2012 in review

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4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 57,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 13 Film Festivals

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Museum of the Confederacy, Appomatox


My thanks to Thom Bassett and Kevin Levin, moderator of Civil War Memory for granting Renegade South permission to repost the following review of the Museum of the Confederacy. 

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

What follows is a guest post by Thom Bassett, who recently took a trip to Virginia to explore Civil War battlefields and other sites.  He took the time to visit the new MOC museum at Appomattox and sent along this review.  Thom teaches at Bryant University in Providence, R.I. He has written numerous essays for the New York Times Disunion blog and is currently working on a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman.

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory

It’s unfortunate that in the minds of many the Museum of the Confederacy’s newly opened branch at Appomattox is associated exclusively with the ginned-up controversy about display there of the Confederate battle flag. For one thing, the museum staff seem heartily sick of the issue and those who protested the museum’s design: As I carefully began to ask about it during my visit this weekend, one of them interrupted me to scoff, “What the hell else did they want? We put the damn state flags outside!”

For another, and more important, the MoC-Appomattox overall is a superb example of sophisticated, accessible, evocative, intellectually honest public narrative about the Civil War. While it’s in some respects still very much a work in progress, the museum nonetheless already meaningfully informs and engages the public about the war and its significance today.

I’ll begin with aspects of the museum that are in my opinion comparatively less successful. The exhibition “Colors of Gray: Consecration and Controversy” is a decidedly uneven exploration of the history and uses of Confederate flags. While the exhibition includes some interesting and surprising information about army and regimental flags (it turns out, for example, that women’s bridal clothes were a popular choice for flag material), it falters on the subject of the national flags.

For one thing, the exhibition includes only the first and second national flags, even though the museum web site displays a picture of the third national flag as well. Moreover, while placards more than once make the salient point that some Southern heritage groups are as critical as civil rights groups of current (mis)uses of Confederate flags, particularly the Army of Northern Virginia’s (incorrectly called) “stars and bars,” the presentation on this issue lacks a clear thematic organization.

Perhaps to some extent my dissatisfaction with the “Colors of Gray” exhibition has to do with the contrasting directness with which the permanent exhibition presents a range of complex and, for some, uncomfortable fundamental truths about the Civil War. This occurs in a number of ways. For example, the opening audio-visual exhibit reminds visitors that white Southerners were not united in their feelings about secession or the resulting  war. This theme of southern disunion is repeated in other ways later, including in the exhibits about the arming of black southerners (which also demolishes, by the way, the lies regarding black Confederate soldiers).

But it’s the museum’s treatment of race and slavery that is most impressive. From the very first placard visitors see until the moment they exit the permanent exhibition, the MoC-Appomattox demonstrates the centrality of slavery and racial dominance to the causes of the war, the investment that virtually all white Southerners—slaveholders or not—had in perpetuating a slavery-based society, the efforts African-Americans made to liberate themselves as well as their contributions to the federal war effort, and the extent to which what followed the war blocked authentic national reconciliation.

The conclusion of the permanent exhibition, in my opinion, also shows forcefully that questions of the meaning of the war remain vitally important today. Visitors are left with an important challenge—to think and rethink their understanding of the war and the nation in its aftermath.

Even for those without a strong taste for questions of the war and public memory, there are other elements of the MoC-Appomattox that make it more than worth their while. The museum has on display items compelling to anyone interested in the war, including Lee’s sword and Patrick Cleburne’s frock coat. There are also many interactive exhibits, including one that allows visitors to look for the parole papers of Confederate ancestors. Finally, the museum’s use of contrasting scale, varied typography, lighting, and dimensionality makes the exhibits consistently engaging, kinetic, and stimulating.

Open only since March, the Appomattox branch of the Museum of the Confederacy still has room for improvement. But it already stands as a remarkable example of what substantive public history, imaginative curatorship, and cutting-edge museum design can achieve in informing and challenging our collective understanding of the Civil War.

Recently, in a comment posted to Yvonne Bivins’ essay on the Ainsworth-Smith-Knight family of Smith County, Mississippi. a reader mentioned an infamous neighborhood battle of the early nineteenth century that involved several members of the Ainsworth clan. Reminiscent of stories that abound in popular literature about the feuding Hatfields and McCoys, or, closer to home, the Sullivans of Smith County’s Sullivan’s Hollow, the Ainsworth-Windham feud ranks with the “best” in its portrayal of stereotypical Southern mayhem. My thanks to Yvonne for providing Renegade South with the transcript of this story. 

