Mississippi

Newt Knight: The story goes on forever . . .

Despite all the research that’s been conducted on Newt Knight, new material is still being discovered! After Grady Howell of the State Archives in Jackson, MS, discovered yet another example of Newt’s several attempts to gain federal compensation for himself, independent historian Ed Payne immediately went to work gathering more information about this 1880 claim and the unlikely alliance it forged between two controversial men of their time.  Beginning with the prologue that follows, Ed’s analysis will be published in three parts. My thanks to Grady and Ed!

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

Prologue: Newt Knight’s 1880 Relief Bill

By Ed Payne

Newt Knight

On 17 February 1880, Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce introduced before Congress a piece of legislation entitled, “A bill for the relief of Newton Knight and others . . . therein named.”  The discovery of this bill adds another episode to Newton Knight’s long, fruitless quest to obtain compensation for his and his men’s opposition to Confederate authority in Civil War Jones County.

The relief bill briefly linked the lives of two very different men: a rough-hewn yeoman from the Piney Woods whose iconoclasm made him a wartime leader and, later, a social outcast—and an ex-slave who had transformed himself into a plantation-owning Reconstruction era politician noted for his diplomacy and gentlemanly manner.

Recently, while reviewing microfilmed newspaper stories, Grady Howell of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History discovered an editorial denouncing the relief bill in the Jackson Daily Clarion of 3 March 1880.   He graciously provided me with the citation.  The text of the bill appeared on the same page and is reproduced below, with corrected or alternate (‘aka’) spelling of several names provided in brackets.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America Congress assembled.  That the Secretary of the Treasury be, and he is hereby authorized to pay, out of any moneys in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, to Newton Knight, two thousand dollars; to J.M. Valentine, one thousand eight hundred dollars; to Simeon Collins, one thousand six hundred dollars; to J.J. Collins and W.P. Tumbow [Turnbow], each three hundred and fifty dollars; to Alpheus Knight and S.G. Owens, each three hundred and twenty-five dollars; and to Tapley Bynum, P.M. Bynum, Montgomery Blackburn [Blackwell], J.W. Blackwell, J.M. Collins, B.H. Collins, M.C. Collins, M.M. Coals [Coats], S.C. Coleman, B.H. Cawley, R.J. Collins, James Ewlen, J.M. Gunter, Tucker Gregg, R.H. Hinton, John Hogan, J.M. Hathorn, G.M. Hathorn, W.R. Jones, M.W. Rurven [Curven, aka Kirven], S.W. Curven [aka Kirven], J.M. Knight, G.H. Knight, H.C. Knight, B.H. Knight, Lazarus Mathews, A. McDaniels, C.H. Prine, Daniel Redock [Reddoch], W.W. Sumrall, John J. Valentine, Patrick Valentine, M.R. Valentine, R.H. Valentine, Elijah Wilbon [Welborn], T.L. Welch, R.J. Welch, W.M. Welch, G.R. Welch, Y. Wilbon [Welborn], W.Y. Wilbon [Welborn], N.V. Whitehead, G.J. Whitehead, D.W. Whitehead, James Yates [aka Ates], Thomas Yates [aka Ates], Joseph Vaughn, and Moses Richardson, or their representatives, each the sum of three hundred dollars, the same being for services as officers and members of Knight’s company, United States infantry, during the years eighteen hundred and sixty-three, eighteen hundred and sixty-four, and eighteen hundred and sixty-five.

The facts behind Newt Knight’s petition can be summarized as follows: the Knight Band, composed primarily of Confederate deserters, was organized in Jones County, Mississippi, in October of 1863.  Comprised mostly of nonslaveowning yeomen from the region, its members either opposed secession from the outset or had become demoralized by the war’s impact on their families.

Contemporary accounts make it clear that the band enjoyed a considerable local support, understandable given the extensive kinship ties within the sparsely populated region.  Reports concerning the strength and activities of the band made their way as far as Richmond, Virginia.  In spring 1864 two successive campaigns were launched in an effort to bring the Knight Band to heel.  Forces led by Col. Robert Lowry captured and executed a dozen men, while forcing many others to surrender and rejoin their units or flee south to the Pearl River swamps.  However, a small remnant of men, including Knight, remained active in Jones County.  They eventually made contact with Union forces in Meridian and carried out assignments on their behalf. Convinced of the value of his wartime activities, Knight firstpetitioned thegovernment for compensation in 1870; that effort failed. (For a detailed history of the claims filed by Newton Knight in 1870, 1887, and 1891, see Victoria Bynum, “Fighting a Losing Battle,” Ch. 4, Long Shadow of the Civil War.)

