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The following essay is crossposted on the special Civil War Sesquicentennial website hosted by the University of North Carolina Press.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

Reflections on the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War

Victoria Bynum

As a historian of the Southern Civil War home front, I am continually confronted by the destruction of communities, as well as the deaths on and off the battlefield, that the Civil War visited upon the United States.  As we commemorate such an important event on its 150th anniversary, it is important to remind ourselves that our system of government is capable of stunning failures of leadership as well as inspiring moments of greatness.

A popular sound bite among our politicians today—one repeated ad nauseam—is that Congress should no longer “kick the can down the road” in regard to this problem or that problem. Well, slavery was the “can” that our antebellum politicians kicked down the road. Slavery did not emerge suddenly as a problem during the sectional crisis of the 1850s, it was a problem–a contradiction of our Revolutionary principles–from the nation’s inception. Over time it became ever more thoroughly embedded in our national economy, so fundamental to the wealth of slaveholders and cotton merchants that they employed the most virulent racism to justify its continuance.

Yet despite the thousands of books written about the Civil War, one wonders if the lessons of this war will ever truly be understood or agreed upon. In today’s political discourse, we hear debate over whether or not the flying of the Confederate flag is inherently racist, or whether individual states might nullify an act of Congress. In fact, we even hear talk of secession movements in the name of protecting state sovereignty against the so-called tyranny of a federal government that just happens to be headed by the first African American president. 

This return to Confederate principles is pushed by the new “tea party” wing of the Republican Party—the same party that symbolized Big Government in the 1850s; the same party that urged the federal government to use its power to limit slavery’s expansion into the western territories of the United States. While neither that Republican Party, nor its presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln, advocated slavery’s abolition in 1860, the party’s belief in the superior power of the federal government, coupled with an aggressive abolitionist movement that urged party leaders to end slavery once and for all, finally convinced southern proslavery Democrats to secede.

Over 150 years ago, Northern warnings of a “slave power conspiracy” were met by Southern warnings about the North’s determination to dominate and transform cherished southern institutions. Southern concerns about the effects that a wage-based, industrial society would have on a rural society of independent farmers effectively masked slavery as the preeminent cause of war. And so, southern white soldiers, the majority of whom owned no slaves, fought for principles of liberty, honor, and a way of life that seemed threatened by a too-powerful federal government.

Still, southerners were never unified in their support for the Confederate cause. In regions throughout the South, Unionists, dissenters, and deserters—not just men, but neighborhoods of men, women, children, and slaves, engaged in inner civil wars against the Confederacy. Newt Knight, the leader of a band of deserters in piney woods Mississippi, is the most famous of these renegades. For well over a century, people have debated whether he was a traitor and an outlaw, or a Unionist and patriot.

I believe such debates miss a larger point: that Newt Knight was only one of a sizable minority of nonslaveholders throughout the South who concluded it was the Confederacy that threatened their way of life—in fact, their very lives. With crucial support from their families, many of these men organized and armed themselves to fight against the Confederacy.  Others joined the Union Army.

Unless we believe that the Confederate cause—and make no mistake, its ultimate cause was the preservation and expansion of slavery—was a just one that served the interests of the Southern people, most of whom either owned no slaves or were slaves, how can we help but be inspired by those who refused any longer to serve?

In commemorating the American Civil War, I hope that we will reflect on what lessons the Civil War teaches us about political motives, people’s economic interests, and the meaning of dissent—and that we apply those lessons to the similarly toxic and dangerous political environment that threatens us today.

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Newt Knight by VB

Visitors to Renegade South often express interest in where Newt Knight and his band of deserters hid out during the Civil War; there’s even an essay devoted to the question on this blog. Recently, Jones County historian Ed Payne pointed out to me that a pretty good description of the location was provided by local citizen Ruby Huff during the 1930s. Huff was an unabashed admirer of the Knight Company, and I quoted liberally from her essay in my book, FREE STATE OF JONES, to demonstrate how vividly the story remained seared in the minds of  local people.

