John Thomas of De Soto County, Mississippi


Notes on John Thomas of Mississippi

by Neil Allen Bristow

John Thomas, my great grandfather, was born somewhere in Mississippi about 1833. His father's given name is unknown, but his mother, Patience, may have been born a Booth. Both parents came from the Carolinas.1   After some detective work, we know that John had at least three sisters and a brother. The eldest sister, Caroline Thomas, outlived him by more than six years. The second sister, Francis Ann ("Fanny"), married Anderson Humphreys and moved to western Arkansas, where she died in 1902, after raising six children. The youngest girl, who went by Matilda in her youth, bore the full name of Julia Ann Matilda, and switched to Julia in her maturity. She married Alfonzo Laughter in 1860; they lived in Pleasant Hill, where she died in 1913. Ben married Anderson Humphrey's neice, Ann Elizabeth Humphreys, and joined his sister Fanny's family in Arkansas, where he died in 1897.2

The Thomas family had settled in northwest Mississippi by mid-century, a decade or so after the Chickasaws had been persuaded to sell their lands in 1833.3   De Soto County, which was named for the Spanish explorer who had reached the great river somewhere in the vicinity three centuries before, extends from the banks of the Mississippi eastward along the Tennessee state line, just below Memphis. Dunbar Rowland, in his monumental history of the state of Mississippi, gave the following description:

In 1900 (the earliest date for which I have found comprehensive figures), the county had a population of 24,751, of which three-quarters were black. The county seat, Hernando, numbered around 700. There were 3,726 farms, encompassing a quarter of a million acres, for a rather small average size of just under 70 acres.5

By 1860 John was listed as 25-year-old farmer with personal property worth $800. He was living in the Pleasant Hill district a few miles northeast of Hernando with his mother, Patience, and Caroline and Ben, along with Sarah Booth. The two other girls had married and started families of their own.6

Not long after that John's life and the lives of thousands of other young men were violently disrupted when Mississippi joined other southern states in withdrawing from the Union.

John is listed in War Department documents as having served as a private in Company D of the 44th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, CSA.7   The only surviving records show John enlisting for three years on April 1, 1864 at Dalton, Georgia, which is twenty-five miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the Confederate forces under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had been regrouping in winter quarters after their defeat by Ulysses S. Grant the previous fall. Both the location of his enlistment and the tenor of the times strongly suggest that he had prior service, either in the 44th or in its predecessor, Blythe's Mississippi Regiment, which had three companies raised from De Soto county, where John had been living for several years. His commanding officer, Capt. T. W. Maxwell, who swore him in at Dalton, was later the Clerk of the De Soto County Court in Hernando. It does seem unlikely that a young, single man like John would have joined the war only three full years after it began. Even more unlikely is his traveling across two-and-a-half war-strained states to enlist.

Confirmation of his earlier service is found in the 1890 Census, when a special count was made of Civil War veterans to aid in projecting Federal pension costs. Although the enumeration was meant to be restricted to those who had served in the Union forces, not many former Yankee soldiers were to be found in Mississippi, so (luckily for us) Adolphus Johnson, who was taking the census in the Lauderdale district of De Soto County, also recorded information on Confederate veterans, including John Thomas, who said that he had served in Company D of the 44th Mississippi for three years, enlisting in 1862 and being discharged in 1865.8

Tracing one private's whereabouts is impossible, given the incomplete, not to say fragmentary, records from the losing side. However, the regiment's history is recounted in Dunbar Rowland's Military History of Mississippi.9   If John's original enlistment was in 1862, he would have seen action in Bragg's Kentucky campaign (Sep-Oct), Stones River (Dec 31-Jan 1), and at Chickamauga (Sep 1863), and Missionary Ridge (Nov 1863). If he joined early enough, he might have been at Shiloh and Corinth in April, 1862.10

We do know that on 30 April 1864, he was paid in Company D, and that a month later he was in the CSA Madison Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama, where he received a clothing issue on 30 May. Why he was there is unknown. He may have contracted a fever or some other illness — disease was endemic among the troops and killed far more soldiers than hostile action — or suffered a non-combat injury.11   Or he may have been wounded in the opening phases of Sherman's advance to Atlanta, either at Rocky Face Ridge on May 8, or at Resaca, a week later, where the 5th Brigade, which included the 44th Mississippi, came under artillery fire, although not itself in the front line. We don't know whether he returned to his unit to take part in the defense of Atlanta in July, where the 44th suffered high casualties, but he was back by late fall of 1864, in time to take part in the disastrous Rebel response, an effort to recapture (or liberate) Tennessee and threaten, once again, Union communications in the West.

