James Richard Welch died on 6 September 1879 at the age of 62. Like most of his Jones County contemporaries of modest means, he left no will. Fortunately, his son-in-law Prentice M. Bynum was literate and, having once served as clerk in the Ellisville courthouse, knew a fair amount about the law. Prentice petitioned the court to be appointed administrator of the estate. As part of his duties, he compiled a list of all heirs. That list, which I’ll return to later, provides a useful vantage point from which to examine the political stances taken by ordinary families in Jones County, Mississippi, a county that gained notoriety during the Civil War for its rebellion against Confederate authority.
Early in the nineteenth century, Bryant Welch, the father of James Richard Welch, followed the same migration path to Mississippi Territory as did many other early Piney Woods settlers. He left South Carolina and lived for several years in Georgia where, around 1817, James R. Welch was born. The family’s first stop in Mississippi was in Wayne County. Tax rolls reveal that Bryant next moved his family to the section of Covington County from which Jones County was formed in 1826. For the rest of their lives, Bryant and his wife, Sabra “Sally” Martin, lived in Jones County, where they raised a family of nine children (see Note 1).
Their son, James R. Welch, fit solidly within the mold of the yeoman herders who predominated in the central Piney Woods. After marrying Mary Marzilla Valentine around 1836, he engaged in raising livestock and planting subsistence crops. Fairly typical of their place and time, James and Mary produced children at a rate of one every two years—for a total of thirteen born between 1837 and 1862.
In 1860, James estimated the worth of his real estate at $1,000 and his personal estate at $1,165. Typical of yeoman in that region, he did not own slaves. But like most Southerners, the Civil War left him in greatly reduced circumstances. In 1870, at age 53, he judged his land to be worth $466 and his personal affects at $875. This might seem like a meager amount, but among the seventy-three households in Township 10 where James resided, only seven surpassed this total while eighteen reported no assets at all.
Following James’s death, Mary Welch received her allotted widow’s share of the estate, valued at $168, and a year’s worth of provisions. The court then granted authority for a sale of the remaining property. The sale failed to cover outstanding claims against the estate and administrative costs. Nevertheless, Prentice Bynum submitted a second and more detailed list of heirs:
W.M. Welch; Tabitha J. Walters; Elizabeth Jackson and James Jackson [her] husband; Geo. B. Welch; Joel Welch; Matilda Clark and John H. Clark, her husband; Virginia and B.T. Hinton, her husband [all of whom] reside in Jones County. Martha Lard [Laird] and E.W. Lard her husband who reside in Smith County; Arsella Bynum and Mary M., James B. Bynum, minors who reside in Covington County; and James Collins and two other children… who are heirs to Ebaline Colins… and H.T. Collins (their) father… (who) reside in the State of Texas.
A comparison of the Welch household census records from 1850 through 1870 with the court documents indicates that three children—Cynthia, J.E., and James—died childless prior to 1879. The estate papers identified Frances Bynum as the deceased wife of Prentice Bynum and listed three children as her heirs. Frances apparently died around 1876.
The identity of daughter “Ebaline Collins” is a bit more difficult to establish. Like her sister Frances, she seems to have died prior to 1879, leaving several children as her heirs. Best evidence suggests her full name was Samantha Eboline Welch. The 1870 Jasper County census listed 19 year-old “Emaline Collins” in the household of H.T. Collins, age 21. The couple had a one-year-old son named James. By 1880, Harrison T. Collins had moved to Texas and remarried, all of which conforms to the information provided by Prentice Bynum.
Thus the estate papers of James R. Welch offer us the identities of six children who entered adulthood during and just after the Civil War—one son and five daughters. The court documents also provide the names of the men whom these daughters married. From this starting point, what does an examination of war records of the males within this group reveal?
1) Born on 1 November 1837, WILLIAM M. WELCH married Amanda Coats sometime before 1860. Two years later, on 13 May 1862, following passage of the first Confederate conscription act, he enlisted with many of his fellow Jones Countians in Co F of the 7th Battalion MS Infantry. But on the July-October 1862 muster roll he is listed as AWOL, suggesting he deserted before or just after the battles of Iuka and Corinth. William’s name appears on Thomas Knight’s version of the Knight Band roster (as “W.M. Welch”). He was also identified as one of the men captured by troops under command of Confederate Col. Robert Lowry on 25 April 1864 (see Note 2). Col. Lowry’s men had been deployed to the Piney Woods region to suppress renegade activity. Due to chronic manpower shortages in the Southern army, the men they arrested were simply forced to return to their unit which shortly thereafter was pressed into the defense of Atlanta.
The last major battle prior to the siege of Atlanta took place at Kennesaw Mountain, about 25 miles north of the city. Situated behind a strong defensive line, the Confederate forces of Gen. Joseph Johnson scored a tactical victory over Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops. However, on 3 July 1864, at least twenty-three men from the 7th Battalion became Union captives. Of these, eleven can also be found on the Knight Band roster—including William Welch. He was processed and assigned to Camp Douglas, Illinois, on 17 July 1864. His muster records, as well as those of four other men belonging to Co F and sent to Camp Douglas, include the following comment:
Claims to have been loyal, was forced to enlist in Rebel Army to avoid conscript, and deserted to avail himself of amnesty proclimation [sic] etc.