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

From the Ainsworth Trading Post

Smith County Reformer Raleigh, Mississippi Thursday, February 26, 1903


Of all the horrible battles into which Satan has ever had the pleasure of leading his forces, there never was one as far as our memory serves us in the history of the county of Smith, which breathes a more Satanic odor or beats a more demonical aspect than the one fought at the Jeffrey Ainsworth old place in the Southeastern part of Smith County near the line of Jasper county on last Saturday evening. We have heard of wars and rumors of war, but this was the biggest war ever fought on Smith county soil. This was a battle in which A.L. (Coon) Ainsworth and his two sons, Jesse and Sloney Ainsworth were arrayed against Anse Windham, in particular, and the other Windhams in general. It is claimed that over 100 gun and pistol shots were fired in this battle, in which Coon Ainsworth and his two sons, Jesse and Sloney were literally riddled with balls. The wounds are so severe that the victims are not expected to recover there from. No other human flesh was penetrated by balls except Anse Windham was slightly wounded in the side after he had emptied his six shooter and was retreating from the battleground in double-quick time.

It is remarkable that no more damage was done in the midst of such an array of balls flying hither and tether, cutting holes through the raiment of many persons and especially that of the Windhams. While human flesh was spared to a seemingly miraculous degree, yet the flesh of the dumb animals were not entirely spared. One horse, one yoke of oxen and a few dogs passed through the ordeal of this historical battle with many marks on their carcasses. This row or riot began at the close of a session of justice court presided over by Justice Andrew Bryant of Beat 2, in which Anse Windham had been proceeded against by Coon Ainsworth’s daughter in a case of bastardy which procedure resulted in the justice binding the accused over in a bond of $1000 to appear at the next term of circuit court to answer the complaint. It is said at this junction Coon Ainsworth kicked over the table, threw the justice docket out at the door and cursed out the justice of the peace, forbade any of the Windhams going on the bond and made an attack on Anse Windham and from that shooting began furiously. It is true that the enormity of the offense which Anse Windham had committed against the Ainsworth family and himself was enough to incense their feelings against his conduct beyond human utterance; for a man to seduce his sister-in-law in this way is wicked to the extreme. But one wrong can’t be corrected by committing another wrong, therefore Coon Ainsworth was not justifiable in letting the case go to trial and then tank up on mean whiskey and cause the shedding of so much blood. These two families of Ainsworths and Windhams related by blood as well as by affinity – hence the feud. Anse, Bill, Hiram, D. Windham and Jim Ainsworth, one of Y.E. Ainsworth’s sons, were brought in Tuesday by N.B. Boykin and G.M. Martin and committed to jail. They will have a preliminary trial here at Raleigh tomorrow. The committal of crime has reached an alarming point in Smith County and in nearly every case mean liquor plays a conspicuous part.

Smith County Reformer, Raleigh, Mississippi, Thursday, March 5, 1903

When court convened here last Friday for the preliminary trial of Anse Windham, Bill Windham and Jim Ainsworth, their cases were dismissed by the court for want of a prosecutor, and the defendants discharged. After that affidavits were made charging Anse and Bill Windham with the murder of Sloney Ainsworth; Anse and Bill Windham for assault and battery with intent to kill A.L. Ainsworth; Anse and Bill Windham for an assault with intent to kill Jesse Ainsworth; papers were issued for their arrest and preliminary trial set to be tried before A.L. Jones at Raleigh today. [final sentence unintelligible]

Smith County Reformer, Raleigh, Mississippi, Thursday, March 26, 1903

Dr. Hill, the attending physician, informs us that Coon Ainsworth who was so severely wounded at Ainsworth’s Store in the unfortunate shooting aggray which occurred on the 21st February 1903, with the Windhams, is improving and is likely to recover. He was shot in different places, but the wound made through the stomach is the most dangerous and difficult to manage. Jesse Ainsworth has about recovered from his wounds. It will be remembered that Sloney Ainsworth died from his wounds which he received at the same time about a week after the lamentable affray.


The following is Ed Payne’s third and final essay regarding the newly-rediscovered 1880 pension claim of Newt Knight, leader of the Knight Company of  “Free State of Jones” fame. Here, Ed takes us beyond Jones County, Mississippi, and examines the rules and shifting political alliances that dictated the generally dismal outcome of most claims of Southern loyalty to the Union filed in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

“We’ll all die guerrillas”:Southern Unionism under Scrutiny and Newt Knight’s Relief Bill of 1880

by Ed Payne

In his second petition for relief, submitted before Congress in 1880, Newt Knight requested compensation totaling $21,150 for himself and 54 other men.  The claimants had rebelled against Confederate authority in Jones County, Mississippi in late 1863 and fought a series of skirmishes against state militia and CSA troops.  Senator Blanche K. Bruce, the lone Republican remaining in the Mississippi delegation, introduced the bill.  It was referred to the Committee on Claims, from which it never emerged.  (Note 1)

The failure of Newt Knight’s 1880 Relief Bill—and of similar attempts in 1870, 1887, and 1891—needs to be considered in the context of postwar attitudes and politics.  The sentiments of Northern Republicans were shaped by anger over the toll exacted by the Civil War and what many perceived as a lack of Southern contrition in its aftermath.  As a result, those who had a financial stake in affirming wartime Unionism faced considerable skepticism.  From 1874 onward, difficulties arose from a different source: the re-emergence of Southern Democrats in Congress, many with strong ties to the former Confederacy.

