The Free State of Jones

Alzada Courtney of the Free State of Jones: She “defended her home with a fence rail.”

By Vikki Bynum

Born in 1828, Alzada Courtney of Jones County, Mississippi, lived long enough to provide Tom Knight with a testimonial for his tribute to his father, Newt Knight, and the Knight Band in his book, The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight and His Company and the “Free State of Jones County, first published in 1935.

Alzada, a poor single woman who made a meager living working the soil, credited her survival of the Civil War to Newt Knight and his guerrilla band, who, she testified to Tom when she was in her late nineties, protected her from Confederate harassment. Knight Band members Jasper Collins and W.W. Sumrall, she reportedly said, were “good men” as well.

I have written about Alzada before. She appears briefly in an earlier Renegade South post entitled “Renegade Women.”  Even earlier, quoting from Tom’s Knight’s description of his interview with her, I wrote the following paragraph about Alzada’s wartime experiences in The Free State of Jones:

“She plowed and hoed many a day to make an honest living,” wrote Tom. . . . She once endured the harassment of a cavalryman who demanded to know “where is the man that has been plowing here?” Only after the soldier walked the grounds and inspected her footprints did he accept that she had no man to care for her (p. 109; see also pp. 83, 108, and 138).

Alzada Courtney, middle person of middle row,  longest-lived participant in the Free State of Jones, 1926. Alzada died in 1936 at age 108. Photo courtesy of Ralph Kirkland

Alzada Courtney, middle person of middle row, longest-lived participant in the Free State of Jones, 1926. Alzada died in 1936 at age 108. Photo courtesy of Ralph Kirkland

Now there is more on Alzada! I am pleased to publish here the 1936 obituary of this remarkable woman, thanks to a new series of documents recently published by Cindy DeVall and Sue Coker on behalf of the Deason House restoration project of Ellisville, Mississippi.* Alzada’s obituary is unusually candid, providing wonderful anecdotes and details about her life during and after the war, including the fact that she opposed the Confederacy with all her might.**

Oldest Citizen of Jones County, Mrs. Courtney, is Dead at
Age of 108 Years

Death claimed Jones County’s oldest citizen Saturday when Mrs. Alzada Courtney, age 108 years, one month and six days died at 10:00 a.m. at the home of her daughter, Mrs. J. W. Tucker of
Tucker ’s Crossing, where she had been living for a number of years. Although Mrs. Courtney had been blind for 15 years and suffered from the infirmities of age for many months, she was able to sit up in a chair until four weeks ago. The illness which preceded her death was of two weeks duration. Mrs. Courtney was truly a pioneer. She was born in Smith County on August 6, 1828, at old Taylorsville and was member of the Smith family. In her early womanhood she moved to what is now Jones County and established her home in the center of a gallberry patch, which later became the city of Laurel. The house in which Mrs. Courtney lived stood on the present site of the First National Bank and the fields of crops extended to what is now the law around the Eastman-Gardiner and Company’s office.

Told Tales of War
Members of the family repeat stories told by Mrs. Courtney of her life during the Civil War. She told them of trips she made on the back of a mule to the water mill where she carried her corn to be ground. Mrs. Courtney said that it was not unusual for her to be stopped and have her meal taken from her by members of the cavalry who were in the county fighting Newt Knight and his band of men. Mrs. Courtney was living at home with her grandmother and she told of encounters she had with soldiers. She never tried to shoot one but defended her home with a fence rail whenever the soldiers came snooping around. After the town of Laurel became established, Mrs. Courtney moved about two and one-half miles further east, where she homesteaded a place across Tallahala Creek. She spent the remainder of her life in that section and died about a mile and a half from the old homestead which is still in the family and occupied by Mrs. Robert Manning.

**Noted, August 5, 2015: The obituary does not mince words about Alzada’s support for “Newt Knight and his band of men.” But notice that the above references to the “cavalry” that came to the county to fight Newt Knight, and to the “soldiers” that Alzada had “encounters” with, do not identify them as either Confederate or Union forces. I have a theory about this omission, and it centers on the year the obituary was written: 1936. Thanks in large part to Tom Knight’s 1935 manuscript, Newt Knight had achieved hero status for his Civil War adventures during this decade (Ethel Knight’s book would not appear for another fifteen years.) On the other hand, the Myth of the Lost Cause, with its glorification of the Confederacy and its denial that slavery had anything to do with the Civil War, had also taken hold in America—in 1936, we’re only three years away from Gone With the Wind.

And so, it seems, the author of the obituary played it both ways by mentioning Newt Knight by name, but not identifying the cavalry as Confederate. It may be just such omissions that eventually created another popular myth: that Newt Knight and his men supported neither the Confederacy nor the Union, and just wanted to be “left alone.” Make no mistake, the Knight Band fought against the Confederacy, and so did the women who loved them. The proof for that is as solid as documentation that slaveholders orchestrated secession as a means to protecting slavery.

And so we see something of the twist and turns in our historical understanding of the Free State of Jones in Alzada Courtney’s obituary, which continues on a more personal note, below.

Never on Train
Although the tree railroads which traverse this county have been constructed since Mrs. Courtney moved here, she had never ridden on a train. She saw the rights of way surveyed for each line, but she had never seen the inside of a passenger coach. During her life she had very few rides in an automobile, but in her earlier life she rode in a small boat to cross Tallahala Creek when she attended services at Hickory Grove Baptist Church, where she was a member all her life. Mrs. Courtney had many sterling qualities, among them was thrift. She could not bear to see anything wasted or any land to stand idle. She did not believe in flowers. She thought the land should be used to grow something to eat or wear. She was loved and respected by all who knew her and her passing will leave a vacant place in the community which will be felt for a long time.

