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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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Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, has written a joint review of Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning and Victoria Bynum’s Long Shadow of the Civil War for the August 2/9 issue of The Nation magazine:

http://www.thenation.com/article/37466/restless-confederates

My thanks to Professor Foner for providing such a thorough and sensitive reading of both books.

Vikki Bynum, moderator

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Last night, Harry Smeltzer, moderator of the Civil War blog, “Bull Runnings: A Journal of the Digitization of a Civil War Battle,” posted an interview with me about Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. I was especially pleased that Harry gave me the opportunity to discuss my new book in the context of my previous works, The Free State of Jones (2001) and Unruly Women (1992). To read the interview, click here:

http://bullrunnings.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/interview-dr-victoria-bynum-the-long-shadow-of-the-civil-war/

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Here’s a wonderful document sent to me by independent researcher Ralph Poore. It’s a reminder of the vibrant third-party political movements that emerged for a time in post-Civil War Mississippi. I’m especially intrigued by the names “R. A. Welborn,” “Dr. Lyon,” and “C. J.” and “D.A. Lightsey,” as those surnames are all connected in some way with Jones County Unionists and/or Populists. Perhaps readers can help identify possible kinships across county lines.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator


Jasper County Review

October 3, 1894 2:4

Resolutions of Populite [Populist] mass meeting.

Mass meeting of People’s Party of Jasper County held at courthouse in Paulding on September 20, 1894.

J. C. Rodgers chairman of the executive committee elected chairman of the meeting.

John White, secretary.

R. M. Read, Sr.

Committee of Ten: R. M. Read, Jr., A. W. Atwood, A. G. B. Graham, J. J. McNeill, John Simms, F.C. Thornton, R. A. Welborn, Dr. Lyon, W. E. Cook, C. J. Lightsey, D. A. Lightsey.

“Resolved, That we, the People’s party in mass meeting assembled, recognize the fact that the Democratic party has signally failed to carry out its promises. Therefore, be it

“Resolved, That we condemn the action of the present administration as subversive of the rights and interests of the people.

“2nd. That we condemn the action of Grover Cleveland in regard to the silver bill. We favor the government issuing greenbacks and paying the public debt and doing away with national banks, that general bankrupts may be averted.

“3rd. That we have been and still are in favor of Jeffersonian Democracy, and that our faith has never been shaken nor our courage diminished.

“4th. We recognize the People’s party as the only hope for relief, and that we ask all true reformers to go with us in this, the hour of our country’s peril.

“5th. That we are in the fight to stay until the battle for reform has been gained and the people emancipated from the rule of mammon.

“6th. That we are bound by no machine nor governed by no party lash, but believe more in moral honesty and competency in the discharge of official duties than the political epithets with which false men would beguile the people.

“7th. When a party becomes corrupt it is time to abandon it and build upon the ruins thereof truth and honor.

“8th. Believing in the righteousness of our cause and in the integrity of the American people, we invoke the aid of the God of justice on the success of our cause.

“9th. Resolved, That we reindorse the Omaha platform and the action of the Forest convention.

“Resolved, That we ask the Vindicator and all other reform papers to publish the above report, and on motion the Jasper County Review was requested to publish the proceedings of the meeting.”

JASPER COUNTY PEOPLES’ PARTY

Name Party Position Business Location Birth year
Rodgers, J. C. Chairman of the executive committee Juror
White, John secretary Election manager Twist Wood
Read, R. M., Sr. Confederate veteran
Read, R. M., Jr. Committee of Ten Election manager Missionary
Atwood, A. W. Committee of Ten farmer President, Jasper County Farmers’ Alliance 1852
Graham, A. G. B. Committee of Ten farmer Election manager Cross Roads
McNeill, J. J. Committee of Ten
Simms, John Committee of Ten
Thornton, F.C. Committee of Ten Leonia
Welborn, R. A. Committee of Ten farmer P. K. 1867
Lyon, Dr. Committee of Ten
Cook, W. E. Committee of Ten farmer Election manager Claiborne 1861
Lightsey, C. J. Committee of Ten farmer Election manager Paulding 1841
Lightsey, D. A. Committee of Ten 1894, candidate for Coroner and Ranger Paulding
Heidelberg, W. W. State senator
JASPER COUNTY FARMERS’ ALLIANCE
Name Position Business Location
Atwood, Augustus W. President Farmer TWP 3, Range 13 East
Long, W. P. Secretary
November 6, 1894 5th Congressional District election in Jasper County