The basic facts underlying Newt Knight’s petition are recounted in the Prologue to this series.  Knight decided that he and his men’s battle against Confederate authority, augmented by his postwar reputation as a stalwart Republican, merited compensation.  The 1880 Relief Bill requested payment for their “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 wording was both terse and oblique since Knight conceded in later depositions and interviews that his men had never been mustered into the United States Army, acting instead as partisans on behalf of the Union cause.

The Knight claim was just one of thousands emerging from the war ravaged South.  As soon as hostilities concluded, Southern civilians claiming Unionist sympathies began petitioning for reimbursement of property appropriated by the federal military.  Meanwhile, a significant number of Southern men had died or been disabled while serving in the Union Army.

Congress provided four means by which Southerners identifying themselves as loyal could seek compensation:

1) Union Army pensions.  Historian Richard N. Current estimated that 104,000 white males from the Confederate states who fought in the Union Army, including 2,700 recruited from Northern prisoner-of-war camps.  They generally fell under the series of laws passed by Congress to provide financial support for disabled Union soldiers and survivors of those who died in service.  However, a key restriction on these benefits, described below, would have serious implications for a number of these men.

2) Southern Claims Commission.  Established in 1871, the SCC had the narrow but contentious mission of validating claims by Southern loyalists for property requisitioned or seized by federal troops for military use.  In order to receive compensation, claimants underwent extensive investigations designed to expose the actual extent of their Unionism.

3) Private claims.  From its inception, Congress has had the power to introduce private legislation on behalf of constituents.  It quickly created a number of standing committees to evaluate these claims.  To be enacted, private bills had to be favorably reported out of committee, passed in identical form by both houses of Congress, and be signed into law by the President.

4) Court of Claims.  Congress established the Court of Claims in 1855 to lessen the burden of evaluating the deluge of private claims.  Over time Congress gradually expanded the scope and authority of the Court of Claims.  This was the body that issued the final ruling on Knight’s claim in 1900.

While Newt Knight did not seek Union Army pension benefits or redress through the Southern Claims Commission, the standards developed by those entities delineate political sentiments common in the postwar era.  As early as July of 1862, Congress inserted language into pension legislation excluding all persons who supported the Confederacy. This restriction was codified in 1873 as Section 4716 of the Revised Statutes, which stated:

“No money on account of pension shall be paid to any person, or to the widow, children, or heirs of any deceased person, who in any manner voluntarily engaged in, or aided, or abetted, the late rebellion against the authority of the United States.”

The Section 4716 prohibition, originally aimed at officers from the pre-war Army who had sided with the South, later applied to Union veterans with any prior Confederate service.  The exclusion ignored conscription laws enacted by the Confederacy beginning in April of 1862.  Southerners who opposed secession believed their enlistment in the wake of this legislation was not voluntary;  it simply allowed the enlistee to select his unit and avoid the stigma of conscription.  Congress refused to accept this line of reasoning and insisted that Southern soldiers either, a) voluntarily joined the Confederate military, or, b) had been conscripted, but still with a presumption of willing service.  It naturally followed that those who voluntarily participated in the rebellion were deemed traitors to the Union, not loyalists. (Note 2)

Hanson Walters of Jones County does not appear on the Knight Band rosters, but like many of its members he enlisted in the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry on 12 May 1862.  The number of men who joined the 7th Battalion at the same time indicates the coercive impact of the first Conscription Act.  Hanson served through the siege of Vicksburg but, after being paroled by Union forces, failed to report to the Confederate exchange camp.  He was declared AWOL as of 23 August 1863.

When troops entered the Piney Woods to round up Confederate deserters, Hanson headed south and, along with two hundred other Mississippians, joined the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry Regiment.  He remained a U.S. soldier until honorably discharged on 1 June 1866.  Three decades later, in 1898, sixty-one year old Hanson Walters applied for a Union disability pension citing rheumatism.  He was rejected under Section 4716 due to his earlier service in 7th Battalion.  In 1902 Congress finally exempted most Southern Union veterans from the disbarment.  Hanson re-applied and received a disability pension until his death on 24 Dec 1910.

Rejected pension application of Hanson Walters, veteran of the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry, based on prior Confederate service.  The notation reads, “Claimant rendered voluntary service in the C.S.A. as shown by his own affidavit & the report from the records of the War Dept.”

