While conducting Civil War research at the National Archives, historian Adam Domby recently discovered a letter from Chattanooga, Tennessee, that provides a striking contemporary description of Jones County deserters and their war on the Confederacy from the swamps of Piney Woods Mississippi.*
The letter, written by Union scout James Lamon,** was forwarded on February 13, 1864, to the Chattanooga headquarters of Maj. Gen. John M. Palmer of the Union army. In the course of describing behavior by both rebel and Unionist Southerners, Lamon veered from his original topic and shared a story told to him by an unnamed Confederate deserter:
A Rebel Soldier who recently deserted and came into our lines tells me that in the Tulahoma [Tallahoma] Swamps in Jones Co., Mississippi, there are some six hundred Deserters who are waiting for our forces to get near, so they can join them. They have deserted the Confederate cause and are determined to fight them to the last. All efforts from the Confederates to force them out have been unsuccessful and they are now offering a bounty to Deserters to join them.
This one short paragraph contains several nuggets of information on the history of Newt Knight and the Knight Company!
The letter’s date is highly significant. Mid-February, 1864, is just one month before Confederate Col. Henry Maury’s unsuccessful raid on Jones County, and just two months before Confederate Col. Robert Lowry’s crippling raid on the same; thus the letter confirms evidence of the Knight Company’s growing power and ambitious plans. These are the days and months in which the Knight Company reportedly held three public meetings, raised a federal flag over the Ellisville courthouse, and traveled down to Honey Island where its men boasted of being in contact with Yankees. (Bynum, Free State of Jones, pp. 110-129)
Lamon’s further description of Jones County deserters as “waiting for our forces to get near, so they can join them” corroborates Gen. William Sherman’s statement on 29 February 1864 that a “declaration of independence” had been issued by “certain people who are trying to avoid the Southern conscription, and lie out in the swamps. I promised them countenance and encouraged them to organization for mutual defense.” Both Sherman’s, and now Lamon’s, remarks are consistent with Jasper Collins’s 1895 testimony under oath that he traveled to Memphis and Vicksburg between March and July of 1864 seeking to unite the Knight Company with the Union army. (Bynum, Long Shadow of the Civil War, pp. 87-88)
The letter’s reference to “some six hundred deserters,” is the highest contemporary estimate I’ve seen to date; most estimates suggest an organization of 100 to 300 men. While we don’t know the exact number, we do know that the 55 men listed in Newt Knight’s 1870 roster is too low a number. Newt himself stated that he eliminated from the roster men “who did not hold true” to the band’s mission. We also know from Ed Payne’s painstaking research that over 200 men from the Mississippi Piney Woods fled to the Union army in New Orleans following Lowry’s April 1864 raid. The number 600 may be an exaggeration, or it may signify local deserter bands consolidating their forces in anticipation of fighting the Confederacy “to the last.”
My profound thanks to Adam Domby for spotting the above paragraph in James Lamon’s letter, and for copying and sending it on to me so that I could share it with you. When historians cooperate with one another, we all win. And so do our forebears. Newt Knight struggled unsuccessfully—for thirty years—to explain himself and his company of men to the U.S. Court of Claims. His voice is ever clearer thanks to this new document!
*James Lamon’s letter is in Box No. 1, Reports of Operations and Casualties Received, 1864, Intelligence Reports Received By General Thomas, 1863-65, Department of the Cumberland and Division and Department of Tennessee, 1862-70, Record Group 393 (U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920), Pt. 1
**Lamon was a Civil War Union scout who in 1864 reported the movements of Confederate troops in the Northern Georgia–Southern Tennessee corridor. See Military Intelligence during the Civil War: Provost Marshal Records on Spies, Scouts, Guides, and Detectives, Frame 0518, p. 43.
Categories: The Free State of Jones