Ruby Huff’s essay was part of the Works Projects Administration’s (WPA) historical research on Covington County, Mississippi. My thanks to Ed Payne for suggesting that I reprint it on Renegade South. The section that describes the location of “Deserters’ Den” appears below in italics.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

“A Skirmish – Cavalry versus Deserters – Where in Newt Knights men raid Lowrey’s Raiders”

By Mrs. Ruby Huff

After the 20 Negro Act was passed, by the Confederacy, the men, to whom fighting (in so one side a struggle as the Civil War was) was abominable and seemingly very un-called for, became rebellious; therefore, after the damnable siege and slaughter at Vicksburg many officers, privates and younger recruits left the lines of battle to join a rank of men, who dare to rebel; these rebels were termed deserters, at many points in the south these men had haunts suitable for protection; because of this act of their desertion at so critical a period in the struggle enraged higher officers to the extent that orders were given to the cavalry to bring the men back or shoot them dead in their tracks.

Many skirmishes and drives were staged in Jones and Covington Counties because the notorious deserter leader, Newt Knight and his cohorts lived near the boundaries of these counties and the most outstanding hide out or secret haunt intersects the boundary between the two counties; this historical land mark (unorthodox) is known as Deserters’ Den Lake and is situated about .5 mile east of Leaf River (Reddoch’s Ferry) Bridge south of Highway 84; to the general public this unique natural feature is unknown, but in its course of time many a weird tale, many a heart rending sob and much beautiful bravery has centered around this particular protector.  The lake is situated so the entrance faced the old Reddoch’s Ferry, another mark of history now so contritely in the background.

While in the reminiscent trend let me retell of a skirmish or drive that marked quite a turning point in General Lowrey’s * dare-devil squad of Cavalry men.

In May of ’65, the Cavalry under the leadership of General Lowery * decided to break camp at Jimmy Knight’s old mill which was located on the Etahoma part of Big Creek above Gitano, to gain trail back toward Raleigh, the County seat of Smith where a Confederate Divisional Headquarter and a hospital (now Harrison Hotel) were located; in order to get to Raleigh from their location in Jones, they had to sallie forth to Reddoch’s Ferry, be ferried across Leaf River, then cross Cohay at the old Jackson Trail Ford near Hot Coffee (bridge now in construction at the point on U.S. Highway #35).

The Cavalry had done much harm while encamped at the old mill in the way of robbing helpless widows of their last bit of “grub”, chasing down and slaying innocent men who knew nothing of the Deserters, too, of unmercifully hanging and slaying the Deserters without so much as giving them a chance to return to service or make explanation.  This had enraged the Deserter Crew, so much that when the signal was given that Lowery’s bunch was crossing the ferry about fifty Deserters, who knew the lay of the land quite well, slipped hurriedly through the old Jackie Knight’s home field, swam to Cohay and rushed into secreted hiding places in and around the old Ford and when the tramp, tramp of the weary men in uniform about a thousand strong, neared the banks and ventured into the water one brave Deserter hollered “Newt here they air”, at which signal the Deserters shook the bushes and dispersed tumultuously into a panic and simultaneously Newt fired a few wild shots, the “rookus” was, so unexpected and so riotous the 1000 strong Cavalry did pretty much like ole’ sis’ cow in Uncle Remus’ tales “dey hist deir tales and away dey flewd.”

Sometimes this spirit of the South, gets so unsouthy as to want to clap my hands and say three cheers for the most daring troop that ever tramped the Southern soil—the Deserters

“The Deserters”

The Deserters, were men, honest good and true, men, who liked to live and let live as well as I or you.  Men, who were hounded in chase, like creatures of the lower animal race.  No home, no church, no school could withhold, The Cavalry from those ill-treated pioneers out in the cold.  So refuge these much abused citizens did take, in the protecting arms of Mother Nature’s (Deserters’ Den) Lake.

*Huff was referring to Col. Robert Lowry

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Recently, I received an email message from Richard A. Jermyn, Jr., whose great-great grandfather and great grandfather both participated in Confederate Col. Robert Lowry’s raid on the Unionist/deserter stronghold of Jones County, Mississippi, during the Civil War.

