Life on the Battle Plantations

With Ancestry’s current focus on the African-American records they have in their collections, I’ve been taking another look through what is available. Tonight, I thought I would look and search through some of the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives. The full-text of the slave narratives are also available on the Library of Congress (LOC) website.

I found a slave narrative as told by a woman named Adaline Johnson. She was born near Jackson, Mississippi, but her mother was born in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. They were slaves of the Battle family – Jim, Joe, Hue, and Marmaduke Battle are mentioned. I’ve been keen to start tracing the Battle family tree, as I believe my 3rd great-grandmother’s parents were Della Battle & Allen Wimberly, and Della was a slave on the Battle plantation in Edgecombe County. Adaline mentions in her narrative that the Battles owned three plantations full of slaves (which I have learned on my own from census records), and were in Tarboro & Rocky Mount in that county.

Adaline’s accounts of the Battle men are mixed – some were kinder than others. What makes this slave narrative of particular interest to me is the description of the experience with the Battles. If I ever get around to writing any kind of “formal” document on the history on this branch of my family, this would help add some historical context to life as a slave on the Battle family plantations.

I also recognized something else in her narrative. She describes the happenings of a slave named Will (referred to as “Big Will”) who killed an overseer. Big Will was apparently a big and strong guy b/c he could “do as much as any two” other slaves and the family had for him a “big axe” and a “big hoe.” Well, the new overseer the Battle family had got into some kind of altercation with Big Will and Big Will killed the overseer. Marmaduke Battle had Will put in jail, but when his uncle, Jim Battle got back into town, he sold Big Will and Adaline reports that no one ever saw him again, but his family stayed and worked on the plantation. As I read this, I realized I had heard of this Will in an article I found about a year ago.

There were court proceedings for what happened and is reflected by the case North Carolina vs. Negro Will. An April 1920 article by George Gordon Battle from the Virginia Law Review goes into great detail about the case.

On January 22, 1834, Will killed the overseer, Richard Baxter. Another slave named Allen had gotten into an argument with Will about a hoe. Allen went and reported it to Baxter. Baxter went to go confront Will. They argued, but no one heard what was said. Will got mad and started to walk away and Baxter shot him in the back “the whole load lodged in the prisoner’s back, covering a space of twelve inches square”, but Will kept running and made it to the woods. Will was pursued by both Baxter and other slaves and in a scuffle with slaves and Baxter ended up wounding Baxter in the thigh, in addition to a puncture in his breast, a wound about four inches long and two inches deep on his right arm above his elbow. Among Baxter’s last words were a comment stating that he should have listened to his wife (who advised him not to get involved in the dispute between Will & Allen).

At trial, Will was found guilty of felony murder. But the case was appealed and taken to the NC Supreme Court as James Battle wanted the rights of his slaves protected and hired Bartholomew F. Moore for $1000 to lead the defense. The court found Will justified in resisting and defending himself and that what happened was not murder, but manslaughter. Gordon Battle states that the judge concedes,

“though with reluctance, the cruel rule of law that there is no limit of the authority of the master over the slave, so long as his life is spared. But the judge is determined that the law shall be so administered as to promote justice and not injustice, and so we see him invoke the principle that the master may so treat a slave, even though that treatment be not technically a crime, as to justify the slave in resisting the master even into death.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court would then go on to serve notice to all slaveholders in the state that while masters had the right to punish slaves “in order to maintain discipline,” slaves too had the right of self-defense if the punishment was exercised with unreasonable cruelty. These events happened three years after the Nat Turner uprising.

At the end of the article, George describes his relationship to the case. James Battle was his paternal grandfather, and one of the three presiding judges on the case, Joseph J. Daniel, was his maternal grandfather. George states that Will was sent to the a plantation in Mississippi (owned by Battle or Daniel – that is not clear), where Will killed another slave and was hung for that act. Will’s wife, Rose, came back to NC. Gordon remembers her often saying

“Will sho’ly had hard luck. He killed a white man in North Carolina and got off, and then was hung for killing a nigger in Mississippi.”

A slave narrative and a court case that intersect with my own family history.

Comments (37)

  1. Terri

    That is such interesting reading! I do hope you do a historical writing. I would love to read it.

