Ed Payne, “Crossing the Rubicon of Loyalties,” Part 2

Part 2: No better than runaway slaves:  Piney Woods enlistees in the Union 1st N.O. Infantry


By Ed Payne

Between November of 1863 and November of 1864, over two hundred Mississippi men—nearly all from the state’s southern Piney Woods region—trekked to Louisiana and joined the Union 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry regiments (Note 1).  The names of the men thus far identified and the methods used to discover them were discussed in Part 1 of this series Reviewing the list of names, a question naturally emerges:  what caused these men, many of them formerly in Confederate units, to join with the enemy?  

Descendants who acknowledge their ancestors’ service in the Union Army often cite financial motives, saying it was done purely for U.S. greenbacks.  While it is true that Confederate currency had collapsed, subsistence farmers and herders of the Piney Woods did not share our modern dependency on money.  Their lives were rooted in a self-sufficiency which we can scarcely comprehend.  The small amounts of money they obtained—usually from periodic sales of livestock in Mobile, Alabama—bought a few staple goods such as salt, sugar, coffee, flour and whiskey.  Larger amounts of money could buy land but, prior to the timber boom of the 1880s, the Piney Woods included large tracts of open range on which all livestock could be set loose to graze.  Yeoman herders only needed the modest acreage which they and their families could till.  Given the passions engendered by the war, if money played a role in their decision I think it was a minor one.   

It would be wonderful to discover a trove of letters or a diary written by one of these men.  Based upon the ability to sign their names on enlistment papers, it appears that 30% of the Mississippian enlistees had basic literacy skills. This did not imply, however, that they possessed either the capacity or desire to compose lengthy passages justifying their actions.  Elias Allen authored the single letter by a Piney Woods Union soldier that has come to my attention.  In it, he wrote his sister-in-law to report the death of her husband, Alvin Sumrall.  The letter contains a mere 180 words.

Elias A. Allen

Even without further documents from individual Union enlistees, the following factors emerge as motives for their change of allegiance:

UNIONISM (or at least anti-secessionism) – While the state of Mississippi ranked second only to South Carolina in secessionist fever, the fever did not afflict everyone.  Even so, it is difficult to identify those men who steadfastly held Unionist convictions simply because such opinions were rarely documented.  In Mississippi’s heated late antebellum period, voicing anti-secessionist sentiments could be dangerous—unless one lived in an area where such contrarian views were widely shared.  Several contemporary accounts point to Jones County as being one of those areas.  Researcher Jeff Giambrone recently uncovered a newspaper item describing an anti-secessionist meeting in the county. 

It should be noted that similar, if more muted, sentiments were also expressed by a number of wealthy slave-owners—although for very different reasons.  These individuals were dubious about Southern chances of winning a war and worried about the prospects for slavery in the event of a loss.  When the Mississippi Secession Convention was held in January of 1861, 15 delegates from 10 counties voted against leaving the Union.  These nay votes came from counties with both small and large slave populations (Note 2).

Evidence shows some pre-war Unionists among the men who signed up at Fort Pike and in New Orleans.  Riley J. Collins of Jones County was remembered by neighbors and kinfolk as an ardent defender of the Union, while documents found in the military file of Robert Spencer of Jasper County cast him in a similar light.  For many others, however, Union enlistment represented a drastic turnabout in loyalties.   

CONSCRIPTION & ENLISTMENTS – When the Civil War began in the spring of 1861, military service was—save for local social pressures—an entirely voluntary matter.  It seems reasonable to assume that men who enlisted in 1861 were motivated by “the cause” or at least by notions of participating in a brief, glorious military adventure.  One year later, an expanding war and mounting casualties forced the Confederate Congress to enact its first Conscription Act.  This law applied to able bodied men ages 18-35 and eventually extended to ages 17-50.  There were some occupational exemptions and provisions for hiring substitutes, but these applied to few men in the Piney Woods.  In the wake of the Conscription Act, men had three choices:  enlist in a locally raised company; await conscription, which was commonly viewed as dishonorable; or attempt to evade conscription, considered nearly unthinkable. 

