Biography of Jesse James Summerlin
Researched and Written by Dick Hamly
Permission to post this article was obtained by email on 3/19/10 from Mr. Hamly.
Jesse James Summerlin was born on February 23, 1832 in the northern part of Duplin County, North Carolina. His parents were James H. Summerlin and Mary “Polly” Ann Taylor. At the time of his birth, the Summerlin family most likely lived in the community of White Flash. Jesse’s father died before 1850, and page 17 of the 1850 Duplin County Census shows Jesse James Summerlin living in north Duplin County with his mother, ten other siblings, and two farm hands as follows:
Mary A. Summerlin 37
Jesse J. 17
John D. 16
Hannah H. 12
Betsy J. 10
Catherine J. 9
Giles E. 11/12
Lewis Brock 21
John L. Brock 24
Page 116 of the 1860 Lenoir County Census shows Jesse James living in Kinston, North Carolina with his young family as follows:
Jesse J. Summerlin 29 Overseer
Susan A. 5
Julia A. 4
Ann A. 1
Jesse’s second cousin, A. Spain Summerlin, was born in 1817 and died at the Alamo with Davy Crockett on March 6, 1836.
Page 167 of the 1850 Duplin County Census shows the family of Catherine Dail as follows:
Dail, Curtis 51
Dail, Penelope 46
Dail, Catherine 17
Stephen B. 12
Curtis A. 9
Allen B. 8
At the time of their marriage on January 3, 1854, Catherine Dail and Jesse James Summerlin lived near and attended the Holly Hill Freewill Baptist Church in Duplin County. Originally a log structure, the Holly Hill FWB Church was located near the Oak Ridge Community Center on Oak Ridge Road (State Road 1527). The church was built on two acres on Green Branch which was deeded to Elder John Barrow from James Sullivan in 1846. The church was formed between 1848 and 1851 and was last active in 1914. The property was sold in 1927, and the church building remained until about 1956. There are several unmarked graves on the site which may contain members of the Dail and Summerlin families. The Jones Memorial Community Church located on Oak Ridge Avenue (State Road 1526), west of a lake, was to some extent a replacement for the Holly Hill FWB Church. Pension records in 1869 also list the residence of Jesse’s sister, Betsy Jane Summerlin, as near the Holly Hill FWB Church.
Pension records also show that Jesse James Summerlin and Catherine Dail moved to Kinston in the years (1860 or 1861) just prior to the Civil War. In 1860, according to pension records, one of their neighbors was Isaiah Wood and both Mrs. George Fintress and Susan Bond lived near them.
Jesse’s Confederate service record contains only muster cards covering the period from July 7, 1862, when he enlisted at Trenton in Jones County, through November 1863. It says nothing about the situation surrounding the end of his military service or any disciplinary actions. It does say that he served in Companies A and C of the 8th Battalion of the North Carolina Partisan Rangers, that he chose to use his own gun instead of taking an Army issued rifle, and that he was paid $50 bounty for his enlistment.
Pension records indicate that on July 7, 1862 Jesse James Summerlin enlisted in Captain John Nethercutt’s Battalion of North Carolina Scouts. There was some testimony indicating that he was pressured to enlist by threat of bodily harm and that if he did not volunteer he would be conscripted. Nethercutt’s Battalion was a State organization which was raised in March 1862 after the capture of New Bern by Union troops. Nethercutt’s Battalion was not a unit of the Confederate Army but a home guard raised for the protection of Eastern North Carolina with the understanding that it would not be sent out of the state. The battalion served in and around the town of Kinston until it was consolidated with other state troops into the 66th North Carolina Regiment. The 66th North Carolina Regiment was a unit of the Confederate Army and was commanded by Major General Pickett. Major Nethercutt was Jesse’s Battalion Commander throughout his time in both the North Carolina Partisan Rangers and the 66th North Carolina Regiment. Major General Pickett was the Commanding General for Eastern North Carolina, and Brigadier General Hoke was the Brigade Commander in charge at Kinston. This consolidation caused great dissatisfaction among the troops in Nethercutt’s Battalion and was considered by them to be a breach of their enlistment contract. When they were ordered to Virginia, many of the men left, including Jesse James Summerlin. On November 24, 1863, Jesse enlisted at New Bern in the 2nd Regiment of the North Carolina Loyal Volunteers which, although it was manned by Southerners from North Carolina, was part of the Union Army. Jesse served in Company F of the 2nd Regiment.
