Newt Knight, the story goes on forever, continued: Southern Unionism Under Scrutiny

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

NOTE: If you missed the first two essays, click here and here

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

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

by Ed Payne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

1 reply »

  1. Fascinating! Especially since I am a descendant of a Mississippi Walters clan. It’s a little scary to look into the past for information on your family roots. You just never know what you are going to find. But, it has been very exciting to learn that my people were quite possibly rebels (in a good way). I am also relieved that it appears, for the most part, they were not slave owners. Though I’m not totally confident about who my Walters people were exactly, I have enjoyed learning about the world they lived in, things they faced, and the courage they quite possibly showed.


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