Early on, I assumed that Mississippians who joined the 1st New Orleans had entered Confederate service in 1862 or later under pressure of conscription.  I expected an examination of Confederate records to verify this assumption.  Establishing matches can be difficult since the CSA files seldom recorded the soldier’s age or birthplace, and given names were often rendered as initials.  On the other hand, companies were typically raised within specific counties and retained their local identity.  Also, family members usually enlisted in the same company.  Using these clues, 101 strong matches were found between the New Orleans recruits and earlier Confederate enlistees (Note 3).

The Confederate records revealed—in utter disregard for my reasoning—that out of the 101 former Confederate soldiers, 31 enlisted in 1861.  These men joined local companies well before pressured to do so by conscription laws.  Another eight volunteered between January and March of 1862.  Of the 31 earliest volunteers, 14 joined Gulf Coast companies that became part of the 3rd MS Infantry in October of 1861.  Among them were  D.W. Bounds, Charles Cuevas, Enoch E. McFadden (Captain of the “Gainesville Volunteers”), G.T. Mitchell, Robert Page, and James L. Seal.  All would later serve in the 1st New Orleans.  Even in the heart of the Piney Woods, seven future Union recruits enlisted in the 8th MS Infantry regiment on May 4, 1861: Wiley Courtney, Hansford and James Dossett, William Holyfield, Eli Rushing, Martin V.B. Shows, and William Tippet.  To explain the change of heart in these men, we must examine their wartime experiences.

“RICH MAN’S WAR, POOR MAN’S FIGHT” – In October of 1862, six months after instituting conscription, the Confederate Congress passed the “20 Negro Law.”  The legislation granted planters one military service exemption for every 20 slaves owned.   In those sections of the South where slaves comprised a large percent of the population, whites were perpetually apprehensive over possible uprisings.  Lawmakers felt it prudent to retain a certain number of men on plantations to manage their bondsmen.  However, many non-slave owning soldiers took an understandably dim view of the law.  Those given to pondering such matters questioned whether the war had become one of poor men fighting to protect the slave property of rich men.  Some of these men began leaving the ranks in the winter of 1862. 

WAR FATIGUE AND FAMILY NEEDS – By the early spring of 1863 a scattering of yeoman farmers, now realizing the war would be a lengthy one, left their units to return home and plant crops—without which their families’ lives would be precarious.  The first report of a Piney Woods deserter problem came from 2nd Lieutenant H. C. Mathis of the 8th MS Infantry, who wrote Governor John J. Pettus on June 1, 1863 notifying him of “between seventy-five and one-hundred deserters” in Jones County.  Mathis, who had settled in the area prior to the war, said he received word of the situation from “responsible men” in his community. 

At the same time, other men from the region were huddled within the defensive perimeter around Vicksburg.  Confederate forces included the 7th Battalion MS Infantry and the 36th, 37th, 38th, 40th, and 46th MS Infantry regiments, all of which contained companies organized in the Piney Woods.  After enduring 47 days of constant bombardment and dwindling supplies, Confederate General John C. Pemberton finally surrendered on July 4, 1863.  Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, not wishing to assume responsibility for 30,000 prisoners, decided to offer paroles.  The parole documents pledged each man not to take up arms against the United States until properly exchanged for a Union prisoner (Note 4). 

The Piney Woods men saw a Union Army firmly in control of central Mississippi while contemplating the privations endured by their families.  These realizations caused a number of them to conclude that their obligation to the Confederacy had been fulfilled.   They began walking home.  Among them were later Union enlistees Richard D. Bound, John C. Culpepper, Asa Easterling, James Grantham, William McBride, Daniel Sumrall, and Hanson Walters.  Following the surrender, General Pemberton issued furloughs requiring the parolees to report to exchange camp by August 23.  The date appears in several records as the point from which these soldiers were considered absent without leave.

