Thursday, May 29, 2008

Last fall I wrote a blog entry remarking on the fact that with the passage of time, the U.S. Navy eventually began to honor certain leaders of erstwhile enemy forces from the Civil War era.

 The U.S.S. Robert E. Lee was the main case in point.

More recently I had occasion to ponder another celebrated enemy of the United States who was subsequently honored by the U.S. Navy. The great Shawnee chief Tecumseh allied himself with the British in the War of 1812, and was killed in combat against American forces in 1813.

It would be nearly a century before the Navy would put a Confederate officer’s name on a U.S. warship. But interestingly, it was only half that timeabout 50 yearsfrom the death of Tecumseh to the launching of the U.S.S. Tecumseh, a single-turret monitor that fell victim to a Confederate mine and sank in Mobile Bay.
Robert E. Lee would have been about six-years-old when Tecumseh was fighting American expansion, perhaps old enough to remember talk of the legendary enemy warrior.

There was something about Tecumseh that inspired white Americans in a way that other fierce warriors and tribal leaders did not. There appears to have been something of a Tecumseh baby-naming boom beginning around 1820, which makes me wonder if some popular history of the man was circulating about that time.
Seven years after Tecumseh’s death, future Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman was born. Two years later, in 1822, another child, and another future Civi War general, was given the ultimate warrior name of Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana. The following year, in 1823, William Tecumseh Wilson was born, a future brevet brigadier general in the last days of the Civil War.

That’s at least three babies given the name Tecumseh seven-to-ten years after the death of the Shawnee leader. These three were easy to identify because they were all general officers in the Civil War and so show up in reference works, but almost certainly there were many other babies during that time frame who were given Tecumseh’s name.
I suppose this is something a good biographer of Tecumseh may already have shed light upon. I’ll have to check, now that my interest is piqued.

One hundred years after the monitor Tecumseh sank in Mobile Bay, the U.S. Navy launched a nuclear sub christened with the same name, keeping that noble moniker alive in the annals of American military history.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


revisiting a favorite book

A Q&A with Victoria Bynum

The saga of Jones County during the Civil War is one of the most intriguing and enduring sidebars of the era. Here, from the archives of the Civil War Forum, is the transcript of a Q&A with Dr. Bynum, professor of history at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, about her book, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). This conversation took place on-line, October 25, 2001.

Q. (David Woodbury):
Welcome Dr. Bynum. Since this is probably a fairly obscure topic even among Civil War buffs, can you begin with an overview of Jones County, and what set it apart from the rest of Mississippi (e.g., the paucity of slaves there), and the events that gave rise to stories of the so-called "Free State," or Kingdom of Jones?

A. (Dr. Bynum):
Jones County was founded in 1826, and it's part of one of the earlier-settled sections of Mississippi (because of Native Americans already being pushed out of that part of the state, but not out of the more fertile portions of Mississippi). Many of the earliest settlers were veterans of the War of 1812, especially. I won't go too much into it, but because it was the Piney Woods region, you didn't have a great many slaveholders there. Slavery was importantthere were slaveholdersbut not many big slaveholders. It had the lowest number of slaveholders of any county in the state, and almost 80 percent of those slaveholders owned fewer than four slaves.

So, just to leap forward to the Civil War itself, this was a region that was pretty ripeby around 1862for seeing the war as a "rich man's war" and "poor man's fight," because they were the poorest men in the state. I don't want to imply that they were landless, because they were small landowners, but in terms of slaveholders, they were the poorest in the state. [The county] voted almost 2-1 against secession.

Moving ahead to the 20th century about how all these stories got startedwhat made this story so legendary and why it has persisted so long is that the leader of this band of deserters crossed the color line. Now, it's not that crossing the color line was so unusual, it's the way that Newton Knight did it. He not only crossed the line, but two of his children intermarried with the children of the slave woman who was his chief collaborator (it was after the war that they intermarried
she was his collaborator during the war). And that resulted in a mixed-race community that's still very vibrant todaya very large mixed-race community that claims descent from Rachel the slave, and Newton, the leader of the deserter band.

