He Died For His Country: Lieutenant Colonel James L. Autry, 27th Mississippi Infantry


I found the following letter recently, and this is the perfect time to post it, as today’s date, the final day of 2014, is the 152nd anniversary of the death of the man who wrote it. The letter is as follows:

Vicksburg, Miss., May 6, 1862

Gov. Pettus,

We need the following articles immediately – 400 sabos & the straps for 10 inch shells – 60 hand spikes – 15 thirty-two pounder sponges – 15 thirty-two pounder rammers. 500 plugs & fuses for shells – 1,000 32 pound cartridge bags – 30 priming wires – Telegraph for them to be sent tonight – the enemies boats passed Fort Adams this morning at 9 0’clock – May be here by noon to-morrow.

Your svt.,

James L. Autry

Be sure to send a dispatch to send them out to-night by an extra train – no train was here to-night, therefor no danger of a collision. 

– John J. Pettus Correspondence, Mississippi Department of Archives & History

The letter above was written by Lieutenant Colonel James L. Autry, and if his message had a sense of urgency about it,

Wartime photo of James L. Autry
Wartime photo of James L. Autry – Fondren Library, Rice University

there was a very good reason. Autry was military governor of the post of Vicksburg, and at the time he wrote Governor Pettus, Union naval forces were closing on the city from above and below.

On May 18, 1862, the lead elements of the Union flotilla reached Vicksburg, and Commander S. Phillips Lee of the United States navy sent a message demanding the immediate surrender of the city. Lee received three replies to his ultimatum: one from Laz Lindsay, Vicksburg’s mayor; one from General Martin L. Smith, commanding the Confederate forces defending the city; and the last from Autry, acting in his capacity as post commander. While all three documents rejected the call for surrender, I think that Autry’s was the most eloquent:

I have to state that Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier General Butler can teach them, then let them come and try.

Autry’s defiant tone struck just the right cord among the Confederate populace, and his words were reprinted in newspapers throughout the South. The lieutenant colonel well understood the importance of taking a stand against a powerful foe; his own father, Micajah Autry, was one of the defenders of the Alamo, and died when the mission fell to Mexican forces.

James Lockhart Autry was born on January 8, 1830, in the town of Hayesborough, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville.

Micajah Autry at the Battle of the Alamo - Fondren Library, Rice University
Micajah Autry at the Battle of the Alamo – Fondren Library, Rice University

As he came into the world, cannon were booming as a spirited celebration of the anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans in 1815 was taking place. After the death of his father at the Alamo, his mother, Martha Wyche Autry, moved her family to Holly Springs, Mississippi. As the young man became an adult, Autry decided on a career in the law, and after passing the bar he opened a practice along with two fellow Mississippians that made names for themselves during the Civil War: L.Q.C. Lamar and Christopher H. Mott. From practicing law, it was an easy transition for Autry to go into politics; he served as a representative for Marshall County in the Mississippi legislature from 1854 – 1859, and during the last two years of his term he was Speaker of the House of Representatives.

When the Civil War came, James Autry wasted no time in volunteering; he was mustered in as 3rd lieutenant of Company B, 9th Mississippi Infantry, on February 16, 1861, at Holly Springs. The young man advanced quickly in rank, being elected lieutenant colonel of the 9th on April 12, 1861. After serving for a year with the regiment, the 9th Mississippi was reorganized, and Autry was detached from the unit for temporary duty as post commander at Vicksburg. After his defiant stand and the Union failure to take the hill city in the summer of 1862, Autry received orders to report to the 27th Mississippi Infantry to serve as the unit’s lieutenant colonel.

In his first battle with the 27th Mississippi, at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 152 years ago today, James L. Autry was shot down while leading his men from the front. In his after action report on the battle, General Patton Anderson wrote:

The ordeal to which they were subjected was a severe one, but the task was undertaken with that spirit and courage which always deserves success and seldom fails achieving it. As often as their ranks were shattered and broken by grape and canister did they rally, reform and renew the attack under the leadership of their gallant officers. They were ordered to take the batteries at all hazards and they obeyed the order, not, however, without heavy losses of officers and men. Not far from where the batteries were playing, and while cheering and encouraging his men forward, Lieut. Col. James L. Autry, commanding the 27th Mississippi, fell, pierced through the head by a Minnie ball.

– Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Centenary Series, Volume I, page 460.

When Martha Autry was notified of the death of her son, she exclaimed,

My poor boy! The first sound that ever came to him was the booming of cannon, and it was the last sound he ever heard. Peace let him rest! God knoweth best! – Ibid, page 457.

In addition to a widowed mother, Autry left behind a wife, Jeanie, and a namesake: James L. Autry, Jr. Born in 1859, Autry’s son was only a toddler when his father died, and had few, if any memories of him. But he did have one keepsake from his father: The day before James Autry was elected lieutenant colonel of the 9th Mississippi, he wrote his son a letter in the event he should fall in battle. The handwriting was hard to read, and this is the best transcription I could make of it:

Camp Davis, April 11, 1861

To Jas. L. Autry Jr.

My Dear Son

Your father may fall to-night in battle – Your mother will keep this & when you are old enough to comprehend she will read it to you – My dear boy, never do a mean or cowardly act – let all your actions be upright, just, honorable and in accordance with the teachings of the Bible which you should ever make your guide through life – Be kind to your mother – always listen to her advice & never do ought towards her save in kindness – She is every thing that a pure, virtuous woman can be, as near perfection as any human being can be. “Beware of entrance into a quarrel,” but _____ in _____ like a man in the true _____ of the term – Never tell a falsehood – die before doing so under any circumstances – Put your trust in God & _____ and revere his name – And now my son God bless and protect you through life – Farewell

Your devoted father

Jas. L. Autry

– “Letter from Col. James L. Autry to James L. Autry, II,” Woodson Research Center – Fondren Library  Rice University, accessed December 27, 2014, http://exhibits.library.rice.edu/items/show/2287.

