Introduction—Collateral Damage: Civil War Widows of Jones County
By Ed Payne
Researching post-Civil War Jones County has led me to develop an interest in the women who were left widows as a result of the conflict and how they dealt with their often radically altered circumstances. But compiling even a partial list of Jones County women who lost husbands in the Civil War is difficult. The most basic product of war is death and the Civil War produced more deaths than all other pre-Vietnam American conflicts combined. But Confederate records are notoriously incomplete. A report submitted in 1866 cited a figure of 6,807 Mississippians dead or wounded, an absurdly low number. Ben Wynne in Mississippi’s Civil War, on the other hand, states that of 78,000 Mississippians who served in the CSA, 27,000 never returned home. Another calculation is that Confederate states suffered a death rate, on average, equal to about 2.84% of their 1860 free population. The 1860 free population of Mississippi was 354,674 which would yield a death estimate of 17,627. The same estimate applied to the 1860 population of Jones County (2,916) produces a casualty figure of approximately145.
Going strictly by census data, there are some hints that Jones County men, largely non-slave owners and outside the cotton economy that had brought prosperity to other sections of Mississippi, may have died in disproportionately high numbers. In September of 1860, seven months before the outbreak of the Civil War, the U.S. Census tallied 502 white males in Jones County who were native-Mississippians and born between 1820 and 1849—the prime age group to be impacted by the coming conflict. A decade later the population of Jones County remained essentially static, with a total count of 3,313 persons versus 3,323 in 1860. However, native-born males within the 1820-1849 timeframe now numbered only 257, a decline of 48.8%. For Mississippi as a whole, the decline in men having the same criteria amounted to 12,061 (from 41,892 to 29,831), or 28.8%.
Unfortunately, these numbers are insufficient to make the case, since other factors such as post-war migration out of the county could account for some of the disparity. But other data can be used to infer some of the toll that the war took on Jones County males and, as a result, on their surviving spouses. The 1860 census listed 482 household of which only 29 (6%) were headed by females. Ten years later the household count, which now included those of freedpeople, stood at 562. Of these, the number headed by white women had expanded to 94 (17%). Even in 1880, 15 years after the end of the war, it stood at 82.
Another factor to consider is that Jones County women lost husbands and sons not only in service to the Confederacy, but in opposition to it as well. There were casualties among those who fought with the renegade bands, including 15 hung during the campaign lead by CSA Col. Robert Lowry, and among those who joined Union regiments in New Orleans, at least 13 of whom died of disease after enlisting.
For decades after the end of the conflict, Mississippi war widows—with the exception of the few whose husbands died in the Union regiments—received no governmental compensation. The state’s economy was shattered. It is an oft repeated fact that in 1866 one-fifth of the state budget was earmarked for the procurement of artificial limbs for veterans. The first state pension for Confederate veterans and their survivors was not instituted until the late 1880s. By 1894 a mere 44 Jones County citizens were receiving modest pro rata shares (ranging from $20 to $30 per annum) from the $64,200 allocated for veterans who had lost a limb and war widows of limited financial means (property worth less than $500). Later legislative pension acts, primarily passed during the period from 1916-30, raised the total number of Jones County veteran and widow claims to 395. It should be noted that this count includes claims by surviving wounded veterans and later claims by their widows as well as claims by the same individuals under separate legislative acts. Also, a number of these claims were filed by persons who relocated to Jones County during the turn-of-the-century timber boom.
Although fewer in number, the pension files of those who enlisted in the 1st and 2nd New Orleans Union regiments offer abundant detail. Thus far Union pension files have been located for forty Piney Woods enlistees or their survivors. Their files, housed at the National Archives, average 20-40 documents each—but in some cases run to over 150. As this indicates, the bureaucratic paperwork necessary to prove one’s eligibility was formidable. But those who persevered received compensation well in excess of that provided under state Confederate pensions. Eli F. Rushing, who deserted from the 8th MS Infantry in February of 1864 and then enlisted in the 1st New Orleans Union regiment in May, was receiving a monthly disability payment of $10 shortly before his death in 1903. The availability of this rich deposit of Union pension material should not, however, obscure the fact that the vast majority of Jones County war widows lost husbands who served in Confederate units and thus have left us only a thin trail of records.
Despite these problems, a list of Jones County Civil War widows is slowly emerging. Over the coming months I hope to post brief portraits of some of these surviving spouses. Since women held decidedly secondary roles within 19th century society, the information available is primarily derived from census and pension files. And, even then, their stories necessarily come to us largely as reflected in the lives of the men around them. Those who are familiar with Jones County will not be surprised to learn that several of the widows I have studied are connected through kinship or marriages. None of the biographical and genealogical vignettes will be offered as definitive. Indeed, I hope that family members with more specific information will be prompted to comment on, expand upon, and correct the information which I post.
In the series I plan to provide information about widows of combatants on both sides of the conflict. Although “Renegade South” deals primarily with those who rebelled against the Confederacy, Jones County owes its special place in history due to the fact that an isolated population in the Deep South was brought into conflict with itself by the same forces that divided a nation. As noted, while the majority of the county’s Civil War casualties occurred among those who served in the Confederacy, members of renegade bands and Union enlistees also contributed to the toll of widows. These deaths were emblematic of the way in which the war splintered the Piney Woods community. In its aftermath, a stark commonality that bound women of the region was their effort to survive. If men were the principle casualties of the Civil War, these widows represent its collateral damage.