Mississippi

Newt Knight vs. the U.S. Court Claims revisited: Montgomery Blackwell’s deposition

For thirty years, guerrilla leader Newt Knight of Jasper County, Mississippi, sought compensation as a Unionist from the U.S. government on behalf of himself and 54 men who had belonged to his Civil War “Knight Company.”* These men included deserters and a few draft evaders who banded together in the swamps of the Leaf River in neighboring Jones County to fight against the Confederacy.

In my recent book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War, I analyze in depth Newt’s unsuccessful efforts to gain compensation from the federal government. Aiding my analysis were numerous depositions, including those provided by Newt Knight, H.L. Sumrall, Jefferson Musgrove, J.M. Valentine, E.M. Devall, William M. Welch, J.E. Welborn, J.J. Collins, B.F. Moss, A.B. Jordan, O.C. Martin, E.M. Edmonson, T.J. Huff, T.G. Crawford, and R.M. Blackwell.** Among these men were members, friends, and enemies of the Knight band. Some former members of the band testified on behalf of Newt, the claimant; others testified for the U.S. government, the defendant. In several instances, the defense called on witnesses friendly to Newt Knight in hopes that the testimonies of wartime allies would contradict one another.

R.M. (Montgomery) Blackwell, a 48-year-old farmer, was one such Knight band member called to testify on behalf of the U.S. government. On March 7, 1895, at 5:30 p.m., Montgomery was deposed at the Ellisville, Mississippi, courthouse by Jesse M. Bush, clerk of the circuit court. After establishing Blackwell’s identity, defense attorney John C. Dougherty asked him whether he had “belonged to any body of men during the war,” and to “state what it was, at what time and what place you joined and what purpose you had in connecting yourself with the same.”

With no apparent hesitation, Montgomery Blackwell replied that he had “belonged to Captain Knight’s company; joined in Jones county near Reddoch’s Ferry; I believe it was in Sept. 1863. Knight had a squad of Union men, and I had enough of kin in the Confederate ranks, and I concluded to go with the Knights.”

Two things stand out in Blackwell’s answer. First, he contradicted Newt Knight’s testimony that the Knight Company was formed on October 13, 1863. Second, he did not identify his family as solidly Unionist, but rather indicated a fair amount of support for the Confederacy within its ranks. This is not surprising since many families in the Jones County area, including the Knights, were split over the war. The most solidly Unionist family, as I have pointed out on this blog as well as in Long Shadow and Free State of Jones, were the Collinses.  They and their kinfolk comprised the majority of band members. Joining ranks with the Knight Company, however, forged a new kinship link between the Knight and Blackwell families when, in 1869, Montgomery Blackwell married Newt’s cousin, Zorada Keziah Knight.

Blackwell’s tentative answer in regard to when the Knight Company was formed was a minor discrepancy given that thirty years had passed since the war’s end. Perhaps for this reason, defense attorney Dougherty immediately shifted to a more important area of contradiction by asking Blackwell to explain whether or not he “took any oath” at the time the band was formed, and if so, to “state what oath, before whom, and when and at what place” it was taken.

This talk of an “oath” harkened back to an affidavit certified in 1870 by justice of the peace T. J. Collins which stated that the Knight Company had not only organized itself on October 13, 1863, but had elected officers and taken a “sollomn [sic] vow to be true to each other and to the United States and to fight on behalf of the United States during the war.” This document, signed by four Jones County men, made no claim that any Union official had administered an oath of allegiance, only that the men had spoken one among themselves.

With the passage of time, however, the facts surrounding this elusive oath became hopelessly confused. In their 1895 depositions, several members of the band testified that T.J. Collins had delivered the oath in 1863, when in fact he had certified a statement from several witnesses in 1870 that the Knight Company had taken such an oath–likely without the benefit of any public official.