. . . So you've had this ongoing battle
this is why I make the second part of the title, "Mississippi's Longest Civil War," because factions of this family have been debating the meaning of this uprising since the Civil War. And with the racial aspect, it has made the debate particularly volatile. Those who wanted to defend the Unionism of the Knight band generally just erased the story of the race-mixing, and those who were pro-Confederate . . . used the racial mixing as just further examples that these were deviant men who committed treason against the country, against the Confederacy, and against their race. That's why the story has lasted, [and] because there have been several books written, and a novel, and even a movie made from the novel.

Q. (David Woodbury):
One of the fun things about reading your book is the spirit of investigation, or discovery, in unmasking the past. Can you recall any major breakthroughs during the course of your research, or any particular surprises you encountered upon digging deeper?

A. (Dr. Bynum):
I believe some of the most delightful surprises were the ongoing discoveries I made about the Collins familyI believe that their story is one that was buried because of the notoriety of Newt Knight. The discovery that their ancestors were both Regulators back in the 1760s and Populists in the 1890s kind of gave me a whole view of Southern descent as represented by this family, in a way that just stood right outand made them the core of the Unionist group there, rather than Newt Knight.

And I want to add that probably the biggest surprise was that the Collins' had brothers in Texas who were leaders of their own deserter band, so there were actually two deserter bands which existed simultaneously. It just showed the uncompromising nature of their Unionism, but not nearly all the deserters were as Unionist as the Collins. There was a core group of about five different families that I would call truly Unionist. Putting that together was very exciting, because I kept finding connections between the very distant past, and the Civil War era, and connections between the various families as well.

Q. (Margaret D. Blough):
What was the reaction of the Confederate authorities? Was it as brutal as the suppression of the earlier East Tennessee Unionist uprising?

A. (Victoria Bynum):
I'm not sure just how brutal that was, in terms of making an exact comparison, but the Confederacy did send two expeditions into Jones County to put down the uprisings there, and in the Official Records there is quite a bit of discussion of Jones County. The most important example is Colonel Lowry's raid on Jones County. In the space of a few days, they executed ten members of the Knight Companythe Knight Band. That was the worst experience that the Jones County group experienced. I imagine that it was probably worse in East Tennessee due to the geographic location. Jones County was still pretty remote, and there weren't as many raids.

Q. (Stevan F. Meserve):
My question is about Unionist sentiment in Jones County. How many precincts of the county voted to remain in the Union? Here in Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, three of 16 precincts voted to remain in the Union. Overall, the county voted 2:1 to secede.

A. (Victoria Bynum):
All I knowthat I've been able to findis that 166 people voted against secession, and I believe it was about 89 who voted for it . . . Let's see . . . Yes, 166 for the Cooperationist Candidate, and 89 for the Secessionist Candidate. In fact, neighboring Perry county (I don't have those numbers with me) was even more Unionist. So Jones County was not isolated in that respect. The Perry County delegate held out longer.

Q. (Margaret D. Blough):
Did any of the Jones County Unionists articulate why they supported the Union? The pressure must have been intense in the Deep South for secession?

A. (Victoria Bynum):
Yes, of course in their county they didn't feel that so directlymore so when the war beganbut (after the war) they cited the 20 Negro Law [when] citing reasons for their desertion from the Confederacy. The only articulated Unionist statements are by the Collins family, who did not believe that the election of Abraham Lincoln was grounds for secession. And there's a quote of a certain Collins brother counseling men to try to get duty in the hospitals as nurses if they did join the service -- that they should not fight against the Union. And one more statement attributed to the Collins' is that while they didn't believe in slavery, they also did not believe that the federal government had the right to end it.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock):
Early in the book, you describe rivers that were dammed to provide power for mills, but preventing fishing for those needing to do that. It seems such a conflict! I know the Jones County deserters were really against the 20 Negro Law, which was the objection to "government" in their era.

A. (Victoria Bynum):
One of the things that I found, as you no doubt noticed, were that these were people who were very touchy about the government's role in their lives. And again to use the Collins' as an example, since they were always in the thick of itas they moved across the frontier they continued petitioning the government to respect their rights as citizens and to provide them protection, not only against Indians, but against corrupt local officials. So this is a theme that runs throughout their history, and I think that's the point that you're making with your comment.

Q. (David Woodbury):
It sounds like your research benefited nearly as much from elderly locals and descendants as it did from archival work. That is, they were able to show you things, like the grave sites of Newt and Rachel Knight. Could you have written this book 20 or 30 years from now, after many of these people are gone?

