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.
* 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.