Although not as well known as Gettysburg, the battle of Franklin, Tennessee, 30 November 1864, was one of the bloodiest engagements of the Civil War, with over 6,000 casualties in four hours. It was also the turning point of John Bell Hood's ill-fated expedition which the Confederate strategists hoped would force Sherman to call off his March to the Sea.12

Among the casualties was John Thomas. According to US Army records, John suffered a "gunshot fracture of right ankle" from a cannon ball. The round must have been pretty well spent — you could break an ankle or smash a foot just from dropping a twelve-pound shot, which was about the lightest projectile used. (As a point of reference, the twelve-pound shot is used by American high school shot-putters.) In a way, he was very lucky in the nature of his wound, "merely" breaking an ankle, rather than losing a leg or being shot in the gut; the latter wound was almost always fatal, usually after a period of agony. He probably walked with a limp, especially in cold weather, and he may have used a cane, but family tradition is silent on any severe disability. In any case, he was hale enough to run a farm for almost thirty years.

The town of Franklin lies within a meander on the south bank of the Harpeth River, which flows west and north to its meeting with the Cumberland thirty-some miles west of Nashville. As I understand the line of battle, the 44th Mississippi was toward the right of the attacking Confederate line, between the Nashville and Decatur Railroad (running north through Franklin toward Nashville) and the Harpeth. Federal artillery batteries were sited on higher ground across the stream on the northeast bank, where they could catch the attackers in the flank. Whether the missile that hit John came from these guns or from the Union trenches at the south edge of town (which were the Rebel objective), or even from Confederate batteries to his rear, we don't know. After spending the better part of a sultry June afternoon exploring by foot and by car the terrain, I still have only the faintest notion of how it was on that cold and miserable November afternoon 130 years before. But I can appreciate the courage of the combatants, especially the Southern infantry, who kept on attacking, wave after wave charging the Federal entrenchments.13   What is hard to understand is the judgment of General Hood, who insisted on giving battle for a place of secondary importance, against the near-unanimous advice of his commanders. The losses suffered at Franklin destroyed any hope he might have had of evicting the Union Army of the Cumberland from Nashville.

On their retreat from the Tennessee capital, bitter Rebels sang a variation on "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to their commanding general, who had bought them to destruction:

If John Thomas had not been left at Franklin for the Yanks to capture, he might well have joined his comrades in singing the ditty.

He was probably among the hundreds of wounded who were given shelter at the Carenton Plantation, which lies near the route of the regiment's advance, southeast of town. Or he may have been taken to one of the public buildings, churches, or private homes around Franklin, which were pressed into service as makeshift hospitals. He would not have accompanied the remnants of the 44th to Nashville. For a fast-moving force, such as Hood's, which lacked the North's extensive railroad network, providing transport for numbers of wounded was almost impossible. He was still at Franklin when, about two weeks after his encounter with the cannon ball, Private Thomas was captured by Federal troops on the 17th of December. Hood's Confederate forces had been thrown back from the Tennessee capital the day before and were retreating southward to Alabama. On Christmas day, he was admitted to the Union Army hospital at Nashville, where he spent two months. On March first, 1865, he was transferred via a POW camp at Louisville, Kentucky, to Camp Chase, Ohio, where he was released after signing an oath of allegiance to the United States on 11 June 1865.15

While much rightly has been made of the horrors of Andersonville, the infamous Confederate POW camp in Georgia, little is now said about the sometimes brutal conditions at Northern POW facilities, such as Camp Chase. Tales of the survivors reveal an institution akin to a third-world jail.16