The Jermyn family was from Handsboro and Mississippi City of Coastal Mississippi, where James Jermyn was actively engaged in trade between Mississippi City and New Orleans. “Mobile, the Mississippi Coast, and New Orleans,” writes descendant Richard Jermyn, “were intimately tied together via coastal shipping, . . . . Handsboro and Mississippi City were centers of commerce in the region up to the Civil War.” Great-great grandfather James, “born in Yarmouth, England, was a cabin boy on a British ship, jumped ship in New Orleans at the age of nine years old, fought in the Mexican war, eventually settled in Handsboro/Mississippi City as a schooner/packet boat captain, and was enlisted [in the Confederate Army] for the duration of the Civil War.” (1)

 In spring 1861, James Jermyn enlisted in Co. E of the 20th Mississippi Infantry (“Adams Rifles” of Harrison County), which was later joined with the 6th Mississippi Regiment to quell unrest in the Jones County region of the state. Later, his son, Robert Alfred Jermyn, enlisted in the same company. I find it particularly interesting that the father and son participated in the Lowry raid as regular soldiers, and thus might have offered a different perspective on events than the two officers, Col. Lowry of the 6th Miss. Reg’t., and Col. William N. Brown of the 20th Miss. Inf., who also provided eye-witness accounts.  

Alas, despite the fact that James Jermyn’s narrative diary survived the war, and despite a note that he wrote to his wife Samantha from Knight’s Mill on May 5, 1864 (just following the Lowry raid), James provided few details about the raid itself.  What he does provide, however, is possibly the only written day-by-day description of the men’s movements during the course of that raid. For those details alone, the diary of James Jermyn is invaluable. (2)  Portions of that diary are reproduced below, with original spelling and punctuation left intact.

 On April 14, James Jermyn wrote:

Left camp near Raleigh [Smith Co., MS] at 11 a.m. marched 12 miles and rested about 2 hours and then Scouted all night.

On April 15, he reported that his unit had

Stopped at Mr. Rob’t Hawthorn’s at sunrise and slept in the Ginroom till 12M when we marched to the Leaf River and crossed at Mr. Blackwell’s and marched to Knight’s Mills & Bivouaked Dist 8 miles.

At that point, the two units were amid deserters. All three of the above surnames—Hawthorn (Hathorn), Blackwell, and Knight—may be found among men listed on Newt Knight’s roster.

On the 17th, James wrote in somewhat unclear language that Co. E had

Left camp near Knight’s Mills and deployed as Skirmishers & drove Black Creek to the mouth crossed Tallahoma creek and marched about 3 mile and Bivouaked at night.

On April 18, he wrote, the men

Left at sunrise deployed skirmishers and drove the rest of Tallahoma & Tallahala Creeks and then marched to Ellisville and rested until 4AM.

On April 19,

Left Ellisville at Daylight marched 3 miles and then deployed skirmishers. Skirmished about 10 miles up Tallahala and then marched 8 miles to Mile’s Mills & Bivoaked.

On April 20,

Left Mile’s Mills at Sunrise and marched 7 miles and Bivoaked at Copeland’s Mills at 11 A.M. and marched 16 miles crossed Bogohoma and Bivoaked near Mr. Williamson’s place.

On April 25,

Left our Bivoak at Sunrise and marched about 5 miles S.E. and rested till 4 P.M. when we marched back to Tallahala and guarded the Fords and foot logs & Bridges and drove the swamps with dogs marched in all about 21 miles sweeping Bogohoma 3 or 4 times.

On April 26,

Left our posts on Tallahala and marched about 2 miles and Bivoaked about 1 mile from the Widow P(?)ouilk’s Place.

On April 27,

Left our Bivoak at 10 A.M. marched a 10 miles and Bivoaked near Wm Hodges farm in the N.W. corner of Wayne County.

On April 28,

Left our Bivoak at 10 A.M. marched a____mile and deployed as Skirmishers and Skirmished 8 miles in the Forks to Thompson’s Creeks then marched 4 miles and Bivoaked at dark on Little Thompson Creek near the Bridges.

On April 29,

Left Bivoak at 12 a.m. marched 1 mile and deployed as Skirmishers and Skirmished 8 miles and then marched 4 miles down the Creek and Bivoaked in Perry County.

On April 30,

Started at Sunrise and marched____miles and Bivoaked near Mr. Finche’s in Wayne County.

On May 1,    

Left our Bivoak at 8 a.m. marched 3 miles South deployed as Skirmishers, Skirmished ___ miles then marched 4 miles & Bivoaked at Henderson’s Farm in Green County.

