Ed Payne: “Unionism and a Murder in the Family: Robert Spencer”

While conducting his ongoing research on men who joined the Union Army from the Piney Woods region of Mississippi, Ed Payne discovered the following story buried in the military files of one Robert Spencer.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator


Unionism and a murder in the family: Robert Spencer

By Ed Payne


On a Friday in the middle of July, 1865, Sergeant Robert Spencer, while serving in the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry, abandoned his post. Oddly, he left conspicuously dressed in his uniform. It later emerged that word reached him that his stepfather, who killed his mother three years previously and fled, had returned to Jasper County, Mississippi. Robert headed north with a kinsman, hoping to apprehend him. After an absence of two weeks, they returned to their regiment and turned themselves in.

Fourteen months earlier, on May 3, 1864, Robert Spencer had joined the 2nd New Orleans Infantry Regiment at Fort Pike, Louisiana. His enlistment papers describe him as a 22 years-old native of Clarke County, Alabama. He had brown eyes and black hair, stood five feet eight inches tall, and was able to sign his name. Robert was just one of over two hundred individuals, ranging from teenagers to men in their forties, who had fled the Mississippi Piney Woods in the wake of Confederate Col. Robert Lowry’s campaign during the spring of 1864. After regrouping at Honey Island on the lower Pearl River, many crossed the river and enlisted in the Union Army at nearby Fort Pike. Robert was mustered on May 11 and given a $25 bounty plus $13 advance pay. Apparently viewed as good soldier material, he was enrolled as Corporal in Company B. That August the 2nd New Orleans Infantry was disbanded and its men reassigned to the 1st New Orleans Infantry. Robert joined Company G and in December received a further promotion to 4th Sergeant.

Following more than a year of unblemished service, Robert Spencer left his unit on July 14, 1865. However, unlike those who deserted after the war’s end to return to their farms and families, he reported back to his company commander on July 28. He was reduced to private and placed in confinement. On August 12 a court martial panel convened to hear the case against him. The charges were desertion and being absent without leave. Apparently no defense was offered at the trial. It was only several weeks later, in the interim between the hearing and the anticipated publication of sentences, that a lawyer representing Spenser wrote to describe mitigating circumstances. This letter, transcribed below, provides evidence that the Unionist stance of some Piney Woods men produced deadly consequences within their families (key passages appear in italics):

Brig General Sherman

Commanding Post of New Orleans

Dear Sir.

I would respectfully (on behalf of Private Robert Spencer of the 1st New Orleans) represent that he was tried on the 12 of August 1865 by general court martial convened by your orders, upon a charge of desertion. The sentence of said court martial has not yet been published, and he is ignorant thereof.

But apprehending that the circumstances of his case have been or will be misunderstood to his prejudice, I request your indulgence for a statement of the facts.

At the beginning of the war he was unfortunately in the southern states and when the conscript law was passed he was forced to hide in the woods, or take up arms against his principles; during this time he was harboured by his mother but persecuted by his step father, who finally killed his mother, for her kindness to her son, and fled from justice. Just before leaving his regiment he received information that his step father had returned to home, to settle his business and in hopes of bringing him to justice he left immediately in order to loose no time, in making sure of this desirable object, fearing that if he delayed for the usual formalities of obtaining permission to go that he would loose forever the opportunity of causing his mother’s murderer to be punished. He left in uniform and returned in same. He reported at Jackson, Miss and obtained a pass to return, showing he had no intention of deserting.

I also have the honor to enclose herewith the recommendation of one of his officers, who is well aware of his general character.

And respectfully submit that his previous good character, and the cause of his absence, should go far in mitigating his sentence of punishment. I hope in your decency you will cause his sentence to be as light as possible, and published as soon as practical that his imprisonment, already since the 3 of August may be abbreviated to the shortest time.