By the time John was wounded at Franklin, his regiment was a small fragment of its original size, which may have numbered close to a thousand officers and men. Neither the Union nor the Confederacy followed modern practice of restoring units to pre-campaign strength through individual replacements. Regiments and their constituent companies were typically raised by recruiting in a particular area, localities vying with one another for the largest number of recruits and the most inspiring names and colorful uniforms. In the early stages of the conflict, De Soto County furnished three companies: the Irrepressibles, the Home State Volunteers, and the De Soto Guards.17 Under the attrition of combat and disease, units shrank, and the ranks closed up to fill the vacant spots left by absent comrades. Regiments dwindled to the size of battalions, then to companies, then to platoons or squads. A initial roster of a couple of thousand men could be reduced to a couple of dozen. Before Hood's venture into Tennessee, Capt. Maxwell had assumed command of what was left of four companies. After the Confederates limped back to Alabama, what remained of the 44th was consolidated with the remnants of other regiments into a new 9th Mississippi, just in time to surrender in North Carolina.18

Copies of a photograph of John Thomas in uniform survived for more than a hundred years. The studio portrait (reproduced above) was probably made in 1862 and shows a young man in an exotic uniform, typical of the early months of the conflict, when the horrors of war had yet to dispel the romance of a great adventure. The image accords with his POW records from Camp Chase. In those he is described as having a fair complexion, dark hair, and gray eyes. Like most of his descendants, he was tall, standing five feet eleven inches, well above average for the time.19

John returned to a community in bad shape. Although De Soto County had not been the site of any major battles, it fell into what was a no man's land between the armies, and suffered raids by both sides. Following the war, the area was slow to heal, not only because of the social upheaval brought about by Emancipation and Reconstruction, but also from the people's stubborn reliance on raising cotton and their inability to find alternatives to that crop. Those who lived through the time remembered the hardships decades later. Several shared their recollections with WPA canvassers in 1936. Mrs J. B. Riley told the interviewers that

Like most of his neighbors, John relied on cotton for cash income, but raised hogs and corn for family use, along with cows to supply milk. The excess calves and pigs were slaughtered in the fall. A well-stocked smokehouse was essential in keeping the family's stomachs filled throughout the year. After the war, salt, required to cure meat, was in short supply. Several old-timers remembered having to recycle.

Three-and-a-half years after his return, in the closing days of 1868, John married Miss Amanda Laughter, the twenty-five year-old daughter of John J. and Harriet Brown Laughter. (The wedding license bears the only extant example of John's signature.)22

The young family was found at the 1870 Census living near Hernando, where John was renting a farm. He had accumulated personal property valued at $820, a tidy sum for the depression that followed the war.23

Even as overall conditions gradually improved, life on the farm was still hard. Until steam-powered cotton gins were constructed to process the harvest in central locations, the crop had to be cleaned, seeded, and baled by muscle power.

Five years after his marriage, on 19 Jan 1874, John was able to purchase from R. M. Clifton and wife 320 acres east of Hernando in the section officially called Lauderdale Precinct, but known among locals as Bright's.25 There he grew cotton, and he and Amanda raised their growing family, which finally included seven children. They were: Amanda Katherine "Kate" (1871); Harriet Love "Lovie" (1872); Richard Guinn (1874); Alice "Allie" (1876); John Frederick "Fred" (1878); Rosa Lee (1880); and Edward Finis "Fine" (1885).26
The irregular intervals between births suggest that Amanda may have had difficulty with pregancy, and her death at age forty-two was probably hastened by the rigors of repeated childbirth. When she died after twelve years of marriage, the widower continued to care for his children, probably with some help from his in-laws or his aunt Caroline Thomas. (The population schedules from the 1890 census are missing, so we do not have a snapshot of the complete family in that year, but county school lists for 1890 and 1892 give the school-age children and their (approximate) ages.27