Finally, the skirmishes ended. On May 2, Jermyn reported, we

left our Bivoak at 7 a.m. and marched 25 miles and Bivoaked at night at Mr. Wm. McGillberries on Bogohoma Jones County.

On May 4,

Left our Bivoak at Mr. McGillberries at 6 ½ a.m. and marched to Tallahala Creek by 12 Rested 2 hours At 2 P.M. Marched to Ellisville and out on Raleigh road 6 miles & Bivoaked. Dist 31 miles.

On May 5,

Started at Daylight and marched to Knights Mills by 10 a.m. Dist 10 miles.

It was on this date that James Jermyn wrote the following words to his wife, Samantha, in which he surely referred to the Jones County raid when he alluded to “very arduous duty,” but now believed that “prospects look brighter than they have for a long time”:

Dear Wife, I added these few lines to you informing you that I am enjoying a reasonable position of good health, and hope this will meet you enjoying the same blessing. Since I last wrote to you we have been performing very arduous duty from which we have just arrived at camp. I have not received a letter from you since the 4th or 5th of March last. I have no news to write you of interest though our prospects look brighter than they have for a long time and hope this year will bring about peace. Alfred is well I expect he will write to you. All the rest of the boys are in good health. Give my love to all. Write to me the first opportunity you have and believe me your ever Affectionate Husband, James Jermyn. (3)

On May 7,

left Knights Mills at 7 a.m. and marched 26 miles to Bivouac 1 mile north of Tallahala.

On May 8,

Started at Daylight passed through Paulding at 7 A.M. and Bivoucked at 5 ½ miles from Enterprise at 5 P.M. Dist 20 miles.

On May 9, James Jermyn reported that Co E,  20th Miss. Inf., had left Mississippi for Alabama:

Started at Daylight and marched to Enterprise at 12 M left on the Rail Road from Maridian—here shifted cars and left Maridian [Meridian] at 4 P.M. on the Ala & Miss Rail road and arrived at Bigbee River at 10 P.M. went up the river about 4 miles on the Steamer Marengo, and landed at the Parole Camps near Demopolis Alabama and Bivoucked.

Although James Jermyn reported his health as “good,” and their son Alfred as “well,” to his wife on May 5, 1864, the war took a great toll on both. According to Richard, his great grandfather (Alfred) “lost all of his toes to frostbite—because of no shoes—and was said could not wear shoes again.” James Jermyn died during the year following the war.

Richard Jermyn offers this speculation about his ancestors’ war experiences:

My personal/general feeling is that the people of Coastal Mississippi who fought in that war, were thoroughly whipped, felt that the war’s intense suffering and misery—marching, hunger, cold, capture, exchange, fighting, disease, sickness, death, exhaustion, etc.—for what seemed like forever, was all for naught, and they were not particularly proud of some of the things that they did or witnessed and they didn’t really want to talk about it. They were proud that they served—that they didn’t suffer the embarrassment of having shirked their duty. Although the Mississippi Coast had small amounts of slavery, most of the men who fought were simply fighting because it was expected for the men to do their duty. It was said that the women would have nothing to do with deserters or men who avoided their service duty.

Of course, many of the Piney Woods men who refused to serve the Confederacy believed themselves to be the South’s true patriots—and their women supported them, too. When one moves beyond issues of loyalty and motive, however, one sees Southern as well as American men caught in a brutal civil war that pitted them against one another, and which brought lasting destruction and poverty to the South. 

The words of author Lionel F. Baxter, whose grandfather, Marion Francis Baxter (also from Handsboro, MS), likewise served in Co. E of the 20th Miss. Inf. during Col. Robert Lowry’s raid on Jones County, capture well the grisly nature of guerrilla warfare. In his 1977 biography of his grandfather, based on extensive research in the National Archives, Baxter wrote that Jones County deserters were “as ruthless a pack of bushwhackers as any found in the border states.” Still, he pointed out, Capt. Wm. B. Thompson of Co. H, 6th Miss. Reg’t., was “appalled by the sight” of the hanging of four young men who were court-martialed by Col. Lowry after they “shot into our troops” (p. 87). (4)

Whether privates or officers, probably few Confederate soldiers would have objected to executing deserters who shot at them from the swamps. Capt. Thompson’s misgivings, however, reflected the raw, personal nature of home front battles. According to Lionel Baxter, his grandfather Marion had “similar reservations” as did Thompson about the inner civil war in Piney Woods Mississippi that spring of 1864. As he looked back on his unit’s hanging of a group of deserters that included a boy of 16 (Baxter’s own age), he concluded that “it was a mistake to have hanged that boy as undoubtedly he was led into that kind of life by the older men” (p. 87). As Lionel Baxter noted, this was the “seamy, unromantic side of warfare” (p. 88).

