- Jun 11, 2012
(1864 Letter written by Emma Stewart Jones recalling the war in and around Chulahoma, Mississippi.)
Many of my kin recently inherited family items from one branch of the family. Since I’m considered the Civil War buff in the family, I have contributed to the family records by writing a bit about this part of my family’s years during the war. I thought folks here might take some interest in it.
Some of the people on this site also helped me - perhaps unknowingly. They are: @JPK Huson 1863, @LoriAnn, @huskerblitz, @lelliott19, @Northern Light. Thank you all!
We found a letter recently among a pile of family papers, folded neatly but inconspicuously. It could have easily slipped our notice – thank heaven for my aunt’s meticulous procedure of going through things. After unfolding it and briefly scanning it, we soon realized we were holding a partial letter, dated August 14, 1864, written by Emma Stewart Jones, my 3 x great grandmother. Unfortunately, we cannot find the rest of the letter, which is a shame, but what we do have is a brief insight into the war from a Southern woman’s perspective. Emma penned it on a Sunday, August 14, 1864, most likely from her home in Chulahoma, Mississippi. It was the third year of the war, and, as the letter bears witness to, for two of those years the war had played out on Emma’s very doorstep.
Maybe it is a sort of journal entry rather than a letter. It is hard to tell at times. Emma seems uncertain of her immediate future, seems to want to leave a record of what had happened, to tell her story in case she was unable to do so later. Nonetheless, by using the date written on the letter, I was able to piece together a few things. For example, I rather easily learned that a late summer heat had settled over the village of Chulahoma that month. I came to know this because the invaders also wrote letters and diaries and described the heat that August. I also know Chulahoma lay half destroyed because those same invaders left a record of their destruction for history’s detached review, and kindly left chimneys scattered like monuments - symbols left towering over land long reduced fallow - for the surviving locals to recall and ponder the rest of their days.
For Emma and Chulahoma there had been better times, before the war, but it appears those years were too difficult for her to recall during the pangs of war and desolation. No. She did not want to write about those times: “I will not write any farther back than the war,” she states in the letter. I guess more pressing matters needed conveying. I wish we had the rest of the letter to know exactly what. Emma’s only reference to the peace and prosperity of her antebellum years was a quick scribble, “We moved to Chulahoma about three years before the war.”
So I investigated those years to better understand Emma and her world, despite her unwillingness to share it with us.
Chulahoma, Mississippi was once a prosperous village located southwest of Holly Springs. Named after an old Indian word meaning Red Fox, it was nestled between the Cold Water and Tallahatchie rivers and located on one of the direct routes between Memphis and Oxford. It is now extinct, but one writer described Chulahoma before the war as a “pretentious village . . . surrounded by prosperous plantations . . . .” According to local memory, “it had about 30 stores . . . cotton gins, grist mills, churches, a Masonic lodge and also Chulahoma College for Girls.” The School for Girls, in particular, was a point of pride for the community. In the early 1850s, Emma was a newcomer to Mississippi. If surviving pictures of her are any indication, Emma was indeed a beautiful young woman. It is not surprising that shortly after her arrival from North Carolina, Emma was married to Jasper Jones, my 3x great grandfather, who was not only a recent widower but also seventeen years her senior. On their wedding day, Emma was 22 years old and Jasper 39. Not long thereafter, Emma bore children of her own and the family grew.
(My 3 x great grandmother, Emma Stewart Jones, circa 1852)
By all accounts, the family spent the antebellum years together in peace and prosperity. Emma and Jasper not only owned businesses in Chulahoma from which they produced income but also owned a sprawling plantation just outside of Chulahoma. In her letter, Emma does not refer to the property as a plantation but, rather, as “the farm.” Since they resided in town, they relied on overseers to manage the everyday operations on the plantation. The 1860 US Federal Slave Schedule reveals that the Jasper Jones family (including their son) owned between 46 and 51 enslaved individuals who worked and lived on “the farm.” The bulk of Emma’s letter (at least the portion that exists) deals with issues involving the plantation in one way or another.