I have the honor to be

Very respectfully

 your obd srvt

Anderson Miller

Counsel for Spencer…

The letter, which was placed in Spencer’s military file, was accompanied by a character reference submitted by Lieutenant James E. Bissell, commander of Company G, dated September 21, 1865. On October 2 Robert Spencer was sentenced to three months at hard labor. The plea letter apparently had been effective since those found guilty of desertion during this period commonly received a year’s imprisonment. In January 1866 Robert rejoined his unit, where he served as a cook until the regiment was disbanded on June 1, 1866.


Antebellum census records provide only a small amount of information about Robert Spencer. The 1850 census listed a Robert Spencer, age 7, residing in Clarke County, Mississippi—not Alabama. He is found in the household of 24 year-old Nancy Spencer, along with Elizabeth, age 4, and Silas Nelson, age 9. Since there was no adult male in the household, it would seem that young Nancy was already a widow.

Internet genealogies, which must be utilized with caution, reference Abraham E. Spencer as Nancy’s deceased husband. According to these sources her maiden name was Nancy Nelson and she had been born in Georgia in the 1820s. This offers a partial explanation for the presence in her household of the child named Silas Nelson. These genealogies report that in 1851 Nancy married Shadrach Hogan. The 1850 census corroborates that a Shadrach Hogan, age 60, resided in Clarke County not far from the widow Spencer. Furthermore, a decade later “Shadric” Hogan is found in Jasper County with wife Nancy, a native of Georgia who reported her age as 38, and an eight year-old daughter, Sarah. Shadrach is purported to have died shortly after the 1860 census and Nancy to have wed recent widower John Angus McGilvray (sometimes rendered as “McGilvery” or “McGilberry”). No census record has been found for Robert Spencer in 1860, but since his mother and future wife resided in Jasper County, it is likely he was in the vicinity but overlooked.

The question that emerges is whether John Angus McGilvray was the unnamed stepfather who Robert Spencer claimed killed his mother. Genealogists report that Nancy died in Jasper County in 1862. ‘Family lore’ is cited for the information that John Angus McGilvray died in either Texas or Oklahoma in the mid-1860s. Whether dead or relocated, his absence from the Piney Woods is evident on the 1870 census, where his four youngest children are found living with relatives in Covington County.

Among the genealogies, however, one (“Haynes Ferguson Families”) contains an “Alternate Death” entry which matches Robert Spencer’s description of events. The entry states that Nancy Nelson was “Killed by 3rd husband John Angus McGilvray” and references the book Family, School, Church and Pioneer History by Reverend Angus G. Ferguson. A native of Jones County born in 1858, Rev. Ferguson published his book of recollections in 1935. Early on he provides this short summary of the life of Nancy Nelson:

Aunt Nancy married a Spencer. They had two children and he died. A little later she married a Hogan and they had two children, John and Sarah; both died. Then she married John McGilvery and not long after, in a heat of passion, he killed her with a stick cut from a clothes pole. (pg 11, my emphasis)

Rev. Ferguson’s account of his ancestry outlined the family connection: Nancy Nelson was his mother’s half-sister. Nancy’s widowed mother—Elizabeth McScrews Nelson—re-married to Robert P. Boyce and had three additional children by him. One of these was Catharine Boyce, who married John Ferguson, the reverend’s father, in 1857.

The book provides no further information concerning John Angus McGilvray, but other records show him to have been a son of Perry County settler Alexander McGilvray. The McGilvray clan did not differ markedly from their Piney Woods neighbors. Of Alexander’s five sons only one, William, owned slaves. Both the 1850 and 1860 Jones County censuses show him possessing six slaves. None of the five McGilvray men of military age in the spring of 1861 were early volunteers for military service. A year later, as the first Confederate conscription law went into effect, four of them joined the gray ranks: Angus and Joseph, sons of William, enlisted in cavalry units; two of their uncles, Daniel and Murdock, went into infantry regiments. John Angus McGilvray, approximately 46 years-old at the time, was exempted by age.

If Robert Spencer’s account is correct, John Angus McGilvray’s murderous rage stemmed from the knowledge that his new wife’s son sought to evade conscription—and that she had contrived to assist him. Once he had struck and killed Nancy, McGilvray apparently left the area to avoid judicial action or, perhaps more likely, revenge at the hands of Nancy’s relatives.