IN-KIND TAXATION – When war-weary soldiers returned home, they found another reason for distress.  In April of 1863 the Confederacy enacted in-kind taxation.  Regional quartermasters and their agents were authorized to seize 10% of agricultural produce and 10% livestock raised for slaughter.  They could confiscate more if they deemed the individual noncompliant.  The state troops enforcing these laws were frequently led by men of the planter class, who viewed the hard scrabble yeomen with disdain.  A Confederate officer who took part in Col. Robert Lowry’s campaign noted that such attitudes “have done more to demoralize Jones County than the whole Yankee army.” Since Federal troops made very few incursions into the Piney Woods, the poorer inhabitants began to view Confederate tax agents and state troops as greater enemies. 

HANGINGS AND DOGS – Desertions were a vexation for Confederate commanders, as they continue to be for Lost Cause devotees seeking unblemished Confederate pedigrees among their ancestors.  Because Southern military records grew more sporadic as the war continued, it is difficult to determine how many Piney Woods men left their units and how many remained in the ranks until the war’s end (Note 5).  By spring of 1864, however, reports describing the number of deserters and their influence goaded officials into ordering troops into the Piney Woods.  Back-to-back campaigns were mounted, the first led by Col. Henry Maury in March and the second by Col. Robert Lowry in April.  Their primary objectives were to restore Confederate authority and to force deserters back into service.

In a society grounded in a sense of personal honor, abandoning a military unit in which one’s relatives and neighbors also served must have been a wrenching decision.  Returning home to find one’s family in destitute conditions increased the strain.  Only a few years earlier these men had existed in a realm largely free of external authority.  Now they found themselves conscripted, taxed, and pursued by those who claimed to be protecting their rights.

Col. Robert Lowry felt stern measures were necessary.  His troops hanged seven men on April 15-16.  He took fathers hostage to coerce their sons into surrendering.  And he deployed dogs to track down the deserters.  Accounts handed down by member of the Newt Knight Band make frequent mention of these dogs—and for good reason.  Our modern sensibilities have been dulled by years of watching movie depictions of wily prison escapees eluding bloodhounds.  We fail to appreciate the way in which these men perceived the use of dogs.  Planters employed tracking dogs to hunt down fugitive slaves; now the same animals had been unleashed on those who took pride in being free white men.  The sounds of the pack hounds must have produced a bitter realization in the minds of the Piney Woods deserters:  Confederate authorities deemed them no better than runaway slaves. 

"Fugitive slave attacked by dogs" (Image reference NW0200; http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.)


The above factors help us to understand the stresses that caused some men to make profound breaks with their past.  The timing of the influx of Mississippians into the New Orleans Union regiments clearly reflects the anger and humiliation evoked by the Maury and Lowry campaigns.  In the end, circumstances forced two hundred Piney Woods men—including some of the earliest volunteers in the Southern cause—to conclude that the costs of Confederate loyalty had finally become too onerous to bear.


Note 1:  As described in Part 1, the 2nd New Orleans Infantry was disbanded in August of 1864.  All but three of the 2nd New Orleans Piney Wood enlistees subsequently appear on the 1st New Orleans rolls.  Therefore, this and future posts will focus exclusively on the 1st New Orleans recruits. 

Note 2:  The vote was 84 in favor of secession and 15 opposed.  Mississippi counties casting votes against secession were:  Adams, Amite, Attala, Franklin, Itawamba (split vote), Perry, Rankin, Tishomingo, Washington, and Warren (split vote).  Jones County elected a representative, by a 166 to 89 margin, pledged to oppose secession.  However, after realizing the declaration of secession would pass handily, he cast his vote in favor.  

Note 3:  More problematic matches with Confederate military records were found for 29 other 1st New Orleans recruits.  In eight cases the commonality of the names produced too many possibilities.  No CSA service matches were identified for the remaining 65 New Orleans recruits.  Of these, 36 (55.4%) were under age 21—suggesting that as the war continued, some Piney Woods youths reaching conscription age failed to report and had local support in doing so.

Note 4:  Five days after the surrender of Vicksburg, the fortress at Port Hudson, Louisiana capitulated on July 9, 1864 following a 48 day siege.  Among the surrendering forces was the 39th MS Infantry, composed mostly of companies mustered in the Piney Woods.  As was the case in Vicksburg, the men were released on parole.

