By Vikki Bynum
Ed Payne’s current series on Mississippi Piney Woods Civil War Unionists, “Crossing the Rubicon of Loyalties,” provides a timely context for a closer look at Oquin C. Martin, a former Confederate soldier and Piney Woods neighbor to the infamous Newt Knight. Although Martin joined neither Newt Knight’s band of deserters nor the Union army, his 1895 deposition,* gathered during Newt Knight’s federal claims hearing, indicates that were he forced to live the war all over again, Martin might not have remained loyal to the Confederacy. When asked whether he had been a “Union man or a secessionist,” he answered, “I was a right smart of a secessionist until I was converted.”
There was no follow-up question to Martin’s intriguing statement that he had been “converted.” Clearly, the government was far more interested in what Martin had to say about Newt Knight’s loyalty than his own, particularly since he and Newt had served together in the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry of the Confederate Army. When asked how long Newt served, Martin replied that Newt had deserted at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi—before the 7th battalion moved on to Vicksburg–and, to his knowledge, “never returned” to service. More on that later.
We now know that Newt Knight was not unique among Piney Woods soldiers in his decision to bolt the Confederate Army. As Ed Payne’s research demonstrates, the disheartening course of the Civil War contributed to a growing number of Mississippi men who not only deserted the Confederacy but also joined the Union Army. These were in addition to a good many southerners who opposed secession in the first place, and remained devoted to Union.
Like so many soldiers, O.C. Martin left behind a wife and family when he went off to war. While not among the 200-plus Piney Woods soldiers who fled to the Union Army’s 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry, he was reported AWOL following his parole from Vicksburg. Most likely, concerns for his family, which included a wife, two children, and three stepchildren, as well as war-weariness after the ordeal of Vicksburg contributed to his decision to take an unauthorized leave.
Assuming Martin returned to his Piney Woods home while AWOL, he would have found plenty of other soldiers there who had done the same thing. A number of these men joined the Knight band, organized in October 1863; many more joined the Union Army. Martin, however, eventually rejoined the 7th Battalion. When asked by the government when he finally returned home for good, he replied that his battalion was “captured at Blakeley, Ala. and taken thence to Vicksburg as prisoners at which place we were released and disbanded and returned to our homes, the war being over.” His military records bear him out, reporting the date of his capture as April 9, 1865, and that of his transfer to Vicksburg as May 1, 1865.
O.C. Martin was called by the U.S. government to testify against Newt Knight’s claim, probably because of his wartime loyalty to the Confederacy at a time when many of his neighbors turned to guerrilla warfare or Union service. But unlike those defense witnesses who painted Newt Knight as an outlaw with no known Union affiliations, upon cross-examination Martin portrayed Newt and his band as having “fought our cavalry and certainly against the South”—hardly what the government was hoping he’d say! Furthermore, when asked by Newt’s lawyer whether it was not a “notorious fact” that Newt Knight had “raised a company of Infantry in opposition to the Confederacy and in favor of the Union,” Martin replied, “that was my understanding; heard it often and believed it.”
Lending credence to Martin’s statements was the obvious care he took to answer questions accurately. He had known Newt since boyhood, he said, but “never knew his political sentiments.” And, since he and Newt belonged to different companies of the same battalion, he declined to identify Newt’s military rank, or to comment on whether or not he had “evaded all duty and refused to go into any battles against Union troops.”
An important component of Newt’s case was an 1870 affidavit claiming he had been sorely abused by Confederate authorities because of his Unionist beliefs. Martin claimed to have no knowledge of such abuse, or the related claim that Newt’s “dwelling house and its contents” had been burned down by his enemies. Still, Martin said, he did remember a time when “the captain threatened to have him shot.”
The careful, precise, and confident nature of O.C. Martin’s responses to questions administered under oath lends credence to his remark that Newt Knight’s final desertion from the Confederate Army occurred at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi, the 7th battalion’s last place of engagement before Vicksburg. Martin’s recollection is particularly important because Newt’s own military record is blank between February and June 1863, thus omitting the time period when the 7th battalion was pinned down at Vicksburg.
Really, none of this should matter, since Newt himself never claimed to have served at Vicksburg; nor did any of his contemporaries report him there. The reason it does matter is because that gap in his military record allowed Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, in their 2009 book, State of Jones, to feature fifteen pages detailing Newt’s allegedly grueling experiences at—yes, Vicksburg.
O.C. Martin’s deposition is a reminder that federal and state records, many gathered years after the Civil War, often yield information about the lives of soldiers and their families that might otherwise never come to light. Only because Martin was asked point blank about his political views do we learn that this Confederate veteran, once a “right smart” secessionist, had at some point been “converted.” And only because the U.S. government was intent on learning whether or not Newt Knight was a true Unionist do we learn, inadvertently, that Newt Knight deserted the Confederacy at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi–and not at Vicksburg.
*O. C. Martin deposition, March 6, 1895, Newt Knight claim file, 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.