This “peculiar” way of life they had built for themselves would begin to crumble when war finally engulfed the country. When it came, Emma was 31 years old and Jasper 48. In the early months, the conflict remained but a distant whisper even though its effects reached all the way to Chulahoma. In May of 1861, their oldest son, Hannibal Lucius Jones, a student enrolled in school, volunteered to fight Lincoln’s army. How Emma truly felt about his joining is unknown. A handwritten version of The Bonnie Blue Flag, found among the family papers as well, at least suggests some measure of patriotic fervor. Whatever the case, she evidently felt it important that her younger children know about Hannibal’s service, writing that, “He joined the first company that left Chulahoma and went to VA to fight the Yankees.” Young Hannibal, along with other young men from the village, indeed marched away from Chulahoma in the spring of that year and was in Richmond, Virginia by June, ready to do his part in repulsing Federal forces from the Southland.
(Jasper Jones, circa 1860, my 3 x great grandfather)
(Handwritten words to “Bonnie Blue Flag,” found among papers).
The following year would mark a drastic change for Emma and her family. Almost a year to the date that young Hannibal marched off to war, the fighting in Virginia started up again. Hannibal’s regiment, the 19th Mississippi Infantry, found itself in the thick of battle. In May, Hannibal was seriously wounded during the Peninsula Campaign. Left on the field of battle, the Federals captured him. Emma recalls this incident in the letter, informing her reader that Hannibal “was gone nearly two years. Then he was shot in his right arm near the shoulder, which caused him to [lose] his right arm, at [the] Battle of Williamsburg. . . . We thought he was dead for two or three months. We could not hear from him after he was shot until two or 3 weeks. A Yankee doctor amputated his arm. He came very near dying at the time.” Certainly relieved to learn he was alive, all Emma and Jasper could do in the meantime was to wait for Hannibal’s exchange and pray for his safe return.
(Hannibal’s Muster Roll listing him wounded and in hands of the enemy.)
During this period, however, the rippling effects of war continued to trickle into Chulahoma and the surrounding areas. By the spring of ’62, Confederate conscription laws governed the South. Although Emma does not specify it as a cause in her letter, I highly suspect enforcement of the conscription laws played a role in labor shortages in the area. This law certainly took away many white men and boys between 18 and 35 in 1862, stressing the job market in the vicinity. This condition would only worsen as age limits decreased to 15 on the one hand and increased to 50 on the other. It is probable that these laws effected operations on Emma’s and Jasper’s plantation, specifically as it related to overseers. Describing the problem in her letter, Emma writes that, “Billy Meaders was at the farm overseeing for us a while after Hannibal joined the army. He was . . . a very clever young man, indeed, but at last he had to go to [the] army too. So we had to go out there ourselves and stay a month or two until we could find another overseer.” They evidently continued searching for qualified overseers - perhaps those older than 35 - and finally found someone who agreed to work on the plantation. She does not give us his name, but whoever he was, “He had a wife and 2 children,” Emma recalls, adding that they “were very clever people.” However, the draft laws changed later that year bumping the age to 45. As a likely result, “He had to go to war,” Emma complained, “and his wife went back to her mother.” It seems the pool of qualified overseers had all but disappeared, leaving Emma clearly frustrated. “Then we were left without an overseer, except Mr. Davidson,” she wrote. However, it appears Davidson was unfit for such work. Mr. Davidson “staid there a good while,” Emma informs her children in the letter, but “at last he got sick and died.”
In late summer, Emma and Jasper finally received word that the Yankees had exchanged Hannibal and that he would return home to Chulahoma. Disabled and discharged from the Confederate army, Hannibal returned around September of 1862. “He is at home now,” Emma writes, “and has been in fine health ever since.” On a side note, although Hannibal survived the war, he would eventually die a young man, at the age of 35. Perhaps he never recovered from the effects of a Yankee bullet and a surgeon’s saw. Nevertheless, his return home to Chulahoma that fall meant that Hannibal could help with the family business interests, particularly with issues on the family plantation. His return certainly raised spirits, and the brief period between September and December of ’62 found the family back together and their world returning to a sense of normality. However, that would prove a cruel mirage.