Funeral Held Sunday
The funeral services were held Sunday afternoon at 1:30 at the family home in Tuckers Crossing and interment was in Mt. Ora Cemetery with Rev. J. W. Fagan officiating. Survivors are a son, Joe Courtney, Mt. Ora community; and a daughter, Mrs. J. W. Tucker of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Matthew Tucker, Ellisville; Martin Tucker, Ellisville; Robert Tucker, Laurel; Onnie Tucker, New Orleans, Louisiana; Mrs. Ed Bush, Richton; Mrs. Viola Sumrall, Gulfport; Mrs. Neomia Perryman, Wilmer, Alabama; Mrs. Nola Mitchell, Gulfport; Mrs. Maud Long, Laurel; Mrs. Walter Landrum, Holly Bluff, Mississippi; Mrs. Joe Sumerall, Holly Bluff, Mississippi;
Mrs. George Strahan, Laurel; Miss Anice Tucker, Laurel; Miss Carrie Tucker, Pensacola, Florida; George Courtney, Laurel; Mrs. Jim McDaniel, Cohay; Mrs. Beulah Jackson, Mississippi; 60 great grandchildren and 6 great great grandchildren also survive. Pallbearers were her grandsons Robert Morris, Matthew Tucker, Marvin Long, and great grandson, Thurman Bush.

Laurel Leader-Call
September 14, 1936

*Obituary published in vol 1 of the 3-volume set, Ellisville Mississippi: A Testament to our Ancestors, compiled by Cynthia DeVall and Sue Thomas Coker. For information on how to purchase, visit Ralph Kirkland’s Free State of Jones page on Facebook, or contact the Deason Home Restoration Fund, p.o. box 643, Ellisville, Mississippi, 39437, or contact me in the comments section.

Ellisville, Mississippi: A Testament to our Ancestors

11 replies »

  1. This is a wonderful story about a brave woman. Thank you, Vikki Bynum, for sharing Mrs. Courtney’s obituary, a reminder that that the South was not, is not, a monolith.

    • Hey, are you the former Brenda Gill who I attended Atwater High School with? If so, it’s great to see you here on Renegade South! And thanks for your supportive comment.

      Vikki

  2. Vicki..I am sending you this link knowing that you might not get it but if you do I think you will find it interesting. This is a story which illustrates the many similarities between Jones Co., Mississippi and Shelby County, Alabama. As far as I know there was no Newt Knight in Shelby County but the other circumstances are almost identical.

    http://alabamapioneers.com/shelby-county/#sthash.wTu87yEW.dpbs

    Regards…Bob Wilson

    • Thank you for the link, Bob.

      Though Shelby County did not have Newt Knight, I’m sure it had its own colorful guerrillas!

      It’s very revealing how many uprisings occurred throughout the South against the Confederacy. Having studied a few of them in depth and read about others, the common characteristics are devastation of life and property, with growing realization that the war was destroying rather than saving the ordinary farmers’ way of life. In many of these regions, a large portion of the citizenry had opposed secession from the beginning.

      Vikki

  3. Hi Vikki,

    I’ve enjoyed following your blog for the past couple of years. Thanks for all that you’ve done to challenge the Lost Cause myth that all white Southerners were committed supporters of the Confederacy.

    Recent conflicts over flags, memorials, and license plates make it clear that it is not easy to convince many white Southerners to take pride a more nuanced and complicated version of our histories and our identities. We can be proud Southerners without being “moonlight and magnolias” Confederates. Our identity and our culture predate the Civil War by a very long time, and our culture reflects the contributions of a rich diversity of peoples. Many of our ancestors got suckered into fighting a war that served the interests of a small minority. We shouldn’t let that cause continue to define what it means to be Southern.

  4. Very well said, Chris. I couldn’t agree more. I think studying Southern Unionists helps us to see that white Southerners did not all think alike–certainly not about the wisdom of seceding from the Union.

    Vikki

  5. I have thoroughly enjoyed all the post on Renegade South regarding the free State of Jones and the familes involved! I was born in Jones County in what was known as the Red Hill Community. I am a descendant of Alzada Courtney through her youngest son Joel E. Courtney. His daughter Emma married John Robert Manning. Grandpa Manning’s family as well as my father’s family lived in the Florence and Red Hill Communities of Jones County. I grew up primarily in Marion County, MS in the Pine Burr Community out from Columbia. I now reside in Elk Grove, California with the remaining family members still in Marion and Jones County, MS.

    In all of the post by Ed Payne and Ms. Bynum I have not seen mention of either family which is odd to me in as both families had large families and primarily boys. The Blue family was more of the gentle nature where as the Manning boys was a little rough around the edges!

    Thank you very much for this post. I have a copy of the death certificate and pictures of her grave site but his is the first time I have seen the obit!

  6. Hi Aubrey–welcome to Renegade South!

    I’ve been fascinated by your ancestor Alzada Courtney since I first read about her in Tom Knight’s book, many years ago. I found searching for her in the census records a real mystery to solve because she usually lived in the household of a relative with a different last name, and she herself was not always identified carefully by the census taker. What I did notice from the start was that she lived a very long time–but I had no idea that she made it to 108 until I read the above obituary! Obituaries are often hard to find, buried away in the back pages of newspapers. That’s why publications like Cindy’s and Sue’s are so important.

    Vikki

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