A. (Victoria Bynum):
I agree that my personal contacts with descendants was really crucial to the book, and no I couldn't have written the same book. I could have written a booka studybut in fact when I started writing this book I had no idea that I would achieve the kind of contact with local people that I did. It brought perspectives that I just don't think I could have pieced together from archival documents. In particular, I don't think I could have described the mixed race community if I hadn't spent a lot of time among the descendants of Rachel and Newton Knight. . . And I don't believe I could have written nearly the kind of study of their community without that personal contact. That was crucial.

Q. (Margaret D. Blough):
To tie into what Terry asked, I've seen some opinions that many of the Unionists areas in North Carolina, etc., in the mountains had had no experience with the US government, except for the postal system and the first experience they had with an intrusive government was Confederate authorities enforcing the conscription and impressment laws? Is that what you saw?

A. (Victoria Bynum):
I would say that in general that was true, once they settled in Jones county, that they had a lot of local autonomy. Some writers suggest there was no real government in Jones county before the war, but that just isn't true. But it is fair to say that they had very limited contact with state government at the top, or federal government. However, I would still point out that their frontier petitions do show quite an interest in the Federal government and its power. They have a long history of protest of corrupt local government, and I suspect that during the Civil War they developed a similar relationship with the Federal government, because they saw the Confederacy as another example of corrupt local government. That tradition goes all the way back to the Regulators.

Q. (David Woodbury):
You include a photograph of the Leaf River in your book, "site of Deserter's Denthe Knight Company's Civil War hideout." Were you able to pinpoint the actual location, and what is there today (presumably private property)?

A. (Victoria Bynum):
It is private property today. I took the photo myself and I was taken there by one of those local old-timers. Not very far from that riverthe site of that river in the photographis the cemetery of Newton Knight's grandfather. That land is now in the hands of a private company, and we had to be escorted into the cemetery by someone who had a key... But all of those lands used to be owned by the core members of the deserter band.

Q. (Stevan F. Meserve):
On the subject of "intrusive" government, how much intrusion did Jones County see during the war from officials on either side? The territory between Hattiesburg and Meridian was pretty much no man's land, wasn't it?

A. (Victoria Bynum):
I think it was pretty much considered no-man's land between those areas. The Confederacy managed to have a Home Guard unit down in Jones County, headed by a local Confederate officer, and that was Amos McLemore, reputed to have been murdered by Newt Knight and his men. By April of 1864, when more and more reports were reaching Confederate officials elsewhere that Jones County was under the control of deserters, and they had murdered some of the tax agents, then they sent the two expeditions I mentioned earlier... Col. Maury, in March (1864), subdued the deserters a bit but they came back just as strong, so then they sent Col. Robert Lowry in April. Now that really did splinter the band. He executed ten of them, and that's when a number of them fled to New Orleans and joined the Union army. About 40they weren't all members of the bandabout 40 Jones County men joined the Union Army in New Orleans... And then about 15 men were captured and forced back into the Confederate army. That left about 20 more whom they never caught, including Newt Knight, still out in the swamps.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock):
You describe the prominent role of women in the book. Using "polecat musk and red pepper" to throw off the scent of the men from the dogs was rather emphatic. How did that come to be known as the thing to use?

A. (Victoria Bynum): Well, according to Ethel Knight, who wrote the best known book (The Echo of the Black Horn), the white women learned it from Rachel, the slave. I don't know where she got her information from.

Q. (David Woodbury):
When did you first hear of the legend about Jones County in the Civil War? And what first drew you to this as a subject of scholarly research?

A. (Victoria Bynum):
I first learned about Jones County around 1976 when I was an undergraduate in college. I saw it in a footnote in the Randall and Donaldthe old Civil War text [Randall, James G., and David H. Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction]. I did not hear about it from within my own family, even though my father was born in Jones County. What drew me to it as a subject of scholarship was writing my first book, Unruly Women. I have two chapters on the Civil War there, and one of those chapters centers on a county very similar to Jones County in many ways, and that's Montgomery County, North Carolina. . . .But I just became fascinated with the topic of Southern Unionism, and the way that entire families were involved in resisting the Confederacy. It was both the class element in it, and the participation of women and free blacks in North Carolina that made me then want to look at Jones County. So, it was only as I developed as a historian myself that I decided I would like to do a study of Jones County.

