A few weeks ago, I ran across a reference to Joel Craig and Sharlene Baker’s As You May Never See Us Again: The Civil War Letters of George and Walter Battle, 4th North Carolina Infantry (2004). George and Walter were sons of Amos Johnston Battle, a prominent (and peripatetic) Baptist minister who spent his last years in Wilson County. I wondered if the brothers mentioned any of the family’s slaves in their letters, so when I was at home I stopped by the Wilson County Public Library to skim their copy.
I found only a single reference to a Church, presumably enslaved, who was charged with delivering certain items to the letter writer. A footnote appended to the passage states: “The boy ‘Church’ has been referred to by some as one of the Battle’s [sic] slaves. Whether this is referring to the Raleigh Battle’s or the Wilson Battle’s is unclear. However, if the Rev. Battle did own slaves in the midst of the war it might mean that he was not the abolitionist as previously thought.”
Two things struck me: (1) given Hugh B. Johnston’s confident identification of Amos Battle as the owner of my ancestor Cherry, was his possession of slaves a question? (2) “abolitionist” is a mighty strong word to describe anybody coming out of Wilson County.
First, I did what I’ve apparently never bothered to do — check the 1850 and 1860 federal slave schedules for Amos J. Battle. He appears in neither, but his wife Margaret H. Battle is listed with 32 slaves in 1860. (Hugh Johnston noted that Amos Battle’s “wife owned a small farm north of Wilson not far from the Barnes plantation.”) She is not listed in the 1850 slave schedule, and the sudden acquisition of that many slaves suggested inheritance. After figuring out her maiden name (Margaret Hearne Parker) and father’s name (Weeks Parker) I went looking for estate records.
Sure enough, Weeks Parker died in January 1844 in Edgecombe County, leaving a widow and three children. (One predeceased him.) The 88 pages of his estate file span more than a decade, and Emancipation eventually intervened to prevent a final distribution. There was this, though, a listing of those slaves apportioned to daughter Margaret H. Battle and her children, apparently dating from the late 1850s:
Old Ben, Old Seny, Big Hardy, Lucinda, Stephen, Turner, Hilliard, Mary, Adeline, William, Lena, Alice, William “usually called Reuben,” Little Ben, Harriet, Marina, Sally, Smith, Maria, Little Hardy, Betty, Jim, Moses, Syphax, Toney, Louis, Allen, George, Matilda, Lizzie. I was disappointed not to find a Cherry listed among them, but intrigued nonetheless. Would Weeks Parker’s will shed more light?
Yes. And no.
Weeks Parker executed his will on 31 July 1843. The document mentions his wife Sabra [Irwin Hearn]; son Simmons B. Parker; deceased son Dr. John H. Parker, who had migrated to Florida; and daughters Henrietta, wife of Benjamin Battle, and Margaret, wife of Amos J. Battle. [Benjamin Dossey Battle was Amos' brother.]
Weeks designated son Simmons as his executor and trustee. He bequeathed certain slaves — Polly, Godwin, Old Ned, Winny, Hardy, Charlotte and her child Cintha, and Nelly — to pass to Simmons after wife Sabra’s death, and mentioned that he had already given Simmons 14 slaves in a deed of gift. He also directed Simmons to sell the land and slaves in Florida inherited from son John’s estate. (And tweaked this last provision in a codicil.)
Weeks’ bequests to his daughters are curious though. After Sabra’s death, Simmons was to hold in trust slaves Lucindy, Stephen, Turner, Lewis, George, Marina, Tony, Matilda, Caroline, William, Holly, Big Hardy, Ben, Cena, Moses, Syphax, Little Hardy, Jim, Lucy and Little Jim “for the sole and separate use and benefit of daughter Margaret H. Battle wife of Amos J. Battle during her natural life free from the management and control of her present or any future husband.” Similarly, he directed that Simmons hold in trust after Sabra’s death slaves Barbara, Sarah, Luke, Ned, Sophia, Elick, Harrison, Milly, Jeffrey, Dorcas, Silas, Bill, Lou, Julia, Randal, Will and Abner for the benefit of daughter Henrietta Battle. Why the specific attempt to keep Amos Battle’s hands off his wife’s property? Was he in fact an abolitionist likely to try to free them? Or were Weeks’ concerns more prosaic?