During the skirmishing east of Kinston on January 30, 1864 in the Battle of Bachelor’s Creek and as the Confederate Army (66th North Carolina) attempted to recapture New Bern, many of the men from the 2nd Regiment of the North Carolina Loyal Volunteers were captured. Most of these men were captured by the 19th Georgia Infantry which was commanded by Colonel Mercer. Jesse James Summerlin’s original commanding officer, now Major Nethercutt, was still in the 66th North Carolina Regiment. Bachelor’s Creek passes through Tuscarora. The capture location is also identified in the testimony and in other references as Beech Grove. Jesse and at least one other man were captured further west in Gum Swamp near Cobb’s Mill on February 2, 1864. Cobb’s Mill later became Kelly’s Mill and is now called Lakeside Mill. The mill location is a few miles east of Kinston on N.C. Highway 70, and Gum Swamp is about 6 miles east of Kinston. Gum Swamp is also within a mile of Dover Station where Catherine was living in 1867. There was obviously some connection to Dover Station which brought both Jesse and Catherine there on separate occasions from 1864 through 1867. The prisoners were kept first in the Court House and then in the dungeon of the old jail at Kinston.
Fourty-five of these men were court martialed shortly after their capture. The court martial was convened by Captain Richardson, acting as Judge Advocate, of the 8th Georgia Cavalry. Twenty-two of the men who were caught without arms were sentenced to be shot as deserters, and twenty-two of the twenty-three men who were caught bearing arms were sentenced to be hung as deserters. One was acquitted. The hangings took place at Kinston in public and in front of their families in February and March of 1864. Ten of these men were from Nethercutt’s Battalion. The execution squad was under the command of Colonel Mercer of Georgia. Captain Sutherland was in charge of the prison at Kinston and officiated at the hanging for General Hoke and Colonel Mercer. The hangman was Blunt King. The rope for the gallows was obtained from the Confederate river ironclad the Neuse, which was moored near Kinston. The gallows were most likely located behind the old jail which was located between Queen Street and McIlwean and between Caswell and King near the center of this block, behind and to the left of the courthouse. Nethercutt pointed out during the investigation held in New Bern after the war that while these men were loyal to their local area and willing to volunteer for service in Eastern North Carolina, their hearts were not in the war as a whole. Because this part of North Carolina had many small farms which did not have slaves, there was a significant percentage of the local population who did not feel the necessity to have a rebellion and who were loyal to the Union.
Jesse’s service record with the Union indicates that he enlisted for a three year hitch at New Bern, North Carolina on November 24, 1863. It states his age as 33. It shows that he was promoted to Sergeant on January 24, 1864 and that he was missing in action on February 2, 1864 at Beech Grove. There is a prisoner-of-war record sheet inserted into his service record stating he was captured on February 2, 1864 and was sentenced to be hanged. This POW record was No. 924, Page 392, Vol. 2. At the end of his service record, a memo dated May 5, 1868 from the Adjutant General’s Office states he was murdered by order of rebel Generals Pickett and Hoke at Kinston in the spring of 1864.