Robert Spencer, along with other Piney Woods men who were unwilling to join the Confederacy from the outset of the Civil War, lived a fugitive existence for the next two years. By the summer of 1863 he no doubt felt less wary as a result of the increasing number of deserters and Vicksburg parolees returning to the Piney Woods. It was during this time that he wed Mary Emeline Hogan. Emeline was a granddaughter of Shadrach Hogan, his late mother’s second husband.

But any sense of security was demolished when Col. Robert Lowry led his troops into the Piney Woods in the spring of 1864. The campaign was designed to quash the Knight Band and pump desperately needed manpower into the Confederacy. Men like Robert came to the conclusion that their options had dwindled to two: join either the Confederate or the Union Army. He joined the procession of men who headed south. One of those in the group was Emeline’s brother, George Hogan, who enlisted in the 2nd New Orleans the same day as Robert. A little over a year later George accompanied his brother-in-law on his trip back to Jasper County. When they returned, probably due to Robert Spencer’s assumption of responsibility, Private Hogan suffered only temporary confinement and the forfeiture of $20 in pay.


In the aftermath of the Civil War, Robert remained in Louisiana. The 1870 census listed him as a farmer in St. Helena Parish with his wife and two sons, ages six and four. In 1895 he applied for and received an invalid pension for his Union service. The pension card and a Louisiana death record show that Robert Spencer died on August 16, 1925 in Zona, Washington Parish, Louisiana.

The plea letter in the military file left unanswered the tantalizing question of whether Robert was successful in his mission—suggesting that he was not. John Angus McGilvray disappeared from the records. If he eluded Robert’s efforts to take him into custody, the only trace remaining was the family story that he ended up in Texas (or Oklahoma) and died soon thereafter. The burial site of Nancy Nelson Spencer Hogan McGilvray seems similarly lost. But, given his presence in the area at the time of her death, her son surely knew the location. Thus, it is not unreasonable to imagine that while engaged in his quest for justice that July, Robert Spencer may have taken the time to visit his mother’s grave dressed in his blue Union uniform.

28 replies »

  1. As Victoria Bynum demonstrated in “Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” in order to adequately understand the impact of the Civil War on the inhabitants of Piney Woods it is necessary to explore the region’s complex web of family relationships. While researching this article, I made incidental inquiries into the Civil War military service of several of the men linked to Nancy Nelson Spencer Hogan McGilvray by kinship or through marriage. These records, combined with her son’s Union enlistment, are indicative of the varied paths taken by Piney Woods men during the region’s inner Civil War:

    • George Hogan [step-grandson] – Along with his brother-in-law Robert Spencer, George completed his term of service in the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry and was mustered out when the regiment disbanded on June 1, 1866. He has not been identified on the 1870 or later censuses.

    • Ira Hogan [step-grandson] – An early volunteer, Ira enlisted in the 8th MS Infantry on August 24, 1861 at age 17. He was killed at the Battle of Murfreesboro, TN (aka Stone River) on December 31, 1862. His father, John C. Hogan, applied for and received the $22 in back pay owed his son. (Although Nancy’s age contemporary, John Hogan was her step-son owing to her second marriage to his father. John was the father of George and Ira Hogan, and Emeline Hogan Spencer.)

    • John Ferguson [brother-in-law; father of Rev. Ferguson] – Although 42 years-old at the time, he became eligible for service under the expanded conscription law in late 1862. John joined the 5th MS Infantry, participated in the siege at Vicksburg, and was paroled. He returned to Jones County where he died in 1884.

    • George Washington Nelson [brother] – Enlisted in the 5th Regiment, MS Militia on August 25, 1862. He was apparently discharged as un-needed but then re-enrolled on March 20, 1863. Washington was recorded as having deserted on May 7, 1863. He is last found on the 1880 federal census in Jones County.

    • Daniel McGilvray [brother-in-law] – Enlisted in the 27th Regiment, MS Infantry on May 9, 1862. Later was transferred to the Engineering Corps. Died of an accident on February 20, 1864 while serving in Atlanta.