Note 5:  Those who enlisted in the 1st New Orleans were a minority, even among the population of Piney Woods deserters.  If we assume that 90% of men ages 15-39 on the 1860 census ended up serving in Confederate military units, Union enlistees would comprise 2.7% of the number from Jones and its bordering counties (98 of 3,668).  Using the same calculation applied to just Jones, Marion, and Perry counties, the percent of Union enlistees is 7.1% (90 of 1,261).

14 replies »

  1. I still haven’t completely decided what I believe about my wife’s relative Newt Knight’s (grt-uncle) personal life, but after watching the PBS program on the Battle of Vicksburg, I had a kind of an epiphany about the soldiers from Jones County (and surrounding counties).

    It finally “dawned” on me that these men were in such dire straights (battle weary, starving, demoralized….defeated) that as far as they were concerned the War was over finished. Grant didn’t imprison them, they were thankful for that and they went home. They didn’t desert!

    What they found when they got back to Jones Co. was a royal mess. A county run by tyrants and cowards…almost as bad as the battlefield. They had to deal with it and they did…as best they knew how. Not easy by any stretch of the imagination. I do not judge them.


  2. Thanks for the great story of the men from the Piney Woods. It was interesting to see one of my distant ancestors mentioned in the article. Now I know I have a Union soldier in my line as well as Confederate ancestors from the same area.


  3. John:

    Appreciate the comment. If you wish to contact me “off line” you can request my email address from Vikki.

    The Civil War Piney Woods afford the possibility to have a single ancestor who is both a Confederate AND Union veteran. Given the passage of conscription legislation in April 1862 and the desperate military need for manpower, it is not surprising that many of the names of the 1st New Orleans rosters can be matched with earlier Confederate service. What is surprising is that 31% of those thus far identified joined Southern companies in 1861–well before conscription was enacted.

    As regards dual service, one of my favorite examples is Hanson A. Walters, who I wrote about in Part 3 of my series on Jones County Civil War widows. He joined the 7th Battn MS Infantry in 1862 and served through the siege of Vicksburg. But after the rigors of that experience, he returned home and failed to report to Exchange Camp. His name is not found among the members of the Knight Band (many Jones County men who subsequently enlisted in the Union Army are curiously absence from Knight’s postwar rosters) but joined the 1st New Orleans on 24 May 1864. He served until the regiment was decommissioned on 1 June 1866.

    After the war, Hanson returned to Jones County and married the widow of a fellow 1st New Orleans enlistee and kinsman, Marady Walters. He was well regarded enough to be elected to the county Board of Supervisors in the 1890s. In old age he applied for and received a Union pension. But the surprise was in his obituary, which noted his membership in the Ellisville Chapter of Confederate Veterans! From this I take the lesson that men of that era understood and made allowances for the change in loyalties–especially if the man in question had served through the siege at Vicksburg.


  4. Ed, Thanks for the story of Hanson A. Walters. I think I have found an ancestor who did the same thing, captured at Vicksburg then went home and later joined the 1st New Orleans but died in service. I would like to talk more about this with you but don’t really know how to contact Vikki for your email address.

    Note from Vikki, moderator: John, I have sent Ed your email address. Anyone who wishes to send their email address to another poster can contact me by simply sending a comment to Renegade South. I moderate all comments, and will keep private what you don’t want posted.