The postwar definition of loyalty is further exemplified in the work of the Southern Claims Commission.  Recall that the SCC evaluated claims arising from goods being commandeered by Union forces from loyal Southerners.  SCC officials developed an array of procedures to investigate the merits of each case.  Examiners disseminated notices of hearings so anyone who wished to dispute claimed Unionism could testify.  A standard set of fifty-one questions probed the full extent of wartime attitudes and actions.  A sampling of these questions indicates SCC tests for loyalty:

5.  On which side were your sympathies during the war and were they on the same side from beginning to end?

13.  Did you adhere to the Union cause after the States passed into rebellion, or did you go with your State?

46.  Were you in the Confederate army,  State Militia,  or any military or naval organization hostile to the United States? … If you claim that you were conscripted, when and where was it, how did you receive notice, and from whom, and what was the precise manner in which the conscription was enforced against you?  If you were never in the rebel army or other hostile organization, explain how you escaped service.

Endorsements from Union men in high positions counted for little.  SCC historian Frank W. Klingberg noted the case of a Mrs. Evans of Louisiana, the sole heir to her late father’s sugar plantation—whom she asserted was a loyalist.  She received a letter of support from Republican Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, a former Civil War general who had gained Southern infamy during his tenure as military commander over New Orleans.  Furthermore, the man serving as current military governor of New Orleans appeared as a witness on her behalf.  But testimony from neighbors and acquaintances cast doubts on the loyalty of the late Mr. Evans and the claim was rejected.

So were many others.  The strict standards employed by the SCC overcame the initial mistrust of Northern congressmen.  Over the course of its existence (1871-1880), the SCC evaluated 22,298 cases seeking compensation totaling $60,258,150.  Of these, only 7,092 passed investigative scrutiny (31.8%) with final federal payments totaling $4,636,930—7.7% of the original amount sought.

As the foregoing demonstrates, in the aftermath of the war Congress adopted a highly restrictive definition of wartime loyalty.  Claimants had to provide strong evidence of consistent support for the Union cause before and throughout the war, regardless of the perils of such a stance.  To have acquiesced to Confederate authority at any point during the conflict meant one forfeited a claim to loyalty.

Measured against this benchmark, the Newt Knight Relief Bill bore an unstated onus.  Of the 55 men listed, at least 35 (63.6%) served in the Confederate military, mostly in the period between May 1862 and August 1863.  Furthermore, 30 of these—including Newt Knight—belonged to a single unit: the 7th Battalion, Mississippi Infantry.  It seems clear that in the spring of 1862 few Piney Woods yeomen considered draft evasion a realistic option.  They became pawns in the conflict between two rival powers.  As a result, they were viewed by wartime Confederate officials as recalcitrant conscripts turned bushwhackers and by postwar federal officials as willing rebels who later shifted their loyalty.  (Note 3, 4)

The submission of the Newt Knight claim as a private relief bill did not circumvent these difficulties; in many ways it exacerbated them.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, nearly half a million relief petitions arrived in Congress.  This produced a chaotic process in which thousands of private bills competed for attention in each session.  Only the least contentious and most straightforward claims had some chance of surviving the legislative process, and the Knight Bill was neither.

The inauguration of Union military hero Ulysses S. Grant as president in 1868 raised further obstacles.  President Grant quickly came to resent what he deemed as Congressional meddling in matters best left to the proper agencies, such as the Pension Office and the War Department.  He referred questionable relief bills that survived the legislative process to the appropriate executive agencies for review.  If their findings were unfavorable, and they almost inevitably were, Grant either issued a formal veto message or else exercised a pocket veto.  Grant’s vigorous stance can be measured by the fact that his seventeen presidential predecessors vetoed a total of 88 legislative measures, while he alone vetoed 93.  Forty-three of these were private relief bills, of which Congress managed to override only three.

During Grant’s second term (1872-1876), the Congressional landscape experienced drastic changes.  In 1873 the nation plunged into a prolonged economic depression.  This, combined with a series of corruption scandals, resulted in extensive Republican losses during the Congressional elections of 1874.  Democrats gained 94 seats in the House of Representatives, becoming a majority with 62% of the membership. The new arrivals included 56 Democrats from the eleven states which had comprised the former Confederacy, bringing with them strong ideological ties to the Lost Cause.

This political upheaval held serious implications for the 1880 Newt Knight Relief Bill.  Mississippi Republican Senator Blanche K. Bruce, who introduced the bill, did so with full knowledge that politically resurgent white Democrats in his state had doomed his senatorial career.  The Knight Bill went to the Senate Committee on Claims, chaired by Missouri Democrat Francis Marion Cockrell.  During the Civil War,  Cockrell had joined the Confederate Army and risen to the rank of brigadier general.  He participated in the defense of Vicksburg, where many men from the 7th Battalion, Mississippi Infantry and other Piney Woods companies concluded their war was over, and never returned after their parole by the Union Army.  Francis Cockrell, on the other hand, served until the end of the war.  We might assume him not to be favorably disposed towards the petition of those who, in defense of their own private armistice, took up arms against the Confederacy.  The 1880 Newt Knight Relief Bill never emerged from his committee.