A court martial board free of bias toward the enemy in time of war is probably not a realistic thing to expect, especially for soldiers changing sides, and there was some evidence published after the war that the court martial was biased. One of the accused, Clinton Cox, was apparently favored because he was allowed to have a witness, Captain G. W. Cox, from a local North Carolina company, who testified that Clinton had enlisted only in a home guard and not in the Confederate Army. Therefore, Cox was not deemed a deserter by the court martial board and escaped hanging. Jesse and the others were, of course, in the same category as Cox (the only difference being that their home guard was later converted involuntarily to a unit of the Confederate Army), but they were not permitted to have any council or witnesses. Unable to read or write, without an advocate to articulate their case, and without any witnesses they were easy prey and were the perfect group for Pickett to use as an example to stem the flow of deserters. There was also a report later that indicated the board had been stacked by Pickett (who was a Virginian) with slave holding Virginia planters from Pickett’s old division. In addition to providing a board sensitive to Pickett’s desires and fiercely loyal to Pickett, this would have built in another bias against the accused who were all small farmers without slaves and who did not support slavery as an economic necessity. The capture men, except for Clinton Cox, were all quickly determined to be deserters of the Confederate Army by the court martial board and were sentenced to be hung or shot.
Nethercutt attained the rank of Colonel before the end of the war. With a large number of the local residents having been executed in a series of mass public hangings staged to teach the town a lesson, the sentiment of the local people was apparently not entirely with the Confederate officers. In fact, after his military unit was disbanded and he had returned to private life in Kinston, Nethercutt was assassinated by the local people.
Jesse James Summerlin was buried in the Hughes Graveyard, which is located in the woods on the south side of State Road (SR) 1522 (Washboard Avenue) in the community of White Flash about 2/3 mile East of the junction of SR 1522 with SR 1502 (Bennetts Bridge Road). His grave stone is engraved with a shield indicating his Union service as a sergeant in Company F of the 2nd Regiment of the North Carolina Loyal Volunteers. Joseph Brock is buried next to him with the same type of headstone and engraving. White Flash is located about three miles north of Red Hill on SR 1502 and about two and one half miles west of Herring’s Crossroad on SR 1522. Testimony in 1869 lists the residence of Jesse’s mother, Mary Ann Taylor Hughes, as Duplin County. Jesse’s step father was William Hughes. Their residence was likely in this community. The White Flash Community is also located between Reedy Branch and Miry Branch, tributaries of the Northeast Cape Fear River. Deeds from the first half of the 1800s for Catherine’s father, Curtis Dail, and grandfather, Thomas Dail, mention these landmarks. Other families with deeds mentioning these landmarks include the Summerlins and Kornegays. Apparently, these families had lived in this area for a long time.
Jesse’s younger brother, John Daniel Summerlin, is buried at Summerlins Crossroad. It has been said that there are graves of earlier Dail ancestors in the graveyard of the “Church on the Hill” in Seven Springs.
After Jesse’s death and after the War, Catherine Dail’s family began breaking up. On about October 31, 1865, records state that Catherine moved about 20 miles from Kinston into Craven County. This residence was likely the one in Tuscarora which is about 20 miles east of Kinston. Catherine was remarried to Ruel Wetherington on May 27, 1866, and they lived near New Bern in Craven County. This was probably the residence. In 1867, Catherine listed her address as Dover Station in Craven County (which is seven miles east of Kinston on Sunset Blvd.). The 1870 Census indicates that Julia Ann Summerlin had gone to live near Faison’s Depot in Duplin County with Nancy Brock. Nancy was Jesse’s sister and she had married Lewis Brock. Catherine appointed a guardian in April 1872 for the remainder of her children who lived in Lenoir County.
In January 1875, testimony indicates that Jesse’s Mother (age 62) and one of his sisters (age 35) lived near Northeast Bridge. This could have been the old bridge that crossed the Northeast Cape Fear River about 10 miles northeast of Kenansville. It was located about 2,000 feet southeast of the junction of NC Hwy 11 and SR 1501 (Westbrook) (also Hwy 903), near the mouth of Burn Coat Branch. The bridge was about a mile southwest of the town of Kornegay and was also called Kornegay’s Bridge. However, because many bridges crossing the Northeast Cape Fear River were called “Northeast Bridge,” this bridge mentioned in the pension testimony could have been what is now “Outlaw’s Bridge,” which is much closer to White Flash.