Q. (David Woodbury):
Would you talk a little bit about the so-called "white Negro" community in Jones County after the war, the trial of Davis Knight in the 1940s, and why this is such an important part of the story of The Free State of Jones.

A. (Victoria Bynum): I think it's incredibly important because it reveals how 20th century race relations and segregation buried the story of the Free State of Jones beneath all these stereotypes about race-mixing, and then combined with the myth of the Lost Cause, which presented Unionists as treasonous. The story had just become so distorted. And so I began and ended the book with the trial to basically look at why race was such a volatile part of the story, and then to move from there to look at the story of a class-based uprising of white men that is an important story in its own right, and would not have been buried so deeply if it had not been for the obsession with Newton Knight's interracial relationship with Rachel. And so I was determined to tell both stories, and particularly to try to bring back the stories of all these other members of Knight's band who had just sort of been lost from the picture.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Some years back, in 1066, William the Conqueror defeated the British at the Battle of Hastings.

Today, nine-hundred and forty-one years later, visitors can still see some of the actual battlefield, and visit the ruins of Battle Abbey. One English Heritage site invites you and me to "enjoy the new audio tour of the 100-acre battlefield, stand on the very spot where King Harold was slain and explore the ruins of the atmospheric abbey, built by William the Conquer to commemorate the thousands who died."

By contrast, probably the most dramatic surviving remnants of the nearly 144-year-old fighting around Atlanta in the American Civil War are a handful of partial "Shoupades," innovative earthworks designed by Francis Shoup as part of Joe Johnston's Chattahoochee River Linenow fenced-in mounds practically in the side yards of massive, cookie-cutter suburban homes.

The Battle of Peachtree Creek, the Battle of Atlanta, Utoy, Ezra Church, Jonesboro—all were critical battles in a critical campaign in the war that ultimately determined the future of the nation. But one gets the distinct feeling that there's more battlefield to see at Hastings than there is in Atlanta. And but for groups like the Georgia Battlefields Association, there would be even less.

Spending a day visiting Civil War sites in Atlanta is an exercise in imagination. One must imagine battlefields where townhouses, factories, golf courses, and shopping centers now stand. Of course that is true of many other areas in the country, but few cities have been more diligent and comprehensive in their destruction of all-things-Civil War than has the city of Atlanta.
Here are a few photos of our visit. Charlie Crawford, President of the GBA, led the way, starting off with the visit to some surviving Shoupades [click on images to enlarge].

These remaining photos will give you a good feel for what I'm speaking of. The death sites of Generals Walker and McPherson in the Battle of Atlanta are in a busy intersection (Walker) and a residential area (McPherson). The headquarters marker where Johnston handed over command to John Bell Hood is in an industrial parking lot. The Andrews marker is on a downtown street corner. The last image is of the Texas, situated in the Atlanta Cyclorama, the locomotive that went in pursuit of Andrews Raiders.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

For two hours, we had the Southern Museum to ourselves.

Upon entering, we hightailed it straight to the auditorium where the two most popular people of the weekend were holding court, the caterer Adriane Larson and her assistant Gail. In 12 years of putting these conferences together, it has become clear that the most indispensable components are good guides, a reliable bus, and good food. Some of those things can be overcome or mitigated if they fall shortI often have multiple guides and speakers, mostly known entities with veteran track records. Some bus problems are unavoidable, but a tour organizer can take steps to minimize the chances of that. The food is a little trickier. People will forget a poor speaker, or a malfunctioning bus, but if the food is subpar you may hear about it for years to come. At our Shiloh conference about six years ago, we were compelled to use the in-house kitchen at Pickwick Landing State Park and from time to time, someone makes an effort to remind me of those all-but-inedible meals.

By the same token, really good food is remembered with a fondness that grows in memory. It's
no exaggeration to say that our evening meals and box lunches from Adriane's Delectables in Marietta were the best we've had on our annual outings, and now the bar is set high for subsequent conferences.

After dinner, we gathered next to the General herself for one of the highlights of the trip, a
brief history of the Great Locomotive Chase and a fleshed-out timeline on the fascinating, all-the-way-to-the-Supreme Court battle between the states of Georgia and Tennessee over the rights to the famous steam engine. Author Russell Bonds and Southern Museum historian Harper Harris told some tales (photo at top shows Russell, left, and Harper), and Russell even rang the General's bell for the enthralled throng. All readers are encouraged to read Dimitri Rotov's 2-part interview with Russell Bonds here, and here.