Statements outlining the burden of proof for former Confederate soldiers seeking to establish Union loyalty. (Decisions of the Department of Interior in Appealed Pension and Bounty-Land Claims, Vol 7 [Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895], 586.)

In 1895 another submission of the Newt Knight Relief Bill finally received a hearing before the Congressional Court of Claims.  Three decades after the events under review, however, government attorneys still avoided the core issue of whether partisan activities on behalf of the Union might justify payment, even if conducted by ex-Confederates.  Instead, they focused on exposing discrepancies in the fading memories of the aged witnesses and rebutting stories of a failed attempt by Union troops to muster the band.  The matter of Confederate service did emerge.  But when government witness Joel E. Welborn candidly acknowledged the Unionist sentiments of many men who had deserted his 7th Battalion command, the court attorney felt it best to drop the subject.  The Court of Claims issued a final denial of the Knight petition in 1900. (Note 5)

None of this is meant to discount the actions of the Knight Band in their place and time, but merely to underscore difficulties confronting his unusual quest for compensation.  The postwar Northern Republican definition of loyalty held no place for the grudging Confederate enlistees of 1862.   And later ex-Confederate lawmakers deemed wartime Unionism as treason to the Lost Cause.  If Newt Knight never understood the political obstacles which doomed his petitions, he eventually acknowledged their end result.  Talking to an interviewer a year before his death in 1922, he commented, “We’ll all die guerrillas, I’ll reckon . . . Always was inofficial.”


1.  Newt Knight, identified on rosters as captain of the unit, sought $2,000; those identified as lieutenants were listed for amounts ranging from $325 to $1,800; and those designated as privates for $300.  The variation in payments for the lieutenants resists explanation.   But dividing the individual amounts by the monthly pay rate for a Union captain ($115.50) and for enlisted men ($16) equates to back wages for approximately 18 months of service.

2.  The enactment of the Section 4716, Revised Statutes disbarment for those formerly in the Confederate military did not mean it could be rigorously enforced.  At war’s end, 17 Piney Woods widows filed for survivor benefits after their husbands died during service in the Union 1st New Orleans Infantry.  A search reveals that eight of these men had previously served in the Confederacy.  Nevertheless, all applications were approved.  By the late 1880s, the federal bureaucracy had made marked improvements in its ability to cross-check service records.  This produced an increasing number of denials of disability claims filed by aging Southern Union veterans such as Hanson Walters.

3.  Another perplexing matter are records showing that Newt Knight first enlisted for Confederate service in 1861, well in advance of conscription legislation.  He joined Capt. John L. Sanson’s Company of the 8th Mississippi Infantry on 17 August 1861 with the understanding he would be granted a one month furlough—from which he apparently never returned. Those listed on the relief bill who did not serve in the Confederacy for the most part avoided the conscription laws due to their youth and the community shift towards anti-Confederate sentiment by the summer of 1863: seven of those claimants were 14 or younger on the 1860 census, while another eight were 15 or 16 years old.

4.  Despite stringent requirements, records indicate some men in the Knight Band and elsewhere in the region could have passed the Congressional tests for consistent Union loyalty.  Among them were 1st New Orleans Infantry enlistees Riley J. Collins and Robert Spencer.

5.  For a detailed analysis of the government’s 1895 hearing, see Victoria Bynum, chapter four, Long Shadow of the Civil War; for a Q & A between the author and the University of North Carolina Press regarding this book, click here.


The following authors and works were used in compiling this post:  Victoria E. Bynum, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern dissent and its legacies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 77-96; Richard N. Current, Lincoln’s Loyalists: Union soldiers from the Confederacy (Chicago: Northwest University Press, 1992), 213-218; Thomas J. Knight, The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight and his Company and the Free State of Jones County (Laurel: Carolyn & Keith Horne [reprint of 1946 edition], 2009), 103; Frank W. Klingberg, “The Southern Claims Commission: A postwar agency in operation,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol 32, No 2 (Sep, 1945), 195-214; Charles E. Schamel, “Untapped resources: Private claims and private legislation in the Records of the U.S. Congress,” Prologue, Vol 27, No 1 (Spring, 1995) http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1995/spring/private-claims-1.html; and Margaret M. Storey, Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 237-253.

