During the booksigning portion of my recent trip to the Laurel-Jones County Library, where I gave a presentation on Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones, I met Jan Dykes, who told me that the Dykes family had a photograph of Eliphar Chain, remembered for having provided supplies for Newt Knight and his Knight Company guerrilla band during the Civil War. Below is that photograph, as well as the story of Eliphar Chain. My thanks to Jan Dykes.
Vikki Bynum, Moderator
In Ethel Knight’s imaginative restoration of the legend of the Free State of Jones, The Echo of the Black Horn, she tells the story of Eliphar (Elly Fair/Alafair/ etc.) Chain. “Elly Fair,” Ethel wrote, was likely the only woman from Jones County, Mississippi, to actually fight in the American Civil War. She “fought along beside her husband until he was killed,” Ethel claimed, and “carried ammunition in her checkered apron and kept handy a fresh load of powder for the nearest man that needed it.” (p. 107).
Yet, despite fighting for the Confederacy, Ethel tells us that Eliphar returned to relatives in Bear Creek, Jones County, after her husband was killed and became an ally of the infamous anti-Confederate guerrilla band headed by “Captain” Newt Knight. In fact, one of Ethel’s most detailed stories of women’s role in the Free State of Jones is about Eliphar’s brave diversion of Confederate soldiers from the path of discovering Newt’s men, hidden in the swamps of the Leaf River. The story goes that Eliphar ran “smack into a gray uniformed officer” (p. 108) and had to think quickly to cover for the deserters. She ingeniously asked the officer if he’d seen a certain heifer that had strayed from the farm. When the officer replied he had not, Eliphar declared that she might as well change direction and seek the stray elsewhere. She then headed across the swamp as quickly as her mule could carry her and warned the Knight band that a cavalryman was scouting the area for them.
Despite Ethel Knight’s disdain for Newt Knight, she held women like Eliphar who supported him and his band to a different standard. Describing her as one of the “good women who aided the Deserters,” Ethel explained that such women “were only helping themselves.” She believed that Newt Knight was guilty of treason and even murder, but that his women supporters were loving wives and mothers simply trying to keep body and soul together. And in early 1864, Ethel explained, “people were looking upon Newt as a great benefactor of the community.”
Fair enough. But Ethel never addressed the question of why a woman who allegedly fought courageously alongside her husband for the Confederate Army would turn around and fight for an armed band of deserters bent on destroying that very Confederacy. Nor does she offer any evidence that Eliphar actually served alongside her husband on Civil War battlefields. Was this possibly an attempt by Ethel to claim a heroic figure for the Confederate side of Jones County (at least in part), as she had with Ben Knight when she claimed he had furlough papers in his pocket at the very moment that Col. Robert Lowry’s men hanged him as a deserter? In the absence of documentary evidence or published stories that predate Ethel’s 1951 book, we cannot know whether Eliphar Chain actually served on Civil War battlefields, although we know that at least 250 women did manage to do so (usually by disguising themselves as men).
We do know, however, that Eliphar’s husband, Isaac Newton Chain, died around 1863 while serving as a private in Co. B, 27th Mississippi Infantry, CSA. That fact does not preclude Eliphar having pro-Union sentiments, however. Her first marriage was to Louis Dykes, a woodcutter from Livingston, Louisiana, who was likely kin to Benjamin F. Dykes, Newt Knight’s friend and neighbor. During the war, Dykes and Newt deserted the 7th battalion Mississippi Infantry together. Both were reported AWOL on the Nov./Dec., 1862, muster, with the added sentence “lost in retreat from Abbeville.”
Nor were all Chains loyal to the Confederacy. Military records indicate that Isaac Chain’s brother, James Alexander Chain, deserted the 7th battalion in October 1862 after hospitalization for wounds sustained at the battle of Corinth. Although there is no direct evidence that James ever
James never formally joined the Knight band, he remained AWOL until December 1863. Another Chain, first name uncertain, was similarly reported AWOL following the battle of Corinth, and again in early 1864. Like so many Piney Woods men, the Chains and the Dykes alternately served and deserted the Confederacy. By late 1863, many of these men (including Newt Knight) refused to go back, and joined the Knight band instead. By April, 1864, many more were joining the Union Army in New Orleans (see Ed Payne, “Crossing the Rubicon of Loyalties”).
Behavior that may appear erratic and politically confused today likely did not appear so during the Civil War. The main goal of these soldiers was to remain alive, but also to avoid being arrested by Confederate officers for desertion or imprisoned by Yankees after a battlefield defeat. For the most part, women shared the goals of their male kin. Some, but certainly not all, Jones County women had Unionist political views; others were simply loyal to family and friends. Although we don’t (yet) know Eliphar Chain’s views on secession and the Confederacy, she does appear to have been one of numerous women of the Mississippi Piney Woods who aided deserters and evaders of Confederate service in resisting capture by Confederate militia and home guard.
I encourage readers who have information on the life of Eliphar Chain (no matter how you spell her name!) and her kinfolk, to please consider sharing it with Renegade South.