Harmon Levi Sumrall Testifies on Behalf of Newt Knight for the U.S. Court of Claims
By Victoria E. Bynum
The following post expands upon the story of the Unionist Sumrall brothers of Mississippi’s “Free State of Jones,” recently posted on Renegade South,
For thirty years, Newt Knight, Captain of Mississippi’s most notorious band of deserters, the Knight Company of Jones County, pursued compensation from the federal government for himself and his company. Newt initiated his first claim in 1870, before the Southern Claims Commission had been established (RG 233, Box 15, HR 1810). He did not base his claim on civilian loss of property, but rather on military services rendered to the Union Army. He asked that he and each of his “officers” and “privates” be granted the pay due them as soldiers by the U.S. government which they had fought for during the Civil War.
The only problem was that no matter how many battles the “Knight Company” had fought against Confederate forces during the Civil War—and there were plenty—it was never granted official military status by the Union Army. In 1870, 1890, and 1895, defenders of the Knight Company submitted affidavits and depositions attesting to the activities of the company on behalf of the Union Army. In the end, however, Newt failed to convince the U.S. Government to issue his men what in essence amounted to military back pay.
The following are excerpts from depositions provided in 1890 and 1895 by Harmon Levi Sumrall, one of Newt Knight’s strongest supporters. Harmon was beyond the age of conscription in 1862, but his younger brother, William Wesley, joined the Knight Company in 1863 rather than serve the Confederate Army. Harmon supported his brother’s decision, and, prior to providing depositions for Newt’s second and third claims (#8013 and #8464), had signed an affidavit for the first claim that attested to the sincerity of Newt’s Unionist beliefs.
In 1890, seventy-two year old Sumrall appeared before the Jones County Chancery Court to lend support to Newt Knight’s second round of claims. The 1870 claim had long ago died in committee, but in 1883 Congress passed the Bowman Act, followed by the Tucker Act of 1887, which allowed individuals to resubmit rejected or tabled claims. With lawyers now representing his case, Newt renewed his efforts to win pay for his “soldiers.”
Sumrall’s answers to questions posed by the government’s lawyers were brief and to the point. When asked what “Mr. Knight’s general standing” was in regard to loyalty to the U.S. government, he replied that “he was a union man all the time.” When asked whether Newt “commanded a company of men in your community during the war,” he answered that “he did.” When asked if he had any further “material” to offer the state, he responded that he had seen “Capt Knight’s company in time of battle twice but saw them in no other engagements.”
In 1895, for reasons not entirely clear, a new round of depositions were gathered and a new claim number assigned to Newt’s case (the claims would later be merged). Once again, Harmon Levi Sumrall was called on to testify on behalf of the Knight Company.
On January 29, 1895, at the Ellisville Court House in Jones County, Sumrall again recalled events that were now thirty years in the past.
Sumrall’s latest testimony began with his statement that he was not related to Newt Knight, but that his brother, W.W. Sumrall, had been a member of the Knight Company. When asked on “which side” Newt’s sympathies had been during the war, Sumrall stated, as he had in 1870 and 1890, that Newt “was on the Union side.” But this time, when asked whether he knew of any battles fought by the Knight Company, Sumrall was more specific. “Yes sir,” he answered, “He was in a battle with the Confederates. I know it. I was there with him. He fought Hensley, who was on the Confederate side.”
During the course of his testimony, Sumrall estimated that the Knight Company had consisted of about 60-65 men when it battled the forces of this “Hensley.” Hensley, he explained, was a Major who headed a “cavalry regiment, also some infantry.” (This may have been Major James O. Hensley of the 10th VA Battalion, Heavy Artillery.)
Sumrall replied “yes” to the government’s question of whether Major Hensley was “hunting up men who had deserted from the Confederate Army.” Most interesting of all, however, were his remarks about HIS own role in the skirmish that followed. He stated that “Hensley pressed me in to go with him to Knight. We hunted him all day; we found him in the evening when the fight occurred.” By his own testimony, then, Harmon Levi Sumrall was forced to join a search for a band of deserters that included his own brother! Major Hensley would not likely have known this; he was simply impressing the local population of men to assist him in a dangerous task.
Sumrall’s maddeningly brief remarks raise several questions about the complicated nature of home front battles between deserters and Confederate soldiers sent from outside the region. Did Confederate militia purposely enlist local men to search out deserters in hopes that those deserters would be less likely to fire on their own neighbors and possible kinfolk, or were they simply taking advantage of local manpower to lessen the dangers of their mission? And how did Sumrall respond to the task assigned to him? Did he just fake it, and hope that in the process he could somehow protect his friends and relatives from discovery? Does Sumrall’s testimony that it took them “all day” to find Knight suggest that he withheld knowledge of the band’s whereabouts? What, then, were his actions at the point of contact between Confederate forces and the Knight Company? And in the ensuing battle? I would love to hear from readers who may have encountered such scenarios in their own research on the Civil War home front.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I provide a detailed account of Newt Knight’s long struggle with the U.S. Court of Claims in “Fighting a Losing Battle: Newt Knight versus the U.S. Court of Claims, 1870-1900,” chapter four of my book-in-progress, Southern Communities at War: Essays on Civil War Era Dissent and it’s Legacies.