My deep thanks to Richard Jermyn for sharing precious family documents with Renegade South!

Vikki Bynum

1. Email, Richard A. Jermyn, 23 Dec. 2010, to Victoria Bynum.

2. “The Sojourns of James Jermyn During the War Against the Southern Confederacy, 1861 to 1864,” Transcribed copy of diary by David T. Hale, Biloxi, Mississippi, April 1995. Copy provided to Victoria Bynum, moderator of Renegade South, by Richard A. Jermyn, Jr.

3.  Excerpt from letter by James Jermyn, 5 May 1864. In a letter to one of his daughters, James added this note to his wife, Samantha (Email from Richard A. Jermyn, Jr., 3 Jan. 2011, to Victoria Bynum).

4. The War Service of Marion Francis Baxter, C.S.A, by Lionel Francis Baxter & John Medders, published by John W. Baxter.

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I’m pleased to announce that Renegade South was recently listed as one of the top Civil War blogs by Onlinecourses.net! To visit the Online Courses site, simply click the certificate below.

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Note from Moderator: Phebe Crook belonged to the same North Carolina community of Unionist women that I’ve been researching and writing about for 25 years as did Martha Sheets and Caroline, Sarah, and Clarinda Hulin.  Thanks to exhaustive research by historians in local, state, and federal records, we now know that women were active participants in the American Civil War. Particularly in southern regions that displayed strong Unionist sentiment, ordinary farm women like Phebe engaged in inner civil wars that centered around protesting Confederate policies that claimed the lives of their fathers, sons, and husbands, and which threatened them with impoverishment and even starvation.


Phebe Crook and the Inner Civil War in North Carolina

By Vikki Bynum


On September 15, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, a young unmarried woman of the Randolph/Montgomery County area of North Carolina, wrote an unusually detailed and articulate letter of protest to Governor Zebulon Vance. Phebe Crook began her letter with a polite salutation:

Mr. Vance, Dear Sir,  I imbrace this opertunity of writing you a few lines in order to inform you of the conduct of our oficers and leading men of this county as you are appointed govenor of the state and [because] I Beleave that you are willing to Do all that you can in trying to protect the civil laws and writs of our county.

Then Phebe got down to business, providing the governor with her eye-witness account of Confederate militia sent to her community to enforce conscript laws and arrest deserters:

Whearas I believe you are a Man of high feelings and one that is willing to Do your duty in every respect, I will now inform you of some of the conduct of our Militia officers and Magistrats of this county. Thir imployment is hunting Deserters, they say, and the way they Manage to find them is taking up poore old grey headed fathers who has fought in the old War.

Seizing fathers and grandfathers was one means by which Confederate soldiers sought to learn the whereabouts of men who evaded or deserted Confederate service. But according to Phebe,

Some of them [men who evaded service] has done thir Duty in trying to support both the army and thir family, [but] these men [home guard and militia] that has remained at home ever since the War commenced are taking them up and keeping them under gard without a mouthful to eat for severl days.

Militia and home guard also tortured deserters’ wives, claimed Phebe, by

taking up the women and keeping them under gard and Boxing thir jaws and nocking them about as if they were bruts and keeping them from thir little children that they hav almost wore our thir lifes in trying to make surport for them. And some of thes women is in no fix to leav homes and others have little suckling infants not more than 2 months old.

Nor were children exempt from torture. According to Phebe, Confederate militia were

taking up little children and Hanging them until they turn black in the face trying to make them tell whear thir fathers is When the little children knows nothing atall about thir fathers. Thir plea is they hav orders from the Govenner to do this and they also say that they hav orders from the govner to Burn up thir Barns and houses.