For then came the cold winds of winter and with it the war to Chulahoma. In December of 1862, General Grant advanced into nearby Holly Springs. At that time, the Yankee war machine had not yet learned the fine art of “living off the land.” Instead, Grant would store vast supplies in Holly Springs to support his operations to the south. Other than occasional patrols, the civilian population in and around Chulahoma did not suffer. In fact, so “civil” was the occupation of the area that General Grant brought his wife, Julia, and her personal slaves along with his army to Holly Springs. It was not all civility, though. Staff members from Grant’s headquarters occupied the home of Jasper’s and Emma’s sister-in-law, Martha Reece Jones. The Yankee visit did not last long, eventually ending as quickly as it had begun. Out of nowhere, a dashing cavalry raid led by Confederate General Earl Van Dorn struck Holly Springs and captured Grant’s supply depot along with Grant’s wife, Julia, and her slaves. The brilliant move forced Grant to withdraw to Memphis, liberating the area from Federal forces. In keeping with civility, the Confederates in Holly Springs kindly returned Julia and her slaves to General Grant in Memphis.
“War Is Cruelty”
The retreat of Grant’s army back into Tennessee would mark the end of whatever “civility” might have existed previously in the war. Yankee policy changed, and changed drastically, by 1863. The Federal war machine decided to “live off the land,” a policy that naturally extended the definition of “enemy” to civilian populations - however subtle. By that summer, the strategic situation around Chulahoma was fluid and uncertain. The Yankees controlled the area around the Memphis and Charleston Railroad while the land south of the Tallahatchie River remained under the control of the Rebels. The swath of land in between the two, where Emma and her family lived, remained a hotly contested area. As Warren Grabau, author of Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign, described the situation, “The region between the Tallahatchie and the [Memphis and Charleston Railroad] was a debatable zone, haunted by patrols of both Blue and Gray but controlled by neither.” Since the Rebels could field barely 4,500 troops along the line of the Tallahatchie, little could prevent the Federals from playing war in Emma’s backyard. Orders reflecting the Yankee’s policy of war against civilians abounded in the region. General Field Order No. 1, issued in June of 1863, is but one example among many. It directed Union cavalry to “proceed northeast through Tyro [and] Chulahoma . . . . Take all horses, mules, cattle, and means of transportation; destroy or bring away all subsistence and forage. Fences enclosing flourishing crops will be burned; leave no animals behind; if any give out, shoot them. Rout and capture all roving bands of guerrillas, and make the work thorough and complete, rendering it impossible for the enemy to subsist on the country.”
Over time, such orders naturally descended a slippery slope. After all, what does “thorough and complete,” or “rendering it impossible,” become or mean to combat soldiers executing such orders on the ground? It certainly suggested one thing: Civilians like Emma and her children inevitably fell into the category of the enemy. Food undoubtedly became scarce and their property subject to confiscation and destruction. Confederate General Chalmers recalled how “the enemy were guilty of many outrages in the destruction of houses and other private property, and in some instances, in acts of robbery and cruel personal violence toward infirm and defenseless citizens.” To civilians like Emma and Jasper, such actions were, indeed, nothing short of “outrage.” However, to Yankee soldiers on the ground it meant that whatever Emma might use to feed her children might also be used to feed Rebel soldiers; what secured and comforted her family might comfort and sustain the enemy. Perhaps it is one reason the white South found it almost impossible to erase grudging memories of that conflict.
In October of 1863, the Yankees finally lived up to their growing reputation for destruction. In one of the many raids, Federal forces finally put the torch to Chulahoma and the nearby village of Wyatt. General Chalmers would later wonder why the Federals burned Chulahoma, stating in his official report that the torching of Chulahoma, in particular, was “without any provocation whatever.” Over half of the village went up in smoke. Even a portion of the prosperous Chulahoma School for Girls, for which the village had so prided itself, was destroyed. Like Chulahoma, the girl’s school would never return. After leaving the fiery glow of Chulahoma behind them, the Yankee raiders, under Colonel Hatch, bolted for Tennessee. According to General Chalmers report, the Yankees continued desolating “the plantations along their route, burning corncribs, &c., and driving off horses and cattle.” The experience for Emma and her family must have been traumatizing. Because much of Emma’s letter is missing, it is unknown whether her home burned along with the town. Some sources indicate only half of the village burned. Whatever the case, the raid that burned Chulahoma did not resolve the ongoing nightmare; it simply festered and grew.