U.S. Senate Chamber, 1877

The allies of Knight who forwarded his 1880 bill to Senator Bruce probably did so with full knowledge that the Republican would not be re-elected to his seat.  The Democratic Party had reclaimed most of Mississippi’s state government in 1876 on a platform of white racial solidarity.  Those now moving into positions of power were often ex-Confederate officers who had little reason to advance the claim of a traitor to The Lost Cause such as Knight.  The editorial comments of the Daily Clarion reflected that general attitude:

The Newton Knight Relief Bill.

In another column we have printed the bill, which a friend at Washington has been considerate enough to send us, that was introduced by Bruce a few days ago, in the United States Senate, for the “relief” of Newton Knight and other persons therein mentioned.  It was introduced by unanimous consent, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Claims.  The bill, if passed, would be a fraud on the government.  It is predicated on the fiction that the parties for whose benefit it purports to have been offered, rendered the United States Government service as “Knight’s Company United States Infantry,” in the late sectional war. From what we can learn there was no such company mustered into the United States Army.  The pretended military company, as we are informed, was for the most part a band of bushwackers, deserters from the Confederate army, and persons who escaped the vigilance of conscription officers, and from hiding places carried on a sort of predatory business at the expense of their neighbors who were in the Southern army.  A portion of them took refuge under the Butler government in New Orleans and never returned.  Some of the clan still live in the vicinity where they formerly resided, and have become law abiding, good citizens.  They were probably mislead (sic) in the first instance.  Knight himself, the chief beneficiary and the head of the clan, still lives in the Southern portion of Jasper county, and is “truly loyal” in living up to the social equality doctrines of the extreme Radicalism which he inculcates by precept and example, as essential elements of loyalty.  We are not prepared to forecast the fate of the Bruce bill; but it is due to candor to say that it is a fraud in the presumption that Knight and his clan were a company of United States soldiers.

The Daily Clarion’s description of the Knight Band falls on the more moderate side of postwar rhetoric.  Two allegations have remained common down to the present day: 1) that the Knight Band preyed upon the local populous, and 2) that Newt Knight deluded his followers into doing his bidding.

As Victoria Bynum pointed out in Free State of Jones, members of the Knight Band shared extensive kinship ties.  During the brief period in which it held power (October 1863 until April 1864), the band created anxiety among the region’s slave owners, raiding Confederate commissaries where the tax-in-kind produce confiscated from the area’s impoverished families was stored.  Knight was responsible for the murder of Confederate Major Amos McLemore, who sought to convince deserters to return to their units.  The band also killed several Confederate tax agents.  Thus the locals upon whom the band preyed were selected targets.  On the other hand, an officer participating in the Lowry campaign acknowledged that Confederate militia operating in the area had done much to provoke deep hostility among the general population.

Depictions of Newt Knight’s followers as pawns—led either by inspiration or duplicity—conveniently ignore the fact that the yeomen of the Piney Woods were routinely described as self-reliant and highly independent.  But writers often prefer simplistic narratives featuring a hero (or villain) of mythical proportions.  It is far easier to portray a man single-handedly instigating a rebellion than to grapple with the more complex story of a regional rebellion that, for a period of time, coalesced around his leadership.  Yet when over two hundred Piney Woods men trekked south in the spring of 1864 and agreed to join Union Army regiments in New Orleans, it was hardly due to the machinations of Newt Knight.  He remained in Jones County until the end of the war.

Finally, the editorial indicates that knowledge of Knight’s postwar relationship with former slave Rachel Knight and his mixed-race children with her, had reached Jackson.  For those promoting a political agenda based upon notions of racial purity, however dubious in actual practice, Newt’s personal life offered final proof of his “true loyalty” to “the social [i.e. racial] equality doctrines of the extreme Radicalism.  .  .  .”

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