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By Vikki Bynum

Ed Payne’s current series on Mississippi Piney Woods Civil War Unionists, “Crossing the Rubicon of Loyalties,” provides a timely context for a closer look at Oquin C. Martin, a former Confederate soldier and Piney Woods neighbor to the infamous Newt Knight. Although Martin joined neither Newt Knight’s band of deserters nor the Union army, his 1895 deposition,* gathered during Newt Knight’s federal claims hearing, indicates that were he forced to live the war all over again, Martin might not have remained loyal to the Confederacy.  When asked whether he had been a “Union man or a secessionist,” he answered, “I was a right smart of a secessionist until I was converted.”

There was no follow-up question to Martin’s intriguing statement that he had been “converted.” Clearly, the government was far more interested in what Martin had to say about Newt Knight’s loyalty than his own, particularly since he and Newt had served together in the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry of the Confederate Army. When asked how long Newt served, Martin replied that Newt had deserted at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi—before the 7th battalion moved on to Vicksburg–and, to his knowledge, “never returned” to service. More on that later.

We now know that Newt Knight was not unique among Piney Woods soldiers in his decision to bolt the Confederate Army. As Ed Payne’s research demonstrates, the disheartening course of the Civil War contributed to a growing number of Mississippi men who not only deserted the Confederacy but also joined the Union Army. These were in addition to a good many southerners who opposed secession in the first place, and remained devoted to Union.

Like so many soldiers, O.C. Martin left behind a wife and family when he went off to war. While not among the 200-plus Piney Woods soldiers who fled to the Union Army’s 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry, he was reported AWOL following his parole from Vicksburg. Most likely, concerns for his family, which included a wife, two children, and three stepchildren, as well as war-weariness after the ordeal of Vicksburg contributed to his decision to take an unauthorized leave.

Assuming Martin returned to his Piney Woods home while AWOL, he would have found plenty of other soldiers there who had done the same thing. A number of these men joined the Knight band, organized in October 1863; many more joined the Union Army. Martin, however, eventually rejoined the 7th Battalion. When asked by the government when he finally returned home for good, he replied that his battalion was “captured at Blakeley, Ala. and taken thence to Vicksburg as prisoners at which place we were released and disbanded and returned to our homes, the war being over.”  His military records bear him out, reporting the date of his capture as April 9, 1865, and that of his transfer to Vicksburg as May 1, 1865.

O.C. Martin was called by the U.S. government to testify against Newt Knight’s claim, probably because of his wartime loyalty to the Confederacy at a time when many of his neighbors turned to guerrilla warfare or Union service. But unlike those defense witnesses who painted Newt Knight as an outlaw with no known Union affiliations, upon cross-examination Martin portrayed Newt and his band as having “fought our cavalry and certainly against the South”—hardly what the government was hoping he’d say! Furthermore, when asked by Newt’s lawyer whether it was not a “notorious fact” that Newt Knight had “raised a company of Infantry in opposition to the Confederacy and in favor of the Union,” Martin replied, “that was my understanding; heard it often and believed it.”

Lending credence to Martin’s statements was the obvious care he took to answer questions accurately. He had known Newt since boyhood, he said, but “never knew his political sentiments.” And, since he and Newt belonged to different companies of the same battalion, he declined to identify Newt’s military rank, or to comment on whether or not he had “evaded all duty and refused to go into any battles against Union troops.”

An important component of Newt’s case was an 1870 affidavit claiming he had been sorely abused by Confederate authorities because of his Unionist beliefs. Martin claimed to have no knowledge of such abuse, or the related claim that Newt’s “dwelling house and its contents” had been burned down by his enemies. Still, Martin said, he did remember a time when “the captain threatened to have him shot.”

The careful, precise, and confident nature of O.C. Martin’s responses to questions administered under oath lends credence to his remark that Newt Knight’s final desertion from the Confederate Army occurred at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi, the 7th battalion’s last place of engagement before Vicksburg.  Martin’s recollection is particularly important because Newt’s own military record is blank between February and June 1863, thus omitting the time period when the 7th battalion was pinned down at Vicksburg.

Really, none of this should matter, since Newt himself never claimed to have served at Vicksburg; nor did any of his contemporaries report him there. The reason it does matter is because that gap in his military record allowed Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, in their 2009 book, State of Jonesto feature fifteen pages detailing Newt’s allegedly grueling experiences at—yes, Vicksburg.