Others, Montgomery Blackwell among them, testified in 1895 that “old man V.A. Collins” had likely administered the oath.  But if anyone presided over this moment, it probably was Benagah Mathews, as suggested by Jasper Collins in his testimony. The elderly Mathews, who had close ties with the band, was a probate judge by 1869. It was he who took responsibility for filing Newt Knight’s initial claim file in 1870, acting in lieu of a lawyer for the Knight Company.

The problem in 1895 was that Newt Knight’s new lawyers were not familiar with the internal workings of the Knight Company, as Benagah Mathews had been, and, in their efforts to embellish its Unionist credentials, they created a trap for themselves. The notion that a Unionist official had administered an oath of allegiance to the Knight Company during the midst of the Civil War was easily shot down by the government’s defense team.  By distorting the evidence in this and other instances, Newt’s lawyers put witnesses such as Montgomery Blackwell in predicaments where they were asked to remember “facts” that had been altered by Newt’s lawyers in an effort to strengthen the evidence.

At the same time, the government misplaced Newt Knight’s truly factual evidence, offered in his first petition of 1870, that the reconstructed government of 1865 had recognized him as a staunch Unionist. None of that evidence was presented in his second and third petitions (see Long Shadow of the Civil War, pp. 77-96). Not surprisingly, the Knight Company lost its bid for compensation as an ad hoc military unit that had fought on behalf of the Union Army during the Civil War.

Vikki Bynum

* NOTE: Although lawyers for Newt Knight identified the Knight Company as the “Jones County Scouts” between 1887 and 1895, I have found no evidence that the band ever referred to itself by this name. It’s my opinion that Newt’s lawyers manufactured the new name to give it more of an official military ring.

**Newt Knight’s 1887-1900 claim file is located in Records of the U.S. Court of Claims, 1835-1966, Record Group 123, Committee on War Claims, Claims of Newton Knight and Others, #8013 and 8464, National Archives, Wash. D.C.

8 replies »

  1. This is not on topic for this particular post, but I finished reading _The Long Shadow of the Civil War_ last night and was struck by the similarity of the Free State of Jones and the Free State of Van Zandt (county seat Canton) here in mid-East Texas. I was wondering if you had discovered any family or philosophical connections, and how many “free states” might actually be out there. Van Zandt County was largely settled by yeoman hard scrabble types, as well as by a small Norwegian group. A sizeable minority voted against secession. Squads of Confederate soldiers were sent out from Tyler fairly regularly to arrest deserters. There is a surviving “black list of Unionists” from 1863 that includes at least two Collins members (see: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~txvzcgs/vzgs5cw.htm ). The first name on the list, George Rosenbaum, was arrested for being involved in a plot to free federal POWs at Camp Ford near Tyler. Three Unionists were lynched. After the Civil War the federal troops stationed at Tyler still had problems with violence Van Zandt County. Once cotton became the primary crop, the county drifted into tenancy and into the more radical third political parties, especially the People’s Party. Then in the early 20th century Grand Saline became the site of the first and largest Socialist Party encampment in the state. Yet, Grand Saline has also long been known as a sundown town. Some would say that Van Zandt County still has a rough reputation. In your research did you come up with any connections?

    Vicki Betts

  2. Hi Vicki,

    You have pointed out some interesting parallels between the Free State of Jones County, MS, and the Free State of Van Zandt County, TX! I think a comparison of surnames associated with each county’s Unionists and political radicals might yield some leads. Then again, it may just be that the residents of each county experienced such similar hardships that their histories took similar courses.

    There were, of course, a number of “free states” throughout the South, and migration patterns meant that different branches of the same stem family were located throughout these regions. e.g. There are Unionist Bynums in northern Mississippi as well as Southern Mississippi; Unionist Welborns in Texas as well as Mississippi, in addition to Unionist Collinses in both MS and TX. Clearly, this would make a great research topic for someone who enjoys using genealogical research to better understand cataclysmic historical events such as the Civil War.

    Greg Rowe, who occasionally visits this site, wrote a brief essay on the Free State of Van Zandt on his own Civil War website over a year ago:

    http://acwresearcher.wordpress.com/2009/02/21/the-free-state-of-van-zandtwhat-does-it-mean/

    It would be great to hear from readers who may already know something about connections between Jones county, MS, and Van Zandt County, TX. Who knows? Maybe this topic would make a good post for Renegade South!