    • Murdock McGilvray [brother-in-law] – Joined the 7th Battalion, MS Infantry on July 25, 1862. He was sent to the hospital in September, went AWOL on December 20, 1862, and apparently never returned. Listed on the 1870 and 1880 censuses residing in Jones County.

    • William McGilvray [brother-in-law] – The sole slave-owner among the McGilvray brothers, William was 43 at the outbreak of the war. No Confederate service record has been located for him. However, Newt Knight’s son Thomas wrote an account in his “Life and Activities of Caption Newton Knight” of a ‘Mr. Gilbery’ being shot during a confrontation with the Knight Band. Victoria Bynum stated in an endnote to “Free State of Jones” (pg 253) that other records establish that William McGilvray died in 1864, making it a reasonable assumption that it was he who had the fatal encounter with the renegades.


    • Ed, this essay demonstrates the rewards of painstaking research. Not only have you discovered broad connections that avoid a “Great Man” (or “Great Villain”) approach to history–i.e., the notion that Newt Knight and a few “followers” represent the sum total of Piney Woods Unionism–but you have demonstrated that some of the most fascinating personal stories are discovered in the most unlikely records from the past. I only wish I could have included this story in one of my books!



  2. Who doesn’t love a well told story? This is one of the best!!! Ed, your contributions to Vikki’s blog are a real treat. For me ,one of life’s pleasures is reading a good story penned by a wordsmith. Thank you! Thank you!

    Just last night, while watching Ken Burn’s (re-run) aboutJthe Civil War, I was (again) thinking how unfortunate that the renegade southerners that appear on Vikki’s blog and in her publications, books, etc, were not included in this series. As much as I enjoyed watching the late (and very good looking) Shelby Foote and other historicans address their collective take on the Civil War, I couldn’t help thinking that it this was indeed most unfortunate.

    Anyone know Ken Burn’s phone number? I’d sure like to give him a heads up call.

    The other Vikky in San Diego (Vikky Wilburn Anders)

    Great-granddaughter of Nelson F. Wilburn of Carter Co KY, who along with his older brother, John Harvey Wilburn, joined the Union forces, enlisting in Indiapapolis IN the 144 Division ,Company D in Feb of 1865.


  3. Thanks so much for this post! Having quite a few relatives in the the 1st New Orleans Infantry, I enjoy learning all I can about it. There just doesn’t seem to be much out there, so I value all the bits and pieces I can get.

    It seems my relative, D.W. Bounds, got off a lot easier than Mr. Spencer though. Unable to procure a furlough, Bounds just left his unit to return home to Mississippi in order to care for his family. Once he came back, he was arrested but returned to duty without a trial.

    He originally joined the 2nd but was transferred to Co. H of the 1st NO. I believe this is the same D.W. Bounds who had enlisted in Co. H, 3rd MS Infantry in Sept. 4th, 1861. He is listed as AWOL in November, 1863.



  4. Shelby:

    Thanks for your comments. The men from the Piney Woods of MS who joined the Union Army at Ft. Pike, LA certainly are a fascinating story and one that deserves further attention. Indeed, it was an accumulation of anecdotes from people like yourself–whose ancestors had no apparent ties with the Knight Band–that encouraged me to undertake a full survey of the 1st and 2nd New Orleans service records.

    The Bounds and allied families about whom you previously wrote in “Renegade South” [“Searching your ancestors’ Civil War records?”] were not the only enlistees from the MS Gulf Coast. While Jones County was clearly home to the largest concentration and most organized group of renegades, the Union enlistment records show that by the spring of 1864 anti-Confederate sentiment festered in other areas. Among these were 27 enlistees who cited their nativity as Hancock, Harrison, or Jackson County.

    Vikki and I are working on plans to post a table of the 201 men thus far identified as Piney Woods enlistees in the 1st and 2nd New Orleans. Hopefully this research will encourage more of their descendants to come forward with stories and (dare we hope?) family documents that help explain their reasons for making a final break with the Confederacy.