    I finally got a phone number from my mom πŸ™‚ Now to just get her cousin to call me back πŸ˜‰


    some interesting stuff here.
    tell me more

  3. k. nichols

    That is a great find. I am starting to research my Battle family also from Edgecombe, NC. Frank Gorham Battle is a name that keeps coming up. Keep up the good work

  4. karen

    I just loved reading this artical, I have been doing my family history and jim and marmaduke battle are in my tree so the story is very wonderful thanks for the information

  5. Simone

    My grandmother’s great-grandmother was Hester Battle who was a slave for Nick Boddie in Nash County. We have a copy of her obituary. She was 99 when she died in the 1930’s. My grandma was born and raised in Rocky Mount. I am now finding out that the Battles owned many slaves in NC.

  6. Laura Battle

    My daughters are the granddaughters of Richard Battle and Lucille Lacey Battle originally from Mississippi. Lucille died in 1976 in St Louis MO, she was 76. Richard Battle died in Missouri in 1959, but no one was sure how old he was, possibly in his 80’s. We are pretty sure they both Lucille and Richard Battle have Indian backgrounds possible Choctaw. Both were excellent gardeners.

  7. J Battle

    I’m doing research on the battle’s from Georgia (Henry and Carrie Battle late 1800s) with possible roots from Mississippi too. Please advise if you find any information and good luck to you as well! Thanks!

  8. taneya (Post author)

    I’ll keep an eye out for those names. Let me know if you ever find any NC connections in your research – we may have common research interests if so. Thanks!

  9. James Battle

    Thanks! Now I know why there are so many of us named James Battle. Have you seen Thelma Battle Buckner’s FB page? She talks about a Will Battle in her book and the NC-MS connection.

  10. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Hi James – thanks for the comment. No, I am not familiar with her work, but I will look her up.

  11. Janet Battle

    I to am a Battle from Oklahoma city, enjoy reading history about Battle Plantation.

  12. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Thanks Janet! Does your Battle family have ties back to this one in Edgecombe County?

  13. Ruby Battle

    Nice work Taneya! My great great grandfather was from Edgecombe County, North Carolina. His name was York Battle. I cannot find out very much, except that he had a son Ruben Battle(which was my great grandfather). I believe at some point they migrated to Huntsville,AL – Madison County. My grandfather Ruben Battle II eventually moved to Arkansas….Thanks for any assistance that you can provide.

  14. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Hi Ruby – nice to hear from you! I’ll send you an email later.

  15. Ruby

    Thank you!

  16. Nancy Carley

    Great info. My family is also related to the Battles from NC. Lucy Battle who was inherited by the daughter of William Battle married a Bunkley and moved to Georgia. They went to Chambers county Alabama with their slaveowners and were known as Bunkleys. Some went to Texas with slaveowners. My cousin wrote a book that is available on Amazon called Journey to Freedom. It tells the story of the Battles in Edgecombe NC up to the present day Bunkleys.

  17. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Thanks Nancy! It’s always nice to see these kind of connections.

  18. Laura

    Wow! So glad to have found this page. As of late, we have been inspired to figure out our family tree. My great-great grandparents are Tip and Kissie (Kizzie) Battle. They were married in 1900 in Hilliardston, Nash, NC. Tip is the furthest back I can find on the Battle side, and I have no records on Kissies family. Eventually, they migrated to Philadelphia but apparently maintained ties to NC, however, we are not sure about the dates and places of their dates.

  19. Carol Battle-Ferguson

    I am related to the Battle from Rocky Mount, N.C. My great grandfather was John Battle and he had a brother, who was a doctor in in James Battle. My family is from Rocky Mount, Greenville, and Wilson areas.

  20. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Hi Carol – It is always great to hear from others with family roots to areas where my ancestors are from. Thanks for the comment!

  21. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Hi Laura – I’m late in my reply, but thanks for your comment! Have you found anything new about your family?

  22. [email protected]

    I’m also researching the Edgecomb NC Battle slaves who “migrated” to Madison County, AL. Henderson > Jeremiah “Jerry” > William H. (and same ) Henderson > Abraham > Wade. All born during slavery: Wm H and Wade having survived through emancipation. If you care to exchange information.


  23. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Hi Linda. Yes, I would like to exchange info! I’ll email you.

  24. Curtis

    My great, great grandfather was interviewed for the slave narratives, his name is Jasper Battle from Crawfordville, Georgia. I can’t trace back any further than his parents name and that his father was on Billie Battle plantation in Crawfordville

  25. Cheryl

    This story is very interesting. I have been researching my Edgecomb NC Battle family lineage and have a few Will Battles in my line.