It seemed to Phebe that the mission of the Confederacy was to

Destroy all that [families] hav got to live on Because they hav a poor wore out son or husband that has served in the army, some of them for 2 or 3 years and is almost wore out and starved to Death and has come home to try to take a little rest. [Deserters are] Doing no body any harm and are eating thir own Rations, [whereas the home guard] has Remained at home ever since the Ware commenced, [and] take thir guns and go in the woods and shoot them down without Halting them as if they war Bruts or murderers.  [They] also pilfer and plunder and steal on thir creadits.

Phebe Crook ended her letter by asserting her own credentials:

As for my self, I am a young Lady that has Neither Husband nor father no Brother in the woods, But I always like to [see] peple hav jestis and I think if thes Most powerfull fighting men that has always remained at home would go out and fight the enemy and let thes poore wor out soldiers Remain at [home] a little while and take a little rest that we would have Better times. But they [Confederate militia and home guard] say that if they are called they will Lie in the Woods until they Rot Before they will go to the war. And now why should thes men have the power to punish men for a crime [when] they would Be guilty of the same?

Although she began and ended her letter with a tone of politeness, Phebe now demanded that Governor Vance respond to her description of the desperate situation faced by the ordinary war-weary people of the North Carolina Piedmont:

So I will close By requesting you to answer this note if you pleas, and answer it imediately.

Yours Truly,

Phebe Crook

Direct to Phebe Crook, Salem Church, Randolph County, N.C.

NOTE: If there are descendants or kinfolk of Phebe Crook among readers of Renegade South, I would love to hear from you. I have not been able to trace Phebe’s whereabouts after the war. I do know that she was the daughter of William and Rachel Crook and the sister of Clarinda Crook Hulin. After the war, Clarinda and her husband, Nelson Hulin, moved to Kentucky.

Vikki Bynum

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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.

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I am delighted to post historian Paul Escott’s review of my new book, recently published on H-Net’s Civil War forum!

Vikki Bynum, moderator

http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29769

Victoria E. Bynum. The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 272 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0; ISBN 978-0-8078-9821-5.

Reviewed by Paul Escott (Wake Forest University)
Published on H-CivWar (May, 2010)
Commissioned by Matthew E. Mason

Escott on Bynum

“Few histories,” writes Victoria Bynum, “are buried faster or deeper than those of political and social dissenters” (p. 148). The Long Shadow of the Civil War disinters a number of remarkable dissenters in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas. It introduces the reader to stubbornly independent and courageous Southerners in the North Carolina Piedmont, the Mississippi Piney Woods, and the Big Thicket region around Hardin County, Texas. These individuals and family groups were willing to challenge their society’s coercive social conventions on race, class, and gender. They resisted the established powers when dissent was not only unpopular but dangerous–during the Civil War and the following decades of white supremacy and repressive dominance by the Democratic Party. Their histories remind us of two important truths: that the South was never as monolithic as its rulers and many followers tried to make it; and that human beings, though generally dependent on social approval and acceptance by their peers, are capable of courageous, independent, dissenting lives.

Bynum begins by focusing on the fierce, armed resistance to Confederate authority that developed in the North Carolina Piedmont, in Mississippi’s “Free State of Jones,” and in Texas’ Big Thicket counties. All three areas “had solid nonslaveholding majorities with slaves making up only 10 to 14 percent of their populations” (p. 16). Guerrilla leaders in all three supported the Union over the Confederacy, sheltered and encouraged deserters, and fought the soldiers and authorities of the new Southern nation. They often gained considerable power locally and forced Confederate leaders to dispatch troops in vain internal efforts to eradicate them.

Bynum gives detailed attention in this part of the book to the North Carolina Piedmont. Religious conviction was an important part of resistance in North Carolina’s “Quaker Belt,” where particularly strong resistance developed in Randolph County, an area that had also been influenced by the antislavery beliefs of Wesleyan Methodists. Women played an especially prominent role in dissent in the Piedmont. They aided their husbands, stole to feed their families, helped other deserters, and both protested to and threatened Confederate officials. “Deeply felt class, cultural, and religious values animated” these women’s actions (p. 51).

