Magee claimed to have been born in North Carolina in 1841 to slaves Ephraim and Jeanette, who were held and worked on the J.J. Shanks plantation. He said that he was purchased at the age of 19, just before the American Civil War, by plantation owner Hugh Magee at a slave market in Enterprise, Mississippi. Hugh Magee owned the Lone Star Plantation in Covington County, Mississippi. Sylvester adopted the Magee surname, a common practice among enslaved people at the time. Shortly afterward, he was sold again, to Victor Steen of Rankin County, Mississippi. Magee claimed that in 1863, he ran away from the Steen plantation and enlisted in the Union Army, taking part in the assault on Vicksburg, Mississippi. Magee claimed to have been forced to serve in both the Confederate and Union armies as a servant and laborer. No documentary evidence has been found for this. Alfred P. Andrews, founder of the Jackson Civil War Round Table and its president elect for 1965-66, helped Magee be classified as a Civil War veteran although no service records for him could be found. In March 1966, when Magee was suffering from pneumonia, Andrews helped him obtain treatment from the Mississippi Veterans Hospital. On Magee’s purported 124th birthday, the citizens of Collins, Mississippi held a party at a country grocery store, complete with a five-layer cake and 124 candles. Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr. declared it “Sylvester Magee Day”. Many national news articles reported on Magee’s life and longevity, including Time and Jet. He appeared on the Mike Douglas Showand was flown to Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniafor another televised appearance. He was proclaimed as the oldest living United States citizen by a life insurance company and received a birthday card from President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was also recognized by president Richard M. Nixon. Jet wrote that, according to historians, “it would have been impossible for a person who neither reads nor writes to have related the stories of the Civil War in such detail as Magee without having served in the conflict”. Jet quoted a historian who stated that Magee talked with “rare intelligence and seldom rambled” in telling of his participation in the Civil War.
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