  26. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    thanks for sharing. who knows – perhaps this Will is one of yours! πŸ™‚

  27. Jabril Ameer Battle

    Hello my Father is Robert Earl Battle originally of Rocky Mount NC. His Father was Annanais Battle of RockyMount NC, (I’m Jabril Ameer Battle). So excited to find this page, its bookmarked now! I will keep searching. thx for doing this!

  28. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Hi Jabril – I’m so glad you like!

  29. Pingback: Using the Slave Narratives for African American Research - Lisa Lisson

  30. Carol Battle-Ferguson

    Yes, I found more information in regard to the Battle family. My grandfather and grandmother lived in Wilson, N.C. My grandmother came from Orange County, N.C. Her name was Gladys O’Kelly Battle. Her father was Reuben O’Kelley and mother Gatsie Strayhorn. My grandfather name was John Battle. He had two children. Grace Battle, and Parker Battle. My granfather had a brother name was James Battle, and he was a doctor in Greenville, N.C. It is so interesting to find so much information.

  31. Monica Wildes

    Wow! My FB “On This Day” brought me back to this blog post. My BATTLE connection was a mystery to me until literally last month. My paternal grandmother was Mary Battle, but she died New Year’s Day 1942 when my daddy was only 5. He didn’t even realize ( and I just learned) that for a few years after her death, he was raised by her sister. I now have traced her lineage back to her great-grandparents Guilford and Sylva (Sylvia) Battle. They had a son named William in the 1850s. Makes me wonder if there were any connections as I know children were often named after relatives.

    Thanks for sharing!

  32. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    So glad to hear of your progress Monica! There may indeed be more connections to be found!

  33. James Battle

    Hello, my name is James Battle and I am from Kinston, N.C. I have been research my family tree. I know i have family from Edgecomb, Wilson, and Rocky Mount. My grandad was from Kinston, NC and his first wife name was Mazzie (i beleive).I do know that her madian name was Battle also (not related) She past was while giving birth well before I was born. My grandad second wife was Cleo (Moore) Battle. My great-grandad was Bloss Battle. Please send me anything you may have and I will do the same. My ultimate goal his to provide a written history of the Battle family and determine exactly where in Africa my ancestors originated.

  34. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Hi James. Thanks for the comment and I am glad you came across my blog post. If you have a specific question I may be able to help, so just let me know!

  35. findingourpiece

    I am researching my fathers family- His lineage is from a John Battle of Edgecomb. I am not African American and did not see any African American in my fathers Dna test. That said, I find your information fascinating and can’t wait to investigate further.
    Marianne Banas

  36. Taneya Koonce (Post author)

    Hi Marianne – thanks for your comment. The Battle family was pretty big so perhaps you are connected to some of the ones I have resesrched. I am interested in learning more about your Joseph Battle – I will send you an email.

  37. Gaston Lee Battle

    My name is Gaston Lee Battle, born in Rocky Mount, NC (Edgecombe County) in 1955. My father was Gaston Battle and Dorothy Lee Harrison.
    My grandfather was Joe Richard Battle who married Lula Powell in the late 1800s. They had seven sons and two daughters. My grandfather (who was a preacher) migrated to Newark,New Jersey. The legend is he had to catch a train with three changes of clothes to save his life from some or a white man. At the time they owned land in Halifax County, Littleton, NC.
    My father moved to Rocky Mount, NC after serving in the army, but died when I was four years old. When my grandmother was carrying him, my grandfather had to run up north, but came back to see him after he grown a few years.
    Battles who know their history are a proud set of people which includes: Doctors, teachers, preachers, musicians, artist, entrepreneurs. Most are very spiritual people; but some are rowdy… the history of many of the slaveowners in Edgecombe county NC.
    One slave owner owned about 300 slaves. One had a son that was sent to Mississippi, and there was questions why.
    Richard Battle, one of the original trustees of UNC Chapel. Hill took slaves to the house where they lived while school was in session to assist his wife and cook.
    I am a Preacher, Songwriter, and guitarist for The Fantastic Violinaires of Detroit MichigapeopMarried to Darcell Kellam Battle. My children are Ariadnie Battle presrtly in Guthrie, Oklahoma, workingon her Doctorate of Psychology, Lauren Battle in College in Charlotte, NC, Tina Lashawn Barberry in Mebane, NC, surgical tech. at Durham Regional Hospital, David Brown in Albany, Ga., and Don Brown in St. Louis, Mo.
    Bishop George Battle of the AME Zion Church (stood with President Obama at the funeral for the nine victims in Charleston, SC), as well as Rev. George and Rev. Richard Battle from Roanoke Rapids, NC are part of my family.

Comments are closed.