  5. My family has passed down a very vague “hush-hush” story that I’ve been trying to shed some light on. My internet searches are what helped me to stumble to this site. It seems my paternal grandfather, Edward Williams of Wayne and Jones County Mississippi, told his children that his paternal grandfather, whose name we don’t know, was hung by soldiers during the civil war because he deserted. For whatever reason, I’m told that my grandfather seemed ashamed and secretive about the whole thing when relaying the story to his children. Maybe it was because of the word “deserter.” Anyway, I was told that my deserter gg-grandfather was hung from a tree on his farm (some of the kids say it was from his porch), and that his wife and children were made to watch the whole thing. His wife had to cut him down after the soldiers left their home. I was also told that my grandfather’s surname may not have been Williams, after all. The surname may have been White. They think that after this horrific thing happened, a man came along who felt sorry for the family, and took them under his wing. They believe that he was a Williams, and the family took his last name, although there was never a marriage. A second scenario offered to me was that the kind man’s surname was White, but that he took on the family name of Williams so that the wife could keep her husband’s entitlements (whatever that means).
    I have no proof, but I’ve found rough sketches of our family tree that indicate the wife’s name was Elizabeth Gatlin, daughter of Ed “Ned” Gatlin and Sholottie -aka Charlotte- (Shirley) Gatlin. The supposed family paternal line is this: Edward Williams, son of > William Lawrence Williams, son of > Mystery-Civil-War-Grandfather Williams (or White) and Elizabeth Gatlin.
    I know that the Gatlin family lived in Jasper County in the 1850s. I believe Mystery-Gpa was also born there. Later, the Gatlins moved to Wayne County. Ed and Sholottie are even buried there in the old Sandhill Cemetery located in a woodsy area off Shubutta-Eucutta Road. Lawrence Williams also lived in the Wayne County (beat 4 area), but later moved to Jones County. He and his wife, Alice (Hammons) Williams, are buried in Mount Vernon Cemetery in the Glade community of Jones County.

    This is a very loose-ended story with a lot of “they saids” and “they thinks,” and I apologize for that. But I’m on a mission to find out more and maybe even solve the mystery of this hushed up story. I was thrilled to find this site, and have made known to my husband that he should probably gift me with the book for Christmas. *wink* I also sent a link for this site to my aunt, who could possibly better relay the account that was handed down to her.


    • Crissa:

      My gr grandfather was Benjamin Williams, Lawrence Williams brother. I would like to talk to you if you are interested. I have some conflicting stories that I would like to discuss with another Williams descendant about. Maybe between the two of us we could get somewhat close to the truth.


  6. Crissa:

    Thank you for sharing this intriguing bit of family lore. Attempts to track down such ‘hidden in the attic’ stories provide us the opportunity to learn more about the unconventional history that often gets forgotten.

    I did a bit of research and found an Elizabeth Gatlin, age 19 (= 1831) and born in SC, on the 1850 Jasper Co, MS census. As you wrote, she was the daughter of Edward and Charlotte Gatlin.

    The next record seems to be an 1880 census record for E. Williams, a female age 53 (= 1827) living in Wayne Co. She is listed with 3 children: an 18 year-old daughter also designated simply as “E.”; a 16 year-old son named Ben; and a 12 year-old son named Lance. It seems likely that “Lance” was Lawrence.

    If the ages of the two boys were reasonable accurate, it represents a puzzle since the son who matches Lawrence was born ca 1868, well after the end of the Civil War. And the 1900 census entry for Lawrence Williams, residing in Wayne Co and married to Alice, recorded his birth month/year as Apr 1867. Even if his gravestone is correct in citing a birth date of 7 Apr 1866, it occurred a year after the end of the war.

    This raises the question of actual circumstances under which the ancestor was hanged. If it was due to his status as a CSA deserter, the mostly likely period would have been during 1864. But could he have been lynched for his political beliefs during the bitter power struggles that broke out in the years following the war? Hangings such as you describe did not result in a quick death from a broken neck, but caused slow asphyxiation that could take a quarter of an hour or more — during which the victim literally ‘danced at the end of a rope.’ To carry it out in front of a family has the earmarks of vigilante action.

    It is possible the parents of Wm Lawrence Williams were correctly recorded on his 1954 MS death certificate. If so, it would be very interesting to compare the information with that on the death certificate of his older brother Benjamin (Boykin) Williams, who died in 1923. Unfortunately, the recording of parents on death certificates during this era was frequently incorrect or missing. The 1923 death certificate should be at the MS Archives, but the 1954 death certificate is still with the State Dept of Health — and only be available to persistent relatives.