Jasper County Review, Nov. 7, 1894 2:3

Precinct Williams (Democrat) Ratliff (Populist)
Paulding 20 6
Missionary 24 7
Antioch 22 7
Palestine 15 10
Twistwood 42 8
Hopewell 14 4
Fellowship 29
Garlandsville 18 1
Randal Hill 6
Montrose 34 2
Mt. Zion 39 10
P. K. 20 16
Cross Roads 27 23
Claiborne 23 17
Heidelberg 47 2
Vossburg 18 1
Rawl’s Mill 17 1
Total 415 115

Ratliff received 120 votes in 1892.

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By Vikki Bynum, moderator

A few days ago, the Clarion Ledger (Jackson, MS) published a joint review of two books: Steve Yates’s novel, “Morkan’s Quarry,” and my study, The Long Shadow of the Civil War. As reviewer  Joe L. White notes, “both books dispel the myth of the ‘Solid South.” Yates, he writes, provides a rich story of how “war can expose avarice, cruelty, viciousness, . . . and the opposites of compassion, kindness and humanity.” As a historical work, The Long Shadow shows “how Mississippi families played a major part in maintaining resistance to what many considered an unfair ‘rich man’s war’,” suggesting that the Civil War’s effects are not only “long-lasting, but perhaps never-ending.”

White ends his review by counseling readers to “take a gamble. Either book is a sure bet.” As the author of one of those books, I hope you’ll take his advice!

To read Joe White’s entire review click here:  http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20100530/FEAT05/5300307/1023/FEAT03/Review-New-Civil-War-books-compelling

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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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Newton Knight or Joseph Newton Knight?

by Vikki Bynum

Steve Tatum  recently sent me the above photograph in which he identified the bearded old man as his ancestor, Joseph Newton “Newt” Knight of Tennessee. This Newt Knight, readers may remember from my earlier post, married Rebecca Jenkins, a Native American woman, and never lived in Mississippi, He had no apparent connection to Newt Knight of Mississippi, leader of the “Knight Company,” the notorious Civil War guerrilla band that fought against the Confederacy in the infamous Free State of Jones.

The problem is that the old man in this photo has also been identified as Mississippi’s Newt Knight! I first encountered a poorly-produced photocopy of this photograph around 1992 while searching through folders contained in the genealogy files of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. I chose not to use the picture in my book, The Free State of Jones, because its quality was so poor and because there was no donor listed from whom to seek permission.

I next saw the photograph in The State of Jones (Doubleday 2009), where authors John Stauffer and Sally Jenkins identified its subjects as Mississippi’s Newt Knight and John Howard Knight, son of former slave George Ann Knight and, allegedly, Newt Knight. I should add that while several Knight researchers agree that this is a picture of Mississippi’s Newt Knight, there is disagreement over the identity of the boy standing behind the old man. Yvonne Bivins believes that John Howard Knight, born in 1875, would have been much older than the boy pictured here at the time the photo was taken. More likely,  she believes, that boy is a grandson of Newt Knight.

But now we have an unrelated branch of Knights claiming that this is in fact their ancestor. How did this happen? Could it be that the photo was reproduced on the internet, and then discovered by a member of the Joseph Newton Knight family who understandably assumed it was their Newt Knight, standing with one of his Native American descendants? I honestly don’t know. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, historians are often at the mercy of their donors when it comes to identifying subjects of photographs.

Steve Tatum notes that the Tennessee Newt Knight strongly resembles the old man in the picture, and so he does. But so also does the Mississippi Newt Knight, whose photo is below that of Joseph Newton Knight, bear a strong a resemblance to the same man. I wonder if any readers have an original copy of the photo of the older Newt Knight with the young boy standing behind him, or additional photos of the boy that might in turn verify whether he was a member of either the Tennessee or Mississippi Knight family.

In any case, this is yet another lesson of the difficulty of identifying photo subjects, particularly with the ease of exchange and reproduction made possible by the Internet.

Rebecca Jenkins and Joseph Newton Knight of Tennessee, courtesy of Steve Tatum

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