by Ed Payne
At the end of the Civil War, widow Nancy McCary Sumrall entertained a marriage offer tendered by widower Moses Holyfield. Nancy was 28 and the mother of four young sons. Moses, although inconsistent in reporting his age, had probably entered his seventies. His children from his first marriage were all grown and on their own. Like most of his Piney Woods neighbors, Moses was not a wealthy man. Still, he owned 450 acres of land, of which 80 were cleared for cultivation. He had not been a slave owner, so he suffered no finance losses due to emancipation. Nancy’s husband had died while serving in the Confederate Army in 1862. We do not know how long Nancy deliberated over the matter, nor do we know whether her practical considerations and emotional sentiments were in harmony or in conflict. What is known is that in due course Nancy accepted Moses Holyfield’s proposal and became his bride.
Marriages between men of advanced years and women several decades their junior did not begin in the wake of the Civil War. Throughout the nineteenth century women bore the burden of frequent pregnancies that often began in their teens and—if their health, endurance, and luck proved sufficient—might continue for another three decades. If any of these attributes failed them, their death usually necessitated the search for a new wife; preferably one still comfortably within the range of childbearing years. Second and third marriages resulted from a pragmatic understanding of the workload required to maintain a household in a subsistence level economy. The death of a wife left children without a mother in an era when children attended privately operated schools only sporadically, if at all. In addition to child care, women performed an array of essential functions: cooking and cleaning, making of clothing and numerous household items such as soap and candles, and cultivating vegetable gardens. If there were no daughters old enough to assume these duties, the absence of a wife would be keenly felt. This was true even in the higher realms of Piney Woods society. Slave owner Isaac Anderson was among the wealthiest men in Jones County when his wife Teresia Powell Anderson died in 1850. After a decent interval, the widower Anderson set about courting Sarah Rebecca Deason, the daughter of a local merchant with whom he was well acquainted. Two years later, the sixty-six year old Isaac had successfully won the hand of twenty-three year old Sarah Rebecca.
The toll the Civil War exacted upon the male population of the South had a discernable, if not necessarily radical, impact on the institution of marriage. In 1870 Jones County contained 449 white females between the ages of 20 and 40, compared to only 332 males. And within this reduced pool of men, it can be assumed that some portion had lost limbs or otherwise been seriously impaired by the war. Despite these obstacles, Piney Wood women, whether single or widowed, could and did marry local men during the Reconstruction era. But in order to do so, many had to revise their concepts about what constituted a suitable domestic partner.
Nancy McCary was born in Alabama in 1837. Her parents, Tandy and Cloah McCary, were both natives of South Carolina. The birth states for their children indicate that around 1843 the McCary family moved across the state line to Wayne County, Mississippi. Nancy became the bride of Elisha Sumrall in1852 when she was 15 and he was 21. The location of the couple over the next decade is unknown. But later records reveal that Nancy gave birth to at least four sons: Benjamin (1854), Theodore (1856), James (1858), and Jefferson (1861). The question remains as to whether the Jacob Sumrall (1852) who later married Martha Rushing Walters was the eldest son of Elisha and Nancy (see part two of Jones County Widows).
Like many other men having a family to support, Elisha did not join in the first wave of Confederate volunteers in the spring of 1861. On March 26, 1862, however, he enlisted in Company I of the 36th Alabama Volunteers and was dispatched to Mt. Vernon Arsenal, outside of Mobile. There his military service came to an abrupt end on June 4 when he died, probably of a camp disease, a scant two months and 10 days after his enlistment. On October 17, 1862 Nancy filed papers to obtain his back pay. A Confederate paymaster computed the amount due as $50.66. The request made its ponderous way through the war time bureaucracy until, on November 28, 1863, approval was granted by the Comptroller’s Office. Nancy signed a receipt for the payment on January 15, 1864. During the interval while she and her children waited, Confederate currency had suffered an inflation rate exceeding 700%, rendering her settlement essentially worthless.
Sometime after receiving her token payment, Nancy moved to Jones County. She may well have sought to remove herself and her young sons from harm’s way. The Mobile and Ohio Railroad, which passed through Wayne County, held strategic value for both armies. Jones County was devoid of railroads and had a sizable community of Sumrall in-laws, making it an attractive haven. In her new surroundings Nancy made the acquaintance of Moses Holyfield. He had been born in South Carolina, probably circa 1796, and moved his family to Jones County in the 1830s. Based on the 1840 and 1850 censuses, Moses and his wife Milly had seven sons and one daughter. By 1860, the only child remaining in the household was a grown son named Mark, age 33.
Although Moses did not own slaves, evidence indicates he felt strongly about the secessionist cause. On May 4, 1861 he enlisted in the 8th Regiment, Mississippi Volunteers at Ellisville and traveled 57 miles to the rendezvous point at Enterprise. Upon ascertaining that Moses was 65 years old, the officers doubtlessly saluted his determination and vigor, but sent him home.
Millie Holyfield, who was approximately the same age as her husband, died towards the end of the war. This left Moses facing his final years with a sizable farm and an empty house. If the growing number of young widows around him did not fill Moses with delight—since each widow suggested the role attrition was playing in determining the final outcome of the war—at least it made him aware that his prospects for another marriage had been greatly enhanced. What may well have encouraged him to initiate a courtship of Nancy was not just her youth, but the prospect of welcoming her four boys into his household.