The year 1864 proved no different in its scale of suffering. That year was defined by multiple raids and fighting. When my Emma took up pen and paper that day in August of 1864, the war was again swirling outside her door. She had three young children and was pregnant with a fourth. She would give birth to little Eva Emma in October of that year, just two months later. News of another invasion certainly raised stress levels, even though she had survived many others by 1864. But this time, the Yankees had returned in overwhelming force, flooding again into nearby Holly Springs in brigades and divisions then spreading out like locust into surrounding areas, including what was left of Chulahoma. Yankee Brass had concocted a massive search and destroy mission. The overall objective of the mission was to assassinate a nearby Confederate cavalry commander and to destroy his troops. None of that happened, of course. The end result, instead, was the burning and leveling of another Mississippi city and school – Oxford and Ole Miss. Nevertheless, the kill order came directly from the top - from General William Tecumseh Sherman himself. Sherman so feared the legendary cavalryman that he sent thousands to accomplish the deed, and insisted upon its execution even “if it cost 10,000 lives and breaks the treasury.”
This operation would last nearly all month. It meant Emma and her family lived by the minute, day and nights, for weeks, knowing they were but another torch away from destruction. It kept families on edge, for one minute you might have your children asleep and the next your home surrounded. Many such events were common during these raids. Major McWilliams, commanding 117th Illinois Infantry, operated in the area around Chulahoma and explained how a typical foraging raid occurred during the August search and destroy mission. “I placed the mounted men under the charge of the quartermaster,” the Major recalled in his official report, “with directions to go in advance, but not to lose sight of the column, and when they saw a house to send four mounted men rapidly forward, surround the house, and wait the arrival of infantry pickets who I detailed to the number of fifteen . . . to follow the mounted men, and when they reached the house the mounted men were [to] throw out pickets and wait my arrival. My object in this arrangement was to prevent the citizens from running off their stock, and so explained it to officers in charge of the details.” For every civilian suddenly caught in such a web, there was little to do other than pray to the Almighty that the invaders had only come to steal and not deliver the torch. The sounds of approaching hoof-beats or the unusual rustling of leaves outside one’s home provided sources of intense stress and dread, not to mention the nearby rumbling of artillery and crackling of muskets. I suspect Emma was no different. Perhaps it is why, when my aunt and I first read the opening lines of her letter, we incorrectly assumed she might be writing from her deathbed.
“August 14, 1864. My dear Children,” the letter begins, “I have seated myself this Sabbath morning to write a few lines for you to read, perhaps, when I am dead and gone from each. I hope you will always remember the one who has loved and cared for you – both day and night. I have sat by your bed side and watched over you the best part of every night for a week at the time by myself.”
“When any of you were sick I was always ready, willing and waiting to do all in my power for you, but this is nothing more than natural consequences for parents to do all they can for their children. . . you have been good, dutiful and obedient children, and I do hope you always will be so as long as you live. Love each other, be kind and affectionate to each and everybody.”
Emma then goes on to reference the Bible, advising her children again to “love each other, be kind and affectionate to each and to every body . . . .” She ends the paragraph by asking her children to “try to do as I have advised you, then everybody will love you.”
It is a woeful beginning to a letter written by a mother to her young children. It appears that Emma is also intent on recording the events leading up to the August 14 date. Again, much of letter is missing. This next portion appears to describe parts of 1863 and ends, perhaps, in the early winter months of 1864. It deals with issues on the plantation.
Disorder on “The Farm”
After Hannibal’s return from the war, he stayed on the family plantation, a situation resolving the issues of finding an overseer to manage the operations there. According to the letter, Hannibal stayed there while the Yankees occupied the region during the first occupation of Holly Springs in December of 1862. Hannibal, however, had not enjoyed his stay on the plantation, nor playing the role of overseer. Once Grant retreated to Memphis, he saw new opportunities. He could not return to school – all were closed – and he could not bring himself stay on “the farm.” With the Yankee threat gone by January of 1863, he simply left the Plantation for new endeavors. It is not difficult to glean from Emma’s letter that she was not pleased with the situation developing with Hannibal. She seems resolved to blame his sudden behavior on Yankees and the love of money. “Hannibal went out and staid awhile,” she wrote. “After the Yankees went to Memphis, there was such a good opening to make money he quit the farm and began speculating first one way and then another trying to make money for himself.” With Hannibal’s newfound enterprises, Emma and Jasper found themselves back at square one. “Your Pa has been attending to the business ever since,” she complained. “He goes out there in the morning and returns at night.” Then Emma ends the subject matter with an almost written sigh: “We have had a hard time with our overseers.”
