James Morgan Valentine Testifies on Behalf of Newt Knight Before the U.S. Claims Commission
By Victoria E. Bynum
The following post expands upon the story of James Morgan Valentine, Newt Knight’s 1st Lt. in Mississippi’s “Free State of Jones,” posted last week on Renegade South, http://www.renegadesouth.wordpress.com. Like Hiram Levi Sumrall of my earlier post on this site, Valentine testified in 1890 and 1895 on behalf of Newt Knight’s claim for compensation for members of the Knight Company. A summary of Newt’s claim, below, is followed by excerpts and analysis of Valentine’s depositions.
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). That claim had long ago died in committee when Congress passed the Bowman Act in 1883, 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.” Newt’s two final claims, #8013 and #8464, were eventually merged into one.
On November 20, 1890, fifty-year old James Morgan Valentine appeared before the Jones County Chancery Court to lend support to Newt Knight’s claim. The first question posed to him by the government’s lawyers was whether Newt Knight had “commanded a company of men known as Union men,” and whether they were “equipped as soldiers during the war and what part did they act as such?” Valentine replied that he knew Newt Knight to be the captain of a company, “armed and equipped,” that “acted in opposition to the rebel forces.”
To further questions, Valentine answered that the Knight Company had operated in Jones, Smith, Jasper, and Covington counties from October 13, 1863 until September 5, 1865, and that he had been with them “all the time except about a month while I was in prison.” Here, Valentine was referring to his capture by Col. Robert Lowry’s Confederate forces during its raid on Jones County. In his 1895 deposition, he specified that he was captured on April 16, 1864 and sent to Shubuta, MS, where he was imprisoned until June of that year. (Information included on Newt Knight’s roster of 1870 corroborates this.)
When asked if he engaged in any battles as part of the Knight company, Valentine replied that he participated in three, those of Saul’s Battery (Sal’s Battery), Tallahala, near Ellisville, and Knight’s Mill, the battle in which he was wounded and captured by Col. Lowry’s forces.
When asked whether the Knight Company was ever mustered into the Union Army, Valentine replied unequivocally, “They were not.” Despite that fact, he believed all the men remained loyal to the Union throughout the war. He reiterated this testimony in his second deposition of January 29, 1895.
In 1895, Valentine also testified that despite the company’s failure to become an official unit of the Union Army, it nonetheless had collaborated directly with Union forces. His examples, however, which lawyers were quick to note, occurred in July 1865, shortly after the war had ended. Valentine recalled that Lt. H. T. Elliott of the U.S. Army had ordered Newt Knight and his men to “seize and hold in possession certain cloth and wool in the hands of one Amos Deason” (Deason was Jones County’s Confederate representative to the state legislature), that the Knight Company had also captured a “stand of arms in the court house,” and turned them over to Capt. A. R. M. Smith of the federal army post at Ellisville in Jones County, and that U.S. Gen’l William McMillan had once supplied the company with rations. (All of these actions are verified by documents submitted to the government in 1870 by Newt Knight.)
When government lawyers asked Valentine whether these interactions occurred “after the Confederate armies had all been disbanded and returned to their homes,” Valentine replied, “I could not tell you sir whether they were all disbanded or no.” When reminded that Generals Lee and Johnston had surrendered in May, 1865, Valentine reminded the lawyers that “there were Ku Klux in this country after the surrender that we had to contend with.”
Valentine’s uncertainty about whether the war was truly over in July, 1865, reflected ongoing battles over power throughout the South, including in Jones County. That very month, Newt Knight and his supporters petitioned provisional Governor William Sharkey to overturn Jones County’s 1864 elections on grounds that local Unionists had been denied the vote. Pro-Confederate citizens soon retaliated against several appointments and elections of Unionists to office by successfully petitioning the Mississippi State Legislature to change the name of Jones County to Davis County (in honor of Jefferson Davis). Valentine’s testimony reflected his memory that, for Newt Knight, and the Knight Company, battles over local political power remained fierce in the aftermath of the Civil War.
NOTE: Newt Knight’s long struggle with the U.S. Court of Claims, as well as Jones County’s Reconstruction and New South political struggles, are analyzed in my forthcoming book, Southern Communities at War: Essays on Civil War Era Dissent and it’s Legacies, scheduled for release by the University of North Carolina Press in spring, 2010).