John died intestate 2 May 1894, leaving several minor children, the youngest not yet ten. He was buried in the Baker's Chapel Cemetery near his wife, but his tombstone did not survive.28   The settlement of the estate dragged on for years.29   Kate Brewer, his eldest daughter, was the only child legally of age, so she became his administratrix in December. An inventory that month by three of his neighbors (W J Johnston, J R Lauderdale, and J M Shipman), placed a value of $538.85 on his effects, and an auction was held at the end of February, which netted $366.85. The buyers were mostly family members, together with a few neighbors and bargain hunters. The list of items sold gives us a picture of life on a farm in northern Mississippi a century ago, when the industrial revolution was making itself felt. Farm equipment was identified by brand name: an Eagle Cotton Planter and two Avery plows. The most valuable items were the two mules, a bay named Lize and an "Iron gray" named Ida, which went for $49.75 each. A two year-old mule colt fetched $26, and a one year-old $15, while two cows and their calves brought $24.55. Eight hogs amounted to $34.45. Altogether, the stock totaled 54% of the estate's value, and farm products another 29%. Household furnishings totaled only $36.80. In addition to lamps and bedsteads and pots and the like, the list included a sewing machine, purchased by John's son-in-law, J E Brewer, for $2.50.30  

By this time, Dick was old enough to serve as guardian for the younger children.

Before the estate was settled, a creditor, R. C. Tilghman, filed through his attorney, A. M. Lauderdale, an "exception" to a one year allowance set aside for the children's education:

1st that said allowance is too much in view of the financial circumstances and condition in life while their father was living, who was not accustomed to high living, being in quite ordinary circumstances, and giving his children such education as free school facilities in the neighbor hood in which he lived furnished.

And the amount set aside for the tuition of these minors will not be consumed by them in their schooling for the reason they attend no other school than the Free Public School, which they have heretofore attend[ed] and for which no tuition is charged, except perhaps incidental fees, to amt. of not exceeding 25 cts per month for each pupil.

And the said R. C. Tilghman would show to your honor that the said minor children had already been supported out of said estate from the death of their father, till some time in December last, being about eight months,

2nd he excepts to said report, in this, that in making said allowance they, said appraisers, ignored all exceptions, as will fully appear, reference being made to said report.

Of the said exemptions there is more than enough corn to bread them, meat enough to meat them, and a sufficiency of mollasses, besides many other things.31

Kate petitioned in February and again in December (two days before Christmas) for a final decree, but when the court finally closed the estate is not clear.
Richard Guinn Thomas, c1904
Dick sold 160 acres to his brother-in-law Isaac T. Smith, who had married the second daughter, Lovie, 9 Jan 1896.32   Another brother-in-law, Jefferson "Ab" Chamberlin, who had married the third daughter, Allie, was reported to have "bought of Ike Smith 160 acres of land known as the Thomas place," three years later, but the deal probably fell through because of the early deaths of both Allie and Ab.33

The year of 1899 was an unhealthy time in De Soto County. Epidemics of smallpox, measles, and typhoid fever gripped the area.34   John's middle son and namesake, John Frederick, known as Fred, died of measles and pneumonia 6 March, and his sister Allie succumbed fifteen days later, followed not long after by her husband, Ab Chamberlin. Although Dick also fell ill he recovered.35

Kate and her family remained in De Soto County, but her brothers Dick and Finis moved across the river to Arkansas and elsewhere in the South. Finis married Ethel Danner (a neice of his brother-in-law, Ike Smith), but she died young, reportedly from tuberculosis. She is buried at Baker's Chapel, near some of her kin and inlaws. Finis also died young, but we do not know the circumstances. 36 The eldest brother, Dick, never married.

The sisters Lovie and Rosa Lee also moved to the Arkansas bottomlands, where the youngest daughter, Rosa Lee, probably met her husband, Robert Ernest Rowe, where he had been working as a lumberman. Rosa Lee and Robert married in his hometown of Cuba, Tennessee, just north of Memphis, in 1901. The Smiths and the Rowes remained near the Mississippi for a few years, but in 1908 abandoned the humid delta for the foothills of the Rockies, settling near Fountain, Colorado.37

A portrait of Rosa Lee made near the time of her marriage reveals a strong likeness to her father, Private John Thomas.