    I hope you will continue to research the facts behind this story. If you wish to contact me directly, I will authorize Vikki to provide you with my email.

    Ed P.


  7. Crissa:

    I did some checking at the MS Archives and located the death certificate for Benjamin W. (Boykin) Williams, the older brother of Wm Lawrence Williams. Ben Williams died in Laurel MS on 31 Jan 1923 and is interred in the Sandhill Cemetery in Wayne Co. The informant on his death certificate was “Vess” Williams, who I believe to have been his son Sylvester. He reported Ben’s father as having been ED WILLIAMS, a native of MS.

    Whether Ed Williams was, in fact, the father of Ben and Lawrence or their stepfather is still open to speculation. Hope you consider trying to obtain the death certificate for Wm Lawrence Williams. He died 21 Jun 1954 and is buried in the Mt Vernon Congregational Methodist Church cemetery in Jones Co.

    Ed Payne


  8. Ed, I’m sorry that I’m just now answering! I hadn’t realized you replied. Thank you very, very much! I really appreciate all of your research and your looking into this for me. I will definitely try to get a copy of the death certificate. I’m not in Mississippi, so it may take a bit of time. I will contact Vikki for your email address, as you offered. I don’t want to take up too much of your message board here. Thank you again!


  9. Ed, I certainly enjoyed reading your articles. I really appreciate your painting the historical background to the Jones County, MS natives who went to join the Union Army in New Orleans. You listed my GG Grandfather, Drury Walters and his 2 brothers (Marada and Archy) in your chart of Piney Woods enlistees into the 1st N.O. Volunteers. They all three died of disease and are burried in Chalmette National Cemetery. Two are buried within 10 feet of each other, the 3rd within 30 feet. Thank you very much for your research and publication! Brian Walters


  10. Brian:

    It’s always gratifying when a descendant finds these posts and offers their approval. As you know, Jones County produced a bumper crop of descendants from the first Walters settlers. One of my maternal lines goes back to George Willoughby Walters and his wife Sarah (‘Sally’) Collins. It was my interest in Sarah that led me to read Vikki Bynum’s ‘Free State of Jones’ and to become absorbed in how the Civil War not only divided a nation, but also a region of Mississippi (the Piney Woods), and most especially Jones County.

    As part of my on-going research, I have been seeking out the Union pension files of the Mississippi men who joined the 1st New Orleans. Among those located and scanned are the files of Archy, Drury, and Marada. (The pension file of Marada is mixed with that of Hanson Walters, who married his widow, Nancy Pitts Walters.) I used some of this material in writing about Nancy Pitts and her two Union enlistee Walters husbands in part 3 of my series on Jones County Civil War widows on this blog.

    Of the three Walters brothers, only Archy remained single at the time of his enlistment in the 1st New Orleans. His father Daniel later sought pension benefits, which required him to establish that he had been dependent on Archy’s labor prior to the war. For whatever reason, neighbors–including Hanson–seemed unwilling to support this contention. Daniel, who would live until 1908, kept applying and being denied. His increasingly plaintive appeals as he grew older make pretty sad reading (a sample is included in the Nancy Pitts Walters post).

    By means of this post, I’ll ask Vikki to supply you with my email address. If you have not seen the pension files of these men, please contact me.


  11. Hello Ed, fascinating histories you have unearthed. I am particularly interested in Crissa’s account, as we are very distantly related via the Gatlins. Elizabeth’s parents, Edward and Sholottie/Charlotte are in my family tree. Sholottie was either half or full-blood Cherokee. Edward’s parents were Benjamin Gatlin and Charity Anderson; Benjamin’s father was Edward Lee Gatlin, my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. I am descended from Benjamin’s brother, Wright Gatlin; and Benjamin, Wright and their father all settled in or around Hartsville, SC which is where I trace my Gatlin lineage. I do not have any information on Elizabeth Gatlin or any siblings and would like to learn more from Crissa if she is so inclined. My email address is appended to this message. Thank you.


  12. i am also in the lineage of edward and charlotte. i have it that charlotte is cherokee, but can’t find the evidence. thanks, for any new info.


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