Information on the membership of the 44th Congress (1875-1877) is available on Wikipedia at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/44th_United_States_Congress;  data on presidential vetoes and a detailed list of those invoked by Ulysses S. Grant can be found at:  http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/presvetoes17891988.pdf

“Always the Gentleman”: Senator Blanche K. Bruce and Newt Knight’s Relief Bill of 1880

By Ed Payne

It’s unlikely that United States Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce of Mississippi ever met Newt Knight, the man on whose behalf he submitted a bill of relief in February of 1880.  Bruce only settled within the Magnolia State in 1869 and his Delta political base in Bolivar County was a world removed from the heavily forested Piney Woods of south Mississippi where Newt Knight lived.  A state Republican probably prevailed upon the senator to perform this favor.  Still, the 1880 relief bill is emblematic of a unique point in American history when an African-American U.S. Senator born in slavery and representing a Deep South state could put forth a claim on behalf of a white man who led local opposition to Confederate authority.

Largely forgotten today, Blanche Bruce left the Senate in 1881 as the only African-American to serve a full six-year term.  He retained this distinction until Edward Brooke of Massachusetts completed his first term in 1973 (Note 1).

Senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi. (Library of Congress)

Bruce was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1841.  His mother, Polly, worked as a domestic slave in the household of Pettus Perkinson and his wife, Rebecca Bruce Perkinson.  Previously, Polly had been owned by Rebecca’s father, Lemuel Bruce.  In addition to having two children with his wife, Lemuel produced five children with Polly.  Since Lemuel Bruce died in 1836, it is has been assumed that Pettus Perkinson was the father of Blanche and several of his siblings.  Throughout his public career, commentators noted that Bruce’s appearance suggested a lineage that was at least three-quarters white.

Blanche Bruce grew up in a twilight world between slave and slave-owner.  He and his half-brother Henry Clay Bruce later recollected childhoods mostly removed from the harsh realities of life for field slaves.  Before their white mistress Rebecca’s early death, she and Pettus had one child together, a son named William.   Blanche, only a year younger than his white half-brother, served as William’s playmate and received instruction from the same tutor.  Following his wife’s death, Pettus Perkinson moved his household to Missouri, back to Virginia, then to Mississippi before finally re-settling in northern Missouri.  Blanche remained with William until the latter enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861.  Only then did he make his way to Lawrence, Kansas, and thereby gain emancipation.  He became a school teacher, but after narrowly escaping the bloody raid on Lawrence led by Confederate renegade William Quantrill, moved to Hannibal, Missouri, where he established that state’s first school for African-American students.

After the Civil War, Blanche Bruce worked for a period as a porter on a steamboat plying the upper Mississippi River before resuming his education at Oberlin College in Ohio.  His scant finances did not permit him to obtain a degree and he left after a year.  But he began to hear of opportunities opening up for ambitious, educated African-Americans in the Deep South.  Changes achieved during Congressional Reconstruction included enfranchising freedmen, thereby causing a dramatic shift in the political equation.   Bruce arrived in Mississippi in February, 1869, with little more than the clothes on his back.

Blanche Bruce entered a Mississippi which had experienced a decade of warfare and social turmoil.  In the antebellum period the state’s economy centered on cotton and the slave-labor deemed necessary to produce it.  By 1860 slaves comprised 55.2% of the state population of 791,305, a percentage only exceeded by South Carolina (57.2%).  Slave ownership resided in the hands of 30,943 persons, but kinship and economic ties produced a much larger circle of those dependent upon the Peculiar Institution.  Nevertheless, as elsewhere in the South, there were regions of sparse slave ownership, usually hilly lands not conducive to plantation agriculture.  Mississippi had two such areas: the northeast corner of the state and the Piney Woods.

Following close on the heels of South Carolina, Mississippi seceded from the Union in 1861 and began mobilizing for war.  A minority of citizens retained loyalty to the Union, but soon found it prudent to keep such views to themselves.  Thousands of young men joined military companies which formed in the spring and summer of 1861.  Those less infected with martial ardor and with families dependent on their labor, rather than that of slaves, often did not enlist until confronted with passage of the Confederacy’s first Conscription Act in April of 1862.

By summer of 1863, Union troops had penetrated the interior of the state and on July 4, after a 47 day siege, captured Vicksburg and gained control of the Mississippi River.   A number of Confederate soldiers who lacked an economic stake in slavery decided they had done their duty and returned to their small farms.  In desperate need of manpower, Confederate troops made periodic attempts to round up these deserters and compel them back into service.  In some cases they were met with armed resistance.  Newt Knight’s compensation claim stemmed from such circumstances.

The war ended in April 1865, having devastated the state’s economy and resulted in the death of approximately 25,000 of its men.  But political leaders conceded little beyond military defeat.  That fall legislators, unnerved by a majority population of newly free slaves and heedless of Northern opinion, passed the South’s first Black Codes.  These codes sought to retain many of the legal and social restraints of slavery.  They and other evidence of Southern intransigence galvanized Northern voters, who increased Republican strength in the Congressional elections of 1866.  Congress subsequently imposed Military Reconstruction across the South.