    Vikki

  3. I am making a documentary film on the socialist presidential candidate (5 times) Eugene Victor Debs. He came several time to Grand Saline, TX (Van Zandt County) to socialist encampments to give speeches, etc. Does anyone have any family photos that might be of the Grand Saline socialist encampments 1906-1916 or any familly oral history recollections? I am a professional doc. filmmaker maker.

    • Yale Strom,

      This sounds like a topic on which commenter Vicki Betts might have some information. I will forward your message to her.

      Vikki

  4. vikki,

    When you indicate that Zorada Keziah Knight was cousin of Newt Knight, do you have any proof for that? Zorada is said to be daughter of Daniel Knight, but I’m having a difficult time finding the Daniel- Zorada connection proof. Zorada is not in listed in Daniel and Elizabeth’s household in the MS 1860 census (she would have been 10 yrs old). In the 1870 census she is shown as married to Richard Montgomery Blackwell, but I can’t find proof back to Daniel Knight as her father which would actually mean she was cousin of Newt’s (whose father was Albert Knight).

    Janette

  5. Janette,

    Thank you for your question concerning the specific kinship between Zorada Knight, wife of Montgomery Blackwell, and Newt Knight.

    Zorada is identified as the daughter of Daniel and Elizabeth Coleman Knight on page 314 of the published genealogy, The Family of John “Jackie” Knight and Keziah Davis Knight, researched and written by Winnie Knight Thomas, Earle Knight, Lavada Knight Dykes, and Martha Kaye Dykes Lowery (1985).

    The above genealogy does not, however, supply a middle name for Zorada; I got the middle name of “Keziah” from another (unpublished) Knight family genealogy. Therein, I believe, lies the confusion. It may be that Zorada had two middle names, or it may be that “Keziah” is simply a mistake.

    Here’s why: in the 1870 census, in which Zorada is listed as the wife of Montgomery Blackwell, she is given a middle initial of “R.” In 1860, I believe she is again listed on the federal census with an “R” for her middle name.

    It’s my belief that Zorada is the fourth child, age 10, listed in the household of Daniel and Elizabeth Knight on that 1860 census (household #347). Unfortunately, the census taker indicated her gender as male, which I believe was nothing more than a careless mistake on his part. To compound matters, he wrote her first initial of “Z” in such a way that one can easily take it for an L or an S (it’s possible he mistook the Z sound of her name for an S sound.)

    Please look at that 1860 census again and see if you agree that this is likely why we otherwise can’t find Zorada Knight anywhere in the 1860 census.

    Vikki

    • Vikki,

      I think I’ve finally figured it all out. I pulled up the 1860, 1870 and 1880 census. The first census 1860 shows Zorada in the Daniel and Elizabeth family as L.R. Knight (age correct, gender wrong shown as male and recorder heard name wrong as probably Lorada and the R, I think, he heard “rada” part of her name and put the R as the initial. Also, after studying closely several pages of census the recorder “R’s” and K’s look the same). Next, the 1870 census, Zorada is married to Richard Montgomery Blackwell. This time the recorder almost got her name right it shows up as Zorad R. He didn’t spell the Zorada correctly, but almost did. She is female and wife in the family. This time the R is still not right though and R’s and K’s look almost the same through out several pages on the census. Finally, Eureka! In the 1880 census Zorada is still married to Richard Montgomery. Her age this time is off a few years (however, she is definitely Montgomery’s wife), but the initials this time are right on the money. They show her as Z.K. So, far as I’m concerned that is her in the 1860 census in the Daniel and Elizabeth household and the 1870 and 1880 censuses. Take a look and tell me what you think. Happy! Happy! I’ve been stuck on this for some time and just hadn’t thought to go to the 1880 census until now for comparison.

      Janette email: chukar@cwo.com

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