William Welch managed to survive the harsh conditions at Camp Douglas, although four of his fellow captives did not (see Note 3). He was discharged on 16 May 1865 and returned to Jones County where he spent the rest of his life. William’s wife Amanda died on 13 October 1895. He died on 24 September 1908. Both are buried in Union Line cemetery.
2) TABITHA J. WELCH was born on 19 April 1840. Union pension files document that she married JOEL W. WALTERS on 26 Sep 1860, shortly after he was granted a divorce from his first wife. On 13 May 1862 a “J.W. Walters” enrolled in the 7th Battalion, Co F. It is unclear if this was Joel W. Walters, but the soldier was AWOL as of the January-February 1863 muster roll and never returned.
What is clear is that Joel W. Walters enlisted in the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry on 25 March 1864. He earned promotions to corporal and then to sergeant. A month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Joel deserted and returned home. He died of tuberculosis on 28 July 1868. Tabitha raised their three surviving children and never re-married. In 1885 changes in the pension laws permitted the desertion charge against Joel to be removed and the next year Tabitha was approved for a pension, effective from the date of her husband’s death. Tabitha died on 23 November 1924.
3) MARY ELIZABETH WELCH was born around 1842. She married JAMES EULIN (aka Yulin / Youlin) shortly before the 1860 census. Little is known about Eulin’s family background. A James Youlin, possibly his father, can be found on the 1840 census of Scott County. The 1850 census listed 10 year-old James Eulin in the family of Abraham Laird, residing in Smith County. By 1860 the Laird family had moved to Jones County where James Eulin apparently met and wed nearby neighbor Mary Elizabeth Welch.
On 13 May 1862, James also enrolled in Co F of the 7th Battalion. Like his brother-in-law William Welch, James Eulin appeared as AWOL on the July-October 1863 muster roll. And his name also appears on the Knight Band roster (as “James Ewlin”). Another name on the Knight Band roster was “Elijah Welborn.” In actuality, he was Elijah Welborn Laird—a son of Abraham Laird. Adding yet another strand to this web of yeoman connections, Elijah would later marry Martha Welch.
Captured by Col. Lowry’s troops on 25 April 1864, James and the others were shipped back to the 7th Battalion. He, too, was captured by federal forces on 3 July 1864 and sent to Camp Morton, Indiana. By this date, prisoner exchanges had largely ceased except for those in very poor health. James Eulin seems to have fallen into this category, because he was selected for exchange on 19 February 1865. However, he died at Piedmont, West Virginia, on 23 February 1865 while en route to the exchange point. James and Mary Elizabeth had one daughter, Mahala Jane. Mary Elizabeth’s efforts to cope with her post-war status as a Piney Woods widow will be the subject of a future article.
4) MARTHA M. WELCH was born on 27 March 1846. She married ELIJAH WELBORN LAIRD after the Civil War. As noted, Elijah was the son of Abraham Laird whose family had adopted James Eulin. Elijah enlisted in the 20th MS Infantry on 13 January 1863 and was listed as AWOL on 8 February of same year. He is found under the name “Elija Welborn” on the roster printed in Thomas Knight’s book. When Confederate forces moved into the area, he fled south and joined the 1st New Orleans Infantry as “Elijah Wilborn” on 30 April 1864. He served until the regiment was disbanded on 1 June 1866 and then returned to Jones County where he married Martha M. Welch on 14 March 1867.
Elijah moved his family to Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, around 1890. He obtained a Union pension for an injury to his right hip. His pension file documents that he died at the home of “S. Barnes” in Covington County, Mississippi on 31 March 1897 and was buried in the Barnes Cemetery (see Note 4). Martha died on 21 September 1898 and was interred in the Provencal Cemetery, Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. At the time of her death, Martha was attempting to obtain a widow’s pension. Although the couple left three minor children, they apparently never received any pension benefits.
5) Born around 1847, FRANCES S. WELCH married PRENTICE M. BYNUM in 1866. Prentice was the son of Benjamin F. Bynum and Margaret (“Peggy”) Collins. When the first Confederate conscription law went into effect in 1862, Prentice was sixteen and so temporarily exempt. Eighteen months later he joined the Knight Band. In the aftermath of the Lowry campaign he enlisted in the 1st New Orleans Infantry. Within six months he became seriously ill and entered University Hospital. He was transferred to New York General Hospital on 1 April 1865 and discharged from McDougall Hospital on 20 May 1865. Prentice returned to Jones County and served as Clerk for the Jones County courts under the Reconstruction administration. As noted, Frances died circa 1876. Prentice re-married to Nancy C. Rawles in Perry County on 4 December 1878. He moved to Marion and Lamar counties where he farmed and participated in Populist politics. He died in Lamar County in 1906.