General Adelbert Ames, a native of Maine, was appointed provision governor of Mississippi.  He implemented the Congressional mandates to remove ex-Confederates from offices and to assemble a convention to draft a new state constitution—one which repealed the Black Codes and enfranchised freedmen.  Ames assumed leadership of the state’s radical Republican faction.  However, his uncompromising policies generated growing animosity among moderate Republicans led by former slave-owner turned scalawag James L. Alcorn.

Bruce arrived amid this political maelstrom and quickly came to the attention of Alcorn, then campaigning for governor.   True to rumors that led him to the state, Bruce found quick entrée into Republican politics.  Alcorn won the governorship and supported Bruce in obtaining the post of Sergeant-at-Arms in the Mississippi legislature.  The legislature elected Ames as U.S. Senator, with moderate Republicans no doubt delighted to see him relocated to Washington, D.C.  (Until 1913 U.S. Senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than by popular vote.)

Governor Alcorn next named Bruce as tax assessor for Bolivar County, in the fertile Mississippi Delta.  Since tax assessors received a 7% commission, it promised to be a lucrative post.  African-Americans composed 80% of the county’s population, while land ownership remained concentrated in the hands of white planters.  The planters resented Republican efforts to shift more of the tax burden onto their shoulders.  Inserted into this volatile environment, Bruce proved to be honest, industrious, and a model of tact.   So much so that within a short time several white planters came forward to post the $15,000 bond necessary for Bruce to run for the combined office of county Sheriff and Tax Collector.  Bruce won the election and also received an appointment as county superintendent of education. In the latter role he achieved notable improvements in the Bolivar County school system and managed to convince key planters that a labor force with at least rudimentary education would be more productive.

Over the course of a few short years Bruce proved himself to be what many white Southerners emphatically insisted could not exist: an energetic, educated, and efficient African-American public official.  Historian William C. Harris noted:

“In view of the political and racial hostilities of the postwar South and the continuation of the white-dominated plantation economy in the Delta, [Bruce’s] success in allaying local planter fears was a remarkable achievement.”

Planter confidence in Bruce further increased when, in 1874, his growing prosperity enabled him to purchase 640 acres of land and establish his own plantation operation.

The careful efforts of Bruce to maintain cordial relations with both the moderate and radical factions of his party ended during the 1874 gubernatorial race.  In November 1871 James Alcorn resigned his post of governor to serve as a U.S. Senator alongside his nemesis Adelbert Ames.   The two men returned to Mississippi in early 1873 to battle for political dominance in the governor’s race.  The Alcorn moderates sought a biracial constituency, whereas the Ames radicals felt they could win by solely appealing to the state’s black majority—a constituency who had grown suspicious of the moderates’ intensions.  With both candidates offering serious enticements to garner Bruce’s support, he was forced into a decision.  He sided with the Ames faction.

As Bruce had correctly deduced, overwhelming support from African-American voters, combined with sullen non-participation by many whites, allowed Ames to defeat Alcorn.  Bruce had made his ambitions known and in February of 1874 claimed his reward when the Republican dominated legislature elected him as U.S. Senator.  His term did not commence until thirteen months later in March of 1875.

Bruce hardly had time to savor his victory before his power-base within the state began to crumble.  Sensing that Northern commitment to Reconstruction was waning, Mississippi Democrats made an all-out push for power during the summer of 1875, combining appeals for white racial solidarity with a well-organized campaign of voter intimidation.  A mere eight months after Bruce took his seat in the Senate, the November 1875 elections effectively ended Republican control at the county and statewide level.  Faced with a bill of impeachment, Governor Adelbert Ames negotiated his resignation from office in March of 1876 and left the state.

Senator Bruce sought to reverse the tide by supporting a Congressional investigation of the 1875 Mississippi elections and protesting the removal of federal troops at a time of increasing racial violence in the state.  But these efforts yielded no concrete results.  Turning his attention to more productive avenues, Bruce consistently supported claims for pensions and bounties due African-American soldiers and their families for Union service.  He aided his region through membership on the Committee on the Improvement of the Mississippi River and its Tributaries.  In 1879 he spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Bill, noting his “large confidence in the strength and assimilative powers of our institutions.”  Ever the voice of conciliation, he formed a mutually cordial relationship with L.Q.C. Lamar—the man who had drafted the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession and was elected junior Senator by the now Democrat-controlled state legislature in 1877.

Given his support of Civil War claims on behalf of African-Americans veterans, his Republican Party affiliation, and perhaps also his lame duck status, Senator Bruce seemed a logical choice to introduce the Newt Knight claim in 1880.  Not being a member of the Committee on Claims, however, he could do little more.

