Friday, May 26, 2006

"Generalissimo of the Ku Klux": Jimmy Coker's War Record

Col. James P. Coker was the organizer of the Jackson County white community's resistance to Republican administration and Reconstruction policy. While he was not directly implicated in the violence of the "Jackson County War," Hamilton and Purman considered him the ringleader and even, in William Purman's words, Generalissimo of the Ku Klux in Jackson County. He tormented and threatened Hamilton and Dickinson and organized the meeting that announced the expulsion of Fleishman. Coker was arrested in December 1871 for violating the Enforcement Act, tried at the United States Court at Jacksonville and the government dropped the prosecution about a year later [Peek, "Curbing Voter Intimidation in Florida, 1871" FHQ, vol. 43, April 1865]. United States v. James Coker, December 11, 1871, Box 082429. (The Enforcement Act was "aimed at outlawing any denial of the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Intimidation to deprive the right to vote, conspiracy, and going abroad in disguise to prevent the free exercise of anyone's civil rights were also forbidden" - Peek, ibid).
Suprisingly, however, Coker did not have a distinguished war record. Coker died in Marianna on August 20, 1890 and his second wife, Ella, filed an application for a widow's pension from the state of Florida stating that Coker had served in Captiain John M. F. Irwin's Florida Calvary from Oct. 3 until mustered out on Oct. 11, 1862 and that he then served as "Quarter-Master and Home Guard from 1862 to 1865." The initial application was put on hold because Mrs. Coker did not furnish any evidence of Coker's "war service other than a statement from the Adjutant General that he mustered into service October 3rd, 1862, and mustered out October 11th, 1862." This did not constitute proof of war service as required by Florida's pension law. The Comptroller's office requested that Mrs. Coker provide affidavits from Coker's comrades in arms as to Coker's service.
Mrs. Coker submitted another application in 1927 stating that Coker was mustered out in1862 "to confiscate provisions and clothing and send to the front for the use and benefit of Confederate soldiers." Incredibly, Mrs. Coker presented, as her sole supporting evidence of Coker's service, the affidavit of Emanuel Spires, age 79, who had been a slave "owned by Mr. Thomas and General W. D. Barnes." Spires recalled Coker as "Confederate Government Agent to collect Food and ship to the front for the Confederate soldiers, and was known as a Contra-band Agent, for the Confederate Government." Spires seemed to remember Coker as having confiscated some wagons of food from his master's plantation and having been told by Coker that the wagons were being sent to the front. It is stunning that Jimmy Coker's widow resorted to the statement of an elderly former slave for the sole source of supporting documentation for her application for a military pension.
In 1927, the Florida Legislature apparently approved an act directing the state Pension Board to grant Mrs. Coker a pension.
[Source: Florida Confederate Pension Application Files:].

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