6) The estate documents suggest that the deceased wife of HARRISON T. COLLINS was SAMANTHA EBOLINE WELCH, born circa 1849. Harrison Collins, also born around 1849, apparently avoided conscription on account of his age. As the son of Simeon Collins and grandson of Stacy Collins, however, Harrison belonged to Jones County’s most avowedly Unionist family. Simeon Collins, like his brother Jasper, deserted the 7th Battalion following the Battle of Corinth and became a member of the Knight Band. He was among those who surrendered to Lowry’s troops and were transferred back to the 7th Battalion—and then were captured at Kennesaw Mountain on 3 July 1864. Along with two other sons, Simeon spent the remainder of the war in Camp Morton. He was released under oath on 18 May 1865 but died soon thereafter.
Harrison T. Collins would have been around sixteen years old when his father died. The estate papers and census records suggest Samantha Eboline Collins’s death occurred circa 1876. During this same time period Simeon’s widow Lydia (nee Bynum) and several of the sons moved to Texas, with Harrison among them. He married twice more before dying in Polk County, Texas in 1936.
This inquiry into a single branch of the Welch family demonstrates the links between Civil War dissent and marriages within the Jones County yeoman class. Rudy H. Leverett’s pioneering Legend of the Free State of Jones made a brief reference to kinship ties between the Knight Band and the surrounding population. But Victoria Bynum’s Free State of Jones offered the first comprehensive exploration of these intricate kinships and the yeoman culture that set Jones County apart from much of the rest of Mississippi. Among the early settlers she investigated were the Bynum, Collins, Knight, Sumrall, Valentine and Welch families. Tracing nineteenth century female lines is, as any genealogist can tell you, far more difficult than tracing male lines. County records of marriages, even when they were recorded, often fell victim to courthouse fires. Without family Bible records or other documents, female lines often became lost. Yet, the marriages of females tell an important half of the story—or, as in the case of these five daughters of James R. Welch—over 80% of it.
By simply recording the names of the men that the Welch daughters married, Prentice Bynum permitted us to unravel the extent of Unionist ties found among the older children of James R. Welch. This is not to imply that exploring other Jones County female lines would invariably expose a similar preponderance of Unionist connections. What can be said is that the records of the older children of James R. Welch demonstrate a web of anti-secessionist activities that rivals that of the Collins family.
But it is reasonable to question the relationship between war time dissent and the selection of marriage partners. It seems highly unlikely that during their pre-war courtships Tabitha and Mary Elizabeth Welch—or Amanda Coats, who married William Welch—engaged in probing conversations to discern the attitudes of their suitors about slavery, states’ rights, and secession. Unlike much of the antebellum South, these issues meant little to the yeoman herders of Jones County. Slave-ownership was rare, the population widely dispersed, literacy rates low, and newspapers few. Nor is it likely that Martha, Frances, or Samantha Welch accepted post-war marriage proposals based on their husbands’ Civil War records. What seems more probable is that these young people belonged to a common yeoman culture; and that the Civil War brought a number of young men steeped in that culture into conflict with slave-owners, secessionists, and Confederate authorities of the larger South.
The records of the son and sons-in-law of James R. Welch demonstrate the shortcomings of attempts to depict the revolt in Jones County as emerging from the leadership of a single individual: Newt Knight. This scenario has been put forth with Newt Knight assigned the role of nefarious villain (Ethel Knight, Echo of the Black Horn) and, alternatively, socially enlightened hero (Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, State of Jones). The limited records available to us suggest that Newt Knight was decisive, shrewd, and—if the circumstances required it—deadly. There are situations in which such characteristics are highly esteemed, from bar fights to wars. But unless we are prepared to grant Newt Knight the role of preeminent molder of antebellum Piney Woods society, the fallacy of applying a Great Man theory to events in Jones County becomes apparent. Rather, research into the children of James R. Welch provides further evidence of the underlying cultural roots of Piney Woods dissent during the Civil War.
I would like to express my appreciation to Randall Kervin, whose inquiry about Mary Elizabeth Welch on “Renegade South” led me to explore the web of Unionist connections among the children of James Richard Welch.
1) Tax records indicate that James R. Welch’s grandfather, Richard Welch, arrived in Wayne County in 1813 with 2 slaves. However, the Welch families of Jones County are recorded as owning no slaves from the time of the 1830 census forward.
2) Thomas J. Knight’s The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight, was first published in 1934. The revised 1946 edition has recently been reprinted by Carolyn and Keith Horne of Laurel, MS. Thomas Knight’s version of the Knight Band roster appears on pages 16-17. The men captured by Col. Lowry’s troops on 25 April 1864 appear on pages 18-19.
3) Those members of the 7th Battalion MS Infantry, Co F, captured on 3 July 1864, who died while prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, Illinois, included Thomas N. Coats, William A. Lyons, Henry O. Parker, and William P. Valentine.
4) Census records suggest that “S. Barnes” was Sebastian Barnes, Elijah’s son-in-law. He had married Elijah’s daughter Jena C. Laird in 1886.