familiar with Drury Sumrall, who according to genealogical records I studied at the time I wrote Free State of Jones, was first cousin to Jesse Sumrall. Jesse was the father of Harmon Levi and William Wesley Sumrall.

      After a quick check with Ancestry.com, I see that there is quite a bit of documentation for Drury’s life, though almost none for his son, John. Drury, age 79, appears on the 1880 census for district 5 of Jasper County, MS. His occupation is listed as “Minister.” Records show that he died several years later, on December 6, 1886.

      There is nothing that suggests Drury was shunned by his community; his lifelong work as a Baptist minister suggests otherwise. However, I have found evidence, described below, that suggests he may have participated in the bitter Reconstruction battles that ensued between pro-Union and Pro-Confederate citizens after the Civil War.

      While conducting research in the Governors’ Papers at the MS State Archives back in the 1990s, I obtained a copy of a petition to provisional governor Adelbert Ames that contains Drury Sumrall’s signature along with some 33 other members of the community. The petition concerned Lewis McCarty, a former slave freed after the defeat of the Confederacy. Freedman McCarty had subsequently been convicted of “resisting an officer,” and imprisoned in the state peniteniary. The petition that Drury signed read as follows: “we further show unto your excellency that he was not aware of the magnitude of the offence which he was committing; and as he has been confined in the Penitentiary for a considerable time and as we think a sufficient time to punish him for the offence committed would therefore petition your Excellency to discharge him custody.” Paulding, MS, January 15. 1870.

      This suggests to me that Drury, like his Jones County cousins, remained a part of the pro-Union community by opposing the pro-Confederate faction that was using prolonged imprisonment of freed people as an alternative to slavery.

      Hope this helps you with your search; let me know if you have questions.
      Vikki Bynum

      • Thank you for your comments. The only question I have is where did you find the death date information? The last reference I was able to obtain was the 1880 census. I am in the Daughters of the American Revolution and researching my Sumrall line for the patriot Thomas Sumral (Sr.)

        I was surprised to see how our families and many others in Jones/Jasper/Perry counties are related and have known each other since living in the Carolina’s in the late 1700’s. I found The Free State of Jones interesting and informative.

        Bonnie Hayosh

      • Bonnie, Drury Sumrall is listed among “Deceased Ministers” of the previous year in the 1887 Baptist Home Mission Monthly, vol. 9-10, page 16. He is listed by name as having died on December 10 at age 85. This “Mission Monthly” is available as a Google book at http://books.google.com/books?id=y-7OAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA162&lpg=PA16. It’s listed as a free ebook!

        Yes, the Sumralls seem to all go back to the Carolinas; they have a large, interesting network of families throughout Mississippi. I enjoyed researching them for Free State of Jones, and am glad you enjoyed the book.

        Vikki

  2. Drury is my 3rd great grand uncle. The 1840 census for Jasper County shows a “Drury Sumrall” with nine slaves and shows “Free White Persons-Males 30-39-1″ so the age fits. There is also a Jasper County Slave Schedule for 1850 that shows a “Drury Sumrall” with 7 slaves but the age shows “40” which doesn’t fit (at least I think it’s a “0”). Could this be the same Drury Sumrall?

    • Thanks, Chuck!

      I would say that these records do indeed represent the same Drury Sumrall. In regard to the 1850 slave schedule, the census takers listed only the NAMES of slaveholders, not their age, race, etc. The information following the hash mark next to Drury’s name thus designates the first of his eight (rather than seven) slaves. This can be confusing because slaves were not named by census takers. Thus, it is the first slave, designated by the first hash mark, who was 40 or 41 years old—notice that his race was designated by an “M” for mulatto—not Drury.

      Drury Sumrall was a very wealthy man by 1860; his combined personal and real estate that year equaled almost $25,000. Slaves likely comprised most of the personal estate’s value. If Drury was indeed a Unionist, he appears to be of the variety that believed secession from the United States would destroy the economic viability of the South.

      Vikki

  3. Vikki, Thank you for the education on slave schedules…and yet another twist to wrap my head around! A lot of contradictions…minister, possibly Unionist, obviously compassionate, slave owner.

    Chuck

    • Another twist, indeed, Chuck. I’ve long found Drury Sumrall interesting simply because he’s a Sumrall, but also because of his name on that petition. I’m thinking that I might write a post on him that considers all the images you just listed above. It would provide another interesting perspective on the Sumrall family, that’s for sure!

      Vikki

      • Vikki, Drury Sumrall was my great great grandfather. Drury’s youngest son Martin Luther made his way from MS to Texas then OK and had numerous children, including my grandmother who was the youngest). I have found all of your comments on Drury and the political and cultural climate in which he lived to be incredibly interesting! I would be so grateful to be pointed towards ANY additional information about this subject.

      • Thank you so much for your post, Janda. I still intend to write a post about Drury Sumrall, just too many intervening events lately–such as moving back to Texas. I’ll try to get it done soon!

        Vikki

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