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
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
your obd srvt
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.