Jesse’s father died when he was young, and Jesse was raised partially by Polly (Kornegay) Herring’s mother. Jesse and Catherine were married by Polly Herring’s brother, Rev. Henry Robert Kornegay (called Bob) from Duplin County. Prior to moving to Kinston, Jesse and Catherine had lived in the same neighborhood near Cielia Morse and Sarah Grady for 30 years. The location where the family lived for these 30 years was likely the one that was described as “near Holly Hill FWB Church.” The records of Holly Hill FWB Church list Robert Kornegay, Penny Dail (Catherine’s’ stepmother), Polly Taylor (Jesse’s mother), and John Daniel Summerlin (Jesse’s Brother) as active in the church.
Having been left destitute by the hanging of her husband and by the confiscation of her property, food, and horse by Colonel Baker in February of 1864 and with four children and pregnant with the fifth (Jesse James Summerlin Jr.), Catherine Summerlin was already having a very difficult time when her father, Curtis Dail, died in July of 1865. Julia Summerlin, at the time of the hanging of her father, was two months short of being eight years old.
In 1879, the guardian, Mr. S. B. West and Jesse James Summerlin Jr. still lived in Kinston. Because of the stigma attached to his name in that local area, Jesse James Summerlin Jr. finally moved to Florida right after the turn of the century, probably south of the town of Lee in Madison County where his older sister Julia lived.
Catherine Summerlin filed for a widow’s pension on July 23, 1867. The application process had just started when, on December 18, 1868, Julia’s sister Ann Eliza Summerlin died. On April 13, 1872 and on Catherine’s recommendation, Mr. S. B. West was designated guardian for the remaining children and reapplied for a pension for the children under application No. 205789. The name of Mr. West appears often in the records, and he must have been a lot of help to Catherine. He was also able to read and write, whereas, it appears that neither Jesse nor Catherine could. It appears from his handwriting in later documents that he must have been an older man. In July of 1873, Catherine applied to have guardianship assigned back to her because she had moved to Craven County in February of 1873, and she was recertified as guardian on July 25, 1873. On this date, her age was listed as 36. She also applied for a pension for her minor children on August 26, 1873 (application No. 150697). The application process included testimony by friends and relatives including Catherine’s stepmother, Penny Dail; Jesse’s sister, Betsy Jane Summerlin; and Jesse’s mother, Mary Ann Taylor Summerlin Hughes verifying that Catherine and Jesse were married. Testimony was also heard from midwives verifying that the minor children were the natural children of the couple.
On October 10, 1873, Catherine Summerlin died at the age of 36 or 37. Although there is no known grave marked with her name, she may be buried in one of the unmarked graves with the Wetherington Family in Cove City or in the Hughes Graveyard with Jesse. Cove City is 13 miles east of Kinston on Sunset Blvd. The Cove City Free Will Baptist Church cemetery on White Street contains the graves of Ruel Wetherington, his son (A. W.) by Catherine, two other wives, and some unmarked graves. At the time of her mother’s death, Julia Summerlin was about 17 years old.
The pension application process continued slowly with more hearings and certifications. For the earlier part of the process, Catherine’s attorney was Mr. Carpenter and for the latter part, Mr. Niles. Most of the investigation was conducted by Special Agent Jenks who described the family as poor, but respectable. At the conclusion of his investigation in January of 1875, he recommended that the claim be admitted. Then, on March 31, 1875, the pension application was rejected during review by higher authority in Raleigh because it was concluded that Jesse had engaged voluntarily in rebellion against the United States. The correspondence continued through 1879. On April 23, 1878, Mr. Jenks became involved again and maintained, as he had before, that the claim was just and should be admitted.
Finally, more than 15 years after the death of her father and 12 years after the application was filed, the pension was approved on October 15, 1879, (certificate No. 185817) at which time, Julia was already 23 years old, married to Thomas Parson Cates, and had two children. They lived in Pender County a few miles west of the town of Willard on Sills Creek and the Mill Pond between State Roads 101 and 1306 (the mill pond is now drained and over grown because the dam is broken). The was pension paid retroactively $8 per month from July 1866 to the age of sixteen. For Julia, the total amount paid in late 1879 would have been about $552 or the equivalent of about $8400 in 1992 dollars.