  5. I think the table that’s in the works is a wonderful idea! It’d be such an asset to anybody studying this topic.

    Yes, let’s hope some folks come forward with stories, documents, and/or artifacts of their relatives who were members of this unit. I know I’ve got my ears and eyes opened for anything that may pop up in my family. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been anything yet other than oral history.

    Again, thank you so much for sharing your research.



  6. I am very pleased that I came across this story. I am a descendent of John Angus McGilvray. He and his first wife, Sarah McLeod McGilvray, were my great-great grandparents. Family folklore, handed down, has always had it that John Angus murdered my great-great grandmother, Sarah, in 1860 in the midst of a heated argument concerning a slave, and then fled Mississippi for the Texas frontier as a fugitive from justice. Folklore also has it that he took another wife in Texas and had another family. I have always taken the story with a grain of salt, suspecting that, while there could be some kernels of truth to it, some of it may not be accurate, particularly since details were missing. While this account supports that my great-great grandfather indeed murdered his wife, it was not my great-great grandmother but a woman he married after my great-great grandmother had died. Understandably, this story fascinates me, and I intend to share this “scoop” with my relatives. Thanks for submitting the story!


    • How exciting that Ed Payne’s history corresponds so closely with your family’s story, Bruce! Connecting with folks like you is what makes Renegade South so much fun to moderate.



  7. Bruce:

    Like Vikki, I am happy to know that the article sheds a new light on family lore. The evidence does suggest that Sarah McLeod McGilvray died shortly after the 1860 census and John Angus McGilvray then wed the twice-widowed Nancy Nelson Spencer Hogan. It seems appropriate to again acknowledge the entry for Nancy Nelson (1822-1862) in the “Haynes-Ferguson” public tree on Ancestry. The comment under “alternate death” that Nancy was “Killed by 3rd husband John Angus McGilvray” would have been of dubious value except that it was sourced to “Family, School, Church & Pioneer History.” As noted in the article, I deduced that this was the title of book written by Angus Gray Ferguson (Southern Printing Co, Lakeland FL, 1935). And, fortunately, a copy of the book is in the collection of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History William Winter Library. Although I quoted the complete text concerning Nancy Nelson, the book might provide information in other areas due to connections between the McGilvrays and Fergusons.

    The McGilvrays were another family deeply embroiled in the inner Civil War of the Mississippi Piney Woods. As noted in my addendum comment to the article, William McGilvray—a brother of John Angus—was cited by Vikki Bynum as the most likely candidate for the “Mr. McGilbery” who Thomas Knight wrote was shot by the Newt Knight Band when he sought to hunt them down with dogs. Based on the 1860 slave schedule, William was the only slave-owning member of the McGilvray family. He held six slaves, none of whom were prime male field hands. They consisted of a female age 69, another female age 25, and four children ages 10, 7, 5, and 2. But this seemed sufficient make the McGilvray men staunch Confederates, even while some of those in their larger kinship group gave more grudging support or, in the case of Robert Spencer and George Hogan, eventually enlisted in the Union Army. As in all wars, these passions sometimes produced fatal consequences for those caught in the middle.

    Ed Payne


  8. Thanks again, Ed, for this goldmine of information about my ancestor. There is a great deal of family folklore about John Angus McGilvray, including that he “was killed” in Alto, Texas (about 130 southeast of Dallas) around 1863 and that he is buried there. He is not listed as one on the people buried in the Alto cemetery, although I found one of his sons buried there. Another family rumor is that he is buried in Azle, Texas, a few miles northwest of Fort Worth. He is not listed as an internee in the Azle cemetery, either. My father’s parents have deep roots in southern Mississippi going back several generations. They left Covington County, MS, in the 1920s with the eldest four of their eventual six children and eventually settled in central Texas around 1930, where my father was born. Vikki, this is great blog for people with southern roots who are interested in the history and times of their ancestors. I found another posting on here about the DeValls of Jones County, MS, which also interested me greatly, as my great-great grandmother was one of the DeValls, married into the Andersons of Jones County. (Her daughter married John Angus’s youngest son, who was only about 4 years old when John Angus bolted away never to be heard from again.) I am enjoying researching “Renegade South” very much!