Lieutenant Colonel James L. Autry’s body was brought back to Holly Springs, and he was buried at Hill Crest Cemetery.

Grave of James L. Autry - www.findagrave.com
Grave of James L. Autry – http://www.findagrave.com

During the graveside services, Colonel H.W. Walter said of him:

He has come back to us. What an awful return. A few moments since he was under his own roof, and a wail of agony went up from the hearthstone. The plaintive call of wife and mother fell on cold and listless ears. He is before us here. The eye that sparkled with affection is closed – the hand that grasped hand with friendship is paralyzed – the manly form that moved with vigor once, is still and cold now, and the body is sinking slowly, sadly to its final rest. No, thank God; not to its final rest; for we believe it will rise again, as we believe that his spirit has passed to that heaven where law is love – where legislation is Jehovah, where battles are never fought, and where happiness is unmixed and eternal.

– Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Centenary Series, Volume I, page 461.

James Lockhart Autry continues his eternal slumber in Hill Crest Cemetery, his grave marked with a beautiful marker. His epitaph is simple, but true: He died for his country.




A Great Deal of Suffering: Letters to Governor John J. Pettus

For quite some time now, I have been working with the Governor John J. Pettus correspondence at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Much of it is just the ordinary bureaucratic paperwork necessary to keep the government running. Pettus was a wartime governor, however, and many of his letters were from Mississippians who were seeking help, or offering advice, or just pouring out their troubles to a burdened chief executive. These letters open a window into the experiences of ordinary people who were living in extraordinary times.

A good example of this correspondence is the following letter, written by Dr. J. W. Martin. The good doctor was on his way to Richmond with a load of medical supplies to aid the Mississippians serving in the Army of Northern Virginia. Martin only made it as far as Meridian when he found a need for his supplies and medical expertise much closer to home. The Battle of Shiloh had occurred just a week earlier, and communities throughout Mississippi were struggling to care for thousands of casualties from the Battle of Shiloh:

Engraving of the Battle of Shiloh from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 17, 1862
Engraving of the Battle of Shiloh from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 17, 1862

Brookhaven, Miss., April 14th 1862

Hon. J. J. Pettus:

Dear Sir,

Failing to get through to Richmond after I left Jackson on last Monday I returned to Meridian on Friday night, when I found a large number of our wounded, and fortunately for them when I started for Richmond I carried bandages, lint and other necessary articles to treat the wounded. I divided out my material with two other physicians who I found without anything.

We went to work and dressed a large number of wounds. It was deeply impressed on my mind from what I witnessed that we must lose a large number from the want of proper attention at the time and after being wounded than is killed in battle. A number of them informed us that it was from twenty-five to sixty hours after being wounded before they received any attention and their wounds had received no attention after first dressing, a large majority of those I dressed, the bandages were made of new coarse osnaburg, a new unbleached domestic which was very irritating to the wound, causing a great deal of suffering, and would finally lead to death in some cases.

Impressed with that belief and for the feeling I have for our wounded soldiers on my arrival home yesterday I had it announced in our church that we needed lint and bandages for our wounded of the proper kind and urged upon our patriotic ladies to go work in preparing them that another battle was eminent at Corinth and they would be needed, and if permitted I would go with them and give my whole attention. And as the ladies has ever come up to the help of our beloved country, they all went to work this morning in scraping lint and rolling bandages, and I have no doubt by tomorrow I will have over five hundred bandages ready rolled for use with several pounds of lint.

Another subject I wish to lay before your excellency is in regard to a hospital at this place. We could I think in one week make arrangements to take care of fifty patients, and let me assure you, that they would receive that attention that men should who are battling for our rights and liberties. If you think I can accomplish anything, and would like to confer with me in this subject, please let me hear from you at an early date, and any assistance you can lend me will be thankfully received and highly appreciated.

With high esteem, I remain your excellency’s obedient servant,

J. W. Martin


Just two days after Martin wrote his letter, Mary A. Jones poured out her heart in this letter to Pettus:

Natchez, Miss., April 16, 1862

Governor J.J. Pettus

In reply to your letter March 12, I went up to Yazoo City to see if I could draw any thing up there as you directed me.

"Women in Mourning, cemetery in New Orleans," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1863
“Women in Mourning, cemetery in New Orleans,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1863

I saw Mr. Mangum the sheriff of Yazoo he said I could not draw any thing yet as the law has not allowed any thing for soldiers widows. As for my husbands position I can’t get that only from Virginia Law Department so you see the sad condition I am placed in with three small children to take care of. Half of the time we have not bread to eat every body say I must be taken care of by the Confederate States they did not tell my deare husband that I should beg from door to door when he went to fight for his country; no he sacrificed every thing he had deare to him on Earth for our sake thinking that he left us in a Land of Humanity with out thought or feare give up his life in defense of his country. Kind sir if you can assist me in any thing I will [be] veary thankfull to you. I am your obedient svt., Mary A. Jones. 

This is a moving letter, and I wish I knew more about Mary Jones; the problem is that her name is so common that it makes tracking her down very difficult. If I find out any additional information about her, I will be sure to add it to this post. These are just a couple of the thousands of letters in the John J. Pettus correspondence at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. I sure there are many great stories waiting to be discovered and told in those letters, and I know that some of them will make their way into this blog.