Author's note:

My thanks to the gracious and hardworking members of the Genealogical Society of De Soto County for their help and hospitality, as well as to the patient and helpful staff of the De Soto Clerks' offices. I would welcome any comments on this material. Drop me a Note.

Sources and Notes:

1 None of the four entries for Thomas in the 1840 census of De Soto County is a good match for our family. Two were single males (Samuel and Charles). Jacob Thomas was in his fifties, with a female in her forties and three teenage children and one male in his 20s. R. C. Thomas was a female in her 40s, with 4 teenage boys, 1 teenage girl, and another boy under 10. It is possible, since a younger boy, Benjamin, later gave his birthplace as Alabama, that the family had temporarily located in Alabama, returning to Mississippi within a year or so.

Patience [Booth?] was born in North Carolina. A Sarah Booth, who might have been Patience's younger sister, is part of the family group through 1880. Sarah's birthplace was listed both as North Carolina and Alabama. Either location is possible, given the migration patterns of the time.

2 1850 Census, De Soto, Mississippi, 393. Northern Division, family 369. The Census shows Patience (age 38), Caroline (15), and two other sisters, Francis (13) and Matilda (9), and a possible brother, Benjamin T. (11), but since relationships were not given, their kinship is uncertain. However, in 1900, Caroline was identified as "aunt" living with John's daughter, Kate Brewer. If Patience was born about 1810, and married in her teens (before 1830), there may have been two or more older children who were on their own by 1850.

Fanny Thomas Humphreys is found in the census through 1900. The most complete record is the 1880 tally of Yell County, Arkansas, 159A. Crawford Twp, family 255. Benjamin T. and Elizabeth Humphreys Thomas lived next door to the Humphreys, family 256.

Julia Ann Matilda Laughter is traced through censuses from 1870 to 1910. Her eldest daughter was named Caroline, perhaps after Caroline Thomas. Another daughter, Hannah Lee Laughter, married her first cousin, Anderson Humphreys, Jr., when he returned to De Soto county around 1912.

3 John's grandfather-in-law, Hukey Brown, had served as president of the first county governing board, known as the Board of Police Commissioners. See Mildred M. Scott, 19th Century Hernando (Hernando, MS: Genealogical Society of De Soto County, n.d.), 2.

4 Dunbar Rowland, Mississippi (Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Co., 1976 [1907]), 1: 644-646.

5 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington, DC: GPO, 1975), Series A.

6 1860 Census, De Soto, Mississippi, 201. Pleasant Hill PO, family 1454. Also present was an 18 year-old farm laborer, John B Rhodes, from Alabama, whose relationship, if any, is not known.

7 Compiled Service Records. National Archives.

8 1890 Census, De Soto, Mississippi. Supervisors District 1, Enumeration District 24 (Hernando Depot and Lauderdale Precincts), entry 37. When the returns were compiled, some bureaucrat, no doubt a Yankee, lined through the entry, noting "CSA" but the original is still legible.

9 Dunbar Rowland, Military History of Mississippi, 1803-1898 (Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Co., 1978 [1908]), 354-360. Additional information can be gleaned from John C. Rietti, Military Annals of Mississippi (Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Co., 1976) [FHL film 1036087 item 8].

10 The best chronology is E. B. Long, with Barbara Long. The Civil War Day by Day, An Almanac, 1861-1865 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971).

11 Although recent research, especially by dedicated re-enactors, has provided greater detail, the classic work remains the very readable book by Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb, The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978 [1943].

12 Stanley F. Horn, The Army of Tennessee (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953 [1941]).

13 David R. Logsdon, comp. & ed., Eyewitnesses at the Battle of Franklin (Nashville: Kettle Hills Press, 1991).

14 Quoted in Gary C. Walker, The War in Southwestern Virginia, 1861-1865 (Roanoke, VA: A & W Enterprise, 1965), 130.

15 Compiled Service Records.

16 William H. Knauss, The Story of Camp Chase (Columbus, OH: The General's Books, 1990 [1906]).

17 Officially they were Companies B, G, and I of the 9th Mississippi. The volunteers were mostly under short enlistments; they were sent to Pensacola, Florida for garrison duty. Rietti, 12, 73.