Simmons and his mother went into court to have Weeks’ will admitted to probate, and the skirmishes began. The two sets of Battles teamed up to claim that they had not been notified prior to probate and that the will’s codicil had been made under undue influence. Simmons and the other trustees admitted that Battles may not have been given formal notice, but claimed that they knew anyway. They also charged Amos Battle with having taken a slave named Jim to Wilmington. The Battles fired a second volley with a claim that Simmons was in “extreme bad health” and “great physical inability” and “utterly incapable of carrying out his duties” as a trustee. Simmons responded meekly, acknowledging that he had been shot in the chest many years before and had never recovered, a circumstance that sometimes completely debilitated him. He agreed to surrender his trusteeship. Nathan Matthewson, too, stepped down, and was replaced by Benjamin Oliver of Duplin County. In one of Oliver’s reports, he advised the court that he had sold for $600 a slave named Jim “in consequence of grossly bad behavior and general bad deportment.” The buyer was Wyatt Moye. With the funds received, Oliver then spent $500 to purchase Lilah from a Dr. Arrington. (She later gave birth to a son Charles.) In 1849, Oliver moved to Bladen County and resigned his trusteeship; Uriah Vaughan of Hertford County — where Margaret then lived — was appointed in his stead. In the mid-1850s, Margaret, Amos and their children moved to the town of Wilson, where Sabra Parker bought them a house and lot. In another plaintive petition for yet another trustee, submitted in September 1856, Margaret complained that she had no other property and that the family was “dependent on their own exertions for a support” as their trust fund was inadequate. The younger children were chiefly supported by Margaret’s “exertions” [she was an innkeeper], while the creditors of her husband Amos, “who is greatly embarrassed,” tried to take her earnings at every opportunity.
Another source shines light on the Battle family’s financial situation. In 1911, Amos and Margaret’s youngest son, Jesse Mercer Battle, published memoirs titled Tributes to my Father and Mother and Some Stories of My Life. In the chapter on his mother, he recalled that his “mother’s family lived in Wilson, N.C. We lived in a large house, and it was called ‘The Battle House.’” There, to her humiliation, his mother took in boarders and other passers-through to earn money for the family’s keep. His father, though “rich in lands and negroes,” gave away his wealth to the point that his younger sons’ educations were neglected. The chapter on Amos J. Battle goes further. Amid fifty hagiographic pages limning his father’s Christlike-ness, Jesse reveals that “his money, his lands, his negoes, his stocks, his bonds, his personal property of every description went as his free will offering to the Church as a whole, and to anyone of its members individually, or to those who were not members.” (This was not offered ironically, and there is no attempt to square Battle’s slaveholding with his Christian values.)
Ah. So. And therein lies the motive for Weeks Parker’s determined attempt to keep his wealth out of pious Amos Battle’s hands.
Jesse Battle’s memoir also provides a peek at the family’s slaves and demonstrates that the thirty or so inherited from Weeks did not define the extent of Margaret’s holdings. “Negroes were my companions,” he wrote. “I played with them, and spent my time with them all day, till I was about seven years old, when I was started to school. I knew my alphabet and how to read a little. This start on my way to an education was given to me by a good old colored woman I called Mammy. (Her name was Dinah.) … This good woman remained with our family till 1865, when the Civil War ended, when she left us and moved down to Greenville, N.C., where her husband, whose name was ‘Shade,’ lived. After the emancipation of the slaves she said that she could never enjoy her ‘freedom’ as long as she lived with her master and mistress.” [Three cheers for Dinah!] Jesse elsewhere mentioned that Dinah had lived with the family at a farm called Walnut Hill, “about three miles from Wilson N.C., on the railroad toward Rocky Mount.”
In the end, I still don’t know if Hugh B. Johnston was correct about Cherry Battle Barnes’ ownership, but I have confirmed that Amos J. and Margaret Hearne Battle owned slaves and that some of those slaves worked on a farm just north of Wilson, not far from where Cherry lived at the time of the first post-Emancipation census.
Will Book F, Edgecombe County, North Carolina Probate Records, 1735-1970, familysearch.org; Estate of Weeks Parker (1844), Edgecombe County, North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979, familysearch.org; other sources as named.