James Thompson Hughes: A life marked by the Civil War
My great-great grandfather James Thompson “Thomps” Hughes was born on May 18, 1831, in Habersham County in northeast Georgia.
His parents, Elisha Hughes and Margaret “Peggy” Willson, had been born and raised in the old Pendleton District in the westernmost part of South Carolina. Elisha and Peggy settled in Habersham County in 1827 and their family lived there until 1839.
By 1839, Elisha had disappeared. No one seems to know for sure what happened to him. Some sources say he may have traveled west and then lost contact with his family in Georgia, while others say he may have died while participating in the forced removal of Native American Indians from Georgia that began in the 1830s. Whatever the explanation for Elisha’s disappearance, in 1839 Peggy moved back into the home of her her father, Charles Willson, in Anderson, S.C. (This Willson line later changed the spelling of their surname to “Wilson.”) She took Thomps, who was then 8 years old, and her other minor children with her. She was pregnant at the time of the move and gave birth to William McMurray Hughes in Anderson soon thereafter.
Peggy died sometime before June 1848, when guardianship of Thomps, his sisters, Hulda, Adline and Clarinda, and William was awarded to Peggy’s brother, William McMurray Willson, in Anderson, S.C. But by the time of the 1850 U.S. Census, Thomps and his siblings had moved to Pickens County, Ala., where they lived in the home of their older sister, Harriet Hughes Hamby, and her husband, John W. Hamby.
Thomps married Emmoline “Epsey” Clanton in 1855, when he was 24 years old, and they had three children together before Thomps joined the Alabama 41st Infantry in 1862. He was placed in Company B along with many of his neighbors from communities along the border between Fayette and Pickens counties. Company B also included Thomps’ younger brother, William, and his brothers-in-law James Harvey Wilson (husband of Adline Hughes) and John Wilson (husband of Hulda Hughes).
His service in the Civil War turned out to be a traumatic experience for Thomps, as it was for many other soldiers on both sides, and one that had a huge impact on the rest of his life.
According to a book about the 41st Alabama Infantry by William R. Morales, Thomps’ brother, William, was reported missing in action on Jan. 2, 1863, during the Battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro, Tenn. Union troops placed William on a steamer headed to Camp Douglas, a prisoner of war camp on Lake Michigan outside Chicago. William never made it there. He was taken to City Hospital in St. Louis on Jan. 24 for treatment of typhoid pneumonia, and died there the next day. William was just 22 years old. He is buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. There is also a memorial for William at Ashcraft Corner Memorial Cemetery in Fayette County, Ala., next to the grave of Thomps.
The Morales book reports that Thomps was absent from his unit and sick on furlough during January-February 1863. In May-June 1863, he was hospitalized at Lauderdale Springs, Miss. Then in November-December 1863 he began a march with the 41st Infantry from Loudon, Tenn. to Knoxville. Union troops found him “incapacitated” near Loudon and then he was hospitalized in Knoxville for 8 days, Dec. 11-19, 1863, with a diagnosis of chronic diarrhea. He never fought again after that.
According to family legend, Thomps’ wife contracted measles while he was fighting in Tennessee. He obtained leave to go home but did not arrive until the day of her funeral, after she had been buried. Thomps began trying to dig up the casket with his hands. After a while other men joined in and helped him complete the task. The casket was opened, and Epsey was found lying on one side. Because of this, Thomps believed that she had been buried alive. (I have no records that confirm this story, but if it happened, January-February 1863, when Thomps was reported to be on furlough, seems to be the most likely timeframe for it.)
After the war, Thomps married Jane Mitchell. Their first child, James Harvey Hughes (my great-grandfather) was born in 1867. Their fourth child, Menze Emmanuel Hughes, was born on Nov. 6, 1872. Ten days later, Thomps was committed to Alabama State Hospital for the Insane (better known as Bryce Hospital) in Tuscaloosa, where he remained until his release one year later. At the time of his commitment Thomps was said to believe that his new baby son was the savior of the world, and for that reason he wanted the baby to be named Emmanuel. He reportedly wanted to cut the child’s head off and draw a circle of blood around the world, to redeem the world, according to a family story shared with me by my cousin, Carol Hughes Olive.
After his release from Bryce Hospital, Thomps resumed a normal life, fathered 5 more children with Jane, and lived for another 46 years.
In 1899, when he was 68 years old, Thomps applied for and was awarded a pension from the state of Alabama for his service as a private in the 41st Alabama Infantry. Several men from his community filed affidavits in support of his application, including a J.H. Wilson (likely James Harvey Wilson, Thomps’ brother-in-law, who also served in the 41st Alabama Infantry) and a W. Holiman (likely Warren Holliman, another member of the 41st Alabama).
However, in May 1914, when Thomps was 83 years old, the State of Alabama Pension Bureau sent him a letter stating, “The records show that J.T. Hughes voluntarily took the oath of allegiance, Dec. 16th, 1863, at Knoxville, Tenn, which list shows that this prisoner was sent to Ky there to be released.” In other words, they were accusing him of desertion. He was stricken from the state’s pension rolls as a result.
Thomps responded with a hand-written letter to the Pension Bureau dated May 20, 1914, in which he said his health had been “totally ruined” by typhoid fever in 1862. His brigade left him in a private house near Charleston, Tenn., Thomps wrote, and he was later captured outside Knoxville. He admitted to taking an oath, but said he was “too feeble to understand its wording.” He said he was never sent to Kentucky, as the charges against him alleged, but instead was released in Knoxville.
That letter failed to reverse the bureau’s decision. However, he filed an appeal in July 1915 that led to his reinstatement on the pension rolls, with back pay of $65.60 for the months he had missed. (I am told that the appeal document may have been written by my grandfather, Arley Hughes Sr., a grandson of Thomps who began law school about a year later.)
The appeal document says, in pertinent part:
“Just prior to my capture I had had typhoid fever, near Chattanooga, Tenn. I was sick at the time of my capture, and was in bad physical health for several years after the close of the war, and before I finally recovered I was sent to the Hospital at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for the Insane, where I remained for about a year.”
“If I took an oath of allegiance, I did not know that I was taking it, as I was very sick physically and to some extent deranged mentally and was not responsible or accountable for what I did. I was not able to fight and did not fight any after I had the spell of typhoid fever above referred to. I was at all times loyal to the Confederacy.”
A document in his pension file stamped with the date of Aug. 22, 1915, confirms the restoration of Thomps’ pension.
He lived for nearly another 4 years, passing away on June 29, 1919. For his last two years he was without the company of his second wife, Jane, who died on Dec. 26, 1917.