O.C. Martin’s deposition is a reminder that federal and state records, many gathered years after the Civil War, often yield information about the lives of soldiers and their families that might otherwise never come to light. Only because Martin was asked point blank about his political views do we learn that this Confederate veteran, once a “right smart” secessionist, had at some point been “converted.” And only because the U.S. government was intent on learning whether or not Newt Knight was a true Unionist do we learn, inadvertently, that Newt Knight deserted the Confederacy at Snyder’s Bluff, Mississippi–and not at Vicksburg.

*O. C. Martin deposition, March 6, 1895, Newt Knight claim file, Records of the U.S. Court of Claims, 1835-1966, Record Group 123, Committee on War Claims, Claims of Newton Knight and Others, #8013 and 8464, National Archives, Wash. D.C.

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During the past six months, I have received several messages from independent researcher Jeff Giambrone, who sent me a number of Civil War letters and newspaper articles that he has uncovered through his research. The following two selections seem particularly appropriate as a way of introducing Ed Payne’s upcoming post on men from the Mississippi piney woods who joined the Union Army at New Orleans during the Civil War. The newspaper articles are followed by a letter uncovered by Ed in the course of his research for that upcoming post.

The first article, published 11 March 1861, comes from the Times Daily National Intelligencer, a Whig newspaper that in 1860 supported pro-Union, Constitutional Union Party presidential candidate, John Bell:

“Anti-Secession in Mississippi”

There was an anti-secession meeting at Smith’s Store, Jones County, Mississippi, on the 16th of February. We learn from the [staunchly pro-Confederate] Brandon Republican, says the [pro-Union] Nashville Patriot, that “there were many speeches made on the occasion protesting against secession and the increased taxation of the people on the part of the State, and calling for a still larger meeting at Tallahoma.” The proceedings of the meeting were furnished the Republican for publication, but were declined on the ground that the will of the majority of the State as expressed for secession ought to be respected. It has come to a pretty pass that the freedom of the press must be denied to any portion of the people because the majority is believed to be against them.

Censorship of pro-Union activities by pro-Confederate newspapers such as that described above helped, of course, to create the image–still popular today–of a “Solid South.” It’s worth noting that the location of the above anti-secession meeting, Smith’s Store, Jones County, was also the location where, in October 1863, members of the Knight Company pledged their loyalty to the U.S. government, according to testimonies provided before the U.S. Claims Commission in regard to Newt Knight’s three petitions for financial compensation (1870-1900).  An earlier pro-Union meeting in Jones County was described in 1936 by Benjamin Sumrall in an interview by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). According to Sumrall, his ancestor, Riley James Collins (who later joined the Union Army in New Orleans), called the meeting at Union Church, where he delivered a passionate anti-secession speech (see Bynum, Free State of Jones, pp. 98-99).

The second article, published 23 March 1864, is from the Springfield Republican (Mass.):

 “Devastation in Mississippi”

Internal reports are given by a Union Scout, lately arrived at New Orleans from a trip through Hancock, Marion, Perry, Jones, and Jasper Counties, Mississippi. He had been absent a month, and as the fruit of his visit to these counties he had recruited 115 men for a Union regiment. He also brought away several women and children. He states that the Union sentiment now predominates and that the Union men have things their own way, completely turning the tables upon their enemies. Instead of being driven to the swamps and other hiding places for shelter, they have driven the secessionists to those places to preserve their lives. They had declared a war of extermination and hunted down the rebels and shot them wherever found. This man is a native of Mississippi, and well acquainted throughout the region through which he passed. He states that most if not all of the old men of his acquaintances are in their graves, shot in their very own homes.

The above article dovetails with events known to have taken place in the Jones County region in early 1864. On 2 March, Col. Henry Maury was sent to Jones County to quell an anti-Confederate uprising. That mission failed, and, just a few days after this article’s publication, on 29 March 1864, Confederate Capt. W. Wirt Thompson reported on the “deplorable” state of affairs in Jones County to Secretary of War James Seddon. Yankees, Wirt lamented, were “frequently among” the Jones County deserters. And, only one week before Col. Robert Lowry’s famous raid on Jones County took place, Jones County deserters were reported to have “gone down Pearl River to and near Honey Island where they exist in some force . . . openly boasting of their being in communication with Yankees.” (see Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 117)

And there’s this, recently discovered by Ed Payne: a request from Lieut. Col. Eugene Tisdale of the 1st New Orleans Vol. Infantry to Major George B. Drake, Assistant Adjutant-General of the Dept. of the Gulf, for passage by one James L.  Seals into the state of Mississippi for the purpose of guiding recruits back to the 1st New Orleans Infantry.