In nearby Orange County, North Carolina, there was “a lively interracial subculture” whose members “exchanged goods and engaged in gambling, drinking, and sexual and social intercourse” (p. 9). During the war these poor folks, who had come together despite “societal taboos and economic barriers,” supported themselves and aided resistance to the Confederacy by stealing goods and trading with deserters. During Reconstruction elite white men, who felt that their political and economic dominance was threatened along with their power over their wives and households, turned to violence to reestablish control. Yet interracial family groups among the poor challenged their mistreatment and contributed to “a fragile biracial political coalition” (pp. 55-56) that made the Republican Party dominant before relentless attacks from the Ku Klux Klan nullified the people’s will.

Bynum next focuses on Newt Knight’s military company that fought the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. These armed resisters were so powerful that by late 1863 the Confederate government had to send troops to the area in order to carry out two major (and largely unsuccessful) raids against them. Knight also defied racial taboos by choosing to live with and father children by a black woman named Rachel, who was a slave of Newt’s grandfather. Together they started “a multiracial community that endures to this day” (p. 8). Bynum’s careful research adds to our understanding of the nature and roots of resistance in the “Free State of Jones.” Through three decades following the Civil War, Knight petitioned for financial compensation from the United States for the pro-Union efforts of himself and his military company. The documents of his long and ultimately unsuccessful quest reveal details about Jones County Unionism and his own determination. Pro-Union ideals played a far larger role than religion among Knight’s company. Newt’s obstinate resistance to the South’s ruling class led him to embrace and work for Populism in the later years of his life.

Family and community ties were at least as important among dissenting Southerners as among the slaveholding elite. Close relatives of Newt Knight and of his two key lieutenants in the “Free State of Jones” had moved to east Texas in the 1850s. There several brothers–Warren, Newton, and Stacy Collins–became principal figures in the anti-Confederate resistance that flourished in the Big Thicket region. Only one of eight Collins brothers chose to be loyal to the Confederate government. After fighting Confederate authorities during the Civil War, the Collinses and their relations later became active in the Populist Party and then in the Socialist Party. They stood up against the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of greedy or corrupt capitalists just as they had rejected the dominance of slaveholders. Back in Mississippi, members of the Collins clan chose to resist not only the power of the Democratic Party but the religious and cultural dominance of the Baptist Church, which had become part of the “white southern orthodoxy” (p. 108). Jasper Collins and other members of his family began a Universalist church; Newt Knight’s brother Frank “converted to Mormonism and moved to Colorado.” Such “dissident religious groups” faced “fierce and frequently violent” reactions, for they “threatened the reconstituted order over which the Democratic Party reigned supreme” (p. 105).

Professor Bynum closes her book with a chapter on the interracial offspring of Newt and Rachel Knight. Called “white Negroes” or “Knight’s Negroes” by their neighbors, these individuals continued to exhibit an independent spirit as they dealt with their society and with each other. They chose to identify themselves in a variety of ways; different members of the family adopted different approaches to life. Some passed as white, others affirmed their African American identity, and still others saw themselves as people of color but kept a distance from those whom society defined as Negroes. Within the family group there were many independent spirits. One woman, the ascetic Anna Knight, forged a long and energetic career as an educator and Seventh-Day Adventist missionary.

Victoria Bynum has plunged deeply into the primary sources on these interesting individuals, family groups, and local communities. Her footnotes will be very useful to future scholars. Yet, micro-history of this type often proves to be more tangled, complex, and difficult to comprehend than study of a large region, because the connections are both more abundant and, inevitably, less fully documented. It also is difficult to tell a multiplicity of short but complicated stories clearly. Professor Bynum’s history of these dissenters lifts the veil on a complicated web of friends, enemies, allies, and family relations who interacted over time. To describe the variety and extent of local conflicts, she must characterize the local community and introduce a host of minor characters. The multiplication of names, places, and details can be as confusing as it is illustrative of the depth of her research. Unfortunately, the welter of briefly mentioned details makes the reader’s experience choppy and sometimes confusing. Had the sources been rich enough, three separate books might have been easier to read than one peopled by so many characters whose personalities remain dim.

The Long Shadow of the Civil War is valuable, however, because it proves that dissent was not rare and insignificant. It modifies the image created by those in power of a solid, unchanging South united behind class dominance, white supremacy, and subordination of women. As writers like Eudora Welty have shown us, the Southern man or woman can be an independent, stubborn, dissenting, even eccentric individual. The fact that we tend to remember so few of these Southerners testifies to the coercive power that repressive elites have exercised through most of the region’s history.

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