Blanche Bruce had a mixed reputation among African-Americans during and after his senatorial term.  His mild manner and amiable disposition did not compare favorably with the strident oratory of his contemporary Frederick Douglass.  After his marriage in 1878 to Josephine Wilson, a light-skinned African-American socialite, the black press charged that Bruce seemed more interested in advancing into white high society than addressing the plight of African-Americans in the South.  William C. Harris noted:

“Ever the harmonizer, Bruce refused to admit, what the black masses and their local leaders knew, that the Reconstruction dream of black assimilation into white American society had died with the collapse of Reconstruction in the South and the abandonment of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution.”

Facing the loss of his political base in Mississippi, Bruce cultivated Republican Party connections in Washington, D.C.  After his senatorial term ended in 1881, he gained a presidential appointment as Register of the Treasury.  Bruce noted with delight and satisfaction that his signature now appeared on U.S. paper currency.  He later opened a law practice and lectured widely on racial matters.  During two Republican administrations Bruce served as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, the position he held when he died of diabetes on 17 March 1898.

Blanche K. Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram R. Revels, “Heroes of the Colored Race,” 1881 lithography (Library of Congress)

A eulogy published in The Colored American delineated the ambiguous legacy Bruce left within the African-American community:

“His strong point as a politician lay in the fact that he was a consummate strategist, one who made politics the study of his life, and who applied all the arts known to practical politics to compass his ends . . . . He was the personification of courtesy and courtliness, and his well known tact in emergencies saved him from many embarrassments.  These qualities endeared him to white men, particularly those who believe that the Negro has a place and should keep it.  Mr. Bruce was not an aggressive leader.  He believed rather in moral suasion and the arts of diplomacy… (Frederick) Douglass and (John M.) Langston were his superiors in intellect and scholarship, but he was a better politician than either…”

The Deep South where he first rose to power had embraced the policies of Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement of African-Americans.  Nevertheless, the Raymond, Mississippi, Hinds County Gazette felt the obligation to note Bruce’s passing and describe him as “always the gentleman, graceful, polished, self-assured and never humble.”

Note 1:  Two notable African-American contemporaries of Blanche K. Bruce were Hiram R. Revels and John Roy Lynch.  Hiram R. Revels completed the unexpired senatorial term of Jefferson Davis and John Roy Lynch was elected to three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Against Southern Reconstruction stereotypes, all three were conceded even by hostile contemporaries as highly capable.  After John Roy Lynch presided as Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1872, it was a white Democrat who moved for the adoption of a resolution in his honor.  The Jackson, Mississippi Clarion observed, “His bearing in office has been so proper, and his ruling in such marked contrast to the partisan conduct of the ignoble whites of his party… that the conservatives cheerfully joined in the testimonial.”  Lynch later authored The Facts of Reconstruction.  [Clarion quote from James Wilford Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (New York: MacMillan, 1901), 296.]


The most thorough scholarly assessment of the life of Blanche K. Bruce is Sadie Daniel St. Clair, “The National Career of Blanche Kelso Bruce” (PhD diss., New York University, 1947).  Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation Express. (AAT 0000938).

Other academic studies include William C. Harris, “Blanche K.  Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist,” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, ed. Howard N. Rabinowitz (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 3-38; Melvin I. Urofsky, “Blanche K. Bruce: United States Senator, 1875-1881,” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol 29, No 2 (May, 1967), 118-141; Kenneth Eugene Mann, “Blanche Kelso Bruce: United States Senator without a constituency,” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol 38, No 2 (May, 1976), 183-198.

A recent popular account of the life of Blanche K. Bruce, his wife, and their descendants is Lawrence Otis Graham, The Senator and the Socialite (New York: Harper, 2006).

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.  .  .  .”


Society of Civil War Historians

Biennial Meeting

The Society of Civil War Historians will host their third biennial academic conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kentucky, on June 14 through 16, 2012. The goal of the conference is to promote the integration of social, military, political, and other forms of history on the Civil War era among historians, graduate students, and professionals who interpret history in museums, national parks, archives, and other public facilities.

In just a few days, I’ll be attending the SCWH Convention, where I’ll chair and comment on the panel entitled “Noted Guerrillas, Fanatical Jayhawkers, and the Borders of War: Memory and Origins of Guerrilla War History.” This panel features the following works of original research by several rising young scholars:

Matthew C. Hulbert, University of Georgia, Writing Missouri’s Irregular History: How to Remember “This Damnable Guerrilla Warfare”

Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, Appalachian State University, “He Depended on Me to Watch”: Annie Brown, Housekeeper and “Outlaw Girl”

Joseph M. Beilein, Jr., University of Missouri, Columbia, “Nothing but Truth is History”: William E. Connelley. William H. Gregg, and Pillaging of Guerrilla History

Brian D. McKnight of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, and author of Confederate Outlaw: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia, will also comment.

To visit the SCWH website, click here

Vikki Bynum


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