To Major George B. Drake, A.A. Gen, Hd. 2nd D. of G,

I would most respectfully ask that permission be granted Private James L. Seals, 1st Regiment New Orleans Vol. Infantry to pass into the state of Mississippi via Fort Pike, LA, for the purpose of guiding within Federal lines a party of recruits already engaged for the Regiment. And I would further respectfully ask that the families of the Recruits of this Regiment be allowed to come at the same time from Pearl River and Honey Island, Mississippi, via Fort Pike to the City of New Orleans.

This same private James L. Seals has already aided in bringing into the 1st New Orleans Vols. Nearly one hundred and fifty men of Mississippi; but now, on account of existing orders, he cannot go beyond Fort Pike without a pass from the Commanding General of this Department.

I am Major

Very Respectfully

Your Obedient Servant

Eugene Tisdale

Lieut. Col., 1st New Orleans Infantry

With these documents as a point of reference, we may eagerly anticipate Ed Payne’s upcoming article on Mississippi piney woods men who joined the 1st and 2nd New Orleans Infantry.

My deep thanks to Ed and Jeff Giamborne for providing the above documents for publication on Renegade South!

Vikki Bynum

Moderator

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Report:

I just returned from a wonderful visit to Leiden University in the Netherlands, where I spoke generally about Civil War Southern Unionists and specifically about The Free State of Jones as part of that university’s yearly American Studies Lecture Series. In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, this year’s theme was “The American Civil War After 150 Years: An Unfinished War?”

I was impressed by the deep interest in the American Civil War displayed by Leiden students and faculty. I’m happy to report there were no arguments between True Believers in either the noble “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, or the total benevolence of Northern motives and goals in thwarting the South’s secession from the Union. Rather, discussions centered on understanding that many Southerners–white as well as black–opposed secession and the creation of the Confederacy, and that many more turned against the Confederacy as the war dragged on. How common across the South was guerrilla warfare such as that of Jones County, Mississippi?, they wanted to know. Who was Newt Knight? This question led to a discussion about the deep need displayed by Civil War partisans to turn Newt into either a murderous traitor to “The South,” or, conversely, into an abolitionist whose racial views anticipated the modern Civil Rights Movement.

We probably will never know the full story of Newt Knight’s political or racial views, but we do know that no Solid South existed either before, during, or after the Civil War. And, yes, we know that slavery played a crucial role in convincing key Southern leaders to push for secession, even though most Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, were not abolitionists bent on fighting a war for the liberty of African Americans.

They didn’t have to be abolitionists. It was enough that the newly-elected Republican president was dedicated to limiting slavery’s expansion into the nation’s western territories. Slaveholders’ equal dedication to the expansion of slavery as essential to the institution’s survival eventually led to the Civil War–a war that ironically resulted in what slaveholders most feared–the abolition of slavery. 

Not only did a good many white Southerners oppose secession, but the disastrous course of that war eventually demoralized a good many more who originally believed they were fighting for liberty and honor, but increasingly saw a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

There was special interest among the Leiden audience in the mixed-race community that grew out of Newt Knight’s wartime collaboration with Rachel Knight, the former slave of his grandfather, Jackie Knight. Many of the questions centered on issues of racial identity and the historical importance–and limits–of the “one drop rule” in determining such identities. Members of the audience were fascinated by the variety of racial identities assumed by, as well as imposed upon, descendants of Newt Knight, his white wife Serena, and the two mixed-race women–Rachel Knight and her daughter George Ann–by whom he had children.  Historically, they understood, race is a social, political, and legal construction rather than a biologically rational system. 

Announcement:

I recently discussed the above themes (and more) in regard to my latest book, The Long Shadow of the Civil Warin an interview with the Peabody Award-winning show, “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). The interview, part of NPR’s “Remembering the Civil War” series, was arranged by Erin Clune and conducted by Anne Strainchamps. It will air on various NPR affiliates throughout the nation tomorrow, on Sunday, May 8, and will also be podcast:

http://www.wpr.org/book/110508b.cfm

FYI, here’s a list of NPR affiliates that broadcast “To the Best of Our Knowledge”:

http://tunein.com/radio/options/To-the-Best-of-our-Knowledge-p498/

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

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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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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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