Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Tattered Old Hill Country Civil War Service Discharge Paper Reflects a Family Story

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William Franks always kept his Civil War service discharge paper, neatly folded and secured in his old wooden camel-back trunk until the old soldier died in Itawamba County on a cold December day, two days after Christmas during 1911. Today that fragile piece of paper illustrates the story of the trials and tribulations of a young native son and family of the hill country of Alabama and Mississippi during the dark days of war.

William Franks was the son of Lemuel Franks (born 1795 in North Carolina, died during 1858 near Pikeville, Marion County, Alabama) and Huldah Jane Gann (born 1810 in Tennessee, the daughter of Samuel Gann and Sarah White).

During the Civil War, while living near old Pikeville in Marion County, twenty-year-old William Franks enlisted, like several of his neighbors, with Company A of the First Alabama Cavalry of the United States Army on December 15, 1862 at Glendale, Mississippi, along with his brothers, James, Peter and Jeremiah. His tenure of service was for one year.

He was mustered into service on December 31, 1862 at Corinth, Mississippi. He was listed as present on all muster rolls during his tenure. During November of 1863 he was listed as in detached service at the refugee camp at Corinth and was entered on the mustered-out roll dated December 22, 1863 at Memphis, Tennessee.

His military medical records show that he was treated from February 27 to March 31, 1863 for rubeola (measles) and from April 8 to April 17, 1863 for pneumonia at the General Hospital in Corinth. Earlier on February 5, 1863, William's older brother James, died in the army hospital at Corinth and just two weeks later, his brother-in-law, Enoch Cooksey died in the same hospital. Both had died from an outbreak of measles among the troops.

For the first few months of service, the First Alabama Cavalry was headquartered at Glendale, Mississippi. They were largely engaged in successful scouting and foraging expeditions in northern Mississippi and Alabama owing to their acquaintance with the area.

In early May of 1863, Brigadier General Grenville M. Dodge in a report to Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut praised the First Alabama Cavalry for bravely charging Colonel Phillip D. Roddy's Confederates at Bear Creek with unloaded muskets. Colonel Florence M. Cornyn, who had been closer to the men than his Brigadier General, was less complimentary in his report: "I ordered a charge by the First Alabama Cavalry, which I am sorry to say, was not obeyed with the alacrity it should have been. After charging to within short musket-range of the enemy, they halted for a cause I cannot account for, and the enemy escaped into the woods..."*

What Cornyn probably didn’t understand was the possibility of when these young men came into musket-range of the Confederate forces they could see the enemy face to face. Is it possible that it came home to them that they weren't fighting some unknown enemy but possibly friends, neighbors, fellow citizens and in many cases members of their own families?

During the remainder of 1863 the main body of the First Alabama Cavalry remained in the Memphis, Tennessee area recuperating. From time to time, a regiment, a picked patrol or a company of this unit was sent out on reconnaissance expeditions, sometimes skirmishing with Confederate cavalry patrols.

After leaving the United States service in late 1863, William Franks walked back to Marion County, Alabama, where his wife Margaret Caroline McGowan and young son, James W., were living. His brother-in-law, sister and nephew had all died during the war (Enoch Cooksey, Sarah Franks Cooksey and James W. Cooksey) leaving two young orphan girls. The two orphan nieces, Sarah and Cynthia Cooksey moved in with William’s family.

Times were grueling in the war-ravaged hill country of northwestern Alabama and northeastern Mississippi during this time. William once said people were literally starving during those desperate times. It was also dangerous times for Unionists in the area. Several Unionists had been hanged and shot and more than thirty homes burned.**

William gathered his young family, along with his two Cooksey nieces, and made the long trek through the woods and roads without shelter or food to Union controlled Corinth where more than 100 Unionist families from the hills had gathered and then on to Memphis, Tennessee where the family boarded a Mississippi river boat with the other families headed for Cairo, Illinois. The story has been handed down for generations that aboard the river boat, the young orphan Sarah Cooksey became ill with smallpox and died. During the middle of the night the “dead boat” came with the authorities and took her body away. Cynthia Cooksey, her sister, always hoped that they properly buried her but rumor was they cremated her body with many others to keep the epidemic from spreading.

William Franks and his family lived in or near Cairo, Illinois for four years and about 1868 moved back to Marion County, Alabama where they lived for about two years. The family then moved to McNairy County, Tennessee where William’s other brothers' families had relocated. The Franks brothers were quite familiar with the McNairy County area being that they were stationed in nearby Corinth, Mississippi during the recent war. The Franks families continued to live in McNairy County, Tennessee until about 1879, when the brothers moved their families to Itawamba County where their Franks cousins has lived since 1836.

The Civil War saga of William Franks and his young family of yeoman farmers is but one solitary story of the hardships faced by thousands of others – both Confederate and Union, during the dark days of the war in the beautiful hills and hollows of the Mississippi and Alabama hill country, and that tattered fragile military discharge paper has survived as a small piece of William’s story for 145 years.

*The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 - Volume 23 (Part I), page 253

**Moore, Frank, The Rebellion Record: A Diary of Ameican Events, with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, Etc., Volume 6, G.P. Putnam, New York, 1863, page 400

For further information about the First Alabama Cavalry, visit the First Alabama Cavalry United States Volunteers website.

The above is an abridged version of an article appearing in the Spring 2008 issue of Itawamba Settlers magazine.

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