Several years ago, while going through some microfilmed records at the LDS Family History Center, I located a copy of a transcription of the "Descriptive Register" of men living in Attala County during the period 1864-65. I was lucky enough to find James M. Porter, my paternal great-great-grandfather, on that list. The list contained each man's name, age, height, color of his hair, eyes, his skin color, birthplace, and his occupation in the county. Skin colors appearing on the list included "fair," "sallow," "tan," "red," and "dark."
According to the "Descriptive Register, " James M. Porter's height was 6 feet, and he was shown to have black hair and hazel eyes. He was born in Mississippi, his occupation was "farmer," and his skin color was shown as "dark." My first thought was this physical description of James M. Porter might very well have been that of one of my great-uncles, my brothers, or even one of my sons.
Interesting little document! But who prepared this list? What was its purpose? How did it become a "historical" document? Common sense told me the list was prepared during the time period directly following the end of the Civil War. Did the register have anything to do with the end of the war? Or was someone attempting to record racial differences in that particular place and at that particular time?
I began searching for online information about "descriptive registers" and immediately found the document contained on the microfilm at the LDS Family History Center included on a number of widely-used (and very helpful, I might add) Attala County, Mississippi genealogy websites.
What I did not find was information that explained the purpose of the list or its intended use. I found it fascinating, to say the least, that someone in 1864 and 1865 was interested in developing a list that included a person's "skin color." It was not until the U.S. Census of 1870 was taken that an individual's "race" was included on a federal census record. The available categories on the census were "Black", "White", "Mulatto", "Indian" or "Chinese" and the designation on the 1870 U. S. Census may have been decided by the census taker based on physical characteristics rather than having been provided by the individual or a relative. I was both puzzled and intrigued by this "descriptive register", so I kept on searching for an explanation.
But I have never found a valid reason to explain the list. The best explanation to date, is actually second-hand information. By that, I mean that other people have offered explanations to me or I have read explanations of others about what they think was the purpose of the "descriptive register."
I have read for myself that amnesty agreement terms, signed by both sides at the end of the Civil War, included a requirement that each military unit that fought for the South prepare a list of its members. These lists or "descriptive registers" would provide the Federal government with records of those who fought for the South and against the Federal Union. This requirement sounds like a "military" record to me. The "descriptive register" I viewed on microfilm, and which I copied for my own records, contains nothing about military unit name or number or the rank or length of service of the men included on the list.
The Attala County "descriptive register" appears to be a list of civilians. In fact, the list contains no military affiliation or reference to the military at all. I cannot imagine this list would be a comprehensive list of men from Attala County who served in the Civil War. I have researched my family's history in other counties in the State of Mississippi and in several other southern states, but I have never encountered a list similar to the "descriptive register" containing these names of Attala County men in 1864-65.
Will I ever find the answers to my questions about the "descriptive register?" At this point, I don't know.