Hannibal was not the only one who got itchy feet on “the farm.” With little order established in the area, some of the enslaved people on the family plantation took advantage of the freedom created by disorder. Evidently, Emma and Jasper had to commute to the plantation to keep it running in the absence of Hannibal. With no white person permanently supervising the plantation, there was little oversight - on the plantation or in the general area for that matter. It is not surprising, then, that many slaves explored a freedom that was previously unknown to them. Undoubtedly, the slaves had long heard that the Yankees occupied Memphis, and perhaps had heard rumors of the Emancipation Proclamation. Whatever the case, the temptation to visit was surely great.
Emma’s letter recalls an incident where an enslaved family runs away from the plantation and heads for Memphis, Tennessee. The entire incident described by Emma appears to take place over months. Its ultimate resolution is unknown because the letter ends and subsequent pages missing. However, what is unique is the rather lackadaisical approach taken to return the runaways to the plantation. That the region was contested, and routinely raided by Yankees, might have contributed to this less than urgent approach. Surprisingly, though, another slave – apparently a brother of one of the runaways – volunteered to go after them and return the runaways to the plantation.
It began with Jasper and Emma travelling to “the farm” with food for the enslaved. “Your Pa and I went to the farm to weigh out some meat to the Negroes,” Emma writes. “I always weighed out the meat. That was Sunday – I don’t remember the day of the month.” At one of the slave quarters, Emma noticed something strange. “We did not see the Negroes stirring around as usual.” Evidently, a female slave named Bets, and her children, were not at their cabin where they were supposed to be. In order to find out what was going on, Emma located one of the slaves whom she referred to as Aunt Sillers. “I asked Aunt Sillers where they were, saying if they don’t come quick I won’t give them any meat. [Aunt Sillers] said Bets and her children [told her they had gone] to Colonel Payne’s on a visit. [Aunt Sillers] said she believed they had gone to Memphis [instead]. Sure enough,” Emma writes in the letter, “they had gone there.” Another slave named Isam, evidently Bets’ brother, approached Emma with an unusual offer. “I saw a brother to Bets. [He] said if we would lend him a mule and give him a pass he would go and bring them back. We did so. He went to Memphis but he could not find them. In three days, he came back.” Emma explains in the letter that the “runaways lost their way and had not arrived in Memphis when he was there,” adding that Isam “wanted to go again when we heard they were there. We didn’t consent but he went anyway but came back in 2 or 3 weeks.”
Evidently, Isam’s second attempt, without permission, failed to find the runaways. Whether as punishment for his two or three week hiatus from the plantation, or merely an attempt to get Isam into an environment where his mobility could be restricted, Jasper hired out Isam: “Pa took him over the Tallahatchy,” Emma recalls, “and hired him to one of our Southern soldiers.” According to Emma, Isam “seemed perfectly satisfied” working with the Confederacy.
In the last existing portion, Emma makes reference to “Sherman’s Army.” I have been unable to determine exactly what event Emma is describing. “Sherman’s Army” is vague. Too many operations took place in the area – some ordered by Sherman, others not but launched, loosely, in conjunction with Sherman – to know for sure. Nevertheless, I’m somewhat certain Sherman did not accompany troops into the region. Anyway, Emma reveals that Isam has a wife on another nearby plantation owned by a man named Mr. Milans. Yet, Isam is telling folks his trips to Memphis were to find his wife. Isam ends up embarking on a curious journey. He marches with “Sherman’s Army,” goes with them to Memphis, stays there for weeks before finally returning to the plantation with the runaways. He is then sold to Mr. Milans, evidently where Isam’s wife lives.
“He was Bets brother and claimed he went for his wife, notwithstanding he had a wife at Ben Milans, so when Sherman’s army came through this place Isam went marching thru with them. So he went to Memphis and staid several weeks. When he came home and brought Bets, Pete, Allie and Jim, your Pa then sold Isam to Mr. Milans for $1,000 [or $100] Confederate money. After a while there came…
[Letter ends at page 6. No other pages found.]
(Emma, circa 1872 [?], a year before her death. Note the apparent creativity by one of the grandkids’ use of a magic marker!)