18 Dunbar, 359-360.

19 Compiled Service Records. One copy of the picture, held by his Rowe grandchildren in Colorado, was lost when the waters of Cherry Creek rose and flooded the Denver warehouse where it had been stored. Luckily, another copy had been preserved by descendants of John's eldest daughter, Kate.

20 Works Progress Administration. Source Material for Mississippi History. De Soto County. Wars, Civil & Spanish American. Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Record Group 60, No. 274. (R 139 B 10 S 3), 3.

21 Ibid., 3. J. T. Underwood recalled his mother paid $45 for a barrel of salt. 5.

22 De Soto Marriages E: 296. Photocopy held by Neil Allen Bristow. The bondsman was the bride's brother, William E. Laughter. John and Amanda named their eldest son after the minister who officiated, Richard H Gwyn. A grandson, Richard Guinn Rowe, inherited the name if not the spelling.

23 1870 Census, De Soto, Mississippi, 179. (Hernando PO, family 80.)

24 WPA, 4.

25 De Soto Deed Book Z: 339. The parcel was described as the NE quarter and NW quarter of Section 13, Township 3, Range 7.

26 The 1880 Census recorded them with six children. (Lauderdale Pct, 579, family 298.).

27 De Soto County School List, 1890, 59. (Lauderdale Pct). Lovie 18, Richard 17, Alice 15, Fred 14, Rose 10, Vince 6. School List, 1892, 34. (T3 R7). Lovie 19, Rich 17, Alice 16, Fred 14, Rose 12, Edward 7. Collection of Genealogical Society of De Soto County, Hernando, MS.

28 Funeral card from mortuary. Collection of Neil Allen Bristow.

29 De Soto Chancery Court files. Box 125, Case 2246.

30 Ibid. The commissioner for the sale was the familiar T. R. Maxwell, who filed his report August 6th.

31 What became of Mr Tilghman's claim is not made clear in the loose documents, but I suspect he prevailed. It is interesting to note that he was related by marriage twice to the Thomas children; his first wife was Amanda's elder sister, Susan Jane Laughter (married 7 Dec 1859), and following Susan Jane's death he married her younger sister, Elizabeth Laughter, 1 Dec 1868. Not my idea of a very nice uncle.

32 De Soto Deeds 9: 9.

33 De Soto Times-Promoter, 14 Jan 1899.

34 Times-Promoter, 18 and 21 Mar, 30 Sep 1899.

35 Times-Promoter, 11 and 21 Mar 1899. The date of Ab's death is not known. His and Allie's infant daughter, Bertha Louise, was raised by Ab's cousin Frederick Lee Chamberlin and his wife Fannie Harris. Bertha's later visits to her Rowe cousins in Colorado, accompanied by the elegant 'Miss Fannie', so impressed two young farm girls that they were recalled vividly many decades later.

36 Ike's mother, the Georgia-born Louisiana Sanders (1840- ?), was the young widow of William E. Danner; she married John Smith (himself a widower) in 1865. Her son William S. Danner (Ethel's father) became a successful plantation operator across the river in Arkansas. Dick and Finis were working as foremen on the plantation in 1910, along with their cousin, Stephen Douglass Laughter. Ethel's burial is noted in Cemetery Inscriptions of De Soto County, 10. Dick is buried next to his mother. Ibid., 13.

37 Ike did sell the place 12 Jan 1900 to J M Shipman, et al. for $1,250. De Soto Deeds 10: 469.


For more about the Laughter family, visit Frank Laughter's Laughter Genealogy Center.

Read my notes on Hukey Brown, one of the founders of De Soto County and the grandfather of John's wife, Amanda.

Return to GreenWolf page for more family history notes.

I invite your comments and corrections. Drop me a note.

Copyright © 2000-2002, Neil Allen Bristow. All rights reserved.
This page updated 17 April 2004.