Federal concern over atrocities even before the hangings resulted in an order from President Lincoln in July of 1863 stating that for every Union soldier killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier would be executed. After learning of the Confederate attempt to take New Bern and the capture of the Union soldiers who had previously been in the N.C. Partisan Rangers, an exchange of letters between Union Major General Peck and Confederate Major General Pickett commenced on the subject of atrocities. On February 11, 1864, General Peck sent a letter to General Pickett expressing concerns about Confederate atrocities of this type and enclosed the Presidential Order as a threat of retaliation. General Pickett answered this letter on February 16 stating that he would hang ten Union men for every Confederate man executed and that he had captured enough Union troops to do it. General Peck wrote to General Pickett again on February 13 pointing out that the captured soldiers were Union and should be treated as prisoners of war rather than deserters of the Confederate Army. On February 17, General Pickett answered General Peck’s letter of February 13, stating that he had hung some deserters and that the letter from General Peck would assure that no mercy would be shown to the remainder. General Pickett enclosed in his letter to General Peck a list of victims which included Jesse Summerlin.
This exchange of letters between Peck and Pickett on this subject continued for another month. The hangings were obviously well known to the highest levels of the U. S. Government. After the Civil War, the Secretary of War ordered Major General Thomas H. Ruger, Commander of the Department of North Carolina in Raleigh, to conduct the investigation and Lieutenant Colonel John A. Campbell, Assistant Adjutant General for the Department of North Carolina in Wilmington, appointed the board of inquiry. The board met in New Bern on October 19, 1865. The first witness was Catherine Summerlin. The investigation was conducted at New Bern and continued into May of 1866. Because the courthouse was burned in 1861 and not rebuilt until 1874, court business such as these hearings was conducted in temporary court spaces around town. The hearings may have been held in the Hughes-Jones House which served as the Provost Marshall’s headquarters or in the Charles Slover House which was the headquarters of Union Commanding General or at the jail.
During the investigation, many witnesses, ex-Confederate military officers, and other participants distanced themselves from the event and gave very vague testimony. Although hard evidence, such as the order book showing by whom the execution order was actually signed, evidence showing by whom the victims were tried and convicted, and hard evidence showing the extent to which the victims volunteered or were conscripted was never found, there was quite enough information to figure out what happened and to implicate the offenders of various acts of cruelty and complicity with General Pickett in the hangings. The hangings were then considered by the U. S. War Department to be a war crime because desertion applied only to volunteers and it was concluded by that investigation that Jesse was more of a conscript than a volunteer. Not only was there apparent pressure on him to join in the beginning of the war, but there was also testimony indicating that when the local guard was consolidated into the 66th North Carolina Brigade, Jesse had the choice of joining the 66th or being mustered out and immediately conscripted into the 66th. It was also considered by the U. S. War Department that because the men belonged to the local North Carolina Service, the Confederate States Court Martial had no jurisdiction over them. It was the conclusion of the board that crimes committed by Generals Pickett and Hoke, Colonel Baker ( who robbed the widows), and Blunt King (the voluntary hangman) were too heinous to be excused by the U. S. Government, and a recommendation was made by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt to the Secretary of War to bring these men to trial immediately.
To encourage an end to the war, Amnesty Proclamations were issued by both presidents Lincoln and Johnson. Amnesty was granted but with a number of groups being excluded, including officials of the Confederate Government, Confederate Army Officers above the rank of colonel, Confederate Officers who had graduated from the Academies, Confederate Officers who had resigned their U. S. commissions to become Confederate Officers, etc. In the case of those excluded from amnesty, President Johnson “intended they should sue for pardon, and so realize the enormity of their crime.” Although amnesty apparently applied to the other officers involved in the hanging as indicated by the fact that there were no letters on file from them requesting pardon, Generals Hoke and Pickett were clearly excluded on several counts.
On June 8, 1866, General Hoke wrote President Andrew Johnson asking for amnesty and pardon and signed a new oath of allegiance to the U. S. on June 10. General U. S. Grant reviewed the request and wrote his endorsement on the fly leaf of Hoke’s letter on June 13, 1866 “heartily” recommending approval. Notes on the outside of the letter indicated that President Johnson directed Hoke’s pardon on June 13, 1867 and Hoke was pardoned on June 14.