As mentioned previously, Moses Holyfield had carved out a modest yeoman’s existence. In 1870 he possessed 80 acres of crop land, with another 100 acres in pasture and 270 acres of woodlands. His livestock holdings were small for the region: six cows, seven sheep, and 10 pigs. The previous year the farm had produced 100 bushels of corn, 75 bushels of sweet potatoes, and a cash crop of two bales of cotton. His farm clearly stood to benefit from the additional labor of four young stepsons. The census of 1870 captures the transformation taking place within the Holyfield household. Moses gave his age as 75 while Nancy stated she was 32. Her sons ranged in age from nine to 16. With them was 14 year old Richard Holyfield, a young relative of Moses, working as a farm laborer. In addition, Moses and Nancy had started a new family, consisting of son William, three, and a six month old daughter named Mary. For Moses it could truly be said that life had begun, again, at 70.
Nancy must have understood when she agreed to the marriage that it would not be a long term relationship. Moses died in the mid-1870s and Nancy again found herself a widow, having added three small children to the household (another son, Charles, had been born in 1874). But, owning to her second marriage, her circumstances were more secure. The interlude with Moses had provided time for her sons to reach manhood. Although sons James and Jefferson remained in Nancy’s household in 1880, they were leaving their teens. Their older brother Benjamin, married and a father, lived next door. Having regained some security in her life, for perhaps half a decade Nancy remained single. When she did marry again, it was in the fall of 1883 to Carney Slay Sumrall, a man who had lost his wife four months earlier.
The Sumrall’s were among the early settlers in south Mississippi. Patriarch Thomas Sumrall was born in South Carolina in 1740 and died in Marion County in 1821. He was the great-grandfather of Elisha Sumrall, Nancy’s first husband. (This line descended from son Levi Sumrall and his son Jacob Sumrall, who was Elisha’s father.) He was also the great-grandfather of Carney Slay Sumrall. (This line descended from son Moses Sumrall and his son Howell Sumrall, who was Carney’s father.) Thus Carney was a second cousin of Nancy’s first husband. There may have been a closer connection linking the couple: some genealogies give the maiden name of Carney Sumrall wife as Catherine (‘Kitty’) McCary. This matches the name of Nancy’s older sister on the 1850 census.
Carney Slay Sumrall, named after a Wayne County Baptist minister, was born in 1830. He was a Confederate veteran who had enlisted in Company E (the Shubuta Guards) of the 37th Regiment Mississippi Volunteers on March 8, 1862 at age 32. Unlike his cousin Elisha, Carney seemed able to cope with camp life, suffering only one recorded bout of illness. Although records are sketchy, they suggest he took part in the siege of Vicksburg and was paroled. He is documented as having surrendered with his unit at Citronelle, Alabama on May 11, 1865. He returned to farming in Jasper County where, in 1870, he was enumerated with his wife and a daughter named Mary. By 1880 he had moved to the small Jones County community of Pinelville, where he and Catherine scratched out a merger existence in a childless household. Catherine died in May of 1883 and soon thereafter the new widower must have begun calling on Nancy Holyfield.
Carney Sumrall appears to have ranked below the widow Holyfield in terms of economic status. He reported the value of his 1879 farm production as $95, paltry even by contemporary Jones County standards. But Nancy may have reached a point where she could afford to let sentiment play a larger role in her decisions. On September 17, 1883 Carney Sumrall and Nancy McCary Sumrall Holyfield applied for a marriage license and solemnized their vows six days later. At the time Nancy was 46 and Carney 53. She was leaving her childbearing years behind and may well have looked forward to a long marriage. If so, it was an unfulfilled wish. Just six years later, on December 12, 1889, Carney Sumrall applying for another marriage license—this time to Elizabeth Hinton Coats. The absence of any divorce proceedings in the surviving court records indicates Nancy had died. Although some genealogies list her as dying in November of 1902 and being interred in Wayne County, they have apparently confused her with another Nancy Sumrall, born in 1847, who was the wife of Enoch S. Sumrall.
Carney and Elizabeth were last enumerated on the 1900 census. Elizabeth died in July of 1902 and was buried in the Union Line cemetery near Soso. In May of 1907 Carney was admitted to Beauvoir, the former gulf coast residence of Jefferson Davis that had been converted into a Confederate retirement home. But he later discharged himself and returned to Jones County, where he died in 1909. His grave is beside that of wife Catherine in the old section of Hickory Grove cemetery in Laurel. The author has been unable to locate the grave sites of Moses Holyfield and Nancy McCary Sumrall Holyfield Sumrall. It is known that Nancy’s sons by Elisha Sumrall continued to reside in Jones County until their deaths in the 1920s and 30s.
Nancy McCary Sumrall and Elizabeth Hinton Coats demonstrate how two Piney Woods women, eventually fated to marry a common husband, reacted to their status as Civil War widows. When given an early opportunity to re-marry, albeit to an elderly man, Nancy accepted the offer as a practical partnership necessary to sustain her family through difficult times. We can surmise that Elizabeth was less inclined to make such compromises, with the result that she retained her widow’s status for two dozen years after the war. Whether accepting or rejecting prospective mates found among the reduced pool of post-war men, however, both women coped with the circumstances life had presented them.