  9. Ed and Vikki, Thank you for this story. Robert Spencer is a 1st cousin 3x removed, his mother Nancy a 2nd great grand aunt, and his grandmother Elizabeth Catherine McScrews my 3rd great grandmother. I have searched high and low for a copy of Family, School, Church and Pioneer History by Rev Angus Gray Ferguson, also a 1st cousin 3x removed, but to no avail. Do either of you have any idea where I might find a copy? Again, thank you. It amazes me how often a family member is mentioned on this site and how much I have learned from you both. Chuck


  10. Chuck:

    Thank you for the comments. The copy of the book “Family, School, Church and Pioneer History” by Rev. Angus Gray Ferguson from which I quoted in the article is found in the collection Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson. Just one of the many genealogical treasures located there.


  11. My husband is a direct descendant of Elizabeth Catherine McScrews Nelson Boyce. She is his 3rd Great Grandmother, through her daughter Mary Polly Boyce Holly Miller, a half-sister to Nancy Nelson Spencer McGilvray.

    He also descends from John “Jackie” Knight and Keziah Davis Knight through their daughter Martha Ann Knight (another 3rd Great Grandmother) via Harriet Rebecca Whitehead.

    Another Jones County Renegade, William Dawson Holley, was his Great-great Grandfather!!! Amazing stories which are all relevant family histories for us!!! — Jimmy and Susan White


    • Susan, I too am a descendant of Elizabeth Catherine McScrews Nelson Boyce…she is also my 3rd great grandmother. My 2nd great grandmother is her daughter Elizabeth Boyce Shoemake, sister of Mary Polly Boyce Holley Miller. After many years of research I’ve not been able to find anything beyond Elizabeth and her second husband Robert Porter Boyce. Census records indicate that Robert Porter was born in Delaware but Angus Gray Ferguson indicates in a book he wrote that Robert Porter came to Jones County from Illinois. There are still folks with the Boyce surname in both Delaware and Illinois. If you would like to share information Vikki can send you my email address. Thanks! Chuck Shoemake


  12. I’m late to the party, but what a thrill it was for me read this fascinating story. When my grandfather, Hamilton White McGilvray, was in his 90s, I “interviewed” him about his family’s history, and he told me an amazing story– that his grandfather, John Angus McGilvray, murdered his grandmother, Sarah McCleod McGilvray, and than ran off and abandoned the children, who had to be raised by relatives. I viewed the tale with some doubt, because it sounded so crazy and unlikely, but never was able to find out anything about it until today. Gosh–Grandaddy Mac was ALMOST right!

    Thanks for an amazing read!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Jessica,
      I just reread Ed Payne’s 2011 post about this horrible murder, and he really did ferret out the crucial details with his usual careful research! I’m so pleased that you found his article, no matter how belatedly.


  13. Ed and Vikki: Just came across Mississippi, US, Wills and Probate Records, 1780-1982, pertaining to the estate of John C. Hogan, son of Shadrach and father of Mary Emeline. Evidently he died without leaving a will and creditors made claims in court to his estate. The proceedings were ordered, sworn and approved by J. H. Bynum, Clerk. Thanks again, Ed, for this story…it never ceases to amaze me!


  14. Also came across something else that is puzzling. John C. Hogan is on both the 1850 and 1860 Mississippi Slave Schedule as owning slaves. There is also a John Hogan on the list of names submitted by Newt Knight to Congress for relief. I can only assume that the person is one in the same.


  15. I am also late to this party. Hamilton White McGilvray was also my grandfather (Jessica is my cousin) and I had also heard this story from my Dad (Clayton Jetton McGilvray) as well. Seemed I heard something about a story of John Angus McGilvray being involved in a suspicious death having to do with his “then” wife falling down the stairs and he may have been accused of pushing her so he fled. Have been to Mt. Calm cemetery a few times (Dad was born there) lots of McGilvray’s buried there


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