General Pickett was excluded from amnesty on at least three counts: (1) He was a Confederate Major General, (2) He attended West Point, and (3) He resigned his commission to become an officer in the Confederate Army. On June 8, 1865, General Pickett applied to President Andrew Johnson for a pardon. Secretary of War Stanton and Judge Advocate General Holt both opposed the pardon and wanted to bring General Pickett to trial for the hangings. When Pickett saw that his application for pardon was stalled and that he was headed for trial, he wrote on March 12, 1866, to Ulysses S. Grant who knew him personally. In his letter, he stated his case and asked for help in obtaining the pardon and help in avoiding the “reopening the troubles of the past.” Grant turned the letter over and on the backside, he wrote an endorsement dated March 16, 1866. While the endorsement did not condone the hangings, Grant stated that he knew Pickett to be an honorable man and he made the argument that it would do no good either for the families of the deceased or to set an example to put Pickett through a trial. He also warned that such a trial would just reopen the issue of whether or not the Federal Government disregarded the contract entered into in order to secure the surrender of the Confederate Armed Forces. In other words, Grant gave an implied warning to the President that it would be argued that punishing Pickett would be a violation of the terms of the Confederate surrender to the Union just as Pickett’s punishment of Jesse and his friends was a violation of the terms of Jesse’s surrender to Pickett. As a result, the whole package sat in President Andrew Johnson’s office with no action.
The President was besieged with thousands of pardon applications and by the fall of 1867, he had granted about 13,500 pardons. Two more proclamations were issued over the next year reducing the exclusions, and on Christmas Day 1868, Johnson’s final amnesty proclamation was extended “unconditionally and without reservation” to all who had participated in the rebellion. These proclamations prevented any further action toward a war crimes trial. It is clear that the Administration wanted to simply get the war behind them and did not have any interest in prolonging the pain with a series of war crimes trials. There was the tacit recognition that anyone walking away from their military unit in time of war should expect some harsh treatment if recaptured, mitigating circumstances notwithstanding, especially when the Commanding General was desperate to establish some discipline and stem the flow of soldiers leaving his army. On the other hand, after the proclamations and pardons, there were feelings of outrage at the atrocity and at its casual dismissal by the Administration. There was a feeling that after placing themselves in danger of retribution in order to preserve the Union, these relatively poor but respectable citizens had placed their trust in the Federal Government to protect them and to punish retribution against them. There was a feeling that this obligation had been abandoned by the Administration and there was concern that with these people forsaken, others in similar situations in the future might lose their confidence in the Government of the United States. This feeling was directed at General Grant, at the Secretary of War Stanton and at President Andrew Johnson for allowing Pickett and the others to go unpunished in the surrender. There was a feeling that Grant’s terms at Appomatox were unnecessarily lenient and his reputation of “Unconditional Surrender Grant” was certainly less than accurate.
Civil War pension records, National Archives.
Union Civil War service records, National Archives.
Confederate Civil War service records, National Archives.
U. S. Census records, National Archives.
House Executive Document No. 98 Ser 1263, First session of the 39th Congress, Library of Congress.
National Archives Microfilm collection, M1003, Pardons, Petitions and Related Papers Submitted in response to President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865.
An Account of the Assassination of Loyal citizens of N. C. for Having Served in the Union Army by R. C. Hawkins, N. Y., 1897.
The Civil War in North Carolina by John Barrett.
Lenoir County During the Civil War by Cliff Tyndall.
The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.
Civil War Times Illustrated Vol XIX, No. 5.
North Carolina Civil War Documentary by Yearns and Barrett.
Carolina and the Southern Cross, Vol 2, No 1, April, 1914.
The Families Somerville, Somervaill, Summerall, Summerell, Summerill, Summerlin, Sumlin, Sumrall, and Sumril by James H. Hines 1981.
Records of the Holly Hill Freewill Baptist Church, Mt. Olive College Library.