Not yet satisfied with having run the conference attendees ragged on a non-stop, 13-hour day, we capped the night off with a presentation on the fighting at Kennesaw by Assistant Professor John Fowler, a young, energetic and well-spoken fellow who promises to be a presence in the world of Civil War historiography for a long time to come. His regimental history of the 19th Tennessee Infantry, CSA, Mountaineers in Gray, is a new model for unit studies. It's an exceptional work, and we'll all do well to keep an eye out for Fowler's future contributions.
(Gail, left, and Adriane: best food ever)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

I've been to Kennesaw, Georgia twice now.

The first time was in the mid-90's when I was traveling around the Atlanta area trying to get bookstores to carry copies of a book on the Atlanta Campaign.

At the time, Kennesaw was most famous for a 1982 city ordinance making it mandatory for every head of a household to own a firearm with the right kind of ammo. I was there because I wanted to see the General, and because I'd heard of a store there that sold Civil War books, Wildman's Civil War Surplus and Herb Shop.

I knew nothing about Dent "Wildman" Myers before my visit, but this description on a flickr page captures the flavor of his establishment: "a fascinating and horrifying shop specializing in Confederate Civil War memorabilia and southern white supremacist paraphernalia."
The wild man, wearing two revolvers in a Wild West holster, was in the shop when I stopped by (photo and profile here, write-up by the Southern Poverty Law Center here). It was pretty much as described in those articles. My main memory of the place was that it filled to the rafters with all manner of random stuff, like a surreal curio shop in some African-American nightmare. The store and its proprietor make for a deeply weird and unsettling anachronisman unwitting museum with an out-of-time caretaker.

Across the street was the Big Shanty Museum, an old cotton gin housing the locomotive from the "Great Locomotive Chase." I spent the rest of my brief stay in Kennesaw admiring the great engine, and the quaint museum's assemblage of relics. I love railroad history, and Kennesaw is a railroad town. It's gratifying to see they have an active historical societycheck out the Kennesaw Historical Society website here. Of special note are links to some pretty thorough driving tours, one on retracing the route of the General, and one on the route of Sherman's armies in the 1864 campaign (both written by Robert C. Jones).

Fourteen or so years later, I returned to Kennesaw in company with the good folks of the Civil War Forum. I'm here to report that Wildman's store is still standing, and apparently still in business (I assume under the same ownership). And happily, the old Big Shanty Museum is now the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, with a large, modern addition built to look like part of the original gin. The change is fairly dramatic. What had been, essentially, a locomotive in a barn has been transformed into a signifiant museum with three permanent exhibits and space for rotating shows, a library and archives, and all still anchored by the General. In 2001, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution's Affiliations Program, making it a stop for traveling Smithsonian exhibits.

I wonder if Dent Meyers will cross the street this summer to take in the new Liberty on the
Border: A Civil War Journey in Time exhibit (running through September 7th). According to the museum's web site, the exhibition "explores the differing attitudes of Americans on slavery leading up to the Civil War, the dilemmas faced by African Americans during the war, and the lasting impact slavery had on the struggle for human rights."

Tomorrow: a night at the museum, and a day in the city

Monday, May 05, 2008

Sometime right after breakfast, I will endeavor to dispense with the final recaps from my recent Atlanta adventure

picking up after Kennesaw, and moving on to dinner at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, there to see a locomotive as famous as any I can think of, and finishing off with a short narrative of our final day in Atlanta, where apparently all pre-Coco Cola, non-locomotive history has been relegated to roadside markers.

Clearly I'm going to have to pick up the pace here. Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory has posted twelve entries since my last one, and that was after he quit for the summer (Kevin, I don't think I'm the only one who thought your little sabbatical sounded a bit too ambitious, given the passion and energy with which you attack your blogging habitthough I figured you were good for at least a month).

Beyond the Atlanta travelogue, I also have a hopper full of announcements I'm anxious to post here, mainly about a series of unique battlefield tours I will be coordinating this summer and fall, beginning with Unseen Appomattox on August 2nd. Stay tuned.